Nelson Mandela Foundation

  23 NOVEMBER 2004

What a great honour to have been invited to give this year’s Nelson Mandela Lecture following on the inaugural lecture by President Bill Clinton. I must make a confession, I really am a snob. I make out that I am modest but in fact I am an inveterate name-dropper – quite seemingly casually remarking, “You know when I was lunching with Madiba, etc.” Did you hear the story of the Englishman who was very good at name-dropping. A friend of his asked once, “John, why are you so fond of name-dropping?” and without batting an eyelid he responded, “That’s strange, yesterday, when I was in Buckingham Palace the Queen asked the same question.”

I fondly thought that Madiba was my friend and so, like a good friend, I told him I wasn’t impressed with his sartorial taste and his penchant for these gaudy shirts. Do you know how he treated this friendly advice, well, he retorted, “That’s pretty thick coming from a man who wears a dress in public?” Now can you beat it? No, I am glad to have been asked and I think he probably, on his better days, probably acknowledges that he just might like me a little bit.

We are celebrating ten years, a whole decade of freedom and it is an opportunity for us to look back to assess our achievements and note our failures as we stride purposefully into the glorious future opening before us. That is why I have chosen as my title words from the prophet Isaiah, “Look to the rock from which you have been hewn.”

What have we achieved?

You know that I am repetitive if anything at all. You heard the story of the brilliant physics professor who went around delivering a superb and erudite lecture mercifully not at the same venue. One day he told his driver that he knew that he was giving a splendid address but he was getting bored repeating himself so much. His driver then surprised him by saying he had heard the lecture so frequently he now knew it off by heart. When the professor tested the driver sure enough he was word perfect. So they decide to swop places – the professor became the driver and the driver was to be the professor. They agreed that he would speak for only so long and there would be no questions afterwards. The driver turned professor gave an outstanding address. Unfortunately, he had left some time over for questions and there will always be those awkward persons who want to trip up the speaker and so this person got up and asked the most convoluted question. The driver turned professor said in reply, “Is that all – even my driver at the back can answer that question.”

Yes, I am repetitive. I have been saying that we South Africans tend to sell ourselves short. We seem to be embarrassed with our successes. We have grown quickly blasé, taking for granted some quite remarkable achievements and not giving ourselves enough credit. The result is that we have tended to be despondent, to seem to say behind every ray of sunshine there must be an invisible cloud – just you wait long enough and it will soon appear. Of course we have problems, serious, indeed devastating problems; but can you please point to any one country in the world today that has no problems. No, I think we should change our perspective. If we are forever looking at our shortcomings and our faults then the mood will be pervasive and pessimistic and in a way we will provide the environment that encourages further failure. Don’t they say give a dog a bad name and hang him? If you have low expectations of someone then don’t be surprised if they don’t rise above those low expectations. Many people have excelled almost only because someone had faith in them, believed in them and so inspired them with a new self-belief, a new self-confidence, a new self-esteem. The same is surely true of a nation, which is an aggregate of individuals.

Hey, the world has still not got over the fact that we had the reasonably peaceful transition from repression to democracy that we experienced. Have you forgotten so soon how we were on the brink of comprehensive disaster, when most people believed we were going to be overwhelmed by a ghastly racial blood bath? Have you forgotten so soon what used to happen on our trains when no one could guarantee that if they went off to work in the morning they were going to return alive in the evening, when we had indiscriminate killings on the trains, in the taxis and buses? Do you recall how when they announced the statistics of the previous 24 hours and they said 6 or 7 or 8 people had been killed, do you recall that we would often sigh with relief and say well only 7 or 8 have been killed? Things were in such a desperate state – do you recall the attacks that happened in the hostels; just think of the massacres that were taking place at regular intervals – Sebokeng, Thokoza, Bisho, Boipatong and the killing fields of KwaZulu Natal because of the bloody rivalry between Inkatha and the ANC? Have we forgotten the AWB raid into Bophuthatswana and the World Trade Centre? There are so very many occasions when it did seem it was touch and go and none more terrible than the assassination of Chris Hani. That was one of the scariest moments in our lives for most of us. We were a whisker’s breadth away from total catastrophe. I said, “If we survived that we could survive anything.” Yes, we did appear to be on the verge of bloody conflagration and disaster. But it did not happen. Instead the world marvelled, indeed was awed, by the spectacle of the long, long lines of South Africans of every race snaking their way slowly to the polling booths on that unforgettable, that magical, day April 27th 1994.

We really do have much to celebrate and much for which to be thankful. Hey, just look at us, which other country has a moral colossus to match Nelson Mandela? We are the envy of every single nation on earth. He has become an icon of forgiveness, compassion and magnanimity and reconciliation for the entire globe. How blessed we are that he was at the helm to guide our ship of state through the choppy waters of transition. We should also salute F.W. de Klerk who exhibited outstanding moral courage when he announced his breathtaking initiatives on February 2, 1990 that set in motion the process of negotiating a revolution.

We, especially white South Africans, have tended to be dismissive of the TRC. Almost everywhere else in the world you go it is held in the highest possible regard and considered to be the bench mark against which other such endeavours will now be judged. Yes, it was flawed – so are almost all human enterprises. But it was a remarkable institution for many had thought that the advent of a black led government would be the signal for an orgy of revenge and retribution against whites for all that black people had suffered through all the injustices and oppression from colonial times to the exquisite repression of the apartheid years. Instead of that the world stood open mouthed at the revelation of such nobility of spirit, such magnanimity as victims of often the most gruesome atrocities forgave their tormentors and even on occasion embraced them. We were all traumatised, wounded, by the awfulness of apartheid and the TRC helped to open wounds that were festering, cleansed them and poured balm on them to help in the healing of us, the wounded people of this beautiful land. We often take it all for granted – but just look at Northern Ireland and, more horrendously, the Middle East where revenge and retaliation are leading to a ghastly cul de sac, an inexorable cycle of reprisal provoking a counter reprisal ad infinitum. We have been spared the horrors of genocide as in Rwanda and the endless conflict in Sri Lanka, in Burundi, in the Sudan, the Ivory Coast, etc. Truly, there is no future without forgiveness. Given where we come from, given our antecedents, it is amazing that we should have the stability we enjoy. Russia made the transition from repression to democracy at almost the same time as we did. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990. But what is happening in Russia today? The level of mafia controlled crime, the conflict with Chechnya giving such awful examples of carnage as the theatre hostage disaster and more recently the Beslan School hostage catastrophe makes what occurs in South Africa look like a Sunday school picnic.

I often stop to look at the children in the high school near our home in Milnerton. It used to be an all white school. Today at break you see our demography reflected. Just a few years ago it was a criminal offence to have that happen. All sorts of dire things, they said, were going to happen if schools were mixed. So far as I can make out the sky is still firmly in place. You would think that it would be in South Africa where children would have to be escorted by heavily armed police and soldiers to be able to go to school. But, no, it isn’t in South Africa that that has had to happen. It is
in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Do you recall how police would climb trees in order to peep into bedrooms, hoping to catch out couples who might be contravening the Immorality Act, rushing to feel the temperature of the sheets, making sordid what should have been beautiful, love between two persons, and how many careers and lives were destroyed when people faced charges under this abominable legislation? And now I think I am about the only person who still goggles – look at all those mixed couples who saunter around hand in hand with hardly a care in the world, pushing a pram with a baby of indeterminate hue inside. I still seem to fear that a policeman will come crashing into them for breaking the law. And oh the humiliation and awfulness of race classification with its crude tests – sticking a pin suddenly into one and depending on whether you yelped, “Aina” or “Aitsho” you were classified “coloured or “Bantu” and the havoc it all played with family life when siblings could be assigned to different race groups because some were more swarthy than others and do you remember that people committed suicide because of race classification; others played white and would avoid members of their families who were less Caucasian-looking. Recall the awfulness of the iniquitous pass laws and the migratory labour system and its single sex hostels and what havoc it caused to black family life in a country that without any sense of irony celebrated Family Day as a public holiday. Isn’t it bizarre in the extreme that Nelson Mandela had to wait until he was 76 before casting a vote for the very first time in the land of his birth, when a white could do so when they turned 18? When I became Archbishop in 1986 it was a criminal offence for me to live in the Archbishop’s official residence in Bishopscourt because of the Group Areas Act. I told the government I was Archbishop and would live in my official residence and they could do what they liked and I wasn’t asking for their permission. Fortunately they did nothing. But that’s where we come from – nearly 3 million people forcibly removed as from Sophiatown which was replaced by the very subtly named Triomf. To rub salt into our wound Triomf retained many of the street names of the old Sophiatown – Kofifi. How wonderful that the iniquity has been reversed – Triomf is Sophiatown again.

Yes, we come from far – when you had public notices that read, “Natives and dogs not allowed”. And those others, “Drive carefully, Natives cross here” which people like Kathrada changed to read hair-raisingly “Drive carefully, Natives very cross here”; when they used at election time to show pictures of an unkempt black and to stampede whites to vote for them ask, “Do you want your daughter to marry this man?” Blacks asked, “Show us your daughter first!”

With such antecedents you would have thought these headlines must surely apply to South Africa, “Vicious race riots in….” But remarkably it was not in South Africa that vicious race riots happened but fairly recently in Manchester, England.

We were the world’s most despised pariah. South Africans had to skulk abroad hiding their nationality. Now we are, I think, still the flavour of the week. Our country through President Thabo Mbeki has been in the forefront of the creation of the African Union and in the conception and promotion of NEPAD and the African Renaissance. We will be home to the African Parliament. That is a remarkable turn around. The ugly caterpillar has metamorphosed into a beautiful butterfly. South Africans proclaim their national identity proudly. Many wear the new flag on their lapels and emblazoned on their luggage. They want everyone to know they come from Madibaland. Our Constitution is widely acclaimed as one of the most liberal and most advanced. Look at the remarkable role our land is playing in peace-making in Africa, most recently in the Ivory Coast – as earlier in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere.

The prestigious publication, The Economist, in London seriously proposed that President Mbeki should have been this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate because of his great efforts to broker peace in so many of Africa’s troublespots. That’s a huge feather in his cap and in our national cap! And by the way there are not too many countries that can say they have had four Nobel Peace Laureates as we can. We have two Nobel Literature Laureates, certainly if Coetzee wants to say he now belongs down under. It was in South Africa that the first heart transplant happened.

Our sporting exploits have not been something to sniff at. We have been Rugby World Champions and hosted the 1995 Rugby World Championship splendidly. We are currently Tri-Nation Champs, having risen virtually from the dead though we are not exactly covering ourselves in glory on this Grand Slam tour.. We have hosted with panache the World Cricket Cup and the World Golf Cup which we won. Look at the magnificent exploits of Retief Goosen and Ernie Els. We have won the Africa Soccer Cup once and we can do so yet again. Our AbaKrokro have had a fabulous run. We have had in Hestri Cloete the World High Jump Women’s champion and just recently Hendrik Ramaala won the New York Marathon. We won Olympic gold in swimming. And we will be hosting the World’s greatest sporting extravaganza, the 2010 World Soccer Cup. Over 7 million people have access now to clean water which they were denied before. And 1.4 million now have electricity available. We have an independent and vociferous press and an outstanding Judiciary. These are accomplishments we should celebrate and trumpet abroad far more than we do.

Yes, we do have problems. The most serious is the devastation caused by the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Over 4 million of our people are infected. It is estimated that nearly 400,000 people will die this year from AIDS. That is shattering news. And yet I want to say that there is something to celebrate even in this awful situation and it is this. Most of the victims are blacks and you would have thought given where we come from that whites would say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” Quite the contrary, many of the most dedicated, most committed workers in the Anti-HIV/AIDS campaign are whites. That is something to celebrate; something to trumpet and I want to pay a very warm tribute to you, our white compatriots, for your remarkable generosity and dedication.

That is not all. There are many white fellow South Africans out there doing fantastic work. I think of the white ballet dancers who decided they wanted to teach black township kids ballet. They started out ten years ago and formed something called Dance for All. One of their students went to UCT and ended up with a degree in African Dance and she is now on the staff of Dance for All. Another dances professionally in the UK, or Angela Rackstraw, a young white woman who is an Art Therapist and started a project, the Community Art Therapy Programme to work with traumatised, isolated and abused township youth to help rehabilitate them. I am sure there are many, many others out there and we salute you for your enthusiasm and dedication.

What are the failures and challenges?

One of the undoubted gifts we bring to the world is our diversity and our capacity to affirm and celebrate our diversity so that today we have eleven official languages. We have a polyglot four language anthem. We say each one of us matters and we need each other in the spirit of ubuntu, that we can be human only in relationship, that a person is a person only through other persons. Our diversity which we must affirm and celebrate is diversity of race, of language, of culture, of religion and of points of view. We want our society to be characterised by vigorous debate and dissent where to disagree is part and parcel of a vibrant community, that we should play the ball not the person and not think that those who disagree, who express dissent, are ipso facto disloyal or unpatriotic. An unthinking, uncritical, kowtowing party line-toeing is fatal to a vibrant democracy. I am concerned to see how many have so easily been seemingly cowed and apparently intimidated to comply. I am sure proportional representation has been a very good thing but it should have been linked to constituency representation. I fear that the party lists have had a deleterious impact on people even if that was not the intention. It is lucrative to be on a party list. The rewards are substantial and if calling in question party positions jeopardises one’s chances to get on the list then not too many are foolhardy and opt for silence to become voting cattle for the party.

In the struggle days it was exhilarating because they spoke of a mandate – you had to justify your position in vigorous exchanges. That seems no longer to be the case. It seems sycophancy is coming into its own. I would have wished to see far more open debate for instance of the HIV/AIDS views of the President in the ANC. Truth cannot suffer from being challenged and examined. There surely can’t have been unanimity from the outset. I did not agree with the President but that did not make me his enemy. He knows that I hold him in high regard but none of us is infallible and that is why we are a democracy and not a dictatorship. The government is accountable, as are all public figures, to the people. I would have hoped for far more debate and discussion.

Let us look to the rock from which we are hewn. We should lower the temperature in our public discourse and hopefully thus increase the light. We should not impugn the motives of others but accept the bona fides of all. If we believe in something then surely we will be ready to defend it rationally, hoping to persuade those opposed to change their point of view. We should not too quickly want to pull rank and to demand an uncritical, sycophantic, obsequious conformity. We need to find ways in which we engage the hoi polloi, the so-called masses, the people, in public discourse through indabas, town hall forums, so that no one feels marginalised and that their point of view matters, it counts. Then we will develop a national consensus. We should debate more openly, not using emotive language, issues such as affirmative action, transformation in sport, racism, xenophobia, security, crime, violence against women and children. What do we want our government to do in Zimbabwe? Are we satisfied with quiet diplomacy there? Surely human rights violations must be condemned as such whatever the struggle credentials of the perpetrator. It should be possible to talk as adults about these issues without engaging in slanging matches. My father used to say, “Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument.”

What is black empowerment when it seems to benefit not the vast majority but a small elite that tends to be recycled? Are we not building up much resentment that we may rue later? It will not do to say people did not complain when whites were enriched. When were the old regime our standards? And remember some of the most influential values spoke about, “The people shall share”. We were involved in the struggle because we believed we would evolve a new kind of society. A caring, a compassionate society. At the moment many, too many, of our people live in gruelling demeaning,
dehumanising poverty. We are sitting on a powder keg. We really must work like mad to eradicate poverty. We should talk about whether spending all that money on arms is morally justifiable in the face of the poverty which poses the most immediate threat to our safety and security. We should discuss as a nation whether BIG is not really a viable way forward. We should not be browbeaten by pontificating decrees from on high. We cannot glibly on full stomachs speak about handouts to those who often go to bed hungry. It is cynical in the extreme to speak about handouts when people can become very rich at the stroke of a pen. If those are not massive handouts that what are? We can, many of us, make a difference by adopting a family to which we give a monthly gift of R100 or R200 – very few poor people want a handout; they are proud but they also need a leg up. We can adopt a child whose school fees we pay for, we know our government can’t be expected to do
everything We should be able to say whilst it has been important to build over 1 million housing units that many of these are just not acceptable. People call them Unos like the Italian car. They are our next generation of slums. The public schemes have provided some good models. Habitat for Humanity have shown what is possible. An Irish millionaire every year brings out at their own cost 300 or so fellow Irish and they build 50 beautiful houses in a week costing R48,000 each. Why can’t South Africans do the same?

We want a new quality of society – compassionate, gentle and caring. The kind of society where the President sits on the floor to talk to his people in their modest house, where the President gives a lift in the Presidential cavalcade to a woman so she can attend a presidential reception for Charlize Theron to celebrate her Oscar – actions recently carried out by our President which say he has a heart as well as a head. It is the kind of society where a widow cups the president’s face in the palms of her hands and looks into his eyes after he has spoken movingly in Afrikaans at the funeral of her wonderful husband – Beyers Naudé – the picture of the two of them speaks so eloquently of the kind of nation we want to be. A nation where all belong and know they belong; where all are insiders, none is an outsider, where all are members of this remarkable, this crazy, country, they belong in the rainbow nation.

Yes, we are a scintillating success waiting to happen. We will succeed because God wants us to succeed for the sake of God’s world. For we are so utterly improbably a beacon hope for the rest of the world.