'My trips to Spain were joyous': Nelson Mandela

George Mills
George Mills - [email protected]
'My trips to Spain were joyous': Nelson Mandela

Former South African president Nelson Mandela died on Thursday at the age of 95, the country's current president Jacob Zuma has said in a live press conference. Mandela had a unique connection with Spain, one forged during two major sporting events.


Mandela, instrumental in the downfall of South Africa's apartheid system, and the country's first post-apartheid president entered hospital with a lung infection on June 8th, and had been in poor heath ever since.

He passed away on December 5th.

"He is now resting. He is now at peace," South Africa's president Zuma said during his press conference. "Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father."

"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."

The towering figure — both literally and figuratively, he was 1.93m tall — had a special link with Spain, one forged through the prism of two major international sporting events.

In 2010, Nelson Mandela was present in the stadium when Spain's international football team won their first ever World Cup Football trophy.

Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel at the 2010 South Africa World Cup football final between the Netherlands and Spain in 2010. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP

Although FIFA had originally wanted the former revolutionary to bestow the trophy on the winning team, his third and current wife Graça Machel put paid to those ideas.

"Nelson Mandela will go to the final but he is not going to hand over the trophy. He is 92 years old, it's in the evening, it's very cold," she said. 

His very appearance at the final was, however, highly symbolic.

The holding of the world cup in South Africa was a key event both for Africans in general — it was the first such event held on the continent — and for South Africa in particular.

"People walked tall. They were very proud of this country," said tournament organizer Danny Jordaan at the time.

"They were told over many years, you are inferior, you cannot do these things because of our history. So that was a psychological barrier the nation crossed".

It was another major sporting event, though, that was perhaps more important in forging the bond between Spain and South Africa.

In 1992, Mandela, often called Madiba within South Africa, visited Barcelona for the Olympic Games, an occasion that marked a renaissance of sorts for both countries.

In the case of Spain, the Barcelona Olympics — along with the Seville Expo '92 — symbolized all the dynamism of a post-dictatorship Spain.

After decades in the international wilderness during the rule of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, Spain was ready to show off its youthful enthusiasm.

South Africa, meanwhile, was making a dramatic return to that global stage: after 42 years without representation at the Olympics, the country was back.

Just hours before the opening ceremony, Mandela visited the Olympics village to speak to the athletes.  

"All I want to say is that our presence here is of great significance to our country, a significance which goes beyond the boundaries of sport," he said to the sportsmen and women.

"Our country has been isolated for many years, not only in sports but in other fields as well. We are saying now, 'Let's forget the past. Let bygones be bygones."

He finished by saying: "I want to tell you that we respect you, we are proud of all of you and, above all, we love you."

By 1992, open negotiations between the South African government and the opponents of its apartheid regime — Mandela and the African National Congress being key among them — were well underway.

Just months after the Barcelona Olympics, Mandela visited Spain again to collect the Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation.

This was an honour he received jointly with the-then Prime Minister of South Africa Frederick W. de Klerk, who did not attend the awards ceremony.

During Mandela's acceptance speech in Oviedo, the man who spent 18 years in South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison cited the long relationship between Africa and Spain.

"This is my third visit to Spain and each has been occasion for joy and celebration," said Mandela during his acceptance speech.

"In June the world celebrated with you when Spain hosted the Olympic Games, a spectacular gathering of the world at peace with itself.

"These ceremonies showed to the world that Spain can unite the old and the new, and forge a common identity out of the richness of its diverse regions, culture and civilization," he added.

Nelson Mandela with Former US President Bill Clinton closing ceremony of the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona in July 2002. Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/2012

In those 1992 visits to Spain, the former South African President also met with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, and a number of key figures in the country.

Recalling the visit 20 years later, former President of Catalonia Jordi Pujol described Mandela as "a very, very, very extraordinary person" while Julio Anguida, the ex-Coordinator General of the left-wing IU said: "What struck me was his clarity in terms of putting human rights above all other concerns."

"He immediately created a more friendly, "normal" atmosphere," recalled Antonio Gutierrez, former head of the Spanish union, the CCOO.

The strong relationship between Spain and South Africa had been formed before 1992, however.

Spain's post-Franco socialist government led by Prime Minister Felipe González actively opposed apartheid on the international stage.

According to South Africa's International Relations and Cooperation Department, official relations between the two countries were strained as a result.

The post-apartheid era has seen a reactivation of diplomatic ties though.

"There is a remarkable resemblance between Spain's democratization process, economic empowerment, social development programmes and constitutional reform following the post-Franco era, and that which post-apartheid South Africa is experiencing today," the South African department said on its website. 

In 2004, Mandela once more visited Spain to attend the wedding of Spanish Crown Prince Felipe of Bourbon and Letizia Ortiz.

King Juan Carlos of Bourbon, Queen Beatrix of Netherlands, Prince Felipe of Spain, his fiancee Letizia Ortiz, former South African president Nelson Mandela, his wife Graca Machel and Queen Sofia of Spain pose on 21st May 2004 on the eve of her wedding with Spanish Crown Prince Felipe of Bourbon. Photo: Sergio Barrenechea/AFP

Earlier, in July 1983, UNESCO awarded its first Simon Bolivar International Prize jointly to Nelson Mandela and King Juan Carlos of Spain at a ceremony in Caracas, Venezuela, on the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Simón Bolívar, who was crucial in the Latin America's independence struggle.

The prize was awarded to Mandela in absentia.

In 1986, Mandela also received the Peace Award of Spain's Alfonso Comin Foundation.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in what is now eastern South Africa. After decades of political activism, he became South Africa's first post-apartheid president in 1994.

He stepped down from the role in 1999 after serving just one term.


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