Item 1147 - Address by Mr Nelson Mandela President of the ANC at the Award Presentation Ceremony of the Carte- Menil Human Rights Prize and the Rothko Chapel Human Rights Awards

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ZA COM MR-S-1147


Address by Mr Nelson Mandela President of the ANC at the Award Presentation Ceremony of the Carte- Menil Human Rights Prize and the Rothko Chapel Human Rights Awards


  • 1991-11-28 (Creation)

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Transcription of speech made by Mr Mandela

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(18 July 1918-5 December 2013)

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Migrated from the Nelson Mandela Speeches Database (Sep-2018).

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ANC Archives, Office of the ANC President, Nelson Mandela Papers, University of Fort Hare

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Presentation Ceremony of the Carte-Menil Human Rights Prize and the Rothko Chapel Human Rights Awards

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  • English

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President and Mrs Carter, Mrs(?) de Menil, distinguished honourees, honoured guests, ladles and gentlemen. I am deeply grateful for this honour to deliver the keynote address at this prestigious occasion. I am humbled to be chosen to speak in the name of all those who have through decades struggled for the upholding of recognition of human rights. The honour is even greater now that we call to mind the courage, commitment and heroism of the six priests from San Salvador who gave their lives for the sake of justice for the poor and oppressed of El Salvador on November 16, 1989,

In honouring them, we of course honour individual courage and strength of character, but we also honour Christians who represented the best tradition of the Christian church. In El Salvador, as in all of Latin America, the church has played a meaningful and important role in the struggle for justice and freedom. We know something about this since in our own country the church had indeed made its contribution to our own battle against colonialism, exploitation and racism, and had continued to inspire South Africa's oppressed people as they fought against that particularly vicious form of racist oppression the world knows as apartheid.

In South Africa both Christians and non-Christians acknowledge with gratitude and pride the contribution of the church in the struggle for human rights and human dignity, even as we acknowledge with that same gratitude the role of all people of faith to the struggle.

Of course nothing is as simple as it seems and those Christian heroes in the struggle for human rights universally will be the first to acknowledge that the history of the church in this regard is complex and fraught with contradiction. In fact, in SA our Christian comrades would insist that the contradictions in the history of the church be recognised. They are aware that this process causes some pain, but they tell us that without the pain that this confrontation with the past brings there will be no joyful discovery of a new role for the church our societies for the future.

So they speak of the times in the history of the Christian church when the church was hopelessly locked in the prison of its own connivance with the powers of oppression and exploitation. They speak of the time when the church gave comfort to slave merchants and justified the dehumanisation of men and women made in the image of God. This was true for the church in Africa, in Latin America and the new world.

In South Africa it is even true to say that broadly speaking two churches developed: the church that supported and justified apartheid and the church that saw it as its duty to support the struggle against apartheid. In my country the pain that we speak about went even deeper. Historians tell us that apartheid as an idea and a system must be seen not as an initiative of a state but as the brainchild of the church, in particular the white Dutch Reformed churches.

Long before apartheid had become a legal and political system In South Africa, it had become part of the life of the church, and the role of the white Dutch Reformed churches in helping to prepare SA for the advent of apartheid cannot be over-estimated. If one takes into account the all-important role of religion in our society and its impact on the shaping of both our society and our people the development of what has become known as the theology of apartheid in order to justify that system and its practises attains a special significance.

The contradictions that flow from this historical development mark our society and our churches to this very day. It is becoming clearer however, that those in the Christian church who supported structures of oppression were not in the right; they were wrong. Those who sought arguments from the Bible to justify slavery were not in the right; they were wrong. Those who proclaimed God's approval for apartheid even while our people died and children suffered were not in the right; they were wrong. They, as our Christian friends would claim and I agree, do not represent what Christians call the true prophetic tradition of the church.

That tradition speaks of the Christian God as a God of the poor and places this God firmly and without apology on the side of the oppressed. That tradition proclaims that the church is not at liberty to endorse injustice but must in fact take up the cause of the oppressed against the injustice that is done to them, That tradition confesses that the church is not free to remain aloof from the struggles and the suffering of the people but must itself become passionately involved in those struggles until justice is done.

This is the tradition that represents what is most noble in the Christian church. In this tradition stand those gallant men and women who actively fought against slavery and for 'its abolition. This is the tradition best represented by men like Wilberforce in England, Frederick Douglass In the United States and the Christian missionary Johannes van der Kemp in south Africa. This is the tradition of the prophets of the church who refused to adjust themselves to the unjust orders of their day and who were not afraid to stand alone in the struggle for justice. Such a man was Bartholomeus de lee Cases who,
in an age when the church in Latin and Central America made common cause with slave drivers and the merchants of human flesh, took it upon himself to be the voice of the voiceless and to act against these evil practises with which the church of that day identified itself.

This is the tradition so nobly represented by the six brothers whom we honour today, as it is represented by those from Central America who will receive the awards for Commitment to Truth and Freedom.

They knew how to speak the truth when it was so much easier to lie in order to survive. But they knew more; they knew that the truth should not only be spoken but lived so that their commitment transcended the spoken word and became a way of life. The truth they stood for was the truth that sets human beings free. It affirmed life rather than death and it celebrated life in the midst of death. It knows that our children are not born for destruction but are meant to reach their full human potential.

They knew the truth: that human rights are inseparably tied to human dignity. Their origin, as Martin Luther King Jr used to say, does not lie in human thinking but in the dim mist of eternity. People have human rights because they are made in the image of their Creator; an image which confers upon them a dignity that cannot be denied. Therefore human rights are not a government's to give or arbitrarily withdrawn or suspended, they can only be recognised.

It is this essential truth that makes the human spirit ultimately Invincible. It enables us to rise above circumstances or the crudest machinations of oppression to affirm what is best in us, Even in the midst of intimidation end torture it empowers us to rise above our fear, to reach into deep wells of courage so that the torturers remain dumb-founded. That dignity refuses to be enclosed or incarcerated by prison walls; it soars above those walls into the heavens to grasp and shape a vision that we continue to see even though our eyes are blurred with tears of pain and suffering.

That dignity provides people who struggle for justice with an amazing source of strength. Mothers in South Africa's relocation camps see their children die; mothers in Guatemala or El Salvador or Nicaragua have seen their children disappear and have stood at the sides of mass graves. Yet they themselves have riot only refused to give up hope, they have continued to inspire hope in others.

Priests like Archbishop Oscar Romero have died, brutally murdered by the oppressor as an example to others who would dare speak up against injustice. Yet since then many continued to follow in his footsteps and as he himself said, his spirit continues to live on in the life of the Salvadoran people. It is this spirit that cannot die. It is this spirit that is the guarantee of our victory.

We, in South Africa, understand this so well. For years our people have suffered under apartheid and in the last decade we have lived through the unspeakable brutality of successive states of emergency. Our people went to prison in their thousands, in fact more than thirty thousand during the first eighteen months of the state of emergency, and according to figures of human rights organisations, forty percent of them children under the age of eighteen.

Our school yards were turned into battle grounds, the streets of our townships into the frontlines of war. The sanctity of our churches and our mosques was defiled; those who inspired our people from the pulpit were dragged away in the dead of night and imprisoned. Our children were tortured and killed on the streets and it seemed as if all hope had fled.

We knew more than ever before that ours was not an easy walk to freedom. But with a certainty that reached beyond ourselves and with a hope that has no need of human words, we knew that we would weak that road surely and that that freedom would not elude our people.

In that sense we share the same spirit with those who are honoured here today, and in that same sense we share their hopes and aspirations.

This is the truth affirmed by human courage and commitment that always overcomes adversity. It is a truth that brings true understanding. Through it our six' honourees understood true justice and peace. They knew that peace is not simply the absence of war or the minimising of conflict. It is the active presence of justice. They Knew that laws devoid of justice are in fact tyranny and that order in society is the result of justice and not the other way around. They knew too that the true criterion for order and peace in society is not the polity of the homes of the privileged or the undisturbed wealth of the rich, but the justice done to the poor and the least privileged in our society.

This understanding still poses a challenge for Christians today. In our own country Christians are called upon to understand the need for justice for those who are poorest. They must come to understand that reconciliation in SA, which must become a reality for all our people has political, social and economic implications. Therefore the Christian church is challenged to participate in the debate on economic justice and the redistribution of wealth. Economic and social justice, closing the gap
between the rich and the poor, creating equal opportunities for all our people giving them equal access to the full potential of their land, is not only a demand of historic justice, it is, as I understand it, also part of their Christian responsibility. It is a challenge laid upon them by the Biblical message itself.

Reconciliation that does not take account of restoration will remain politically empty as well as theologically meaningless. The church must help through its own testimony to give meaning to the political process in our country and elsewhere in the world, through the contribution of its own understanding of the truth. For that reason it must not shy away from either the controversial or the complex nature of the issues in

We need the spiritual guidance of the church as our people struggle to come to terms with fundamental change in our society. South Africa's political life must be taught to turn away from human devastation to the respect and enhancement of human dignity. Clearly, one needs new laws that fulfil this requirement. All human experience however, teaches us that laws are not enough. There is still another battle that needs to be fought and won: that of the hearts and attitudes of people. A changed society needs transformed people. We need not only to respect the new laws of justice and equality, we need to want to respect those laws. We need to see each other in a different light and recognise in each other the human dignity we have been endowed with by the creator. This is a task that goes beyond the making of laws. It has a spiritual dimension that clearly falls within the responsibility of people of faith.

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Acquisition method: Hardcopy ; Source: ANC Archives, Office of the ANC President, Nelson Mandela Papers, University of Fort Hare. Accessioned on 18/01/2010 by Zintle Bambata




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