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Mandela: A life of soaring symbolism, now harnessed by UN

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Nelson Mandela’s South African journey from anti-apartheid leader to prisoner to president to global statesman — the “Long Walk to Freedom” of his autobiography title — is one of the 20th century’s great stories of struggle, sacrifice and reconciliation. Now the United Nations is seeking to harness its soaring symbolism.

Nelson Mandela gestures during the 5th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg, South Africa.   --Photo AP

The unveiling of a statue of Mandela, born 100 years ago, with arms outstretched at the UN building in New York on Monday opens a peace summit at the General Assembly, where world leaders will once again address the planet’s pressing problems: war, poverty, disease, migration and climate change. They’ll do so amid a massive security operation in a city where Mandela was welcomed by exultant crowds in 1990, a few months after he walked out of a South African jail, ending 27 years of imprisonment under the coun-try’s white minority government.
“South Africa will be free,” Mandela said during that visit, and indeed, he became the country’s first black president in its first multi-racial elections four years later. His death in 2013 at age 95 brought a global out-pouring of grief and tributes.
But there is something of a distinction between the main global perception of Mandela — the moral colossus whose resolve and generosity of spirit, tactical as well as genuine, inspired people in Colombia, Northern Ireland and other places struggling with seemingly intractable conflicts — and a growing body of opin-ion at home that he and his party were too quick to accommodate South Africa’s white minority, which lost political control but still dominates industry in one of the world’s most economically unequal societies.
Despite South Africa’s sense of unfinished business, it is a country enormously proud of the tall, charismatic orator with a broad smile and ironclad principles whose image and words were banned by his former captors, rendering him virtually invisible to the outside for decades. Mandela’s universality means that he also belongs to the world, which has wrestled with a fresh set of economic and political ruptures of late.
In July, former US president Barack Obama traveled to Johannesburg and spoke about how Mandela, by offering the possibility of “moral transformation,” means as much to the globe as he does to South Africa.
“At the outset, his struggle was particular to this place, to his homeland — a fight to end apartheid, a fight to ensure lasting political and social and economic equality for its disenfranchised non-white citizens,” Obama said. “But through his sacrifice and unwavering leadership and, perhaps most of all, through his moral example, Mandela and the movement he led would come to signify something larger.”
The United Nations is declaring 2019-2028 as the “Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace,” and a declaration being adopted at Monday’s peace summit identifies the personal qualities that made him a transcendent humanitarian — “humility, forgiveness and compassion” — and connects them with UN goals, including disarmament, human rights and poverty alleviation.

(Latest Update
September 25,

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