Saturday, 1 November 2014


With stirring tributes to the late Nelson Mandela, the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO launched celebrations on Oct. 31 to mark its 70th anniversary.

Nelson Mandela, "Papa Africa". Visual by J. Abinibi
The agency’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said that Mandela “embodied UNESCO’s ideals, our faith in human dignity, our belief in the ability of every woman and man to change society through tolerance and peace.”

The celebrations in Paris included a colloquium featuring the prickly Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, who examined Mandela’s legacy and his impact on the world, in a sometimes uncomfortable lecture.

Soyinka, himself a former prisoner of conscience and long-standing critic of oppression, said there might be various reasons behind the universal love of the South African icon - including the desire to feel adulation for a legend - but the main cause stems from the human need for freedom.

       Wole Soyinka. © McKenzie
“Mandela was the protagonist of a universal humanity,” the writer said, explaining that dialogue and reconciliation were not means of appeasement but higher goals toward peace and forgiveness, following human rights violations.

Haiti’s president Michel Martelly, the guest of honour at the ceremony, added his voice to the tributes, saying that the world needs another Mandela to “help us overcome extremism and fanaticism, before it’s too late”.

Mandela was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador during his lifetime, and was also awarded the agency’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991, along with Frederik de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa. Both men received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Irina Bokova. © McKenzie
According to Bokova, Mandela always supported UNESCO’s “values”. The agency was founded in 1945 and has grown from 20 member states to a current 195. Its mandate in the post-World War II period was to develop the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind" with a view to promoting lasting peace.

"Today the world faces new and steep challenges, and we need to respond with the same courage, the same audacity the same vision - because violence today is directed against schools, against cultural diversity, against freedom and human rights,” Bokova said.

The 70th anniversary celebrations will continue through 2015, as UNESCO reflects on its history, which has been one of ups and downs.

The United States withdrew from the organization between 1984 and 2003, for instance, and UNESCO recently faced a financial crisis when the US government withheld its dues after the agency’s member states decided to grant Palestine full membership in 2011.

Singer Sally Nyolo, backstage. © McKenzie
Bokova’s exhortation of “long live UNESCO” at the anniversary launch may have been a reference to such upheavals, but the evening was mostly about celebration, with the plethora of speeches interspersed with artistic performances.

The Mahotella Queens group from South Africa had the audience laughing and cheering to their skits, dances and songs. They were followed by singer Sally Nyolo of Cameroon, who brought soul and style to the stage, accompanied by two musicians and sand-art artist David Myriam.

Choreographer Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers later stomped in unison, recalling the tradition of black miners who used their feet to provide percussion as they sang. And the celebrated Guinean singer Mory Kanté performed his 1988 hit “Yé ké yé ké”, which made spectators and UNESCO officials get up and dance.

During his performance, Kante also paid tribute to Mandela, praising all that the freedom fighter and statesman did for Africa and the world.  

The public can learn more about Mandela’s life and work in an exhibition that runs until Dec. 31, 2014, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Titled Nelson Mandela, from Prisoner to President, the exhibition was curated by South Africa’s Apartheid Museum and has been shown in various countries. 

The Mohotella Queens. © McKenzie
Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers. © McKenzie