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Europe pays tribute to Nelson Mandela – ‘one of the greatest political figures’

By Dean Carroll

European leaders have paid warm tribute to Nelson Mandela, who passed away yesterday, describing him as “one of the greatest political figures of our time”. A joint message from European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy stated: “This is a very sad day not only for South Africa but for the entire international community. We mourn the death of one of the greatest political figures of our times.

“Mandela was not only key in transforming South Africa into the democratic country it is today – he represents the fight against racism, political violence and intolerance. He represents justice, freedom and respect for human rights. He taught us all a major lesson in reconciliation, political transition and social transformation. Only a person with his profound humanity, moral integrity and authority and clear vision for the future of his country could have achieved this.”

Both men called for his legacy to be honoured through collective action to uphold the values of “deep democracy for which Mandela fought tirelessly”. Paying his own tribute, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that while South Africa had lost its “father” the world had lost a “hero”. He added: “Mandela’s legacy will last forever. He has been a fighter, a leader and a source of inspiration for so many people throughout Africa, Europe and the entire world. I wish that the world had more leaders like Mandela. Goodbye Madiba, your fight lives on in the hearts of millions.”

In recognition of his struggle, in 1988 Mandela received the first European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This was awarded by MEPS to honour exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism, racism and oppression. Mandela, who led the decades-long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, was jailed for 27 years for his activism. Released in 1990, he became South Africa’s first post-apartheid president in 1994. He was widely credited for shepherding the country’s peaceful transition to a more equitable and democratic system. “Mandela’s life epitomised the fight for freedom, equality and justice – all core human rights ideals,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “His death reminds us of the uniqueness of his principled and dignified leadership, both in Africa and beyond.”

Mandela was born on July 18, 1918. After completing high school, he attended the University of Fort Hare, where he became involved in student politics. In 1944 he joined the African National Congress. Together with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and other anti-apartheid activists, Mandela formed the ANC Youth League. In 1964 Mandela and 156 other ANC members were tried and convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison.
At his trial, Mandela said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Despite being sentenced to life in prison and spending a total of 27 years in jail until 1990, Mandela preached passionately and without evident bitterness about reconciliation and the need to build a new South African state. A cornerstone of that development was South Africa’s well-regarded constitution. It enshrined fundamental values of human dignity, equality and freedom as well as the importance of nation building, public participation and social cohesion.

Almost two decades into its democracy, South Africa was not the country that Mandela hoped it would become – claimed Human Rights Watch. Inequality and poverty remained rife, the education and health sectors were inadequate and the nation remained divided by racial separation and deep economic inequality. 
“Mandela led South Africa out of darkness and brutality,” Roth said. “The country’s next generation of leaders would do well to live up to his high standards and fervent commitment to human rights.”

Meanwhile, president of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament Gabi Zimmer spoke of the man’s “extraordinary actions” – adding: “As a leader, as a politician, as an activist his commitment to freedom, democracy and equality during the apartheid regime will never be forgotten. Despite years spent in prison, he never lost his hope for a better world; one in which all men and all women can recognise themselves today and in the future. Mandela remains a role model for all of us.”

Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the EP, said: “The world is mourning a great hero today. But although Nelson Mandela – affectionately known as Madiba, his clan name – is no longer among us, his legacy will persist. It will be our duty, in South Africa and across the world, to cherish his fight, his wisdom and the lessons of peaceful struggle for equality that he taught us.

“Equality – between black and white, men and women, nationals and foreigners, majority and minority – is the goal he dedicated his life to. Continuing the struggle for equality – also one of the founding principles of the European Union – is the best way we can pay tribute to Mandela’s life. I urge the African National Congress and South African President Jacob Zuma to do everything in their power to live up to Mandela’s legacy, for the peaceful future of South Africa.”

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