In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring Nelson Mandela’s birthday (July 18th) as Nelson Mandela International Day. The resolution memorializes Mandela as a transcendent leader who brought people together across the traditional divisions of religion, race, and region in a shared struggle for equal rights and justice. Not only was Mandela an iconic South African political leader, he was also a world-historical moral leader. As the world celebrates his 95th birthday this week, many countries and communities claim him as one of their own, including India and Indians, who have a long history and unique relationship with him.

Although India and Africa have been culturally and economically connected for centuries through a vibrant Indian Ocean trade, Indians first migrated to South Africa in large numbers in 1860 as indentured laborers working on sugar cane plantations. As a non-white minority community in South Africa, Indians were subjected to race-based discrimination and disenfranchisement upon their arrival. Indeed, as a young attorney, Mahatma Gandhi pioneered his strategy of non-violent non-cooperation in South Africa to protest unjust laws targeting the Indian community. And after the Group Areas Act of 1950 edified apartheid, Indians were forcibly segregated into ethnic enclaves and legally excluded from the full rights and privileges of citizenship.

For many Indians, Nelson Mandela represents the fruition of Mahatma Gandhi’s South African dream. But whereas Gandhi was primarily concerned with the treatment of Indians in South Africa, Mandela was an advocate and champion for all South Africans. In his struggle against apartheid and in his work in building a democratic South Africa, Mandela created and nurtured multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual coalitions and committees. Under his courageous leadership, Muslims and Hindus worked alongside Jews and Christians, and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) became a close ally of the African National Congress (ANC).

Nelson Mandela’s vision of an egalitarian South Africa inspired Indian involvement in every aspect of the anti-apartheid struggle. Ela Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, spent eight years under house arrest for her association with Mandela and the ANC. Phyllis Naidoo sheltered Mandela when he was in hiding and then trained ANC members while she was in exile in Zimbabwe. Billy Nair and Ahmed Kathrada, both prominent anti-apartheid leaders, were imprisoned for over twenty years with Mandela. And Mac Maharaj secretly transcribed Mandela’s memoirs and smuggled the manuscript from the notorious prison at Robben Island for the world to read.

Not only did Nelson Mandela have a strong relationship with South African Indians, he also captured the hearts and minds of millions of Indians around the world. Although he was not Indian, he embraced the same aspirations of non-violence and democracy that shaped the Indian independence movement. In his speech commemorating the 50th Anniversary of India’s independence, Mandela affirmed the powerful connection between the anti-colonial liberation movements in India and South Africa:

“History books in both our countries will forever record India’s Independence as a date of enormous significance. It was not just a victory for the people of India but for all those under colonial rule. It inspired and encouraged other liberation struggles around the world. But it is especially significant to South Africans…. As a younger sibling, democratic South Africa continues to learn from the experience of India.”

Over the last century, India has produced, protected, and promoted a number of extraordinary moral leaders who translated timeless spiritual wisdom into timely movements for social justice. These moral leaders represent India’s rich religious diversity and include Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Vinoba Bhave, Badshah Khan, Mother Teresa, Mata Amritanandamayi, and His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. In 1990, India recognized Nelson Mandela’s special place in this pantheon of moral leaders by awarding him the Bharat Ratna, or the “Jewel of India” award. The Bharat Ratna is India’s highest and most prestigious civilian honor and Mandela remains its only foreign recipient.

In order to fulfill the promise of Nelson Mandela International Day, the world needs a new generation of moral leaders to bring together the spiritual and the political for the purposes of social justice. As these new leaders tackle new crises, Mandela’s life and legacy offers an instructive model for creative collaboration and compassionate engagement. And as a “Jewel of India,” Mandela endures as a shining example of the power of reconciliation and the promise of redemption.

Originally published on


  • Varun Soni

    Dean of Religious Life at USC

    Varun Soni is the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California, where he also serves as Vice Provost of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention and University Fellow at the Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy, and where he teaches courses in the School of Religion and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. A prolific public speaker and scholar of religions, his work has been featured in a number of news outlets and publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, Los Angeles Times, LA WeeklyNPR, Washington Post, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. He also serves as an adviser for a number of studios and media companies, including Showtime, ESPN, CW Network, Oprah Winfrey Network, Religion of Sports, and the video game company Naughty Dog. He holds degrees in religion from Tufts University, Harvard University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Cape Town, as well as a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.