TEDxAuckland speaker Helen Clark reflects on Mandela Day

TEDxAuckland speaker Helen Clark reflects on Mandela Day

Helen Clark became the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in April 2009, and is the first woman to lead the organisation. Prior to this she served three consecutive terms as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, the first elected woman in New Zealand history.

As a UN head, Helen Clark sits atop a $5.8 billion annual budget and a staff of 8,000 in 177 countries. She has been ranked many times by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in the world.

In 1970 while still a student, she was actively engaged in the Halt All Racist Tours movement which was against sporting contacts with South Africa, then under the Apartheid regime. It was involvement in this cause that became one of the major motivations for Helen Clark’s entry into politics and public life.

Every year on 18 July – the day Nelson Mandela was born – the UN joins a call by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and asks people around the world to devote 67 minutes of time to helping others, as a way to mark Nelson Mandela International Day.

For 67 years Nelson Mandela devoted his life to the service of humanity – as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker, and the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa.

I was 14 years old when Nelson Mandela became my President. To this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my days, Madiba will always be my number one hero. I left South Africa five years ago, and New Zealand is now the place I call home. And whilst New Zealand gave me wings, I will always have my roots, and it was really only after moving to New Zealand that I learned just how intertwined the history of these two beautiful countries are.

TEDxAuckland caught up with Helen Clark to find out what Mandela Day means to her.

“The highlight for me of Mandela Day last year was to speak at the special event honouring the day at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Mandela Day this year will be a time for reflection – our thoughts are with this great man, his family, and the nation of South Africa at this time.”

Rewind to 1981, the Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand and were met with protest. In Hamilton protestors occupied the field prior to the second game of the tour, forcing its cancellation. Legend has it that when the news of this dramatic event got through to the prisoners on Robben Island, cheers could be heard in the cell block.

Madiba himself has been quoted as saying, “It was as if the sun had come out.”

The New Zealand campaign against apartheid was part of the broad international solidarity movement which formed in support of the huge struggle taking place within South Africa itself.

“In the process, we in New Zealand also learned a lot about ourselves – a clear example of how the battle against injustice in one country can spur progress in another,” said Helen Clark in her Mandela Day speech last year. “The 1980s saw the search for truth and reconciliation in New Zealand itself gain momentum, leading to major settlements between the state and indigenous people, in acknowledgment of the historical injustices perpetrated from colonial times.”

Many in New Zealand argued up until and beyond the highly controversial 1981 Springbok rugby tour that sport and politics should not be mixed. Those that were opposed argued that the two were already mixed, and that a failure to make a stand against apartheid sport brought shame on New Zealand. Deep issues of human dignity, justice, and equality were at stake.

 “Without doubt, the campaign against apartheid sport played a crucial part in the emergence of our nation as more inclusive and independent as we freed ourselves from the legacy of the past,” adds the ex Prime Minister.

Present Day the whole world has come a long way with regards to breaking down racial barriers. Now the biggest crisis facing our planet is climate change and poverty. Our esteemed TEDxAuckland speaker reminds us that in New Zealand grassroots movements have long played a part in bringing about change. One thinks of the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century – resulting in New Zealand being the first country in the world where women won the right to vote.

“In my own lifetime, citizens’ movements for a nuclear-free New Zealand and against apartheid had significant impact on national policies,” adds the UN’s leading lady. “Similar mobilisations are needed now for sustainable development – including for reducing poverty and inequality and tackling climate change decisively.”

So there you have it Aotearoa. Let’s always make ourselves heard, and remember ... It always seems impossible until it’s done.

Jamie Joseph is the official TEDxAuckland storyteller and is blogging at

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