06/27/2013 04:11 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Mandela, "My Black President"

A few hours ago, I was at the hospital in Pretoria, the hospital where Nelson Mandela is fighting his last battle. Together with colleagues and friends of ActionAid, together with dozens, even hundreds of people who come and go at all hours. It is not voyeuristic. It is a respectful homage to one of the great leaders of our time. And the desire to be part of a moment in which an entire nation thinks back to his successes, but also to his failures, under the harsh eye of the father who is leaving them.

I thought of the lyrics to the song by Brenda Fassie, "Black President," dedicated to the leader in the fight against Apartheid: "They broke rocks, but the spirit was never broken." That song, "Black President," was sung by thousands of young people at the top of their lungs, in Johannesburg's Africa Square, on March 31, 2005. In that square, the same year, ActionAid decided to launch the matatu, an "African style" bus journey. After a long trek through the African continent -- from South Africa to Mozambique, then Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda -- it disembarked from Mombasa directly in the port of Civitavecchia, Italy, where it continued its journey towards Scotland. In a few months, they collected images, testimony and appeals from men, women, and children in the various African countries, bringing a message to the powers at the G8 Summit: "Make Poverty History." The "Get On Board" project aimed to bring the testimony of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world to Gleneagles. To show the daily lives of Africans to the world.

As part of Make Poverty History, the slogan for a wide range of initiatives advanced by the international civil society that was the headed by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), designed to convince governments around the world to defeat international absolute poverty, many in ActionAid had the honor of meeting Mandela.

He had a fur hat. Because on February 3 2005, when he arrived in London, it was cold. But the square was warm with love. Indeed, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also in that square wrapped with a White Band, to listen to Nelson Mandela for many was "like falling in love." In Trafalgar Square, Nelson Mandela enchanted the more than 22,000 present. Last night, in the Pretoria hospital, I remembered excerpts of his speech in that crowded and excited London square. "Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. But an act of justice. It is to guarantee fundamental human rights, the right to dignity, and a decent life. As long as there is poverty, there is no freedom." Words that in recent years I have had stuck in my head like a mantra.

In 1997, I participated in the Amnesty International Council Meeting in Capetown. Three years after Mandela had been elected president in the first multiracial elections in South Africa. I was 27 years old, and I was nervous as I was today in Pretoria. It was the first International Council organized in Africa by Amnesty International, and I had the honor of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was not a random choice for Amnesty to go there: it was the only way to recognize the direction of South Africa.

Then with ActionAid, in the beginning of 2004, we decided to move the International Secretariat, the "thinking head" of the organization in Johannesburg. Another symbol: the internationalization process that began ten years ago in Milan, with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding by all members with the Federation. The most relevant political process -- the internationalization -- changed not only our operating methods in the Countries, but the history of our organization. Today, the story of ActionAid, while in Pretoria the International Assembly is meeting, has added another African, Kenyan, element: the new Chief Executive of our International Federation, Chris Kinyanjui. He was nominated here in South Africa yesterday.

Last night, walking around the streets of Pretoria, I was thinking back to that democratic transition, which would not have been possible without Mandela. But I was also thinking back to all the times in my youth, and even afterwards, that I (and all of us), heard about him. From schoolbooks to history books. From the media or from colleagues. This spring in Italy, we stopped telling children "run like Mennea." (Editor's note: Pietro Mennea was a famous Italian sprinter who died in March 2013). Today I feel something similar, multiplied by a hundred, by a thousand. In geographic, temporal, and value-related terms. A page that turns with sadness and with a smile. "But the spirit was never broken".

This post was translated from Italian and originally appeared on HuffPost Italy.