The day Nelson Mandela inspired us to continue the struggle for dignity and recognition of the Roma people

Nelson Mandela at the European Parliament, in 1990

 The atmosphere felt different in Strasbourg that June morning back in 1990. I would even venture to say that the Alsace region, which bore witness to the bloodiest World Wars waged by men believing that the Gods desired the extermination of those they considered to be inferior, was bathed in a special light. 

Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison where he had spent the past 27 long years. His only crime was to defend his people against the racism and suffering South Africa’s black majority had been subjected to under white rule. In 1988, the prisoner Nelson Mandela was awarded the first ever Sakharov Prize, which was established by the European Parliament that same year. Obviously, his incarceration on Robben Island, meant he was unable to attend to receive his prize. It was the Spanish President of the European Parliament, Enrique Barón, who invited Mandela to Strasbourg after his release so that all Members of Parliament could pay homage to the man who so richly deserved it. 

There was a tense atmosphere in Parliament headquarters that day as many Members of Parliament, especially the most racist amongst them, were not happy that this visit was taking place. Security had been tightened around the guest who was always accompanied by senior parliamentary officials.

At this point I want to thank the President of the European Union, Enrique Barón, who, aside from being a friend, gave me the opportunity to meet Mandela and make him aware of our plight to defend the cause of the Roma people. He provided me with clear instructions on how to best position myself to allow him to make the introduction. So, just a few metres before the entrance of our illustrious guest to the plenary chamber, President Barón gestured to me to join him and, using these words, introduced me to Mandela:


“Mr Mandela, let me introduce Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia, Spanish Member of Parliament and the only one of which to belong to the Roma community and who, as much as in the Spanish Parliament to which he formally belonged, as now, here in the European Parliament, battles against the racism his people suffer and works hard to defend the human rights of his community.”


With a friendly smile, Mandela showed an interest in the cause of the Roma community which, to my surprise, he was already aware of. Finally, whilst shaking my hand with a warming strength that seemed to me to be a heavenly blessing, he said:


“Continue fighting to defend those ideals because in the end you will be victorious.”


Today, at a time when we are being persecuted by racists in France, in Italy and, more recently, in the United Kingdom, we remember the hero, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and the figure who, together with Gandhi and Martin Luther King best embodies the hard struggle against racism. Now, when we are being murdered in Greece, in Hungary, in Slovakia and in so many other places, the words of Madiba – the honorary title given to him by the elders of his community – represent the greatest inspiration for our desire to achieve a community in which racism has no place.

We, the gypsies of the world, will follow his example because, as he so wisely said: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” 


Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia

Lawyer and Journalist

President of the Spanish Romani Union

Vice-president of the International Romani Union



Translated by Anna Callaghan within the PerMondo initiative. PerMondo was created by Mondo Agit in order to help NGOs to spread their message in different languages.