Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture: Mary Robinson speaks on citizenship and common purpose
Lecture addresses concepts of freedom, truth and democracy
5 August 2012
Mary Robinson, president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and former president of Ireland, delivered the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on Sunday, 5 August 2012 at the Cape Town City Hall.
The theme of the lecture was “Freedom, Truth, Democracy: Citizenship and Common Purpose”.
The occasion opened with a piano-accompanied rendition of South Africa’s national anthem, led by The South African Sopranos, after which Achmat Dangor, Chief Executive Officer of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, welcomed the audience and introduced the executive mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille.
De Lille began her welcome by introducing the esteemed guests of the Annual Lecture, including, among others, Mary Robinson, Professor Jakes Gerwel, Chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Graça Machel and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.
“It is an honour to host a gathering of such celebrated individuals coming together to celebrate the legacy that Madiba continues to effuse into our society,” said de Lille, smiling.
She then spoke about the significance of the Cape Town City Hall being chosen as the venue for this year’s Annual Lecture, the place where Mr Mandela made his historic address after being released from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on 11 February 1990.
“Madiba is also a freeman of the city of Cape Town,” she added. “He has joined the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the president of the United States, Barak Obama, in receiving the keys to the city.”
Speaking about the gravity of the prestigious annual event, de Lille said: “The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture provides an important opportunity for leaders to further dialogues and debate about issues of social importance, thereby advancing our collective interrogation about the questions raised by the past, present and future.”
And while we debate those issues that impact on our lives and our society, the things we talk about change, too. “As we search for answers, the questions change as much as we do. As society evolves, so too does our understanding of what needs to be addressed,” she declared.
After De Lille’s address, Dangor introduced Professor Jakes Gerwel, chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, describing him as one of Madiba’s “own gabbas” (a colloquial term for close friend).
The importance of memory
Gerwel welcomed the audience on the behalf of the Centre of Memory to the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture and then aired a video that chronicles the establishment of the Centre of Memory as a key advancement in our process towards democracy.
In the video Mr Mandela speaks about the importance of memory, saying that it plays a vital role in reconciliation. He says promoting and sustaining the work of archive institutions is of great importance, since “memory is a vital force in the life of people and a nation.”
The video also reflects Mr Mandela’s call for all of us to remember.
“The history of our country is characterised by too much forgetting,” says Madiba, “a forgetting that served the powerful and dispossessed the weak.”
The video refers to the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory as a response to the call to remember, and a positive step towards the process of reconciliation, as we collectively recover our memory and those stories that were suppressed in the past.
Following the airing of the video, Gerwel spoke about the significance of the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, which represents a decade of high quality dialogues being held in Johannesburg and now, for the first time, in Cape Town.
“This is the first Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture being hosted outside of Johannesburg,” he said, “but today, the date and venue of the lecture are of particular historic significance.
“The date today, 5 August 2012, represents 50 years since Nelson Mandela’s capture in Howick in 1962,” he explained. “Since that date Madiba was incarcerated in various cells, courts and prisons, until his release on 11 February 1990 when he walked from Victor Verster Prison a free man.
“The venue is the very same City Hall from which balcony Nelson Mandela spoke to the world for the first time in over 27 years …. The Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture therefore carries profound references with regard to both history and geography.”
Describing the lecturer as both a former president and current member of the Elders group, Gerwel then introduced Mary Robinson, the esteemed speaker for the 2012 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.
Mary Robinson began her address, titled “Freedom, Truth, Democracy: Citizenship and Common Purpose”, with a recollection of her “connectedness” to South Africa.
“Aside from the place of my birth, this is the country I have most grown to love,” said Robinson.
Describing South Africa as home to two astounding human beings, namely Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Robinson spoke about her studies in the 1960s at Trinity College in Durban under the tutelage of Kader Asmal, who she later became friends with, and the source of her interest in South Africa’s political and social situation.
“As a young senator I became involved in the European and African parliamentary grouping AWEPA, initially established to fight apartheid,” she shared.
In 1994, as president of Ireland, Robinson represented her country at the inauguration of Mr Mandela as president. She recalls the ambience of that day, and shared her memory of the “rows upon rows of South Africans of all races, singing together as one.”
Speaking about the daunting task of delivering the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, Robinson said: “My challenge today is to speak to you as a friend. A true friend tells you not only what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear.”
Is South Africa free from want?
Robinson then introduced the theme of her speech, highlighting the concepts of freedom, truth and democracy as being of particular resonance for South Africans since they refer to Madiba’s own walk to freedom, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the first democratic election of 1994.
“As a human rights activist, the term ‘freedom’ also brings to mind the Four Freedoms identified by US President Franklin D Roosevelt in his State of the Union address of 1941, a time of world crisis,” said Robinson.
Robinson then discussed the four freedoms, which refer to:
– Freedom of speech and expression
– Freedom to worship God in one’s own way
– Freedom from want (in economic terms) and
– Freedom from fear.
Concluding her exploration of the concept of freedom, Robinson asked the provoking question; whether it can truly be said, in the past 18 years, that freedom from want has been adequately secured for all.
Secrecy is the enemy of truth
Speaking about truth and democracy, Robinson declared that inherent in the concept of truth was the need for transparency and accountability in government action.
Referring to the protection of state information legislation that is currently under review, Robinson (as a human rights lawyer) warned that “if you enact a law that cloaks the working of state actors, that interferes with press freedom to investigate corruption, that stifles whistle blowers to expose corruption, you are sure to increase those levels of corruption tomorrow.”
Speaking about the significance of the date – 5 August – and the 50th anniversary, to the day, of the capture of Mr Mandela, Robinson said that anniversaries were “a good time to look at ways to re-invent, to re-invigorate, to renew an earlier spirit.”
While this year marked the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, Robinson reiterated that much unfinished business remained in the transformational process.
In the same vein, she reminded us that the Republic of South Africa was a young democracy – just 18 years old.
“It is also a democracy the majority of whose rapidly increasing population consists of young people,” she said. “It is hard to address all the structural problems and inequalities in such a short time.”
“I have every faith that South Africa, endowed as it is with such a wealth of resources – and a resourceful population - can acknowledge its mistakes, face up to its problems, engage in a national conversation and continue with the process of transformation that has so inspired the watching world.”
The bedrock: Citizenship and common purpose
“The concerted citizen action called for requires engagement by the people with the process of government in all its forms, starting with the very local,” said Robinson.
Speaking about the paradoxes encountered in South African civil society, Robinson reminded attendees that the foundation upon which freedom, truth and democracy could be achieved rested on the shoulders of those who lived in it.
While quoting an extract from Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is echoed in the Constitution, Robinson said all citizens were entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship, and similarly subject to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
“Here in South Africa there is a lack of trust in traditional institutions of democracy… But the good news is that technological innovations can empower ordinary people as never before…” she added.
Social media had changed the landscape of how citizens interact with each other, she said, and had empowered individuals to connect with each other and collaborate in new ways.
“In the 21st century, we need a new concept of citizenship that embraces all of those people who find themselves in the country – nationals and migrants alike,” she said, referring to South Africa as a “go-to” country with a strong economy that attracted a huge migrant population.
In addition to people from countries outside of South Africa, the nation itself is made up of 50% women, a statistic that dictates that the landscape of leadership in both business and government is going to change to better reflect women’s economic empowerment and a shift to a greater balance in gender equality.
“Yet, to come back to my observation that South Africa is a nation of paradoxes… women are doing well in representative positions, yet twice as many women as men have HIV and 66 196 cases of sexual offences were reported in 2010/11,” she said, reiterating that South Africa’s leaders were collectively faced with the challenge of prioritizing zero tolerance of gender-based violence and committing to gender equality.
We, the people of South Africa…
“Your admirable Constitution opens with the stirring words: ‘We, the people of South Africa… believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity,” said Robinson.
She urged the country - “a democracy that is approaching its early 20s” - to draw on its strengths, renew its vision of democracy and continue to build its rainbow nation, block by block.
“I have every confidence in South Africa realising the opportunities for its humanity to fully emerge,” she concluded, to thunderous applause from the audience.
Dangor then thanked Robinson for her lecture and paid tribute to the sponsors who made the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture possible, including the SAP, the city of Cape Town, Nashua Central, Coca-Cola, SABC and Vodacom.
The CEO of the Centre of Memory then formally closed the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture as The South African Sopranos – five female singers – performed a classical rendition of songs.
Click here to download the video of the event.
Below is a transcript of the Tenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.