Address by Nelson Mandela at reception at New York University’s (NYU) Robert F Wagner School of Public Service to launch the African Public Service Fellowship

7 May 2002

Chairman of the Board of Trustees
Members of the Board of Trustees
Members of the University
President Chissano
Secretary-General Annan
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I am constantly baffled at why a prestigious institution like New York University would find it appropriate to award a prize as esteemed as their Presidential Medal to a retired old pensioner, bereft of any office, power or influence. I have to conclude that it is the respect for age and grey hair that moves you to such otherwise undeserved generosity.

My bafflement at the rationale behind the award does not, however, in any way diminish the gratitude I feel. You honour me greatly and I am humbled by your generosity.

We are here in New York this week primarily to attend the United Nations Special Session for Children and some events related to it. I therefore wish to accept this award on behalf of the children of the world. They represent our future and our hope, and people of my generation can only look to them for completing the task of making the world a better place for all to live in.

It must be a source of great disappointment that here at the beginning of the twenty-first century we still need to speak with such passionate yearning of a better world for all. The twentieth century promised so much through the astounding advances in science, technology, scholarship and reason.

So many of us believed that through those advances we would progress to a world where all would be emancipated from poverty and inequality; where human beings would live in peace, security and dignity throughout the world; where nations would live in peace and with equal mutual respect for each other.

The real picture is somewhat different. The majority of the world's population continues to live in conditions of great poverty and deprivation. War and conflict still reign in many parts of the world. The divide between the rich and the poor, within single nations and amongst nations, is widening rather than being bridged.

The struggle for true and universal human emancipation still lies ahead of the children, youth and future generations of our planet. It is to them, and their courage to tackle that challenge, that I wish to dedicate this award with which you have so generously honoured me.

If the picture we have painted is considerably more sombre than we would have wished, it is not to suggest that we should despair and shroud ourselves in hopelessness. We must acknowledge the progress we have made on many fronts, and above all know that we have the capacity to make a difference to our future.

The bulk of the poverty and suffering in the world is borne by people from the developing world, and particularly from the African continent. There has been a strong tendency over a long period of time to relegate Africa to the margins of world affairs and the periphery of world concerns.

One of the most promising and significant developments over the last decade has been the manner in which African leaders, political and in broader society, have stepped forward to take the primary responsibility for the recovery and regeneration of the continent.

Much of the woes of Africa can be attributed to the legacy of colonialism. What a current generation of leaders is doing is to also acknowledge the manner in which we have contributed to our fate through practices such as bad governance, insufficient respect for the human rights of citizens and inadequate management of our economy.

Leaders such as President Joachim Chissano, who is present here tonight, are taking the lead in putting forward plans as to how the countries of our continent can work in partnership with the developed world for the regeneration of the continent. It is a process and plan where Africans are the architects of their own future.

It is inspiring to know that at the helm of our world body, the United Nations, stands another great son of Africa in the person of Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His active support for the New Plan for African Development ensures that Africa will be able to reclaim her rightful place in world affairs in a manner that will lead to that better life for all people.

Partnership is a key concept in our globalised world. We are greatly encouraged that so many influential people from different sectors are present here tonight. Part of the efforts of this evening is to encourage support for the University's Wagner School for Public Service, particularly for its efforts to bring students from Africa to the School.

We wish to add our voice to those appeals for support for this important educational venture. There can be nothing more important than education for the development and advancement of Africa. The opportunity to study at such a quality institution will enormously enhance the human capacity of those countries from which these students come.

It is known, I believe, that I acted as Facilitator in the Burundi Peace Process where 19 political parties were engaged in negotiations towards a settlement. We eventually succeeded in having an Interim Government of National Unity installed late last year.

One thing that we kept on stressing to the international community after the signing of the political agreement was that the country now needed development support. We personally intervened with some countries to provide scholarships for students from Burundi to study abroad.

That appeal can be generalised for students from all countries of the continent. And we wish to commend New York University and the Wagner School for its efforts to contribute to human capital development in Africa. It makes me even prouder to accept the honour you have bestowed on me.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation