President Nelson Mandela is a granite figure of our nation. By honouring him, we honour the deepest well of our national character. He led us through triumphs and tragedies, disasters and setbacks.
In his public service, he also bore down on the platitudes of society. His knowledge of human tragedy, fortified by years of imprisonment, shielded him from self-deception and hollow praise.
This is something we should all reflect on.
If he were here today, I believe Mr Mandela would be disappointed that we have not done more to solve the problems that he highlighted in his last speech to Parliament in May 2004.
He opened with a question: ‘What do I wish for our democracy in this second decade that we have entered?” Mr Speaker, we are only two years from completing this cycle.
The challenges, Mr Mandela said, were unmistakably clear: poverty, preventable disease and ill-health, and other forms of social deprivation. It was significant that Mr Mandela placed these problems directly within the context of the work of this Parliament.
Democracy, he insisted “must bring its material fruits to all, particularly the poor, marginalized and vulnerable. Our belief in the common good ultimately translates into a deep concern for those that suffer want and deprivation of any kind”.
On this occasion, Mr Mandela said: “Let us never be unmindful of the terrible past from which we came – that memory not as a means to keep us shackled to the past in a negative manner, but rather as a joyous reminder of how we have come and how much we have achieved”. Yet, we, too frequently, open up the divisions of the past, and seek to use them against each other.
In order to protect and promote Mr Mandela’s vision, Parliament must play a bigger role, and work to a much higher standard. His legacy is greater and more profound than the political contestation between the parties represented here.
Despite our partisan differences, we have an obligation to work towards common objectives.
It is easy for us to stand here and deliver honeyed words, yet ‘sincerity is subject to proof’. Why hold this debate today if we do not heed Mr Mandela’s injunction and call to service? There can be no better tribute to him than if we take our task of representation and public service seriously.
Mr Mandela elegantly said of the work of this Parliament: “yours is the almost sacred duty to ensure government by the people under the Constitution”.
Perhaps this is the time for each one of us to ask if we need to reacquaint ourselves with Mr Mandela’s vision. When we precisely weigh the gravity of each sentence of his speech, it is hard not to conclude that we, in many respects, have regressed.
The theme of constitutional democracy was woven into every line of Mr Mandela’s 2004 speech. It was based upon the understanding that economic and social progress could not be made without being attuned to the content and spirit of democracy.
Last month, South Africans put aside 67 minutes to honour Mr Mandela’s example of public service. We, in this House, however, are held to a higher standard. We are expected to work unceasingly every day and every hour to make manifest the promises contained in the Constitution, and build our democracy.
Our former President did not allow power to use him; rather he used power. Power especially corrupts those who think they deserve it. Yet while power tends to ‘corrupt’, Mr Mandela’s legacy demonstrates that public service cleanses. Mr Mandela says that no one can accomplish anything of significance alone.
Every day that he was in office, he observed, the opportunity to exercise leadership presented itself. He used the power of his office to challenge the frontiers of the mind, and institutions. He questioned the difference between people’s words and actions. Mr Mandela asked friends and strangers alike to face up to tough choices, and he could be provocative.
If we were fortunate enough to have Mr Mandela leading us today, I believe he would say that we cannot have reconciliation without education and jobs for the first generation of young people who have come of age since 1994. I have no doubt that getting the nation to work would be Mr Mandela’s first priority today, and that job creation would be the overarching template of the administration.
Mr Mandela would, if he was in office today, seek to change “hearts and minds” so that South Africans, especially young people, start to ask what they can do to help create jobs. While the state has an important role to play, it could not provide employment for the many. He believed only education and innovation would bring lasting change.
Let this, and not self-congratulation, be the touchstone by which we measure our endeavours as a Parliament.
Mr Speaker: I reaffirm the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) commitment to upholding President Mandela’s legacy in word and deed.
On behalf of the DA, it is a great honour to wish him a happy 94th birthday, here in the Parliament that he did so much to help build.
Veels geluk, Tata, met jou verjaarsdag.
Matlhatsi le matlhogonolo Ntante Madiba.
Mpilo nde/ntle Tata.
Unwele olude Kuwe, Tata.
I thank you.