Memories of Mandela from Spain

In 1992 in Asturias, I had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela at the award ceremony for the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, which he received along with Frederik Willem de Klerk.

This award came before the Nobel Peace Prize, which Mr. Mandela received in 1993, and prior, also, to his election as president of South Africa in 1994, when he was recognized as the indisputable leader of his people and one of the most beloved and respected people in the world. He earned this reputation not just because his ideas had triumphed but also because of the coherent and exemplary life he led over so many years.

That was Mandela's third visit to Spain, during which he spoke to us about the beginnings of decolonization and the acceptance of the idea that every nation has the right to belong to and participate equitably in the global community. He said that countries cannot be based in the oppression of other nations -- his way of signaling to us that the situation on the continent of Africa was calamitous. The specter of hunger, malnourishment, violence, and diseases such as AIDS, he said, were hovering over us in an era in which science and modern technologies had reached incredible new heights. The immense inequality of our planet, he said, is dangerous, unjust, and destabilizing, just as it is within a single country. The North-South debate has to begin anew, and international structures of cooperation must be reinforced.

The auditorium listened, impressed by the grandness of his words, by his serene generosity, by his example of struggle and sacrifice during an entire lifetime, including 27 years in jail and decades of fighting resolutely against repression and injustice.

He also spoke about South Africa, which was at that moment preparing itself to occupy the position it deserved in the world. No longer an international pariah, it was now a country ready to accept the challenge of racial tolerance and democracy. Mandela had words of thanks for the international community for its solidarity against racism and apartheid, which allowed South Africans to finish that last mile to freedom. His language was direct, clear, credible, convincing, and timely.

I met Mandela again in April 2008 on a trip to Angola and South Africa, accompanied by numerous Asturian businessmen , parliamentary representatives, and union leaders. We were all there to explore business opportunities for Asturian companies and to reinforce institutional relationships between the nations.

It was an emotional experience visiting the Red Cross in Soweto, a recipient of our solidarity funding. I saw with my own eyes how the organization worked wonders with the few resources available in a district in which 22 percent of the population was HIV-positive. That, together with high rates of poverty and inadequate services (both sanitation and other varieties) ranks many of Soweto's communities among the most vulnerable in South Africa. We realized how important our help was in developing various parts of the world that, with just 0.7 percent of our budget, could help alleviate the difficult and precarious situations that result from poverty, disease, natural disasters, or violent conflict.

Remembering Mandela's speech in Spain, we were coming from a place of understanding and admiration for the process of reconciliation and democracy pushed forward by South African society, with Madiba at the front lines. We indicated our willingness to help fund and publicize activities in the Apartheid Museum, and we arranged things so that after its inauguration in Aviles, Spain the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Center (then directed by Natalio Grueso, the person behind our relationship with the Mandela Foundation) would open a major exhibition that aimed to show off to every region of the world the foundations of democracy, equality, reconciliation and multiculturalism.

The interview with Mandela was cordial. He indicated sincere interest in returning to Spain and Asutrias, though he was also aware that fulfilling this wish would be physically difficult. We assured him that we shared a same set of objectives and told him that his Foundation was developing a legacy that contained the vision and values of his life and work, a reconciliatory spirit that personifies the term "Ubuntu," a South African ethical standard based on brotherhood between people.

The challenge that these ideals represent continues to exist, perhaps more than ever. In the years since our last visit with Mandela, which coincided with the enormous global economic crisis, things haven't so much changed as gotten worse. But we must always remain conscious of his example and hope that in this world there are many people who, like Mandela, with their strength and their convictions, will change and transform reality to serve those who have the least, which is to say, the vast majority of the world.