Nelson Mandela International Day–67 Minutes of Service

GoConnect had the privilege of engaging in a heartfelt conversation with the esteemed South African Ambassador to Japan, Lulama Smuts Ngonyama, to delve into the significance of Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18. As the world celebrates the occasion, we reflect on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man who epitomized resilience, compassion, and unwavering dedication to justice and equality. Mandela’s impact on South Africa and the world at large is immeasurable, and his contributions continue to inspire generations.

Please tell us about the origins of Nelson Mandela International Day and how it is celebrated.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Nelson Mandela International Day holds a special place in our hearts as we celebrate the life and legacy of a remarkable man. Born on July 18, 1918, in the village of Qunu, Transkei, Nelson Mandela emerged as a revolutionary figure dedicating his life to the liberation struggle of the South African people, particularly the black, colored, and Indian communities who suffered under the oppressive system of apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s journey was intertwined with the collective efforts of countless individuals and organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC) and leaders like Albert Luthuli; Charlotte Maxeke, who was the first black woman in South Africa to earn a university degree; and Helen Suzman. Together, they fought against injustice and for a united nation, exemplifying the spirit of resilience and sacrifice.

Photo by steve_is_on_holiday from Getty Images Signature

His incarceration on Robben Island for 27 years symbolized the sacrifices endured by black South Africans. Yet, upon his release in 1990, Mandela emerged as a beacon of hope, unwavering in his commitment to the values of freedom, non-racialism, and building a peaceful, inclusive society. He, alongside Desmond Tutu, popularized the concept of South Africa as the rainbow nation, advocating for reconciliation and unity. Nelson Mandela’s profound impact led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, offering a platform for healing and understanding. He believed that forgiveness required acknowledging the past and learning from it. Throughout his life, he championed liberation, equality, peace, social justice, and the respect for basic human rights.

In recognition of his monumental contributions, the United Nations declared July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day in 2009. It serves as a reminder to devote 67 minutes to serving others, representing the 67 years Mandela dedicated to the struggle for freedom. This day holds symbolic significance, but the true essence lies in the continuous pursuit of goodness in the world and by extending compassion to those in need. As we celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day until 2028, let us carry forward his legacy by promoting equality, human rights, social justice, and extending a helping hand to those who are suffering. Each act of kindness, no matter how small, contributes to the greater good and reflects the spirit of Mandela’s teachings. Together, let us honor his memory by embodying his values, fostering unity, and striving for a more just and compassionate world.

How do you think this special day can stay relevant in the future?

Nelson Mandela International Day holds immense potential to remain relevant and impactful in the future through various ways. One powerful approach is to foster education and awareness about Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life and his unwavering principles. We can strive to create a society that embodies his vision—one characterized by justice, respect for human rights, and peace. Promoting forgiveness and reconciliation is another vital aspect. By raising awareness about the importance of forgiveness and fostering an environment of reconciliation, we can heal wounds and build bridges of understanding. Additionally, we must address pressing issues such as women and children abuse, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, which have negative effects on people’s lives. By increasing awareness about these challenges, we can work towards eradicating them and creating a better future.

Raising consciousness about racism and discrimination is crucial as well. By engaging in open discussions and creating platforms that encourage dialogue, we can combat prejudice and foster inclusivity. Community engagement and volunteering play pivotal roles in promoting unity among diverse communities, fostering inclusiveness, and creating a sense of belonging. Investing in healthcare, environmental sustainability and empowering the youth are essential components of upholding Nelson Mandela’s values. By providing platforms for young individuals to express themselves and take center stage in advocating for these values, we empower them to become catalysts for positive change. 

Establishing partnerships and networks among different organizations is also vital in promoting these values worldwide. Aligning policies with Nelson Mandela’s values is paramount. By creating policies that reflect his principles of justice, equality, and respect, we can shape a society that truly embodies these ideals. Cultural exchange and global outreach are also valuable tools in spreading Nelson Mandela’s message across borders and fostering understanding and cooperation. Lastly, it is important to regularly evaluate our progress. Are we advancing, or are we simply celebrating without making an impact? Having tangible outcomes is crucial in ensuring that Nelson Mandela’s values continue to guide our actions and transform our world for the better.

How can people in Japan celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day?

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In Japan, the celebration of Nelson Mandela International Day can be celebrated by showcasing the strong bond between Japan, South Africa, and other nations. One way to honor Mandela’s values is through educational events that draw parallels to significant historical events, such as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Nelson Mandela himself visited Japan after his release from Robben Island and expressed his belief that such devastating bombings were unnecessary. When Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, he took a momentous step by voluntarily eliminating nuclear weapons from the country. This powerful decision aimed to demonstrate that materials meant to harm humanity have no place in our world. By highlighting Mandela’s stance and commitment, the Japanese people can promote peace, reconciliation, and unity among nations. This celebration becomes an opportunity to advocate for anti-racism, human rights, and justice, regardless of a person’s background.

Japan’s rich resources and the nation’s commitment and discipline provide a solid foundation for further cultural exchanges. Expanding existing programs and emphasizing cultural events during Nelson Mandela Day can foster cross-pollination of cultures and encourage acceptance and appreciation of diverse perspectives. This serves as a testament to the power of unity and understanding. Educational and cultural activities celebrating Nelson Mandela International Day in Japan can involve showcasing films that depict Mandela’s extraordinary life. These films inspire and educate, keeping his legacy alive and motivating others to embody his values of selflessness and service to the people. Moreover, hosting legacy awards can recognize individuals who exemplify the spirit of Nelson Mandela through their dedicated efforts to improve society.

Can you share with us your personal anecdotes or memories of Mr. Mandela?

My first profound encounter with the exceptional leader, Nelson Mandela, occurred in the early 1990s when he was released from Robben Island. As the chairperson of the ANC in the Eastern Cape region, I had the honor of welcoming him during his visit to various parts of the country. During our meeting, I had the opportunity to brief him on the Bisho continuous attacks perpetrated by the Ciskei government through its security forces against the people residing within the Ciskei Bantustan of the Border region of the ANC. The situation continued and resulted in the unforgettable Bisho massacre. Despite the hardships, I reassured him of the strength and resilience inherent in the people of South Africa and particularly the Border region in this case.

Another remarkable experience unfolded when I became a member of ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC), comprising esteemed leaders such as Tokyo Sexwale, Peter Mokaba, Cyril Ramaphosa, Mac Maharaj, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and many others. In my 30s, I had the privilege of attending meetings where Nelson Mandela’s wisdom was on full display. I observed his leadership style, decision-making process, and adeptness in handling diverse opinions. With strong intellectual voices like those of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mama Albertina Sisulu, Chris Hani, Joe Modise, and Thabo Mbeki, different opinions on strategies and tactics were not uncommon. Yet, Mandela possessed a remarkable ability to unite everyone, transforming different perspectives into a unified front by the end of each meeting. His adept negotiation skills were truly exceptional too.

Please tell us about Japan–South Africa ties in business, culture, education, and other areas and what changes you would like to see.

The business ties between South Africa and Japan are incredibly strong and mutually beneficial. In 2021, South Africa exported valuable minerals like precious metals, iron, and manganese to Japan. Conversely, we imported machinery, vehicles, rubber tires, and equipment components, among other goods. Well-known companies such as Rio Tinto, Impala Platinum, Sasol, Thompson Tours, Rooibos Marketing, and South African Tourism have established a successful presence in Japan. Our products—including wine, maize, corn, butternut, spices, citrus fruits, rooibos tea, and Appletiser—have found enthusiastic buyers in the Japanese market. Japan, in turn, has made a remarkable impact in South Africa. Currently, there are approximately 268 Japanese companies operating in South Africa, including service offices. These companies have created about 160,000 job opportunities for South Africans. Key players such as Toyota, Komatsu, NTT, Panasonic, NEC, Sumitomo Corporation, Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsubishi Motors, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, Isuzu, and Nissan, among others, contribute to the country’s economic growth. South Africa proudly boasts the highest number of Japanese companies throughout the entire African continent. We also have the presence of offices and state agencies such as JICA and JETRO, which help to foster collaboration and deepen our economic relations. These flourishing business ties exemplify the immense potential and opportunities for further growth and cooperation between South Africa and Japan. In the realm of trade, Japan can play an even more pivotal role in assisting South Africa by not solely importing raw materials but also providing technological support to help South Africa process its mineral resources, thereby fostering more job creation. This collaboration will not only enhance South Africa’s economic development but also elevate our nations on educational and cultural fronts. 

The ties between our countries extend beyond business and encompass vibrant connections in culture, sports, education, and diplomacy, fostering positive and inspiring exchanges. In the field of education, our nations have established strong relations through programs like the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. This initiative provides South Africans with the opportunity to teach English in Japan, promoting cultural exchange and understanding in schools. Additionally, the African Business Education Initiative offers scholarships to South African students, enabling them to pursue advanced degrees in Japan while gaining valuable internships at Japanese companies. Cultural engagement is another vital aspect of our relationship. Universities in South Africa and Japan have established a common platform for collaboration, strengthening academic ties and fostering research partnerships. The annual Science and Technology Forum, organized by Japan, provides an excellent opportunity for South Africa to showcase its scientific achievements and participate in knowledge sharing. We recognize the remarkable expertise in science and technology that Japan possesses, and we enthusiastically invite Japanese scientists and startup companies to embark on a journey to our nation. By joining forces, we can stimulate job creation and ignite a culture of creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Sports plays a significant role in our cultural exchange as well. South African rugby players and coaches are actively involved in various teams in Japan, promoting the sport and nurturing talent. In cricket, South Africa has made notable contributions to the development of the game in Japan. South African women cricketers have played in Japan, while collaborations between the Titans cricket team in Pretoria and Japan have fostered further exchanges. We also contribute to infrastructure projects, such as maintaining and repairing cricket pitches, ensuring a thriving cricket culture in Japan.

Photo by South African Tourism

South Africa and Japan enjoy a vibrant relationship with tourism. We are delighted to welcome Japanese visitors and foreigners living in Japan to our beautiful nation that has pristine tourism destinations. South Africa offers a variety of breathtaking sights and experiences. From the enchanting coastlines of Cape Town and the Eastern Cape, with their natural beauty and pristine beaches, to the captivating game parks of Limpopo and Gauteng, there is an abundance of wonders for visitors to explore. Travelers can venture to the Cradle of Humankind, located near Johannesburg, to learn about the origins of humanity. The provinces of Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Free State, and North West boast their unique charms, while the Western Cape captivates with the iconic Table Mountain. Kwazulu Natal, with its remarkable beauty, is a province that should not be missed by tourists. In South Africa, visitors are truly spoilt for choice. To further strengthen the ties between Japan and South Africa, we can collaborate in promoting the tourism sector by having joint promotions and tourism exhibitions showcasing South Africa as a captivating tourist destination can be held in Japan. Simultaneously, South Africa can actively promote Japan as a destination of interest. Such bilateral efforts will not only enhance tourism but also deepen the bonds between our two nations.

Finally, do you have a message for all South Africans in Japan?

To all South Africans living in Japan let us embrace the philosophy and way of life of Nelson Mandela and make it an integral part of our existence. We can achieve this by organizing commemorative gatherings that celebrate Mandela’s values of reconciliation, peace, and justice. Through lectures, we can dive deeper into the profound meaning behind his words: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” On the cultural front, let us express our creativity by organizing poetry readings, art exhibitions, film screenings, and performances that honor Nelson Mandela’s life. Films like Invictus have shown us how sports can unite a nation, as exemplified by our historic Rugby World Cup victory. South Africans should actively engage in community volunteering in Japan, taking the lead in promoting Mandela’s ideals within schools and the healthcare sector, and advocating for social causes, including support for the homeless.

Looking to the future, let us create a joint committee between South Africans and Japanese counterparts, establishing a month-long program for July. This collaborative effort should involve other countries as well, as Mandela’s legacy extends beyond borders. Together, we can curate an integrated program featuring plays, drama, poetry readings, films, and public lectures. This committee can work together for the greater good, continuing Mandela’s legacy of unity and bringing people together. In the spirit of Nelson Mandela, let us embody his principles of compassion, forgiveness, and a commitment to positive change. Through our collective efforts, we can truly make a difference and honor the extraordinary legacy of this visionary leader.


Photos: Custom Media 


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