Tomorrow, the country will come together to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela from prison.
This was a moment of great joy across the length and breadth of the country. I remember vividly the large crowd that had gathered outside Victor Verster prison in Paarl, waiting patiently for several hours to see their hero walk free. And the many more residents of Cape Town who gathered on the Grand Parade to hear him speak.
The people celebrated with great enthusiasm not only because, after 27 years, a great leader of our people was among us again, but because his release was a defining moment in our onward march towards democracy.
It had been just over a week since then President FW de Klerk had announced the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and other organisations and the release of prisoners, but it was the image of Madiba walking through the gates of Victor Verster that confirmed to South Africa and the world that a new era had dawned.
Of the many things that he said has he stood on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall that day, there is one statement that has remained with me all these years: “The need to unite the people of our country is as important a task now as it always has been.”
It was true then and it remains true three decades later.
Even after the release of Madiba and the unbanning of organisations, the transition to democracy was difficult. Thousands more people lost their lives in political violence, which was deliberately fueled to destabilise the negotiations process. There was initially very little agreement – and even less trust – between the parties on what the future of South Africa should look like. At several moments, the whole process risked being derailed by atrocities such as the Boipatong and Bisho massacres and the assassination of Chris Hani.
Yet, just four years after the release of Madiba, all South Africans went to the polls for the first time to elect a democratic government. I firmly believe that this was made possible only because of the unity of the people and their shared desire for peace and democracy.
Now we confront challenges of a completely different nature.
Our democracy is well entrenched. Our institutions are robust and durable. We are at peace, and over the past 25 years our people have experienced improvements in almost all areas of life.
Yet, there is so much further we need to travel. Inequality, especially as defined by race and gender, remains among the highest in the world. Unemployment is deepening and poverty is widespread. Violence, including the violence that men perpetrate against women, continues to ravage our communities.
In confronting these challenges, it is vital that we remain united.
Our history tells us that we can overcome even the most intractable of problems only when we work together. The release of Madiba, like the end of apartheid itself, was achieved through united and sustained action. It was achieved by putting aside differences to pursue a common goal.
As we mark this joyous anniversary, we share a common goal of an equal, just and prosperous South Africa, where all may experience an improving quality of life, and all may be able to realise their potential.
We all seek a growing, inclusive economy that creates jobs. We seek a capable developmental state that provides affordable services efficiently. We seek education, health, homes and safety for all.
I am certain that we can achieve all this for our country, but it will require much closer collaboration among all parts of society – government, unions, business, community structures, traditional leaders, students, faith-based organisations, academics and others.
It requires that every organisation and every individual brings whatever resources and capabilities they have to the table. It also requires trust and respect, and a willingness to accommodate views and positions of others. In some cases, it may require sacrifices and trade-offs in pursuit of the greater good of all.
Across the country, in many places, such partnerships are at work to solve common problems. From the social partners that meet every month at Nedlac to tackle unemployment and job losses to the Public-Private Growth Initiative, which is working on catalytic projects to boost growth, from the organisations that are working with government to tackle gender-based violence to the religious bodies that are working together to address social ills, various social compacts are in action.
The task we have now is to deepen those partnerships, to make sure they have greater impact and to ensure that they are more inclusive. These are the practical actions around which we should unite.
I conclude with some more words from Madiba, spoken from the balcony of the City Hall 30 years ago. He said: “Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive.”