Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, the second president of South Africa [June 1999 – September 2008], delivered this self-penned speech entitled “I Am an African” on May 8th, 1996. During this time Mbeki was serving as Vice President of South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s post-Apartheid Presidency. The occasion was the passing of the new Constitution of South Africa. VP Mbeki’s speech, delivered on behalf of the African National Congress, captured the political mood of the moment in South Africa:
I am an African.
I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.
My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter-day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightning, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.
The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.
The dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi, have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of the day.
At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.
A human presence among all of these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!
I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and independence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.
Today, as a country, we keep an inaudible and audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.
I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still part of me.
In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.
I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.
My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as Ashanti of Ghana, as Berbers of the desert.
I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena, The Bahamas, and the Vrouemonument, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins.
I am the child of Nongqawuse. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which our stomachs yearn.
I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.
Being part of all of these people, and in the knowledge that none dares contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.
I have seen our country torn asunder as these, all of whom are my people, engaged one another in a titanic battle, the one to redress a wrong that had been caused by one to another and the other, to defend the indefensible.
I have seen what happens when one person has superiority of force over another, when the stronger appropriate to themselves the prerogative even to annul the injunction that God created all men and women in His image.
I know what it signifies when race and colour are used to determine who is human and who, sub-human.
I have seen the destruction of all sense of self-esteem, the consequent striving to be what one is not, simply to acquire some of the benefits which those who had imposed themselves as masters had ensured that they enjoy.
I have experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest.
I have seen the corruption of minds and souls as a result of the pursuit of an ignoble effort to perpetrate a veritable crime against humanity.
I have seen concrete expression of the denial of the dignity of a human being emanating from the conscious, systemic and systematic oppressive and repressive activities of other human beings.
There the victims parade with no mask to hide the brutish reality – the beggars, the prostitutes, the street children, those who seek solace in substance abuse, those who have to steal to assuage hunger, those who have to lose their sanity because to be sane is to invite pain.
Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage. To these the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare.
And so, like pawns in the service of demented souls, they kill in furtherance of the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal. They murder the innocent in the taxi wars.
They kill slowly or quickly in order to make profits from the illegal trade in narcotics. They are available for hire when husband wants to murder wife and wife, husband.
Among us prowl the products of our immoral and amoral past – killers who have no sense of the worth of human life, rapists who have absolute disdain for the women of our country, animals who would seek to benefit from the vulnerability of the children, the disabled, and the old, the rapacious who brook no obstacle in their quest for self-enrichment.
All this I know and know to be true because I am an African!
Because of that, I am also able to state this fundamental truth that I am born of a people who are heroes and heroines.
I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression.
I am of a nation that would not allow that fear of death, of torture, of imprisonment, of exile or persecution should result in the perpetuation of injustice.
The great masses who are our mother and father will not permit that the behaviour of the few results in the description of our country and people as barbaric.
Patient because history is on their side, these masses do not despair because today the weather is bad. Nor do they turn triumphalist when, tomorrow, the sun shines.
Whatever the circumstances they have lived through and because of that experience, they are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be.
We are assembled here today to mark their victory in acquiring and exercising their right to formulate their own definition of what it means to be African.
The Constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our African-ness shall be defined by our race, our colour, our gender or our historical origins.
It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White.
It gives concrete expression to the sentiment we share as Africans, and will defend to the death, that the people shall govern.
It recognises the fact that the dignity of the individual is both an objective which society must pursue, and is a goal which cannot be separated from the material well-being of that individual.
It seeks to create the situation in which all our people shall be free from fear, including the fear of the oppression of one national group by another, the fear of the disempowerment of one social echelon by another, the fear of the use of state power to deny anybody their fundamental human rights and the fear of tyranny.
It aims to open the doors so that those who were disadvantaged can assume their place in society as equals with their fellow human beings without regards to colour, to race, to gender, to age or to geographic dispersal.
It provides the opportunity to enable each one and all to state their views, to promote them, to strive for their implementation in the process of governance without fear that a contrary view will be met with repression.
It creates a law-governed society which shall be inimical to arbitrary rule.
It enables the resolution of conflicts by peaceful means rather than resort to force.
It rejoices in the diversity of our people and creates the space for all of us voluntarily to define ourselves as one people.
As an African, this is an achievement of which I am proud, proud without reservation and proud without any feeling of conceit.
Our sense of elevation at this moment also derives from the fact that this magnificent product is the unique creation of African hands and African minds.
But it also constitutes a tribute to our loss of vanity that we could, despite the temptation to treat ourselves as an exceptional fragment of humanity, draw on the accumulated experience and wisdom of all humankind, to define for ourselves what we want to be.
Together with the best in the world, we too are prone to pettiness, to petulance, selfishness and short-sightedness.
But it seems to have happened that we looked at ourselves and said the time had come that we make a super-human effort to be other than human, to respond to the call to create for ourselves a glorious future, to remind ourselves of the Latin saying: Gloria est consequenda – Glory must be sought after.
Today it feels good to be an African.
It feels good that I can stand here as a South African and as a foot soldier of a titanic African army, the African National Congress, to say to all the parties represented here, to the millions who made an input into the processes we are concluding, to our outstanding compatriots who have presided over the birth of our founding document, to the negotiators who pitted their wits one against the other, to the unseen stars who shone unseen as the management and administration of the Constitutional Assembly, the advisers, the experts and the publicists, to the mass communication media, to our friends across the globe – congratulations and well done!
I am an African.
I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.
The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, and of Somalia, of the Sudan, of Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.
The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.
The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.
This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned. The evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes.
Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now! Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!
Thank you very much.