Prince Harry told a United Nations commemoration on Nelson Mandela’s birthday Monday that despite having suffered many injustices in his life, the South African leader always managed to find the light.
“A man who had endured the worst of humanity – vicious racism and state-sponsored brutality. A man who had lost 27 years with his children and family that he would never get back,” Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, told the General Assembly, referring to the years Mandela spent in jail for fighting apartheid.
Yet in a photo with his mother, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, taken with Mandela in 1997, he said the leader is broadly smiling.
“Still able to see the goodness in humanity, still buoyant of the beautiful spirit that lifted everyone around him,” he said. “Not because he was blind to the ugliness, the injustices of world. No, he saw them clearly. He had lived them. But because he knew we could overcome them.”
The Queen’s grandson, who left the family fold not long after his marriage to Meghan Markle and now lives in California, was the keynote speaker at the annual commemoration of Mandela that takes place on his birthday. Markle accompanied him to the U.N. event.
Harry said he made his first visit to Africa when he was 13 and always found hope there. One of his charities, Sentebale, works with vulnerable children and youth in the Southern African nations of Lesotho and Botswana.
Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba, was a freedom fighter who was elected as South Africa’s first Black president in 1994. Today marks his 104th birthday. He died at the age of 95 in December 2013.
Every five years an honorary award is given to recognize a man and a woman who have shown dedication to the service of humanity in honor of Mandela’s life and legacy. Due to the pandemic, this is the first in-person U.N. commemoration since 2019.
Laureates Marianna Vardinoyannis of Greece, who was recognized for her work fighting childhood cancer, and Dr. Morissanda Kouyate of Guinea for his activism towards ending violence against women, including female genital mutilation, were the 2020 winners and recognized at Monday’s event.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said of Mandela that he was a “giant of our time; a leader of unparalleled courage and towering achievement” who remains a moral compass for all.
“Today and every day, let us honor Nelson Mandela’s legacy by taking action,” Guterres’ deputy, Amina Mohammed, said on Guterres’ behalf. “By speaking out against hate and standing up for human rights. By embracing our common humanity – rich in diversity, equal in dignity, united in solidarity. And by together making our world more just, compassionate, prosperous, and sustainable for all.”
Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed, who is Nigerian, said she has drawn personal inspiration from Mandela.
“I have taken to heart his profound lesson that we all have the ability – and responsibility – to take action,” she said.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams also addressed the assembly. He said he has visited the tiny Robben Island cell in Cape Town, where Mandela was jailed for 27 years.
“That small cell where he endured so much was a powerful site,” said Adams, who is African American. “While he was in jail, he knew that where he was was not who he was.”
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a written statement that she met Mandela briefly once, but it had a lasting impact on her life.
“To this day, his courage, compassion and leadership continue to inspire me as we collectively strive toward a world that is more peaceful, just and free,” she said.
As part of the tributes to Mandela on his birthday, people are urged to make a difference in their communities. On Monday afternoon, U.N. staff and diplomats were to pick up litter, pull weeds and prepare food packages at a park in East Harlem, in upper Manhattan.