December is reconciliation month in our country. This year’s commemoration is all the more poignant, following the recent passing of former President Nelson Mandela who lives on in our hearts and minds as the ultimate symbol of reconciliation.
His funeral, just before National Day of Reconciliation will also alter our memories of this event forever. In the future this date will be linked to Madiba’s legacy and his desire to unite his beloved rainbow nation.
On 10 May 1994 when he became the first democratically elected president, he inherited a country that was deeply divided. This period was characterised by anxiety, fears and deep seated mistrust.
However, where others only saw irreconcilable differences, Madiba, as a true visionary, saw a nation with more commonalities. After 100 days in office, he stated: “What brings us together is the overriding commitment to a joint national effort to reconcile our nation and improve its well-being.”
Our founding president brought a nation together against all odds due to his firm belief in peaceful dialogue. Through his leadership, we raised from a country on the verge of civil war to a shining beacon of hope for millions the world over.
Madiba met and worked with religious, political and community leaders from all spectrums of society in a spirit of reconciliation. Exuding calmness, he used his trademark smile to convince an entire nation that united, we are stronger.
“We are turning the variety of our languages and cultures, once used to divide us, into a source of strength and richness,” he said.
As a leader of the Government of National Unity (GNU), Mandela was willing to consult on any topic, no matter how painful. One such issue was the status of 16 December, known during apartheid as the Day of the Vow.
ANC activists commemorated it as the day in 1961 when they started to arm its soldiers to overthrow apartheid.
On December 16, 1995 Nelson Mandela extended an olive branch to the white Afrikaans community by maintaining this day’s status as a national day, but re-naming it to the National Day of Reconciliation, explaining that the GNU identified this day, which had been regarded in the past as “a living symbol of better division’’, to be used in future to reconcile the nation.
“This day promotes reconciliation and national unity, rather than conflict and opposition. In the new South Africa, this is a day of reconciliation, a day to focus on overcoming the conflicts of the past and building a new nation,” he said.
This gesture served as a reminder to all South Africans that if we want to build a new nation and succeed in our transformation, we will have to meet each other halfway.
Since then, South Africa has changed greatly. As a nation we have come a long way in healing the wounds of the past and building an inclusive society. Seventeen years ago, our Constitution was adopted, which helped us transform our society. It also reaffirmed our determination to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society.
With the country’s democratic foundations firmly in place, former President Mandela urged South Africans to work with government to tackle the country’s imbalances. Under his leadership, South Africa implemented the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to address the enormous socio-economic problems brought about by years of apartheid.
We can now proudly say that South Africans are forging a new national identity that is built on mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance.
His death has served to once again unite South Africans who have joined the world in mourning his loss and celebrating his remarkable life. He would have rejoiced to see the nation united in their determination to build on his legacy.
We want to thank all South Africans and the international community for the support they have shown the Mandela family over the past few days. We ask that you continue to afford the family space to mourn in private.
Going forward, let us pledge to become activists whose actions are aimed at healing the wounds of the past. Let us work together to remove obstacles which still divide our society, and strive to build on the ties that bind us.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)