Statement by Nelson Mandela on anniversary of 10 years of democracy in South Africa in Sunday Times

April 2004

I am eighty-five years old, turning eighty-six.

Being able in my lifetime to write about and celebrate a decade of democracy in South Africa is an experience and a privilege profound beyond what words can capture and describe.

Freedom in our lifetime was a slogan of hope, encouragement, sustenance and inspiration to generations of our freedom fighters, anti-apartheid activists and the masses of our people suffering oppression, exploitation and degradation.

A struggling people and their liberation movements have to hold on to the hope of freedom even under the most difficult circumstances, against the greatest odds and in the darkest hours. We, the people of South Africa and the freedom movements of our people, have suffered many moments and eras of deep despondency when it must have appeared that the so much longed for emancipation was never to be attained, at least not in our various and respective lifetimes.

A decade of democracy!

Measure that against centuries of colonial rule and dispossession. Against decades of apartheid rule, the most structured form of racial domination and discrimination the world has known after the Second World War.

A decade may in mere measurable terms seem to be nothing in human history. As a people, we South Africans know this decade of living together in peace, in the acknowledgement of our common humanity, in the democratic accommodation of our differences within our national unity to be a human achievement that in its impact and magnitude transcends and belies the brevity of its years.

I have so often heard us being described by people across the globe as a miracle nation. We were expected by the world to self-destruct in the bloodiest civil war along racial grounds. Not only did we avert such racial conflagration; we created amongst ourselves one of the most exemplary and progressive non-racial and non-sexist democratic orders in the contemporary world.

Perhaps we do not always appreciate the magnitude of that achievement and its inspiration for a late-twentieth and early twenty-first century world yearning and searching for hope and meaning. For once history and hope rhymed, a famous poet reminded me and us, speaking of the miracle of our transition and the wonder of our democracy.

This first decade was one of laying foundations, of early building, of consolidation. Much of it had, by the nature of our divided history, to consist of breaking down, of un-doing. The government over which I was chosen to preside had to take stock and come to an understanding of the structures and rules that governed our nation and our lives under the perversion of apartheid; to initiate the process of de-legislation and re-legislation; to create a new system of legislation and regulation governed by the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.

That government – the government of national unity – was in itself, by its mere nature, a celebration and demonstration of the will and the capacity of the South African people and their elected leaders to make democracy work. It brought together three historically antagonistic political movements in a co-operative venture to make our country succeed, to establish and consolidate our democracy, to unite our people in their diversity.

When I reflect on this first decade of our democracy and more particularly for the moment on those first foundational five years, I have to pay tribute to the wisdom and the considered rationality of the leaders of those participating parties and all the members of that first Cabinet. They all will have opportunity and reason in their inevitable memoirs to reflect and report on my moments of impatience, anger, folly and irrationality, I suppose; what will remain with me is the memory of collegiality, shared patriotism and the pride of country.

These last five years gave me the opportunity to sit on the sidelines and observe with pride how our country progressed under the capable leadership of President Thabo Mbeki and his government. I have made this point so often and have to repeat it in this overview of a decade of democratic rule: no prime minister or president in the history of this country can claim to have done more to improve the lives of our people than President Mbeki has achieved.

One of our famous contemporary singers recounts how she was approached by an opposition party and asked what the ruling government has done for her. Her reply was simple: it had given her back her dignity. That statement is not one of party political preference only; it describes the essential achievement of this first decade of democracy in South Africa.

The first value quoted in the founding provisions of our constitution is that of human dignity. Much has still to be done before we can claim that a better life for all has been achieved in our country. Unemployment, poverty and disease – and especially the frightening threat of HIV/AIDS – remain with us as daily reminders of the depth of the challenges ahead as we enter our second decade of democracy. It is not to minimise those challenges or the suffering of people that we can state, though, that as a nation we face the future with our dignity restored and intact.

I shall cast my democratic vote for the third time in this, my eighty-sixth year. I shall do so celebrating our decade of democracy, a decade of dignity restored. And I shall remember my comrades and compatriots now gone who, like me, persisted with the faith of freedom in our lifetime.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation