Opening address by President Nelson Mandela at the Morals Summit called by the National Religious Leaders Forum

22 October 1998

Master of Ceremonies
Mayor of Johannesburg
Religious and political leaders of our nation

When we issued a call last year to the leaders of our religious communities to lend the full weight of their influence to the reconstruction and development of our country, and in particular to its moral renewal, we did so with no preconceptions or prescriptions as to how this might be done.

We only knew that the social transformation of our country could not be separated from its spiritual transformation. And that at the very moment when a sense of community, tolerance and concern for one another could reinforce welcome social change, we were witnessing the stark reality of a past that had corroded the moral fabric of our society.

We had not anticipated that your response would include a Summit that brings together the political leaders of our nation with the leaders of its main religious communities. In itself that is a great achievement. It gives much encouragement for the future. It brings together the two spheres of life most intimately and essentially involved in the generation, sustenance and observance of the values by which we relate to one another.

At the critical moments in our continuing transition South Africans have overcome obstacles which others regarded as insurmountable. They decided to put their shared long-term interests above short-term considerations. The composition of this Summit defines the moral renewal of our nation as one of those matters which are so critical to our future. The time has come to do all we can to seek out, beyond the political differences which we have, common ground as a basis for national action.

It would therefore be right to take this opportunity to congratulate the National Religious Forum for taking the initiative that has brought us here today, and to thank the representatives of our political parties for their participation.

It is not necessary to rehearse the ways in which the inhuman system under which we lived so long undermined and eroded respect for one another and for life itself. That apartheid was a sin and encouraged sinful behaviour is no longer a matter of debate.

The symptoms of our spiritual malaise are only too familiar. They include the extent of corruption in both public and private sector, where office and positions of responsibility are treated as opportunities for self-enrichment; the corruption that occurs within our justice system; violence in interpersonal relations and families, in particular the shameful record of abuse of women and children; and the extent of evasion of tax and refusal to pay for services used.

It is a measure of how far this rot has spread that we do even find in the religious community individuals who associate with themselves with or abet crime; tax immorality; or abuse of women and children. Inasmuch as members of this community should be in the vanguard of dealing with these in the rest of society, the legitimacy of their leadership will also depend on the extent to which they root out these things in their own ranks.

It was to be expected, given our past, that we would encounter problems of this kind, but not, I believe, how great they would be. Nor that it would be as difficult to mobilise our society in an united effort to eradicate the problems.

Government has given the highest priority to combating these evils. Uneven though progress has been, and though all these things continue to occur at totally unacceptable levels, we can speak with confidence of turning the tide. And to the extent that we can do so, it is because sectors of our society and communities, including religious institutions, have begun to reaffirm the moral value which are the condition of any decent society.

Having come into government with the declared intention of eliminating the corruption we knew to be endemic, we have in the past four years found that some individuals who fought for freedom have also proved corrupt. Nor should our apartheid past be used as an excuse for such misdemeanours. As a practical measure to expose and root out corruption, the Heath Investigative Unit was appointed and given effective powers which are now paying dividends.

Our fight against crime has of necessity been a complex one with a wide range of practical measures. It has required the reshaping of a police force formerly oriented and deployed to protect minority interests and suppress resistance. It has meant acting to root out corruption in all arms of the criminal justice system; and enhancing the capacity of the police at both managerial and operational level. It has required the building of a partnership of security forces and the communities they serve, and an emphasis on co-ordinating all the operational forces and state agencies in a focused way. It has meant tougher laws to strengthen the hands of judicial officers. All this is leading to more effective law enforcement, as is increasingly recognised.

In the most practical way, the South African Revenue Service is helping restore our tax morality.

Although we can be pleased at the successes that are being registered as a result of such practical measures, they are insufficient. Furthermore the society we are seeking to create is not one on which we are all whistle-blowers and crime-busters fighting the symptoms of a moral crisis. Rather it is one in which such a crisis does not exist.

That is why an initiative such as today's is of such critical importance, it will draw strength from, and in turn enhance, the series of more specific initiatives in which sectors of our society are coming together in order to find that common ground which defines our nationhood.

We think here of the recent summit on rural safety and security; of the Partnership against AIDS launched two weeks ago; of the Job Summit soon to take place and the planned national summit to fight corruption. We think of the Masakhane Focus Week just held, whose ultimate objective is to build a sense of civic morality in our communities.

As an event of a different kind, but no less important in promoting a shared understanding of ourselves as a nation and of the challenges we face, was the publication of the first post-apartheid national census. In reminding us of the social inequalities and deprivation which we must overcome together, it emphasises the importance of what this Morals Summit is seeking to achieve.

Recognising that at their best, summits and conferences are the prelude to action, we are encouraged by the practical proposals before you for extending the momentum of moral renewal into all sectors of society. The Call to the Nation and the pledges you plan to popularise should provide a focus for moral living and conduct by every citizen and all people in positions of responsibility.

We believe too that the full force of this partnership of the religious and political spheres of our society will realise its true potential when you extend it into our neighbourhoods. It is there too, where the crazed logic of racial segregation put us in separate camps, that the fabric of a renewed nation must be woven.

May I conclude by wishing you success in your deliberations. May your project prosper. In dong so, it will strengthen our nation and build our humanity.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation