Item 762 - 5th Steve Biko Lecture by Former President Nelson Mandela at the University of Cape Town

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5th Steve Biko Lecture by Former President Nelson Mandela at the University of Cape Town


  • 2004-09-10 (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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Nelson Mandela Foundation Website

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5th Steve Biko Lecture

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  • English

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Dr Mangcu
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for inviting us to deliver this annual lecture in the name of one of the great heroes in the struggle for the liberation of our country, Steve Bantu Biko.

We are deeply honoured to be thus associated with a South African and African whom we were forced by circumstance and history to observe from a distance, from the confines of a prison, as he lived out his brief but so powerful and evocative presence on the political landscape of this country.

His death, which we remember and commemorate in these days, was in many ways as powerful in its effect on our national consciousness as was his life.

From Robben Island we followed with immense interest the movement led and inspired by Steve Biko. Our views on the Black Consciousness Movement at the time have been published and is part of public record.

The driving thrust of black consciousness was to forge pride and unity amongst all the oppressed, to foil the strategy of divide-and-rule, to engender pride amongst the mass of our people and confidence in their ability to throw off their oppression.

For its part the ANC welcomed black consciousness as part of the genuine forces of the revolution. We understood that it was helping give organisational form to the popular upsurge of all the oppressed groups of our society. Above all, the liberation movement asserted that in struggle - whether in mass action, underground organisation, armed actions or international mobilisation - the people would most readily develop consciousness of their proud being, of their equality with everyone else, of their capacity to make history.

And as we now increasingly speak of and work for an African Renaissance, the life, work, words, thoughts and example of Steve Biko assume a relevance and resonance as strong as in the time that he lived. His revolution had a simple but overwhelmingly powerful dimension in which it played itself out - that of radically changing the consciousness of people. The African Renaissance calls for and is situated in exactly such a fundamental change of consciousness: consciousness of ourselves, our place in the world, our capacity to shape history, and our relationship with each other and the rest of humanity.

The intervention on the level of consciousness - and consciousness was a key concept in his political approach and vocabulary - was at the essence of Biko’s strategic brilliance and understanding. That intervention came at a time when the political pulse of our people had been rendered faint by banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment. Repression had swept the country clear of all visible organisation of the people. But it was also a time when the tide of Africa's valiant struggle and her liberation, lapping at our own borders, was consolidating black pride across the world and firing the determination of all those who were oppressed to take their destiny into their own hands.

History from time to time brings to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people.

We may benefit greatly from again reflecting upon the role and power of consciousness, as understood by Biko, in the development and shaping of the quality of a society. We South Africans have succeeded quite admirably in putting in place policies, structures, processes and implementation procedures for the transformation and development of our country. We are widely recognised and praised for having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. The solidity of our democratic order, with all of its democracy supporting structures and institutions, is beyond doubt. Our economic framework is sound and we are steadily making progress in bringing basic services to more and more of our people.

It is at the level of, what we once referred to as the RDP of the soul that we as a nation and people might have crucially fallen behind since the attainment of democracy. The values of human solidarity that once drove our quest for a humane society seem to have been replaced, or are being threatened, by a crass materialism and pursuit of social goals of instant gratification. One of the challenges of our time, without being pietistic or moralistic, is to re-instil in the consciousness of our people that sense of human solidarity, of being in the world for one another and because of and through others. It is, as Biko did at that particular moment in history, to excite the consciousness of people with the humane possibilities of change.

"In time," he said then, "we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift - a more human face". And he inspired an emerging generation to take faith in that assertion and possibility. Faith in the possibility to build a qualitatively better world asks to be rekindled. It is the unflinching adherence to that kind of faith that distinguished the other great African patriot you asked me to also remember in this talk tonight - Oliver Tambo.

I am often deeply under the impression of how our celebration of the not inconsiderable achievements of democratic South Africa tends to focus on the contributions and roles of such as Mandela and Mbeki - who had the privilege of being founding presidents - and others who enjoyed prominence during the transitional negotiations. And as a consequence how often it is neglected to explicitly recognise and acknowledge the hand of him who was architect, foundation layer and builder of that which we today celebrate and enjoy.

I am therefore grateful to you for recognising Oliver Tambo in your invitation to us. The story of Oliver’s life spans many themes and is rich in its narrative. The one theme I wish to highlight this evening is his remarkable, and possibly unique, leadership triumph over the hardships of political exile. Few liberation movements in exile withstood those hardships and challenges in the manner the African National Congress did under the leadership of Oliver Tambo.

The banning of the ANC and other political organisations, the imprisonment of the leadership, the intensification of repression by the apartheid regime all added up to a situation where the liberation movements were under extreme pressure. The movement had to gather and regroup in exile and conduct the struggle from foreign and unknown soil. Oliver was already sent abroad to head up the foreign mission of the organisation and it fell on his shoulders to lead the movement in exile.

It is remarkable to observe that the ANC today - nine decades after its formation - is stronger than it has ever been. Its support continues to grow and expand, and it has become the political home to South Africans from all backgrounds and sectors of society. That achievement is the direct continuation and culmination of the building, holding together, uniting and growing Tambo presided over and led in exile.

I was reminded at the time when we were approaching the end of our term as President and people were anxiously or mischievously asking what happens after Mandela goes, how similar anxieties were expressed about what would happen after Chief Albert Luthuli.

Few, if any, of those observers considered or mentioned Oliver Tambo. Once more, a leader of vision stepped up to the historic moment, responding to the needs and desires of the oppressed. The history of South Africa could have been so vastly different if Oliver Tambo had not provided the leadership he did at the time and in the circumstances.

The struggle against apartheid became one of the foremost moral struggles of the twentieth century. Like few other liberation struggles it drew the support of people from the widest range of political persuasions across the world. It succeeded in mobilising the abhorrence of the entire humanity against the debasement of racism.

Oliver Tambo was the tireless campaigner and spokesperson for this African cause that became a world cause. One of his supreme achievements on the world stage was to imprint indelibly on the international consciousness the cause of an African nation and of Africa.

We have proven in recent years, particularly through the actions and example of our President, that we are seriously engaged in the quest for and the advancement of African unity, and as part of that our growing consciousness of the African Diaspora. These developments in our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world are legacies of the work of Oliver Tambo who built those networks of friendship and solidarity from which he could launch our cause onto the broader international stage.

Today we are a nation at peace with itself, united in our diversity, not only proclaiming but living out the contention that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. We take our place amongst the nations of the world, confident and proud in being an African country. We would not have been here had it not been for the exceptionally gifted leadership of Oliver Tambo.

Thank you to the Steve Biko Foundation for the opportunity to remember my old friend, partner and comrade.

And to participate in the honouring of the memory of Steve Biko.

I thank you.

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Acquisition method: From website ; Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation Website. Accessioned on 15/12/06 by Helen Joannides




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