In 1996, routine polio immunizations in Nigeria and other African countries were anything but routine. Competing health priorities and lack of funding hampered many governments from putting polio eradication high on their agenda. The drive for a polio-free Africa needed a playmaker.
Enter Nelson Mandela. Herb Brown, Rotary's president in 1995-96, recalls seeking the South African leader's support.
"President Mandela was so gracious and listened as we described the problem," Brown says. "I told him only he had the influence to persuade the countries to resume immunization."
Mandela agreed to help. "I'm well aware of Rotary and all the work you've done, and all the work you did while I was in jail," he told Brown. At a press conference, with Brown at his side, Mandela asked all the heads of state in Africa to open their doors to polio National Immunization Days.
Mandela helped launch the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign later that year with 1996-97 Rotary President Luis Giay and Rotary Foundation Chair Rajendra Saboo. Almost immediately, Africa's polio eradication effort was back on track. Using soccer matches and celebrity endorsements, the campaign raised public awareness of polio and helped spur more than 30 African countries to hold their first National Immunization Days.
In recognition of his vital work, Rotary presented the Rotary Award for World Understanding to Mandela in 1997, then Rotary's highest honor. "We chose President Mandela because of his significant contributions to world peace, human rights, and freedom," said Giay, adding that Rotary members especially appreciated "his strong support of the eradication of polio throughout Africa."
Mandela called the award "a tribute to the people of South Africa's rainbow nation." Rotary's work toward eradicating polio "has shown the power of a global network of people who are ready to roll up their sleeves and put their heart and soul into saving children from disability."
Mandela donated the award's $100,000 prize to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.
Following his death, Rotary members in South Africa lauded Mandela as "one of the 20th century's iconic symbols of freedom and equality," "the father of the nation," and "a leader of service."
"Mandela was a man who overcame unimaginable hardships to emerge as one of the greatest leaders of our time — and one of our greatest humanitarians . . . . [His] legacy of courage, determination, and commitment will forever inspire us to move forward in our effort to achieve a better, more peaceful world," said Rotary President Ron Burton.