Item 1265 - Address by President Nelson Mandela at the Conference on Robben Island

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ZA COM MR-S-1265


Address by President Nelson Mandela at the Conference on Robben Island


  • 1995-02-11 (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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  • English

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Comrade Chairperson;
Distinguished Guests;
Comrades and Friends.

Yesterday we came to Robben Island for an emotional reunion of former political prisoners. The mixed feelings that this event evoked are testimony to the momentous changes that our country and our nation have undergone.

Few managed to suppress a tear. Many fond memories came gushing back.

But, above all, none of us could suppress the lump in our throats when we surveyed the array of distinguished luminaries who graced the occasion, all graduates of apartheid prisons: individuals holding the highest offices in the land; veterans such as Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Herman Toivo ja Toivo; ministers, parliamentarians; business-persons; sports personalities; leaders of civil society organisations; distinguished jurists and other intellectuals; officers of the army and our intelligence organs; journalists - in brief, a cross-section of the leadership of our nation and beyond.

It was essential for us to have this reunion; to reflect on our many years of imprisonment and the common solidarity we forged. It was essential to recall the years of bitter struggles waged against the harsh and dehumanising conditions on Robben Island, Kroonstad and many other prisons across the land.

We needed to remind ourselves of the sacrifices of many who did not live to witness the birth of a new South Africa. We salute all of them: Elias Motsoaledi, Joe Gqabi, Zephania Mothopeng, William Khanyile, Jeff Masemola, Lambert Mbatha and many more; and we shall forever remain indebted to them.

Our reunion is also a celebration of the human spirit: its tenacity under the most trying moments; and its generosity in striving to discover and nurture the good in all human beings, including the warped tormentors.

But, above all, it is a moment to celebrate the heroism of all the oppressed and democratic forces who endured and challenged the powers-that-be in the bigger prison that South Africa was. It is our opportunity to say to them and to the international community: thank you for flinging wide the prison gates. For it is you and not any individual or government who ensured that the changes that we have today in fact happen.

We are here also to declare with confidence and conviction: Never again, shall South Africa imprison its citizens simply because they disagree with the government of the day. The time for freedom, human rights, democracy and openness has come to pass.

It is a privilege to our generation that we were able to tread in the footsteps of a great many heroes of past centuries. Autshumato of the Khoi, Islamic priests some of whose remains lie buried on the Island, warrior-doctor Makhanda, Shaka's informant Msimbithi, Chief Langelibalele of the Hlubi and others, blazed the trail of heroes who were incarcerated on Robben Island for their opposition to colonial rule.

Yet it is also profoundly symbolic that Robben Island also acted as a leper colony and an area of unwanted deployment for the likes of Jan Woutersz whose so-called "mixed marriage" to a liberated slave was not approved of by the settler administration. For, history has turned all these colonial concepts on their head, and the real proverbial lepers of politics are the very masters who sought to keep the majority slaves.

It is a measure of the breath and depth of the forces involved in struggle that we have among us members of different political organisations as well people who might not belong to any political organisation at all. It is a measure of the commitment of our people to freedom that even those organisations which can in relative terms be characterised as small, had and still have, within their ranks, committed activists who were prepared to sacrifice their all for the liberation of the motherland. Such is the tenacity of South Africans, a quality that should stand us in good stead in the period ahead as we reconstruct and develop our country.

The question is often asked, how so many prisoners survived for so long the inhuman and degrading conditions in apartheid's dungeons! Indeed, the primary thing that kept our morale high was the knowledge and conviction that the cause of liberation was just and would ultimately triumph. So, when we were daily stripped naked in the biting winter cold; when we were tortured; when we were forced to break stones at the quarry - never for a moment did we allow this to break our spirits.

From the darkness of the prison cells, we knew there was light and a greater truth that no prison walls could hold back: the quest for freedom by the millions in our country and abroad.

We set about turning our prisons into schools for revolutionary fighters, giving cadre development a top priority.

But we also need to be frank and acknowledge that, outside the prison gates, solidarity and co-operation among former political prisoners has not been as it should be. Of course, we are not a special breed that should bury its differences across the political spectrum. Neither are we meant all to be friends simply because we spent time together in prison.

Rather, there is a challenge that we identified before our release - a challenge that had been enthusiastically taken up by international solidarity organisations before - which we have not carried out to maximum effect. That is, to collectively attend to the social and economic plight of former prisoners and detainees.

How inclusive and effective have the organs set up for this purpose been? Have we ensured that all former political prisoners, including those in far-flung villages, benefit from this exercise? These are questions that this conference cannot postpone.

At the formal governmental level, there are two forums that we need to utilise to ensure that those in need are catered for. Firstly, to contribute our own ideas to the criteria which will be used to put into effect the provision of the interim constitution for pensions to those who contributed to the democratisation of the country. Secondly, to ensure that those who suffered untold hardships benefit from the programmes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission comes up with.

But we need to be cautious. In claiming all these rights, we should ensure that only those truly in need pursue this cause. We should do this conscious of the fact that we cannot ourselves behave in a manner that creates the perception that we seek to empty the public purse for personal gain; nor that we desire to be treated as a privileged class.

In the final analysis, the greatest token of redress that all of us can get is the successful reconstruction and development of our country. The energy we mustered to survive the difficult conditions of prison should be put to good use in the effort to build a better life for all our people.

It is not surprising that the eyes of our people and the world are focused on the events of the past two days.

On the one hand, in our own unique way, we do form part of the galaxy of resistance fighters throughout the world who stood firm during trying times. That past, that all of us dare not forget, even if we forgive, is a towering monument of lessons for the future.

On the other hand, our country and the world want to know our collective view on the future of Robben Island. We cannot pretend that this is an easy question; neither does it lend itself to hasty answers. Many views have been put forward by a variety of interest groups. Even if we might not agree with them, we have no authority to question their integrity and good intentions.

In other words, we have to take full account of all the motivations, as systematically and as dispassionately as human nature can allow. But when the final decision is taken, account will have to be taken of the history of the island, its flora and fauna, its unique position as a place of both political and religious pilgrimage, as well as the country's strategic security interests.

One of the overriding considerations, in this respect, will be that our children and grand-children should see in its nakedness that part of our history; they should bear witness to the years of struggle and sacrifice, and swear that such horrors would never be repeated. When the final decision is taken, due cognisance will have to be given to the feelings of those who hold the Island sacred; and those who would be offended by any modicum of vulgarisation that some of the proposals may invoke.

There are many rational possibilities for the future of the Island. Should it be a Youth Island with educational facilities; or a centre with relevant archives and a museum; or still a location for a South African institute of peace and reconciliation? These and other suggestions are welcome. But we must ensure that we involve the broadest spectrum of South Africans in reaching at the final decision.

It is for this reason that I am in the process of setting up a Presidential Commission to examine this issue from all angles. The Commission will invite submissions from the public, including interested organisations and institutions. The recommendations will be submitted to the President for a final decision.

It will be crucial for the community of former political prisoners and the mass democratic movement as a whole to make well-researched and well-argued submissions to the Commission. The broad recommendations that will emerge from our deliberations here should definitely be pivotal in reaching the final decision.

We meet here today borne by the flood of our people's desire to live a better life. Nothing else, but concern for the mass of our people, especially the very poor, should drive our individual and collective efforts. They brought down the prison walls because they were confident that we would meet their expectations. We dare not disappoint them.

There is one central challenge that faces all cadres of struggle - all those who have been in prison, in exile, in the underground and the mass democratic movement. That challenge is that we should strive today to be remembered not merely for our yesterday, but for our role in building a better tomorrow for all.

We must be at the core of the army of builders: to consolidate democracy; to ensure visible change; to mobilise our people to take responsibility for their own lives; and to ensure that all citizens live a safe and secure life. We must be at the core of building relations of mutual co-operation with our neighbours and all peoples of the world.

This requires commitment and tenacity - certainly, even in greater measure than during those difficult moments behind the grey walls of apartheid prisons.

That is the clarion call of the moment!

Thank You!

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Acquisition method: Hardcopy ; Source: ANC Archives, Office of the ANC President, Nelson Mandela Papers, University of Fort Hare. Accessioned on 22/01/2010 by Zintle Bambata




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