Opening address by President Nelson Mandela at the 26th Triennial Conference of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League, Cape Town

26 February 1996

Your Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh;
Deputy Minister of Defence;
Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Distinguished Guests;
League members;
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is with deep satisfaction that I join the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League celebration today, not as a guest speaker, but as a member. Besides having the honour of being the Patron-in-Chief of the South African chapter, my membership of the then Umkhonto WeSizwe qualifies me as a legionnaire.

The same ideals that moved those who founded this League three quarters of a century ago, inspired millions of South Africans to resist and fight any form of oppression and deprivation that we encountered.

The decision of the League to hold its 26th Conference in South Africa was the most treasured gift you could have presented to our young democracy. How befitting it is that the 75th anniversary celebrations are being held in this very hall where the League was founded. How befitting, while South Africa is still celebrating our freedom and our reunion with the Commonwealth.

Your Highness, we are deeply honoured by your presence in our country. We extend a warm welcome to you and all our guests from the more than fifty nations represented here. Your presence affirms for us that we are indeed part of a family of nations committed to working together for a better world.

Ladies and gentlemen;

When the League was founded only Whites in South Africa were fully honoured as war veterans. Those who lost their lives in Square Hill in 1918 and those buried at sea with the Mendi were deprived of that honour. However, the changes that are sweeping across our country have closed that chapter. Last year the names of those who died in the Mendi; the heroes of Square Hill; and the thousands other African, Coloured, and Indian servicemen who served in both wars were added to the scroll of honour.

The irony of our history and that of colonialism in general is that even when the oppressed were prepared to set aside their grievances and to support the war effort of the Crown, often colonial governments would only allow Whites to bear arms. Such was the way in which te demon of racism and prejudice blinded the Union Government during the First World War.

Challenged by Nazism, oppressed South Africans were again prepared to join in the war against Hitler, only to be spurned once more and confined to unarmed and non-combat roles. Upon demobilisation, they were given bicycles as a gesture of gratitude by the Smuts Government and were soon forgotten.

But the attitude of the Government was not universal among those it claimed to represent. Some of the veterans who served the Crown during the Second World War, like the late Joe Slovo and Jack Hodgson, were amongst those who joined the oppressed in the fight against apartheid.

The South African Legion's acceptance of veterans of UmKhonto WeSizwe and APLA as members put the organisation at the heart of the process of reconciliation which is feeding the New Patriotism of the new South Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen;

Today we meet on this very same spot where the League was founded as equal citizens of our respective countries, committed to freedom for all without qualification. Although the danger of a world war has not been completely eliminated, we now live in a friendlier world, thanks to the tireless efforts of men and women some of whom are present in this hall.

We are confident that your deliberations will help shape our ongoing efforts to re-build the lives of veterans and dependents of our fallen heroes. As a nation that has just emerged from a war situation, we look towards the South African Legion to locate and assist the affected people. With your help and guidance, we will certainly succeed.

I wish you all the success in your deliberations.

I thank you.

Issued by: Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website