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50th National Conference: Nelson Mandela`s closing address

20 December 1997, Mafikeng


My President, Comrade Thabo Mbeki;
My leaders: the Officials, members of the NEC, PEC`s, and BEC`s;
Colleagues and comrades;
Dear Guests.

The time has come to hand over the baton.

The time has come to affirm and celebrate the decisions that you have taken to put in place a national leadership collective that will take the ANC into the new millennium. You delegates have spoken, in the true spirit of the ANC.

But you have spoken in more than just your own name and right. As your voices carried beyond the confines of this hall to every home in the village, township and suburb, you were echoing the will of the hundreds of thousand of ANC members; you were expressing the views of the millions of South Africans who see the ANC as the custodian of their deepest hopes for a better life.

The time has come for me to take leave.

The time has come to hand over the baton in a relay that started more than 85 years ago in Mangaung; nay more, centuries ago when the warriors of Autshumanyo, Makhanda, Mzilikazi, Moshweshwe, Khama, Sekhukhuni, Lobatsibeni, Cetshwayo, Nghunghunyane, Uithalder and Ramabulana, laid down their lives to defend the dignity and integrity of their being as a people.

When we ourselves received the baton from Dube, Sol Plaatjie, Ghandi, Abdul Abduraman, Charlotte Maxeke, Gumede, Mahabane and others, we might not have fully appreciated the significance of the occasion, preoccupied as we were by the detail of the moment. Yet, in their mysterious ways, history and fate were about to dictate to us that we should walk the valley of death again and again before we reached the mountain-tops of the people`s desires.

And so the time has come to make way for a new generation, secure in the knowledge that despite our numerous mistakes, we sought to serve the cause of freedom; if we stumbled on occasion, the bruises sustained were the mark of the lessons that we had to learn to make our humble contribution to the birth of our nation; so our people can start, after the interregnum of defeat and humiliation, to build their lives afresh as masters of their own collective destiny.

I am certain that I speak on behalf of the veterans who graced this historic Conference, and many others, when I say that, if we were fortunate to smell the sweet scent of freedom, there are many more who deserved, perhaps more than us, to be here to witness the rise of a generation that they nurtured. But for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Oliver Tambo, Moses Kotane, Yusuf Dadoo, JB Marks, Lilian Ngoyi, Florence Mophosho, Kate Molale, Alex La Guma, Helen Joseph, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Moses Mabhida, Ruth First and others would have been witness to the end of a lap in a relay that they ran with such energy and devotion.

It is i their name that we say to you: here are the reins of the movement - protect and guard its precious legacy; defend its unity and integrity as committed disciples of change; pursue its popular objectives like true revolutionaries who seek only to serve the nation.

If we make these demands on you, it is because you accepted the burden of responsibility when you decided to enter the ranks of this leading movement of fundamental change. You responded to the call of destiny to bring into reality the day when the people can indeed govern.

If we make these demands on you, it is because you have run such a successful Conference - demonstrating for all to see, the quality of the ANC as the principal agent of social change. In the content of our resolutions, in the spirit of comradeship which characterised our communion over the last five days, this 50th National Conference of the ANC has demonstrated once more the strength of internal democracy in our organisation, inspired by the search for answers to the challenges that face us.

In this regard, I wish to thank all the delegates and guests, the ANC, our colleagues in the Tri-partite Alliance, other democratic organisations and our friends from abroad for ensuring that we have had such a memorable event. I will remember this experience fondly for as long as I live.

Running like a golden thread through the decisions that we have taken is a reaffirmation of what the ANC has always stood for:

  • to bring fundamental change to the lives of all South Africans, especially the poor;
  • to recognise the actual contradictions in our society and to state them boldly, the better to search for their resolution;
  • to avoid steps that further worsen social conflict; and
  • to build our new nation by continually and consciously exorcising the demon of tribalism, racism and religious intolerance.

If these objectives are themselves not new; the circumstances in which they have to be pursued are different: we operate in a world which is searching for a better life - without the imprisonment of dogma. In this sense, therefore, you have started along a new path into the new century.

The response of some political parties and sectors of society, including the media to my Political Report was not unexpected; and, if anything, it confirms everything that we said.

Comrades and friends;

More often than not, an epoch creates and nurtures the individuals which are associated with its twist and turns. And so a name becomes the symbol of an era.

As we hand over the baton, it is appropriate that I should thank the ANC for shaping me as such a symbol of what it stands for. I know that the love and respect that I have enjoyed is love and respect for the ANC and its ideals. I know that the world-wide appreciation of South Africa`s miracle and the dignity of its people is appreciation, first and foremost, of the work of the ANC.

In the early years when I was all green and raw in the movement`s ranks, Constatine Ramohanoe, the Transvaal President of the ANC took me by train and on foot to visit villages, cities and dorpies, and taught me and my generation never to lose touch with the people.

During that period, Moses Kotane, in his curt and disciplinarian manner showed us ways of nurturing people`s thinking and commitment to the poor. Yusuf Dadoo brought to the fore the importance of united action among all the oppressed and democratic forces. Bram Fischer and Michael Harmel brought us into the debates of the Communist Party and assisted us to appreciate that problems need to be approached from different angles. Chief Albert Luthuli taught us that reconciliation is not an antithesis to revolutionary struggle and transformation.

And Oliver Tambo, was like no one else a brother and a friend to me. He enriched my own life and intellect; and neither I nor indeed this country can forget this colossus of our history.

All these giants and more - the living and the dead - were the band of comrades who not only compensated for my own weaknesses; but they also assigned me tasks where my strengths could grow and thrive. What I am today is because of them; it is because of the ANC; it is because of the Tri-partite Alliance.

But I think that this experience transcends my own life and touches on the very issue of cadre policy which we deliberated on in the past few days. I say so because I know that among you there are many who have such great potential - revolutionaries suited to the new age: organisers, intellectuals, mass leaders, activists and strategists at all levels of the movement. We must nurture you all, and let your strengths shine through.

The time has come to hand over the baton. And I personally relish the moment when my fellow veterans and I shall be able to observe from near and judge from afar. As 1999 approaches, I will endeavour as State President to delegate more and more responsibility, so as to ensure a smooth transition to the new Presidency.

Thus I will be able to have that opportunity in my last years to spoil my grandchildren and try in various ways to assist all South African children, especially those who have been the hapless victims of a system that did not care. I will also have more time to continue the debates with Chopo, Zizi and others, which the 20 years of umrabulo on the Island could not resolve.

Let me assure you and the people of our country that, in my humble way, I shall continue to be of service to transformation, and to the ANC, the only movement that is capable of bringing about that transformation. As an ordinary member of the ANC I suppose that I will also have many privileges that I have been deprived of over the years: to be as critical as I can be; to challenge any signs of "autocracy from Shell House"; and to lobby for my preferred candidates from the branch level upwards.

On a more serious note though, I wish to reiterate that I will remain a disciplined member of the ANC; and in my last months in government office, I will always be guided by the ANC`s policies, and find mechanisms that will allow you to rap me over the knuckles for any indiscretions.

Our generation traversed a century that was characterised by conflict, bloodshed, hatred and intolerance; a century which tried but could not fully resolve the problems of disparity between the rich and the poor, between developing and developed countries.

I hope that our endeavours as the ANC have contributed and will continue to contribute to this search for a just world order.

Today marks the completion of one more lap in that relay race - still to continue for many more decades - when we take leave so that the competent, generation of lawyers, computer experts, economists, financiers, industrialists, doctors, lawyers, engineers and above all ordinary workers and peasants can take the ANC into the new millennium.

I look forward to that period when I will be able to wake up with the sun; to walk the hills and valleys of Qunu in peace and tranquillity. And I am confident that this will certainly be the case because, as I do so, and see the smiles on the faces of children which reflect the sunshine in their hearts, I will know, comrade Thabo and your team, that you are on the right track; you are succeeding.

I will know that the ANC lives - it continues to lead!