Nelson Mandela: While Poverty Persists, There Is No Freedom

Nov 26, 2006

The below is a letter written by Nelson Mandela, of whom I am a great admirer.

While poverty persists, there is no freedom
BY NELSON MANDELA
khaleejtimes.com
7 November 2006

[I have posted the poem he mentions, From the Republic of Conscience, below]

IN JOHANNESBURG, this week, in the warm company of friends, like Nadine Gordimer, I became an Amnesty International ambassador of conscience. It was a joy for me to receive this honour from the members of the world’s largest human rights movement. It was heartening too that the award was inspired by the great Irish writer Seamus Heaney’s poem From the Republic of Conscience, which reminds us all of our duty. Their embassies, he said, were everywhere but operated independently and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

Like Amnesty International, I have been struggling for justice and human rights for long years. I have retired from public life now. But as long as injustice and inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. We must become stronger still.

Through the work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, I am continuing my struggle for human rights. These three charitable institutions operating in my name are tasked with continuing my work in important areas I have been concerned with throughout my life: children and youth, memory and dialogue, and building new generations of ethical leaders.

It is my wish that this award should help all activists around the world to shine their candles of hope for the forgotten prisoners of poverty. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is people who have made poverty and tolerated poverty, and it is people who will overcome it.

Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of fundamental human rights. Everyone everywhere has the right to live with dignity, free from fear and oppression, free from hunger and thirst, and free to express themselves and associate at will.

Yet in this new century millions of people remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. Massive poverty and inequality are terrible scourges of our times – times in which the world also boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation.

While poverty persists, there is no true freedom. Amnesty International is right to stand up against the rights violations that drive and deepen poverty. People living in poverty have the least access to power to shape policies – to shape their future. But they have the right to a voice. They must not be made to sit in silence as “development” happens around them, at their expense. True development is impossible without the participation of those concerned.

Take the right to housing. Three million people in Africa have been evicted from informal settlements since the turn of the century.

We have also seen in Africa the scourge of HIV-Aids, decimating the lives of our people, especially those living in poverty. All of us – rich and poor, governments, companies and individuals – share the responsibility of ensuring that everyone has access to information, means of prevention and treatment. And our starting point must be respect for individuals’ rights.

We know that it is the already marginalised who are most affected by HIV-Aids. And we know that, within this group, women are marginalised yet more and bear the most significant burden. As daughters, mothers, sisters and grandmothers, every day they experience and live out the reality of this pandemic.

Women are also being killed by other preventable causes. One woman dies every minute from conditions relating to pregnancy. And where do almost all these women live? In the developing world — in poverty. Amnesty International is working to make rights real for women, through its work on poverty, and through its campaigning against the violence they face.

Women and girls need safe environments to learn and to work. At the moment, discrimination and violence exacerbate their lack of access to the very tools they need to make their own rights a reality. If girls do not have a safe and non-discriminatory environment to pursue education or gain employment, the consequences reverberate throughout their lives, denying them the choice and freedom we take for granted.

Women and girls living in abusive relationships, for example, are unable to flee the violence because they are financially dependent on their abusers. This balance of power, and the broader one it represents, must be shifted.

I have spoken before about the need for a turning point. I see this ambassador of conscience award as one more step towards that turning point. Nadine Gordimer has recalled a conversation she and I had in 1998, when I said: “What I want to see is an environment where the young people of our country have a real chance to develop the inherent possibilities they have to create a better life for themselves… That is what development is about.”

If all human rights activists around the world believe this, and act on this, and get others to believe, we will have our turning point.

From the Republic of Conscience
by Seamus Heaney

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs
woman having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

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Children suffering from Poverty