The death of former President Nelson Mandela has been a painful experience for all South Africans and people around the world. We have lost an icon who loved his country and his people to the extent that he was prepared to sacrifice his life for our freedom. He pursued policies that were in the country’s best interest, gave us hope and instilled in each one of us the determination to pursue a better life for all.
This is the man who also began the difficult task of forging a new national identity based on national unity. This was in line with the will of the majority expressed in the freedom charter adopted at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, on 26 June 1955. The charter proclaimed: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”.
The society that emerged from the ashes of apartheid in 1994 heralded a new beginning for our country and Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) played pivotal role in the rebirth of a new South Africa. It forced people who regarded themselves as enemies to look at each other in the eyes to decide the future of this country. The CODESA negotiations gave birth to a Government of National Unity headed by Nelson Mandela as a platform to resolve socio-economic challenges we inherited at the time.
It is fair to say that the negotiations that took place from 1990 to 1993 were not easy, there were tensions, but in the end what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin called the “presence of mind” prevailed and we witnessed a peaceful and smooth transition. Walter Benjamin defined the presence of mind as an “abstract of the future, and precise awareness of the present moment more decisive than foreknowledge of the most distant events.”
It is in this context that discussions at the CODESA and those aimed at ending violence around the country centred mainly on what would be in the best interest of South Africa. This involved looking at problems, issues and finding solutions to underlying challenges such as poverty, economy, crime and healthcare. This “presence of mind” allowed South Africans to think towards policy-orientated solutions.
The country’s leadership under the stewardship of former President Mandela were also instrumental in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to help heal the wounds of the past. This was necessary because South Africa was a wounded nation and in order to move forward there was a need to deal with our past head on. The process uncovered hidden truths of what really happened and allowed victims and families to get closure.
Looking back on our past and the strides we have made, we are mindful of the fact that the peaceful transition was an extraordinary collective human effort that saw the birth of a new democratic, peaceful, non-racial, non-sexist South Africa. South Africans from all walks of life stood together to build a better life for all. Our collective willingness to end violence and to forgive is rooted in the spirit of Ubuntu which led to our miracle transition.
Given our history of racial division under apartheid, we are proud that the peace and non-racialism that the former President initiated in the country over the past 19 years remains intact. We will not falter and will continue to foster reconciliation and non-racialism. We have over the past few days demonstrated that his legacy lives on in all of us and it is in our hands to sustain and nurture it.
The former President would be proud to see the continuation of unity and non-racialism we displayed when South Africans of all races met to commemorate and celebrate his life. We have made huge strides in breaking down racial barriers, a programme Madiba started in the early nineties. However, nation building is a process and we will continue to nurture and defend it.
Former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu has also stressed that as a country we will continue to build on the Mandela legacy: “The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day and the next ... It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on."
We are inspired by his famous words in his inaugural speech as president of the country: "We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."
Next year the country will celebrate 20 Years of Freedom. As government we say there is cause to celebrate 20 Years of Freedom because South Africa is undoubtedly a better place than it was in 1994. We are recognised as an international symbol of peace and social justice, and the world still marvels at our transition from pariah state to a much-admired democracy.
South Africans from all walks of life have a responsibility to respect and acknowledge the past, celebrate the present and build the future together. Now it is in our hands to confront the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty, and inequality. This generation must continue to carry the torch of social cohesion, so that we create a truly egalitarian, united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa.
Gill Price is working at the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)