Address by Nelson Mandela at gala banquet celebrating Africa's 100 best books of the 20th century

23 July 2002

Professor Ndebele
Members of the Panel
Writers of Africa
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honour to join you at this occasion of celebrating Africa's one hundred best books of the twentieth century.

That our own autobiography features amongst them is the only worrying aspect of an event that I would otherwise have found completely inspiring and hopeful about the quality and future of the book in Africa.

That such an esteemed panel should in the first place have been subjected to reading such low quality of literature is something I should apologise for: that political pamphlet was never intended for such august reading circles.

That it is counted amongst Africa's hundred books of the last century is hopefully a transparent piece of genuflection to the old age and grey hairs of the author. I trust that future generations of writers and readers in Africa will understand it as such and not take it as a measure of the quality of African writing.

However, in as much as a distinguished group of African literary scholars and experts made their decision: let me not be so ungracious as to not record the great honour I feel at this undeserved recognition.

As in all of the efforts that people seek to honour and award us for, this too was a collective effort - both in terms of the execution of the writing and the subject matter about which the book reports. I shall be doing my comrades and all of the participants in that long walk to freedom a disservice by protesting too much about the recognition of the book. It is in the first place their book and their story.

So: thank you very much for the honour you accord us. And thank you very much for the manner in which you dignify our struggle for freedom, which is the subject of this book. It is a recording of a period of our history as a people, in which I was privileged by circumstances to participate in such a manner that I could also impost myself as the scribe and narrator.

If there is any value in that piece of history, the message for the future is even louder and more insistent. Now we as the people of the continent need to go forward to that better future for all of which great literature all over the world always speaks about.

We can only achieve that better life for ordinary people and citizens on our continent if we take seriously and give priority to those simple precepts of humanity that literature, good literature, always deals with. We can achieve that if we ensure that literature and the pursuits of the human spirit are taken seriously and accorded value in our society and our societal pursuits.

We feel very proud at the determined efforts on the part of the political leaders of Africa to take charge of our future. The dream of an African Renaissance is steadily being pursued and realised in such initiatives as the New Plan for African Development and the recent inauguration of the African Union. At the heart of all of these initiatives is a commitment to self-determination. No longer shall we seek to place blame for our condition elsewhere or to look to others to take responsibility for our development. We are the masters of our own fate, we are saying.

That is, however, not the task of politicians and political leaders only, or primarily. The writers, artists and intellectuals of our societies are the pioneers in any process of regeneration and renaissance.

We need to restore and reaffirm the dignity of the people of Africa and the developing world. We need to place the eradication of poverty at the top of world priorities. We need to know with a fresh conviction that we all share a common humanity and that our diversity in the world is the strength for our future together.

Africa is the cradle of humankind, we are learning day by day as archaeology uncovers more and more of our past.

Let us not dwell too parochially on that past. Let it inspire us to make the intellectual and cultural contributions to the thinking and understanding of our common humanity that can make of the world a better place for all.

Thank you for this honour. And our appreciation to those great creative minds and spirits of our continent that are being celebrated tonight.

May this indeed be the century of Africa.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation