New York, 21 March 2014 – This year, the world commemorates the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the first time following the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
This sad reality is also a reminder of his courageous struggle against apartheid and his inspiring victory over the racist forces that had imprisoned him for 27 years.
The United Nations General Assembly, in a show of solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, established this Day to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when 69 people were killed and many others injured as police opened fire on a peaceful protest against South Africa’s appalling pass laws.
Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to President was the triumph of an extraordinary individual against the forces of hate, ignorance and fear – and it was a testimony to the power of courage, reconciliation and forgiveness to overcome the injustice of racial discrimination.
He chose Sharpeville for the historic signing of South Africa’s new Constitution in 1996. On that occasion, President Mandela said, “Out of the many Sharpevilles which haunt our history was born the unshakeable determination that respect for human life, liberty and well-being must be enshrined as rights beyond the power of any force to diminish.”
Today, we remember Sharpeville as a symbol of the terrible toll of racial discrimination, and we honour those who lost their lives during the massacre. At the same time, we recall that President Mandela framed Sharpeville’s legacy as an unwavering resolve to protect the dignity and rights of all people.
The lessons of South Africa’s staunch defence of equality “out of the many Sharpevilles” in the country’s history can be applied anywhere in the world, not only in response to organized, institutional forms of racism but wherever this pernicious problem occurs, including in daily interpersonal relations.
I call on all people, especially political, civic and religious leaders, to strongly condemn messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred as well as those that incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. On this Day, let us acknowledge that racial discrimination remains a dangerous threat and resolve to tackle it through dialogue inspired by the proven ability of individuals to respect, protect and defend our rich diversity as one human family.