Address by President Nelson Mandela at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York - United States

20 September 1998

Very Reverend Harry Pritchett, Dean of the Cathedral;
Ladies and gentlemen,

It was important that during what is probably our last official visit to your country before retiring from office next year, we should spend time with those Americans who have been so closely linked with the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa.

I am especially glad that we are meeting here today, at a church that is known not only for its part in supporting our liberation struggle, but also as an important centre in the quest for civil rights and economic justice in your own country. It reminds us that what joined us was not the charity of distant benefactors but shared aspirations in the name of a common humanity.

Our victory in defeating apartheid was your victory too. We know that our pride in regaining our dignity is shared by you. To you, and to all of the American people who supported the anti-apartheid struggle, we thank you from the bottom of your heart for your solidarity, and for having cared.

That same capacity, on the basis of a common humanity, to touch one another's hearts across social divides and across oceans, was exemplified in the life of Father Trevor Huddleston whom we remember today.

At a time when identifying with the cause of equality for all South Africans was seen as the height of betrayal by the privileged, Father Huddleston embraced the downtrodden. He forsook all that apartheid South Africa offered the privileged minority. And he did so at great risk to his personal safety. Though he came from another land, he made our struggle his own. It is no surprise that his memory lives on in the hearts of our people.

In turn South Africa made Father Huddleston her own. It was with great pride that we accorded him the full honours of a state funeral when his ashes were returned to our country.

South Africa shares Father Huddleston with many other peoples, in Africa, the Indian Ocean, India and his native England. He was one of those rare people, good men and women who make the world the theatre of their operation in pursuit of freedom and justice.

In him we saw in the most concrete way how religion has contributed to our liberation. Whenever the noble ideals and values of religion have been joined with practical action to realise them, it has strengthened us and at the same time nurtured those ideals within the liberation movement. In turn, he often spoke of how he struggle of ordinary people for their dignity gave concrete meaning to the principles of his Christianity.

These are strengths that we need now more than ever, in the even greater challenges that we face as we transform our society in order to eradicate the legacy of a bitter past that set one South African against another.

As religious organisations became an indispensable part of our struggle for freedom, we need them as active partners in the rebuilding of our society, through reconciliation and development, nation-building and reconstruction.

It is a special pleasure to be able to report to you who helped us win our freedom, that the people of South Africa are seizing the opportunity it brings to build the country of which we dreamed together.

We never thought that the reconciliation of our divided society would be easy, but it is a necessary process so that the memory of historical injustice does not remain for years and years as an obstacle to true unity.

Although we know we still have a long way to go in this regard, our truth and reconciliation commission has taken us further along the road than anyone expected towards a common understanding of our past. We are grateful to the role of religious organisations in this process. For those families who have been able to learn how their loved ones were taken from them and in some cases even to recover their bones, it has had special meaning.

The healing of our society also means giving special priority to the needs of our children. As the most vulnerable part of our society, the burden of apartheid and its legacy has fallen most heavily on them. Because they are our most precious asset and the future leaders of our society, they have a special claim on us, and it is deeply encouraging to be amongst people who share that concern for young people.

The healing of society means above all working together to improve the lives of especially the poor. If we take pride in the democracy we are creating, it is because it is not merely the hollow form of political freedom. Steadily but surely the lives of literally millions of our people are changing for the better, as they gain access to the simple and basic necessities of a decent life that were previously denied them.

Numbers have little meaning in themselves, but we know that you who helped us gain our freedom will share our pride in the fact that on every single day since our first democratic elections 1,700 poor people have gained access to clean water; that 1,300 homes have been connected to an electricity supply, that each week has meant the building of two more clinics that bring health care to some 20,000 people; and that at the moment 1,000 new houses are being started or completed every day.

This is only the beginning of a task of many years. The needs of our people are immense. We face great challenges, including the serious problems of unacceptable levels of crime and corruption. But we are dealing with them and we will overcome them.

Our confidence derives from the fact that South Africans are united as never before. As I go around our land and see how South Africans of all backgrounds are joining hands to change things for the better, it gives me great hope for the future of our country.

We tell you these things so that you should know we are in earnest about realising the vision of a just society that you share with us.

The bonds between our peoples go back a long way. In the early years of this century the founders of our liberation movement drew inspiration and courage from Americans, many of them from this very same city of New York, who also dreamed of the regeneration of Africa.

In the closing years of the century, free at last, the people of Africa are working hard to improve their lives. We know that you will be with us in the reconstruction of our country and in the rebirth of our continent.

I thank you

Issued by: Office of The President

Source: South African Government Information Website