Address by Nelson Mandela at reburial of Anton Lembede, Durban

27 October 2002

We salute the ANC Youth League for taking this initiative to honour in this very fitting manner the memory of one the great leaders and intellectuals of our struggle, Anton Lembede.

For us it is of special significance to be present at this occasion of the reburial of Anton Lembede.

We share in the respect that our organisation is paying to his memory and legacy through this event. This reburial ceremony also reminds us on a personal level of the shock of his sudden death in July 1947. We were together discussing matters of the Youth League when Anton complained of feeling ill. We drove him to Coronation Hospital where he died that same evening at the young age of thirty-three.

As mentioned elsewhere, I cannot pinpoint a precise moment when I became politicised and knew with a sudden blinding flash that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. It was rather a process growing out of the oppressive realities of ones life coupled to the formative influences of a variety of people.

At the house of Walter Sisulu I met with many of those who would have such formative influence; amongst them was Anton Lembede whom I first met at Walter's place in 1943.

From the moment I heard Lembede speak I knew I was in the presence of a dynamic and original thinker and his ideas immediately struck a chord in me.

What I particularly remember from the ideas put forward by Lembede in those vigorous and stimulating discussions was his insistence that black people should rid themselves of a debilitating inferiority complex. This inferiority complex he saw as the greatest barrier to liberation.

He also insisted that ethnic differences were disappearing and that the young men and women of that time were thinking of themselves as Africans in the first place rather than as members of an ethnic group.

Lembede was a key member of that delegation that in 1943 went to see Dr Xuma at his house to inform him of our intention to organise a Youth League and that presented him with the draft constitution and manifesto.

At the formation of the Youth League the following year Lembede was one of the main speakers and was elected as the first President of the Youth League.

We are therefore today remembering and paying tribute to a man that has left an indelible mark on developments within our organisation and in the history of the liberation of our country.

As the years went on and one matured in your own thinking, it was inevitable that you would start to develop ideas that may differ from those of your original influences. Our approach to inclusivity with regards to the participation of other national groups and other ideological groupings later departed from those advocated by Lembede; the impact of his influence on our political development can, however, never be doubted.

He remains as a lodestar and an example to the movement of which he was a founding father and the first President.

Today as the Youth League works and operates under the changed circumstances of a non-racial democracy in which your parent body is now the governing party, many of the calls made by Lembede remain as relevant.

You have to give the lead in demonstrating to the youth of our country that we can tackle the tasks of reconstruction and development with the self-confidence that Lembede wished for and demonstrated in himself.

Our youth had suffered gravely under the cruelty of apartheid. Their bravery and sense of sacrifice, however, outmatched the cruelties of the apartheid regime. It is as a tribute to that heroism and courage that we need to conduct ourselves with Lembede's self-confidence, eschewing the sense of victimhood that so often paralyses rather than inspires.

Lembede's insistence on overcoming ethnic differences and on building a united sense of being African is equally relevant to the work the Youth League does today.

It is up to the youth to decisively and finally break our society out of the constricting and divisive definitions of our past. While we celebrate our diversity, we have to build a unified non-racial society, proud of being African in all its richness of heritage and traditions.

The Youth League led and drove a more revolutionary approach in the ANC of those years, and once more Anton Lembede was a key and instrumental figure before his untimely death.

The Youth League decided on mass action through boycotts, strikes, passive resistance and defiance campaigns. It brought renewed energy to our mother organisation to tackle the challenges facing our people.

The applicability of those particular methods might have changed with the radically different circumstances in which we find ourselves. The challenge to the youth formation of our organisation remains to find new and innovative ways of executing our task: this time the task of transforming and building our society into one where there is indeed a better life for all, particularly the poor and marginalised.

As we today remember Comrade Anton Lembede, the founding President of our organisation and an inspiring intellectual in the awakening of African self-confidence, let us recommit ourselves to be dynamic agents for changing our society for the common good of all our people.

Long live the memory of Anton Lembede, and long live the ANC Youth League.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation