Editor’s note: We are indebted to the Nelson Mandela Foundation for permission to reproduce excerpts from a speech delivered by Nelson Mandela at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on July 11, 1997, when he was still South Africa’s first elected President under the country’s multi-racial system.
Readers should note that the reproduction of the speech did not constitute support for the contents of this website by the late President.
PROFILE OF NELSON MANDELA
Compiled by Iqbal Motani, Ottawa
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95 was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. He was educated at University College of Fort Hare, and in 1943 enrolled to study law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Due to his political involvement and being jailed he only graduated in law in the 1980s – some 40 years later! Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 and was engaged in resistance against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies. He spent 27 years in prison before emerging in 1990 and becoming president of the ANC. He served as president of South Africa from 1994 – 1999.
After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Nelson Mandela argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC and this led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labour. In 1963, when many fellow leaders of ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them, for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. On June 12, 1964, eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela’s reputation grew enormously. He became widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a powerful symbol of resistance as the anti-aparthied movement strengthened. He consistently refused to compromise his political position and principles to obtain his freedom.
Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. After his release, he immersed himself into his life’s work, striving to attain the goals he had set out four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa, after the organization had been banned in 1960, Mandela was elected President of the ANC.
He led negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and hold multi-racial elections in 1994, in which he led the ANC to victory, forming a Government of National Unity. He retired from political life in 1999.
Nelson Mandela is deeply respected and internationally revered as one of the great figures of the twentieth century. He received numerous civic honours and awards from around the globe for his leadership and lifetime achievements including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize which he shared with F.W. de Klerk.
RENEWAL AND RENAISSANCE – TOWARDS A NEW WORLD ORDER
Today, I come here as an African, as the guest of a Centre that is devoted to the study of Islam, in a European institution of excellence. And I come to pose the question whether our generation has the capacity to close the circle on these five centuries.
Can we say with confidence that it is within our each to declare that never again shall continents, countries or communities be reduced to the smoking battlefields of contending forces of nationality, religion, race or language?
Shall we rise to the challenge which history has put before us, of ensuring that the world’s prodigious capacity for economic growth benefits all its people and not just the powerful? Will future generations say of us: “Indeed, they did lay the foundations for the eradication of world poverty; they succeeded in establishing a new world order based on mutual respect, partnership and equity?”
Ladies and gentlemen
Africa, more than any other continent, has had to contend with the consequences of conquest in a denial of its own role in history, including the denial that its people had the capacity to bring about change and progress.
In the recovery of Africa’s history there is also a better understanding of the role of religion in that history; and of the contribution it has made, and could make, to the continent’s rebirth.
Today Islam and Christianity represent major religions in Africa, with Islam in fact the majority religion on the continent. These are not alien presences but African religions. They are part of Africa’s identity because they were not merely acquired in interaction with the world, but we also transformed what was external in origin and made it part of Africa. In doing so we have also changed these religions.
Islam has become part of Africa in a process as complex as the history of the continent itself. In some areas it was through military conquest; in many others — including parts of Southern Africa — along the arteries of trade; and also – as in South Africa — through the actions of colonial powers circumventing the refusal of the colonised to submit to wage-labour. I may add that Robben Island’s first political prisoner, and one of the founding fathers of Islam in South Africa, was one of several exiled leaders of resistance to colonial rule in South-East Asia.
If the language of Islam in Africa has been Arabic, it has also been indigenous African Languages. The coming of Islam sometimes meant the imposition of new political and social order, but also the absorption of Islam into an existing order.
African Muslim polities shared the ambivalence of other states and religions towards the colonial slave trade, protecting believers from the violation of their fundamental rights but also complicit in the trade in human lives.
In the face of European colonialism, Islamic communities took their place along the whole spectrum of resistance politics, including the struggle against apartheid.
If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those South African Muslims who died while in detention because of their resistance to apartheid; Babla Saloojee; Imam Haroun; Ahmed Timol; and Dr Hoosen Haffejee. They represent the involvement of the Muslim community in the struggle for justice and freedom, as does the presence of Muslims as Cabinet Ministers and in the highest office of our judiciary, in the new democratic political dispensation of our country.
Though there have been times in history of our continent when religion has inflamed tension and conflict, rather than eased it, there has generally been a notable degree of religious tolerance.
In this vast and complex process, Islam has enriched and become part of Africa. In turn Islam was transformed and Africa became part of it. African centres of learning served not only as a path for the absorption of the doctrine of Islam, but also contributed to the development of broader Islamic learning.
Ladies and gentlemen;
If we dwell on these matters it is because an acknowledgement of our own heritage is essential to the forging of new identities, as nations and as a continent. The recovery of our history is both a precursor of renewal and is promoted by it.
In this sense, the birth of a new South African nation, like the rebirth of our continent, has been a long time in the making. Indeed, it has been in progress from the beginning of the conquest. In reality resistance, and the aspiration towards independence regained, have never died, even when they seemed to have been silenced.
By bringing apartheid to an end — with the support of the whole international community — the people of South Africa have created conditions that are favourable for realising our vision of a new society based on justice and mutual respect. non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy.
Such a project requires a total transformation of our society with the central objective of addressing the legacy of our divided and oppressive past. The ultimate test of our success will be the extent to which we manage to create a better life for all, and more especially for the poor. This is a project which requires the simultaneous achievement of legitimate government; sustained economic growth in order to bring about socio-economic improvement; and the reconciliation of formerly divided sectors of society.
Being latecomers to freedom and democracy, we have the benefit of the experience of others. Through them, we understand that formal political rights will remain an empty shell and democracy fragile, without real improvement in the lives of people and without an all-inclusive approach that reconciles the beneficiaries of the old order with those who seek improvement from the new.
Under the new conditions, in which all are included and equal rights are accorded to all the religions, all the languages and all the cultures of our diverse society, what was once used to divide us and weaken us is becoming a source of unity and strength.
Thus, South Africa’s vibrant Islamic heritage is a valued and respected part of our nation. It is contributing to the forging of a new South African identity. Democratic South Africa, unlike its predecessor, accords Islam equal constitutional status with all other religions. Muslim marriages are now recognised.
The religious and cultural ties that nourished solidarity in struggle, are today strengthening partnerships for peace and prosperity between South Africa and countries in the Gulf and the Levant, in North Africa and South-East Asia.
The stability thus achieved and the harnessing of all our nation’s energies, have provided the conditions to turn economic stagnation into growth and to pursue our principal mandate, the improvement of living conditions for all our citizens.
Building a new nation out of the divided and oppressive legacy of the old, is a protracted process and full of challenges. But we can say with confidence that the foundations have been solidly laid.
The lessons we have learned from the experience of others are the common property of our age. What is being achieved in South Africa is part of a process sweeping across the continent. In the same way that the liberation of South Africa from apartheid was an achievement of Africa, the reconstruction and development of our country is part of the rebirth of the continent.
Ladies and gentlemen;
South Africa, and Africa, will not succeed in isolation from Asia and Latin America, precisely because we are now all expressly part of a single humanity.
The renewal of nations; the rebirth of continents and the emergence of a new world order are each processes in their own right. But they are also today part of a single transformation of historical significance.
Believe in the possibility of change and renewal is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of politics and of religions.
There have been other times when humanity believed that it was poised to enter a new era defined by the achievement of shared ideals.
The establishment of the United Nations and the beginning of decolonisation was such a time. Few would have imagined fifty years ago that the closing years of this century would see so much of humanity still homeless, hungry, illiterate and in poor health, so many lives still blighted by insecurity stemming from violent conflict.
Few would have thought that the political ideals universally acknowledged and those core religious values of tolerance, respect for the individual, justice and concern for the poor, would still be denied to so many.
Few would have imagined that stability and security would continue to be under threat because so little has been done to reverse the growing gap between rich and poor.
As we enter the new millennium, as we strive to close that circle started five centuries ago, as we embark upon the regeneration of the much neglected continent of Africa to take its full place in the emerging new world order, can we join hands in a partnership for justice and peace? And can we again call upon the great spiritual values to help inspire humanity to rise to the best potential in itself, and this time truly to achieve those shared ideals for a better world for all its inhabitants?
Ladies and gentlemen;
When the Prophet Muhammad sent his oppressed followers to the African Christian King Negus of Abyssinia for safety, and they received his protection, was that not an example of tolerance and co-operation to be emulated today? Is that not a profound pointer to the role that religion can play, and the spiritual leadership it can provide, in bringing about the social renewal on our continent and in the world?
Africa’s history has been profoundly shaped also by the interplay between three great religious traditions — Islam, Christianity and African traditional religions. As it faces the new millennium, the conduct of this religious heritage may very well again be decisive in determining how Africa meets the challenges of the future.
As in the new global order no country, region or continent, can any longer operate in isolation from the rest of the world. No social movement in any country or continent can isolate itself from similar movements co-existing with it. This would apply to religion as much as anything else living in a society.
The way in which these three great religions of Africa interact and co-operate with one another, could have a profound bearing on the social space we create for the rebirth of our continent. The relationship of Islam and Christianity to one another and of those two to African traditional religion, may be pertinent aspects of this process. How Islam (and Christianity, for that matter) relates to African traditional religion presents a particular challenge to its followers all over Africa. It represents a call to Muslims to harness the more inclusive strands in their own theological heritage in order to contribute to a more humane Africa, acknowledging the humanity of those traditions that are unique to the continent.
As with other aspects of its heritage, African traditional religion is increasingly recognised for its contribution to the world. No longer seen as despised superstition which had to be superseded by superior forms of belief; today its enrichment of humanity’s spiritual heritage is acknowledged. The spirit of Ubuntu — that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings — is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.
The nature of interaction between the strands of our religious heritage could help lay solid foundations for the establishment of a world order based on mutual respect, partnership and equity. On a continent battling the scourge of underdevelopment, AIDS, ecological disaster and poverty, competition amongst religions will be utterly misplaced. Tolerance and co-operation, on the other hand, will give the moral leadership so gravely needed.
If I may conclude with one more reference to the experience of our own country during the struggle against apartheid. The strength of inter-religious solidarity in action against apartheid, rather than mere harmony or co-existence, was critical in bringing that evil system to an end. This approach, rather than verbally competing claims, enabled each tradition to bring its best forward and place it at the service of all. I am confident that the religions of our continent will walk a similar path in the reconstruction and renewal of our continent. And in that way we shall play our full role in the creation of the new world order.
Ladies and gentlemen;
I wish to once more thank the Centre for Islamic Studies for providing me with this opportunity to exchange ideas with such an illustrious audience. I am grateful for the opportunity to express in a practical way my appreciation of the Centre’s efforts to promote co-operation and understanding.
I leave from here rejuvenated, confident that we do have the capacity to embark on this shared new voyage of exploration into the next millennium, seeking to build a new world order from which all nations and people shall benefit equally.
Date posted: Sunday, April 7, 2013.
Date last updated: Thursday, December 5, 2013 (minor updates, following President Mandela’s passing away)
Copyright: Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Begin learning more about Nelson Mandela’s inspiring life and works by clicking on www.nelsonmandela.org.
To read the full transcript of the speech he made at Oxford University please click on Renewal and Renaissance – Towards a New World Order.
Nelson Mandela’s speeches are accessible via a speeches database which includes interviews, speeches, addresses, messages, media releases, testimony, lectures, toasts, tributes, oaths and declarations made by Nelson Mandela. Please click on Nelson Mandela Speeches for more information about the database and to search speeches by topics and subjects.
AN INFORMATIVE NOTE ABOUT PRESIDENT NELSON MANDELA
Mr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is sometimes called by other names. Each name has its own special meaning and story. When you use them you should know what you are saying and why. So here is a brief explanation of each name.
Rolihlahla – This is Mr Mandela’s birth name: it is an isiXhosa name which means “pulling the branch of a tree”, but colloquially it means “troublemaker”. His father gave him this name.
Nelson – This name was given to him on his first day at school by his teacher, Miss Mdingane. Giving African children English names was a custom among Africans in those days and was influenced by British colonials who could not easily, and often would not, pronounce African names. It is unclear why Miss Mdingane chose the name “Nelson” for Mr Mandela.
Madiba – This is the name of the clan of which Mr Mandela is a member. A clan name is much more important than a surname as it refers to the ancestor from which a person is descended. Madiba was the name of a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the 18th century. It is considered very polite to use someone’s clan name.
Tata – This isiXhosa word means “father” and is a term of endearment that many South Africans use for Mr Mandela. Since he is a father figure to many, they call him Tata regardless of their own age.
Khulu – Mr Mandela is often called “Khulu”, which means great, paramount, grand. The speaker means “Great One” when referring to Mr Mandela in this way. It is also a shortened form of the isiXhosa word “uBawomkhulu” for “grandfather”.
Dalibhunga – This is the name Mr Mandela was given at the age of 16 once he had undergone initiation, the traditional Xhosa rite of passage into manhood. It means “creator or founder of the council” or “convenor of the dialogue”. The correct use of this name when greeting Mr Mandela is “Aaah! Dalibhunga”.
Other names – Of course, Mr Mandela’s family use many terms of endearment for him. His grandchildren use variants of “Grandfather”, like “Granddad” for instance. Mrs Graça Machel frequently uses “Papa”.
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