/ 20 February 2024

Tasks Mandela set remain unfinished business

Mandela In Soweto
Former president Nelson Mandela holds a speech during a rally in Soweto on February 13, 1990 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)

On 10 May this year South Africans will commemorate 30 years since the installation of its first, black, democratically elected president. Many in South Africa and around the world might vividly recall the historic and momentous day that Nelson Mandela was inaugurated at the Union Buildings, in Pretoria.

It was a day filled with jubilation, hope, and a profound sense of optimism for the future. A tall, dignified, and statesman-like Mandela, rose to the podium in a tailored suit, his hair ash-grey and his face wrinkled and hollowed by years of incarceration, adding to his venerable appearance. Now 75 years old, Mandela’s face bore testament to a formidable life of collective struggle and endurance. Conducting himself with tremendous poise, Mandela embodied the weight of the historical moment.

Some months before, South Africa had teetered on the precipice of a civil war as extraordinary levels of political violence erupted across the country. The negotiation process had edged dangerously on the brink of collapse at Codesa, as key issues such as the formation of national government, the distribution of power, and the protection of minority rights had proved divisive with both sides harbouring deeply entrenched positions.

Yet South Africa’s democratic transition had achieved a political settlement, and on 10 May 1994, Mandela fired to the crowd an impassioned speech, infused with emotional depth that reflected the struggles of the past, and the hopes for a better future. His words carried the resonance of decades of oppression and resistance, invoking a sense of collective memory.

The planning of Mandela’s inauguration proceedings was a carefully coordinated matter. The national inauguration committee set up to manage this affair, was chaired by Chief Justice Michael Corbett, who also administered Mandela’s oath of office. 

Curiously, Mandela was also personally involved and concerned with the details of his presidential inauguration, paying attention to the guest list, and ensuring that important political figures would be present at the event. Archival material suggests that Mandela expressed a strong desire to have Cuba’s prime minister Fidel Castro and Palestine Liberation Organisation and Nobel peace laureateYasser Arafat present at his inauguration, despite the difficulties  involved in ensuring their attendance. 

The late ANC activist Jessie Duarte recounts that Mandela remained steadfast on the matter of securing  Arafat’s attendance stating: “I don’t care how we do it, my brother Yasser Arafat must be at my inauguration.” This, Duarte suggests, was no easy task because Arafat was then in Tunisia and at risk of being arrested if he were to leave. There is no doubt that securing Arafat’s presence was among one of many symbolic acts by Mandela to reaffirm his unwavering commitment to Palestinian solidarity, liberation and self-determination.

 Several key elements of Mandela’s inauguration speech might be worth recounting here. First, Mandela highlighted the importance of unity among all South Africans in building a new society . He acknowledged the role of various groups, including political, religious, women, youth, business and traditional leaders in bringing about positive change. Second, now that political emancipation was achieved, Mandela emphasised the need to liberate all people from poverty, deprivation, suffering and discrimination, committing to a society where South Africans can “walk tall” without fear, and where human and economic dignity is ensured for all. Third, Mandela described South Africa as a “rainbow nation” at peace with itself and the world, calling for the healing of wounds, bridging of divides, and the building of a just and lasting peace.

In the final closing statement of his inaugural speech, Mandela remarked: “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all”

Mandela’s challenge to South Africans speaks of democracy’s unfinished business as we head to the polls this year. There is no easy road to freedom and South Africans must continue to forge ahead for greater freedom and justice as we seek to secure another chapter in our democratic history.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International Fellow at SOAS, University of London, working on a new book project on black intellectual history in South Africa. Her book draws from the anti-apartheid archives in South Africa and across the world.