UN Matters

Nelson Mandela’s legacy, the United Nations and the APA — parallel and intersecting lines

Nelson Mandela's vision and legacy are explored in U.N. policies and actions.

By Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
— Nelson Mandela at the opening of his defense case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria, South Africa, 1964.

As the world mourned the loss and celebrated the enduring legacy of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), the leadership of the United Nations (U.N.) universally portrayed him as a champion of peace and reconciliation. As a beloved figure of inspiration and liberation, Mandela’s vision for humanity embodied the fundamental principles of the U.N. as written in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.N., 1948) and Charter (U.N., 1945). Mandela’s struggles not only uplifted the people of his country from the scourge of racism and discrimination, but more broadly, he fought for the dignity of all humankind. In this way, his journey to freedom served as a challenge to and a beacon for the realization of the aims of the U.N.

In his eulogy to Mandela, Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Secretary General, stated, “Nelson Mandela was a singular figure on the global stage, a man of quiet dignity and towering achievement, a giant for justice and a down to earth human inspiration … In the decades-long fight against apartheid, the United Nations stood side-by-side with Nelson Mandela and all those in South Africa who faced unrelenting racism and discrimination … Let us continue each day to be inspired by his lifelong example and his call to never cease working for a better and just world.” (U.N., 2013). In addition to these remarks, the U.N. body marked Mandela’s passing through moments of silence at both the Security Council and General Assembly, and by flying the U.N. flag at half-staff (United Nations, 2013b).

How Did the U.N. Respond to South Africans’ Liberation Struggle Against Apartheid?

Nelson Mandela's vision and legacy are explored in U.N. policies and actions.From the U.N.’s inception in 1946, apartheid in the Union of South Africa was an issue of concern, raised initially because India challenged the discrimination of Indians under the apartheid system (United Nations, 2013c). The U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 395(V) in 1950, its first resolution against apartheid (U.N., 1950). For the next 40 years, a consistent series of actions, conferences, and formal resolutions were initiated. These initiatives reflected the collaborative efforts of the U.N., its member states and its non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as partners in a cascading global consciousness opposing and eventually dismantling the apartheid system. For instance, (1) the Security Council adopted Resolution 134 in 1960, criticizing the government for the Sharpeville Massacre, in which police killed 69 peaceful protesters; (2) the Security Council passed an arms embargo (Resolution 181) and the General Assembly enacted oil sanctions (Resolution 1899) in 1963; (3) the General Assembly requested all member states to suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges in 1968; and (4) the Security Council condemned the new racist constitution (Resolution 554) in 1984.

Following these and other historical initiatives to undermine support for apartheid, Mandela, then president of South Africa, addressed the U.N. General Assembly in 1994 stating, “We stand here today to salute the United Nations Organization and its Member states, both singly and collectively, for joining forces with the masses of our people in a common struggle that has brought about our emancipation and pushed back the frontiers of racism.” (U.N., 2013d)

Later, the U.N. established “Nelson Mandela International Day.” It has been commemorated on his birthday, July 18, since 2009 (U.N., 2009). On this date, citizens of the world are asked to devote 67 minutes of their time to public service activities in the interest of promoting social justice, fighting for human rights or helping vulnerable people. These initiatives honor the 67 years of service that Madiba (his clan name, as he is affectionately called) devoted to freedom, justice and democracy. The Nelson Mandela Foundation offers suggestions for service.

APA Responds to Apartheid and Racism

Psychologists might ask, “What have we done individually and collectively to fight apartheid and to challenge the racism that remains pervasive? In 2001, APA approved the “Resolution Against Racism and in Support of the Goals of the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance” (APA, 2001). Founded on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.N.’s “International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination” (U.N., 1965) this statement supports the struggle against all forms of racism. Moreover, it documents the deleterious effects of xenophobia across the globe, using findings from psychological science to articulate the impact of racism on human development across the life cycle. This resolution represents the contributions of individual psychologists, several APA divisions, the Public Interest Directorate and APA’s Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs.

In many ways the APA resolution is a culmination of a range of initiatives and research. For example, the APA Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP) has a history of addressing ethical and human rights issues including taking stands against apartheid (David & Wood, n.d.) and promoting an ethic of human respect and dignity throughout the world. In conjunction with taking positions resisting apartheid in South Africa, CIRP (1) engaged in supporting educational opportunities and psychosocial intervention services for victims of apartheid; (2) arranged for tuition waivers for Black South African graduate students attending American psychology programs; (3) coordinated an inter-agency program by placing six students in graduate psychology programs; and (4) in South Africa, funded a community based mental health program in Soweto at a Family Centre, to develop a network of valuable services that addressed the crushing effects of the stresses of life in an apartheid regime. These initiatives culminated in the crafting of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 1998 between the APA (represented by CEO Ray Fowler) and the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) (represented by Saths Cooper, a former anti-apartheid activist who, along with Mandela, spent several years incarcerated on the infamous Robben Island) (APA, 1998).

The Challenge Before Us: Can Psychologists Realize Mandela’s Vision?

The systematic and legalized repression of apartheid led to unwarranted arrests, brutality, detainment, “disappearances,” torture, indiscriminate murder, mass killings and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation throughout the townships. State-orchestrated violence swept up not only activists, but innocent citizens as well (Goboda-Madikizela, 2003). As Goboda-Madikizela, a psychologist, wrote, the horror of life in circumstances in which perpetual murder and mayhem were perpetrated by army and police officials is virtually unimaginable, and the devastation of individual, family and community lives is beyond comprehension. A thirst for revenge must have been intensely palpable.

But revenge did not occur. Apartheid and the transition to current government occurred within the rule of law. Yet, the challenge posed by the realization of Mandela’s vision for peace and equality for humankind in the 21st century may be more nuanced than initially meets the eye. What was unique to freedom and democracy in South Africa involved not only a political liberation, but also embodied a spiritual ethic that fascinated the world community. The newly united nation, led by Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC), integrated elements of a cultural fabric valuing peace through the process of reconciliation. And it is the capacity of forgiveness by black South Africans that may have saved the nation from civil war.

The South African representation of Mandela’s vision for peace and reconciliation embodies a unique cultural and spiritual fabric.How, then, was not only peace, but reconciliation achieved? There is no simple answer to this question. One focus of the Congress for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) was recognizing the need for all citizens to face past crimes against humanity while concurrently facilitating social cohesion and respect for the peaceful resolution of past conflicts. Thus, the new leadership initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Founded on the cultural and spiritual value of telling the truth in order to achieve forgiveness, the TRC established venues throughout the country in which perpetrators of government violence came face-to-face with victims and their families. The model was that, in this human encounter of good and evil, the evil of the perpetrator would be laid bare before the community and the dignity of the victim would prevail. The TRC served a healing function for individuals, families and communities in the new non-racially segregated South Africa. Goboda-Madikizela, who also served on the TRC, has commented on the paradox of how a behavior usually associated with weakness (i.e., forgiveness), can become a source of power and dignity for the victim: Forgiveness does not deny the experience of humiliation, but rather rises above the evil of the perpetrator. She describes the victims’ triumph as though symbolically saying, “I cannot and will not return the evil you inflicted on me” (Goboda-Madikizela, 2003, p. 117).

The South African representation of Mandela’s vision for peace and reconciliation embodies a unique cultural and spiritual fabric. As psychologists, we recognize that these values may not be a good fit in every cultural context. Nonetheless, the challenge remains before us to progress toward what Mandela and the U.N. advocate: the value of human rights, equality and the inherent dignity of all. Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate, addressed the International Congress of Psychology (ICP) in Cape Town, South Africa in 2012. Pillay (2012), a former defense attorney who represented anti-apartheid activists incarcerated on Robben Island, remarked,

Historically the field of psychology has overlooked the importance of human rights and justice … It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that difference is celebrated as an enriching value and a great contribution to humanity. Let us be united in our efforts against intolerance…we can uplift not only the victims of human rights violations but humanity as a whole.

Thus, our challenge is to search within ourselves, as psychologists, and feel empowered to commit to initiatives, large or small, individually or collectively, that perpetuate Mandela’s vision. Collectively, we might join initiatives sponsored by the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence (Div. 48) and International Psychology (Div. 52). For instance, they promote international and U.S.-based opportunities in academic and research settings as well as in clinical and service agencies. Individually, psychologists might partner with or volunteer for organizations to write grants or facilitate training sessions that focus on instilling human rights and equality worldwide. In a previous column (Gary & Rubin, 2012), we highlighted the importance of psychologists’ participation in volunteer projects, locally and globally, that perpetuate Mandela’s vision.


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