Address by Nelson Mandela at dinner hosted by the Andreas Papandreou Foundation

19 June 2002

Your Excellency Minister Papandreou
Your Excellencies
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

This visit is long overdue and I thank you most heartily, Foreign Minister, for the kind invitation you extended to us and for the generous hospitality with which we are being received.

We have, especially since our country's first democratic elections and our own assumption of office as President of democratic South Africa, thought it particularly appropriate that we pay a visit to Greece.

A variety of circumstances so conspired that it was not possible until now to realise those intentions.

We must therefore pay thanks to all who were responsible for at last bringing the visit to fruition.

As I have already indicated, the Foreign Minister on behalf of the Greek government was key in making this possible. The Greek ambassador in South Africa, Mr Economides, was so enthusiastic in his delivery of the invitation that we could not for one moment doubt the absolute sincerity of the wish to receive us here.

Our own ambassador to Greece, Mr Momberg, was no less committed to the task of bringing us to these ancient shores of civilisation. And of course, there was my lawyer of many years, George Bizos, who almost neglected his legal responsibilities to his client in spending time on persuading us to visit the country and civilisation from which he sprung. I can assure you, Foreign Minister, that you have a most dedicated envoy in our country in the person of George Bizos.

South Africa is one of the youngest democracies in the world. As a people, though, we have a much longer history of struggle for freedom and democracy. And that struggle was informed by the ideas of the great thinkers about democracy over the centuries. Ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy and democratic thought, was a constant source of reference and inspiration to us in our struggle for freedom.

We come here now to pay our tribute and recognition to the inspirational role that Greece has provided. It is for that reason that we always thought it so compelling and fitting for us to make what is almost a pilgrimage to this cradle of democracy.

Greece will know as well as any other country in the world that freedom and democracy are never finally achieved states of social existence. Its own history in our times stands as testimony to the fact that human freedom is something that we have to constantly go out and defend, protect, nurture and grow.

As we seek to consolidate and deepen our own young democracy we continue to look to the example provided by Ancient Greece. We recognise that historical conditions have changed and that we cannot idealistically transplant from centuries ago to the more complex circumstances of our own age. Yet, some of the abiding principles continue to challenge us.

We notice that one of the central objectives of the Andreas Papandreou Foundation, where we are being hosted tonight, revolves around support and encouragement of the participation of each citizen in the decision making processes and an emphasis on the importance of public dialogue in civil society.

In our country and on our continent those are exactly the challenges we face to make of our democracy a living experience connecting to the lives, needs and wishes of citizens in all walks of life and throughout all sectors of society.

Democratic South Africa is universally recognised as having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.

It is often described as a miracle that such a deeply divided society, one which most expected to explode in a bloody and destructive racial conflict, could peacefully negotiate a settlement and arrive at such a non-racial and diversity accommodating constitution.

We recognise that to make the miracle lasting, we have to render our constitution a living document. It should give voice to, and be the voice of, each citizen. We spoke and continue to speak of ours as a people-centred society and polity.

In the period running up to our first democratic elections we went around the country attending what we called people's forums where citizens could congregate to directly voice their needs and concerns to the elected officials and representatives of the liberation and democratic movement. These were occasions where the citizens spoke and the representatives had to listen and observe.

These people's forums were a continuation of an old custom in our struggle and our pre-colonial political practices.

In the traditional forms of governance amongst our people the elected rulers would spend days listening to the people, considering their views, not imposing themselves, before summing up and reaching a conclusion and decision.

In our liberation struggle the Freedom Charter is a seminal document, informing and finding a resounding echo in the Constitution of democratic South Africa. That document, the Freedom Charter, was adopted by the most democratic and inclusive gathering of the people of South Africa ever witnessed, at the Congress of the People held in Kliptown, Johannesburg, in July 1955. The Congress itself was preceded by a canvassing of the views of people across the country in the most remote villages, hamlets and farms. Ancient Greece would have taken pride in the demonstration of popular democracy at and preceding the Congress of the People.

The President of South Africa today continues that tradition, going around the country to listen to such gatherings of the people where they express themselves outside of the immediate pressures of election campaigns.

A defining characteristic of our liberation and democratic struggle was the role played by anti-apartheid non-governmental organisations and social movements. Once more, that is a tradition that we seek to keep alive in our democracy. The formality of a democratically elected government is on its own not a guarantee of democratic practice; it needs to be reinforced by the public debate and presence of civil society.

We fought our struggle amongst others on the slogan "the people shall govern."

Democratic South Africa remains aware that we have to continuously remain vigilant that the people do in fact govern. And as one of the young democracies of the world, the ancient practices of democracy that originated on these shores continue to inspire and direct us.

We are privileged to at last be here. And we thank you for this opportunity, privilege and honour.

We shall, with you, continue to strive to be true to the best of the principles of democracy that arose here.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation