On Tuesday the 11th of February South Africa marked the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and return to the people. Our sister organisation the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted a series of events in Cape Town, beginning at Victor Verster Prison and concluding on the steps of the City Hall. MRF CEO Judy Sikuza served as Programme Director for the events at the City Hall, which included a keynote address by Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee and a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
It was a bittersweet day of reflection on the promise and symbolism of Mr Mandela’s release, and of taking stock of the progress made in the intervening 30 years. All of the speakers highlighted the need to attain true liberation by urgently addressing the problems that are still facing African societies, which have remained in spite of our hard-won political freedom. For The Mandela Rhodes Foundation in particular, the day ignited a call to action to continue our work with urgency. More than ever, Africa needs leaders of integrity, courage and humanity, who have the capability to bring people together in spite of their differences to pursue the goal of true freedom and dignity for all.
The morning at Victor Verster Prison entailed a reunion of the original reception committee who organised the events surrounding Mr Mandela’s release and first days as a free man. Committee members shared their reflections with invited guests and dignitaries. Themes included exploring what was envisioned post the attainment of democracy, a need for the understanding that the democratic process requires constant work from generation to generation, and that it was crucial to acknowledge the achievement of such an inclusive constitution which we the people had to bring into life by being active citizens.
In the second part of the proceedings at City Hall, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate from Liberia, gave a keynote address on the subject of The New Prisons of Africa. Ms Gbowee identified the “new prisons” that hold Africa back today. She identified many types of prisons: from the mindsets that pit African people against each other, to gender based violence, the marginalisation of women and prejudicial treatment on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation; to poor health infrastructure and a justice system skewed towards the rich and powerful.
In a comment that was particularly resonant for The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, Ms Gbowee described the values demonstrated in Mr Mandela’s life – which stand in sharp contrast to these prisons – as a roadmap for Africa to liberate itself from these prisons. These values are service, sacrifice, compassion, and a belief in our collective humanity. Ms Gbowee’s speech offered a powerful message on the power of compassion to humanise and unite people, and to be a mobilising force for change, as Mr Mandela demonstrated. She noted that without truth being fully spoken about the atrocities of the past, people and nations cannot truly heal. The speech was a reminder of the importance of humanism as a founding philosophy for all those who wish to bring about positive change on the continent. It was also an encouragement to our work as The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, as a key tenet of our leadership development programme is helping scholars arrive at the simple yet profound realisation of our shared humanity.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech from the balcony of City Hall provided an opportunity for the audience to reflect on the momentous events of the day of Mr Mandela’s release from prison. President Ramaphosa followed Mr Mandela’s example of attributing the success of the liberation struggle to the South African masses, who made great sacrifices in the fight for freedom. President Ramaphosa particularly highlighted Madiba’s choice to pursue a strategy of reconciliation, and of uniting behind a shared vision of a new South Africa, rather than a strategy of retribution. He reminded the nation of this, saying “we are not just a collection of communities that happens to share a space. We are a nation that is guided by a vision.”
Ms Sikuza reflected on what it will take from us, both as leaders and as members of society, to move from our prisons to true liberation. “If we are not courageous enough to act urgently in making the fundamental systemic shifts required towards true equality and liberation, we will perpetually remain prisoners of greed, fear of each other, and continue to normalise the social ills that keep us all imprisoned. This will only move us further and further away from a sense of collective prosperity and humanity.”
She concluded by adding, “Thirty years ago Mr Mandela stood on the City Hall balcony, in his first address after returning to the people. Thirty years later may we the people return to the vision and spirit of Madiba: for all of us as South Africans to have the consciousness, understanding and courage to commit to making our democracy one in which all people can truly thrive.”
The full SABC News coverage of remarks from dignitaries and President Ramaphosa’s address is included below: