“The fight for his rights was always a fight for his dignity.”

memorial wall in Johannesburg

memorial wall in Johannesburg, © Arco Images

02.08.2018 - Speech

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who had to spend 27 years of his life in prisons of the South African apartheid regime.

How many messages have you sent so far today? Via SMS, WhatsApp, and all the other options that there are out there?

Perhaps before this concert to set a date? Or to send someone a photo of Gendarmenmarkt basking in the evening sunshine?

We, all of us, never stop communicating. Communication is essential.

What would you write if you were only allowed to send two letters each year? If you knew that every letter addressed to a loved one would also be read by other people? Or, in the worst case scenario, if it was only read by a censor and would never reach its intended recipient?

That’s what it was like for Nelson Mandela. A selection of letters that he wrote during his 27 years in prison was published two weeks ago on the centenary of his birth.

Letters to his family – after ten years in jail, he was, at any rate, permitted to send six per month – and also to lawyers, supporters, friends and authorities.

The letters are about love, about the death of old comrades in arms, and about the fight for freedom. They offer us an insight into Mandela’s courage, humanity and perseverance.

Mandela also complains in his letters about the time his ballpoint pen was taken away from him and when his birthday wishes didn’t reach his daughter.

The fight for his rights was always a fight for his dignity.

When I started university in 1989, the most famous prisoner in the world had already spent 26 years behind bars. And I’ve often asked myself what that does to a person.
How can you not get cynical about this?

Mandela’s letters show his ability not to lose hope even under the most adverse circumstances.

This is what he wrote to his wife Winnie:
“At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.”

Someone who lives, writes and thinks like that doesn’t allow themselves to be broken. Because they never lose hope.

Ladies and gentlemen,
In the same year that Mandela finally regained his freedom after 27 years of imprisonment, our country overcame its decades of division. German reunification and Mandela’s release in 1990 were moments of hope worldwide. And almost 30 years later, we can say that our hopes have, for the most part, been fulfilled. South Africa became the democratic rainbow nation of which Nelson Mandela always dreamed, and Germany was united in peace and freedom.

But this doesn’t mean that all is well. Far from it. We are witnessing in Europe and the world that democracies are taking an autocratic turn and that populists are dividing and radicalising societies.
Polemics and hostility are, ever more frequently, taking the place of dialogue and understanding also here in Germany. And here, too, people are being marginalised on account of their origin or scorned on account of their religion.
Nelson Mandela stood and continues to this day to stand for something entirely different:
• He reconciled rival groups.
• He achieved political change in a peaceful manner.
• And he had the capacity to forgive, even though he himself suffered from the horrors of apartheid for decades.

“We are all warmed by the same summer and chilled by the same winter. And it is recognition of that common humanity that shall bind us into a nation.”

The humanity that is expressed by this quote by Mandela should inspire us today of all days.
It should inspire and encourage us to stand up for the values that make our country what it is, namely tolerance, diversity and freedom.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The South African youth orchestra MIAGI fosters the talents of young people who come from all social backgrounds. Its members have already demonstrated what they are capable of. Nelson Mandela would have approved of this. These are the equal opportunities that he fought for all of his life. And so I believe that there is no better way to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth than this.

Many thanks for your invitation. I hope that you enjoy MIAGI’s performance! Thank you very much.


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