If I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a general and panoramic view of the South African history up to now, and the Almighty God said to me, “which epoch in South Africa would you like to live in?" I would take a mental flight over the underexploited stretch of land, bedecked by valleys, meandering streams and open skies. While on the mental flight, I would look yonder and there I would see the descendants of the Khoisan people sharpening their arrows, with bows on their side, preparing to launch attack on antelopes.
I would also see the Khoisan living comfortably, without lack and scarcity of land and food. While watching, I would witness the downward migration of several African explorers from the Great Lakes region, crossing mighty and often impassable streams such as Zambezi and Limpopo to settle in what we now call South Africa.
With the advantage of the panoramic view, I would move to the place where the mighty Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. There I would witness the arrival of the representatives of the Dutch East India Company, led by a Dutch named Jan van Riebeeck in the year 1652. In the years to come, I would witness as they brought along slaves from Malaysia and East Africa, commonly known as the “Cape Malay” to what they declared the Cape of Good Hope. I would look, with a sense of helplessness, as an orchestrated attempt to extinguish Khoisans unfolds.
Out of curiosity, I would ask the Almighty to allow me to live through other epochs. As a result, I would witness the discontentment in the Cape Colony, resulting from the arrival of the British. With their arrival, I would hear a group of Dutch colonisers saying to themselves, “Why do we sit here and die? Let us move into the inner part of the land?”
I would then hitchhike on animal-drawn carts that carried the Vootrekker and the Trek Boers as they make their way into the heartland of South Africa. Along the way, I would watch as they are confronted by Africans in what we now know as wars of resistance. There I would see some of Africa’s greatest civil and military leaders, such as Hintsa kaKhawuta, Sekhukhune, Moshoeshoe, Shaka and Queen Manthatisi, resist occupation of their land and threat to their subjects.
Still, this experience would not be enough. I would then move on to the battlefields of the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars – the confrontation between the Afrikaners and the British. While fearing for my life, I would hear a call for ceasefire and the resulting treaty of Vereening. A few years later, I would witness the establishment of the Union of South Africa, with Britain fully in control of South Africa and the natives of this country marginalised.
Two years following the establishment of the Union, I would hear a call by natives to organize. I would go to the meeting on 08 January 1912 at the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church in Bloemfontein, where the South African Native National Congress was formed. Here I would watch as great African minds toil with ideas of how to set themselves free. These included such greats as Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, John Langalibalele Dube, Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje, Pixley Seme, Alfred Mangena, Richard Msimang and George Montsioa.
I would proceed and stop by to witness unionists discussing issues of bread and butter and concluding that the South African Congress of Trade Unions would carry out their intentions. Still in my mental flight, I would proceed to 1944 to witness the historic formation of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), with Anthony Muziwakhe Lembede chosen the first President. I would listen to him as he reminds his friends: "My heart yearns for the glory of an Africa that is gone. But I shall labour for the birth of a new Africa, free and great among the nations of the world.” At the same meeting I would also see the young, energetic Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ashley Peter Mda and other young lions.
I would stop by to witness the ascension of the National Party to power, resulting in legalisation of apartheid.
In 1955, I would watch as people from four corners of our country and diverse racial groups converge at the Congress of the People meeting in Kliptown. I would be impressed with the resolutions taken there and contained in the Freedom Charter, particularly the one that says the people shall share in the country’s wealth.
Following the congress meeting, I would learn of unhappiness by others, who later moved on to establish the Pan Africanist Congress, choosing as their leader Robert Sobukwe, Mandela’s would-be fellow Robben Island prisoner.
I would even go to Sharpeville and take part in the anti-pass campaign. I would luckily survive the bloody killings that ensued – in Sharpeville, Langa and Nyanga. I would later learn about the raid on a Rivonia farm, Liliesleaf, where the High Command of the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe was arrested. I would later learn that the accused in the Rivonia trial have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Amongst them are: Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Billy Nair, Denis Goldberg, Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, Bob Hepple, Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe and James "Jimmy" Kantor.
Given the insatiable nature of the eye, I would ask the Almighty to allow me to see some more experiences.
He would gladly bring me to the seventies.
I would be fascinated to listen to the wisdom of one Onkgopotse Ramothibidi Tiro in his “Turfloop Testimony” speech of April 1972, which resulted in his expulsion. I would then move on and see for myself the uprising by pupils in Soweto against Bantu Education system, which sought to give them substandard education. There I would look on as grown policemen shoot and slaughter children, amongst them Hector Peterson, for demanding what was rightfully theirs. A year later, I would watch as policemen kill Steve Biko, the founding father of Black Consciousness philosophy. For they feared his words! For on one occasion he told his own people that: “the oppressor’s most potent tool is the oppressed’s mind.”
A year later, in 1978, I would witness the death and burial of Sobukwe. Like Biko, the authorities feared Sobukwe’s words. For he told the truth they did not wish to hear: “there is only one race - the human race.”
I would be brought to the eighties and eventually to the nineties.
There I would also read about the National Party divisive strategies, including the introduction of the Tricameral Parliament, which sought to create a parliament that includes Indians and Coloureds to the exclusion of Africans. Before this, I would have been allowed a chance to witness the introduction of that insult called the Bantustans and independent homelands.
I would later witness the formation of the United Democratic Front, the declaration of the state of emergency and the maiming of anti-apartheid activists. I would be excited to witness the unbanning of political parties and the release of political prisoners.
In 1993, I would look on as South Africa is pushed to the brink of a civil war, with the killing of Chris Hani, an Umkhonto We Sizwe commander. His death became a catalyst for first democratic elections. In the same year, I would witness the passing on of Oliver Tambo – he that kept the ANC intact while in exile.
Having seen so many epochs, I would still not be satisfied. I would visit the site where former political enemies engaged with government at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). I would also look on as Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging hooligans break into the World Trade Centre to disrupt CODESA proceedings, threatening peace talks.
I would look intently as the midwives of our constitution, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, successfully deliver what is undoubtedly one of the best written constitution in the world.
I would even witness as millions of previously disenfranchised people participate in the first ever democratic elections. With the ANC having won the elections, I would listen to Nelson Mandela’s solemn oath to advance the constitutional aspirations of our country, as he takes the office as the President of the country.
I would later watch as the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Desmond Tutu is brought to tears on account of harrowing stories of brutality inflicted on those who fought for freedom.
I would also witness with many as Mandela passes the baton to President Thabo Mbeki. Years later, I would watch as South Africa’s political landscape alters, with the recalling of Mbeki and his replacement by Kgalema Motlanthe.
I would also look on as President Jacob Zuma, also a former Robben Island prisoner, is inaugurated the third democratically elected President of South Africa. I would also go to Soccer City to witness that brilliant shot by Siphiwe Tshabalala, to mark the opening of Fifa World Cup.
That would not be all.
I would continue once more and witness the scare that engulfed South Africa following the hospitalization of former President Nelson Mandela. Together with many, I would be relieved to learn though the airwaves that Madiba has been released from hospital and is doing well.
However, as with many, I would be caught off guard by his passing, would be part of those who grieved his passing on and would witness his burial.
At this time, I would turn to the Almighty and say: "If you allow me to live some more years in post Mandela South Africa, I will be happy. For this is the epoch I would like to live in."
Now that is a strange statement to make, given the challenges we face as a country. It is strange given that with Mandela’s passing on; we mark the close of a great chapter in the history of our country. It is, however, an opportune moment for us as a nation, the continent and the world to reflect on the ideals for which our founding father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela stood for; the ideals for which he was prepared to die.
Mandela has laid a solid foundation; he has cut a pattern. It is for us to build on – for he did warn us that, “the long walk continues.”
Now is the time to put to practice the values he espoused. These include such values as putting others first, caring, forgiveness and reconciliation. For in sacrificing his life, Mandela put South Africa first. We too have an opportunity to continue to put interests of our fellow human beings first, to care for fellow human beings, to forgive and reconcile –wherever we are; in whatever we do. It will not be easy to put to practice these values. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Here is a warning: Fatigue will set on! We might find ourselves in despair. When that happens, we should remember what he said: “it always seems impossible until it is done.”
When we pull together as a people, we shall emerge together as victorious.
We will forever be grateful to the Almighty that he assigned Nelson Mandela to this colony we call earth, and allowed him to occupy its South most part of Africa.
I concur with him when he said: “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.”
May God keep him in perfect peace as he rests in Abraham’s bosom.
Sekgoela Joel Sekgoela
The format of this speech was inspired by American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr’s last speech, titled: I have been to The Mountaintop.
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