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Reflections From The South: Have We Squandered Nelson’s Mandela’s Legacy?

18 July 2011 18 July 2011 Tags: No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Nelson Mandela, following his long struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights and after spending 27 years in prison, has helped to lay the foundation and building blocks for a post-apartheid society founded on human dignity, equality, human rights and fundamental freedom, non-racialism and non-sexism. The forgiveness of his persecutors and oppressors served as a glue that helped to bond opposing groups in South Africa into one nation that has and continues to play an important role in global affairs – a truly remarkable and important legacy not only for South Africa but for Africa and the rest of the world.

Mandela’s vision for a new South Africa and a better and caring world order has been reflected in many of his speeches, reflections and remarks. In celebration of his 93rd birthday and in recognition of his vision for a free and better world, extracts from some of his speeches are outlined and discussed.

Vision for a free South Africa

In his speech on the vision for post-apartheid South Africa made at the 26th Assembly of the OAU Heads of State and Government on July 09, 1990 a few years before he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Mandela in his capacity as the then Deputy President of the African National Congress said:

“There must be instituted an economic system which does indeed benefit all the people of our country, ensuring that every person enjoys a decent and rising standard of living. Indeed, we have also sought to make the point clear that the political settlement itself cannot survive unless there is a speedy and visible improvement in the quality of life of the people as a whole.”

This was indeed a visionary perspective from Mandela who has just come out of prison and a message the likes of Hosni Mubarak, who was in attendance, and saluted as an outgoing chairman of the OAU by Mandela in his address should have taken note of.

And on the issue of democratic governance, racial and ethnics divisions – another point many African leaders should have heeded then, and should do so today, he went on to say to the OAU leaders:

“The important principle that no government can [justifiably] claim authority unless it is based on the will [of] all the people is also fundamental to any solution. We therefore do not wish to see any government deriving its authority from the will of one section of the population of South Africa. We consider it of critical importance that the practice of defining people in our country in terms of disparate and competing racial and ethnic political groups should come to an end.”

In another important pronouncement on post-apartheid South Africa as the land of the free, Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address on May 10, 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected president said:

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let Freedom reign.”

This was a crucial statement at the birth of a new nation coming out of decades of the brutality of colonialism and apartheid rule, that was on the brink of racial bloodshed, and that desperately needed to reconcile and address the legacy of poverty and inequalities amongst millions of its people.

African renaissance

Nelson Mandela in view of the assistance many African states and people played in South Africa’s liberation struggle and his own awareness and experiences of challenges in the African continent, was consciousness of the need for Africa to play its rightful role in global affairs and used his position to influence and bring about positive changes and developments in the governance of the region. In this regard he reminded African leaders of the following at the Celebration of the 12th anniversary of the National Resistance Movement of Uganda, on January 26, 1998:

“Only when political and economic freedoms are in the grasp of every African, can we begin to feel that we have achieved our goal. Only then can we say that Africa’s Renaissance is in full flight.”

And in his speech at the final sitting of the first democratically elected Parliament, Nelson Mandela said:

“I am the product of Africa and her long cherished dream of re-birth that can now be realized so that all of her children may play in the sun.”

This was also an acknowledgment of Africa’s perilous economic and development challenges that have hindered much progress in the continent and confined many of its people and children to lives of squalor and conflict.

Vision for a better world

In recognition of the different roles played by the global community in fostering and opposing apartheid, the interconnectedness of the global community, the interdependence of human rights and the problems of excessive accumulation in some parts of the world at the expense of the majority of humankind, Nelson Mandela at the signing of South Africa’s Constitution on December 10, 1996 warned the global community as follows:

“..there could be no lasting peace, no lasting security, no prosperity in this land unless all enjoyed freedom and justice as equals.”

The failure to heed this warning in the past and today, has led to much of our current problems and challenges that manifest themselves in terrorism, armed conflicts, massive poverty and inequalities that continue to threaten global peace and security.

Squandering Mandela’s Legacy and vision

The question today as Nelson Mandela celebrates his 93rd birthday and as the whole world marks Nelson Mandela Day is whether South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, is advancing his vision and struggles for a better world – or is his legacy, a product of a long struggle and sacrifice, being squandered by poor leadership and the inability of many of us to stand up for the weak and poor, and to fight for justice due to lack of courage?

African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison, 11 February 1990 in Paarl. After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Nelson Mandela argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC. On June 12, 1964, eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Nelson Mandela was released 11 February 1990. AFP PHOTO ALEXANDER JOE

The reality for South Africa seventeen years since the advent of democracy in 1994 and notwithstanding the foundation laid by Mandela during his term as the first democratically elected president of South Africa; is a country that remains challenged by high levels of poverty, violence, increasing inequalities between rich and poor, racial polarization, high levels of political intolerance and corruption, and looting of national resources by many of its elites.

Much of this reality is due to declining levels of good leadership since Mandela stepped down as the president, increasing arrogance on the part of the political elites of the country who seem to be more interested in lining their pockets and holding on to power by any means possible instead of showing the selfless leadership displayed by Nelson Mandela. The other reality is a lack of a common vision between different racial and class groups in South Africa that do not seem to fully appreciate their common destiny, and the fact that South Africa can only grow and prosper as a democracy if all its citizens join hands and work together to build a society envisaged by Mandela. The lack of courage on the part of many South Africans to demand better governance and leadership also contributes to this reality that is a far cry from Nelson Mandela’s vision.

The continental and global realties are no different from the South African reality. The billions of people dehumanized by poverty, ravaged by hunger, disease and conflict and the multitudes denied human rights and fundamental freedoms while a few lead lives of opulence and gluttony; is not the kind of world Nelson Mandela envisaged and fought for.

It is indeed going to be a long walk towards full freedom for South Africa, Africa and the global community if things stay the way they are today and we do not see or produce the leadership and vision espoused by Mandela.


The destination of our long walk to freedom and justice – as Mandela often said- can only be reached through good leadership and shared purpose and vision by the majority of South Africans, Africans and members of the global community.

The celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 93 rd birthday should thus help us to reflect on his legacy and vision for a better and different world. His life, with its failures, successes and sacrifices, should hopefully inspire many of us to stand up for freedom and justice and instill in us the necessary courage and conviction to do so.

And as Mandela said in his speech at the final sitting of the first democratically elected South African Parliament marking the end of his term as the president of South Africa:

“Together, we must continue on efforts to turn hopes into reality”

“The long walk continues!”

“Ndelanhle, Mooi loop, Tsela tshweu [go well]”

By Tseliso Thipanyane


Tseliso Thipanyane, independent consultant on human rights, democracy and good governance and former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission. Tseliso is Director-Editorial and Marketing at AfrobeatRadio. He can be reached at tseliso@afrobeatradio.com.

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