Symbolizing one of the great triumphs of the United Nations, Nelson Mandela addressed the General Assembly on Monday for the first time as president of South Africa and pledged to wipe out racism in his divided country.
“The road that we shall have to travel to reach this destination will by no means be easy,” he told the General Assembly. “All of us know how stubbornly racism can cling to the mind and how deeply it can infect the human soul.
” . . . And yet however hard this battle will be,” he went on, “we will not surrender.”
The symbolism for the United Nations was clear. For decades, the General Assembly had mounted a vigorous campaign against the racist apartheid system of South Africa and its imprisonment of Mandela, the country’s most prominent African nationalist leader. The relentless campaign, which prompted many countries to impose sanctions, made South Africa a pariah among nations and contributed to the atmosphere that finally persuaded its white leaders to give up apartheid.
The United Nations focused on Mandela from the start. In 1963, months before he was convicted of “sabotage” for his anti-apartheid agitation and sentenced to life in prison, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling on South Africa to abandon the trial.
Since his release from prison in 1990, Mandela, 76, has spoken to the United Nations twice. But this visit was his first since his election as president in April.
Speaking slowly in booming tones, Mandela, dressed in a gray suit, said that the historic change in South Africa “has come about not least because of the great efforts in which the U.N. engaged to ensure the suppression of the apartheid crime against humanity.”
“The millions of our people,” he went on, “say thank you and thank you again that the respect for your own dignity as human beings inspired you to act to ensure the restoration of our dignity as well.”
Mandela began his speech by noting that “it surely must be one of the great ironies of our age that this august assembly is addressed, for the first time in 49 years, by a South African head of state drawn from among the African majority of what is an African country.”
While pledging that he and his people intend to create “a truly non-racial society,” Mandela said their success would “depend on our ability to change the material conditions of life of our people so that they not only have the vote, but they have bread and work as well.”
Without being specific, Mandela said his country needs outside help. He repeated this later at a 40-minute news conference, telling reporters he was in the United States to “ask the Americans to throw their markets open to South Africa.”
But, he went on, “I’m not coming here with cap in hand. I’m coming here as a representative of a sovereign and proud country. I don’t want charity. . . . But investment in South Africa will be of mutual benefit to the United States and the people of South Africa.”
He said that South Africa especially wants “investors to enter into partnerships with black business.”
In other business, a special commission on human rights accused elements of the Hutu majority in Rwanda of genocide in trying to wipe out the Tutsi minority “in a concerted, planned, systematic and methodical way” after the president died in a plane crash in April.
The commission also concluded that both the Hutu government forces and the Tutsi-dominated rebels who now run Rwanda were guilty of “crimes against humanity” from April to July. But the commission said it had no evidence that Tutsis tried to commit genocide.