Transcript of President Nelson Mandela’s last speech to Parliament – 26 March 1999

Nelson Mandela:       Madam Speaker, Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, the Premiers, honourable members and delegates, today does not mark the end of our country's first democratic government, nor does it bring to an end the term that I have the profound privilege to be serving as President. The business of government continues for some months to come and the high responsibilities which our constitution confers on the president must still be exercised in the interest of our nation.

But this day is a moment of deep significance for all of us whom the people of South Africa have entrusted with representing their needs and interests, their aspirations and hopes. And so it comes to pass that we who have collectively accepted the role of political leadership of our nation, today take leave of one another as members of this, our country's first democratically elected Parliament. Because the people of South Africa finally chose a profoundly legal path to their revolution, those who frame and enact a constitution and law are in the vanguard of the fight for change. It is in the legislatures that the instruments have been fashioned to create a better life for all. It is here that oversight of government has been exercised. It is here that our society in all its formations has had an opportunity to influence policy and its implementation. In brief, we have laid the foundation for a better life. Things that were unimaginable a few years ago have become everyday reality and of this we must be proud.

Questions have been raised, we know, as to whether this house is not a carriage of the gravy train whose passengers idle away their time at the nation's expense. To those who raise such questions we said: look at the record of our Parliament during these first years of freedom. Look at the work of the nation's representatives when they formed themselves into a constitutional assembly with a breadth of consultation and public participation that few would have imagined possible. And in a spirit of unprecedented consensus seeking, it was here that a constitution was formulated and adopted to enshrine our people's deepest aspirations. Look at the one hundred laws on average that have been passed by this legislature each year. These have been no trivial laws, nor mere adjustments to an existing body of statutes. They have created a framework for the revolutionary transformation of society and of government itself so that the legacy of our past can be undone and put right. It was here that the possibility was created of improving the lives and working conditions of millions. Look at the work of the committees that have scrutinised legislation and improved it, posed difficult questions of the executive, and given the public insight and oversight of government as never before. This is a record in which we can take pride.

But even as we do so, we do need to ask whether we need to re-examine our electoral system so as to improve the nature of our relationship as public representatives with the voters. Honourable members and delegates, I raise this question with great pride in what has been done to lay the foundation of democracy in our country.

Personally, I dare to say that moments in my life have been few and far between when I have sensed the excitement of change as in this august chamber. Each historical period defines specific challenges of national progress and leadership and no man is an island. And for me personally, I belong to the generation of leaders for whom the achievement of democracy was the defining challenge. I count myself fortunate in not having had to experience the rigours of exile, and decades of underground and mass struggles that consumed the lives of such giants as Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, Duma Nokwe, Moses Kotane and JB Marx, Robert Sobukwe and Zephaniah Mothopeng, Oscar Mpetha, Lilian Ngoyi, Bishop Alpheus Zulu, Bram Fischer, Helen Joseph, Alex La Guma, Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker.

(applause)

Unfortunately, Steve Biko passed away in his youth but he was a rising star. If he had been given the chance I would have counted him amongst these.

(applause)

I count myself fortunate that among that generation history permitted me to take part in South Africa's transition from that period into the new era whose foundation we have been laying together. I hope that decades from now when history is written, the role of that generation will be appreciated and that I will not be found wanting against the measure of their fortitude and vision. Indeed, Madame Speaker, I have noted with deep gratitude the generous praise that has often been given to me as an individual. But let me state this, to the extent that I have been able to achieve anything, I know that this is because I am the product of the people of South Africa.

(applause)

I am the product of the rural masses who inspired in me the pride in our past and the spirit of resistance. I am the product of the workers of South Africa who, in the mines, factories, fields and offices of our country, have pursued the principle that the interests of each are founded in the common interest of all. I am the product of South Africa's intelligentsia of every colour who have laboured to give our society knowledge of itself and to fashion our people's aspirations into a reasonable dream. I am the product of South Africa's business people in industry and agriculture, commerce and finance, whose spirit of enterprise has helped turn our country's immense natural resources into the wealth of our nation. To the extent that I have been able to take our country forward to this new era, it is because I am the product of the people of the world who have cherished the vision of a better life for all people everywhere. They insisted in a spirit of self-sacrifice that that vision should be realised in South Africa too. They gave us hope because we knew by their solidarity that our ideas could not be silenced since they were the ideas of humanity. I am the product of Africa and her long cherished dream of a rebirth that can now be realised so that all of her children may play in the sun. If I have been able to help take our country a few steps towards democracy, non-racialism and non-sexism, it is because I am a product of the African National Congress, (applause) … of the movement for justice, dignity and freedom that produced countless giants in whose shadow we find our glory.

Madame Speaker, when, as will be the case in a few months, I once again become an ordinary citizen of our land, it shall be as one whose concerns and capacities are shaped by the people of our land. I will count myself as amongst the aged of our society, as one of the rural population, as one concerned for the children and youth of our country, and as a citizen of the world committed, as long as I have the strength to work for a better life for all people everywhere. And as I have always done, I will do what I can within the discipline of the broad movement for peace and democracy to which I belong. I will then count myself amongst the ordinary men and women whose wellbeing must in any country be the standard by which democratic government must be judged. … … Primary amongst these criteria is the Reconstruction and Development Programme aimed at building a better life for all. Primary amongst these criteria are national unity and reconciliation amongst communities and citizens whose destiny is inseparable.

Honourable members, it is a measure of our success as a nation that an international community that inspired hope in us, in turn itself finds hope in how we overcame the divisions of centuries by reaching out to one another to the extent that we have been able to reciprocate in renewing hope amongst the people of the world. We are grateful indeed and feel double blessed. And it goes without saying that we should all live up to those expectations which the world has of us.

As I was reminded yet again on the visit which I have just made to the Netherlands and four Nordic countries, the world admires us for our success as a nation in rising to the challenges of our era. Those [challenges] were to avoid the nightmare of debilitating racial war and bloodshed and to reconcile our people on the basis that our overriding objective must be together to overcome the legacy of poverty, division and inequity. To the extent that we have still to reconcile and heal our nation, to the extent that the consequences of apartheid still permeate our society and define the lives of millions of South Africans as lives of deprivation, those challenges are unchanged.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the parties represented in this Parliament for their contribution to the progress we have made. Though we have our differences, often important and sometimes profound, we have as a collective demonstrated our overriding commitment to the new order that we have together established.

(applause)

You have ensured that this Parliament is no rubber stamp in the hands of government and you have given birth to a new democratic political culture. And so in the spirit of that democracy, we are today taking leave of one another so that our parties can once again submit themselves to the judgement of the people. Many of us will return to the second democratic Parliament. Others will not return to his hallowed institution, whether because of the electorate's judgement on our parties, or because of our own choice, or because of the imperatives of advanced age.

(laughter)

For my part I wish to say that it has been a profound privilege to be accountable to this Parliament. Though there is sadness in leave taking, I am filled with contentment by the sounds of voices that I have heard in the many debates that I have attended in this National Assembly, in the senate and in its successor, the National Council of Provinces. The other day's debate on issues affecting Afrikaners and other communities was no exception. Among the principles which the liberation movement pursued from the beginning of negotiations is that out of any debate we must emerge stronger and more united and that there should be no winners or losers.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, whom we all expect to be the President of South Africa (applause) exemplifies this approach which is critical to the unity of our country. I call on all to give their support to his leadership across all political parties. His and other voices are those of a new generation of leaders that are emerging in answer to new historical challenges. They are the voices of the good men and women who exist in all communities and in all parties, and who define themselves as leaders by their capacity to identify the issues that unite us as a nation. Together we must continue our efforts to turn our hopes into reality. The long walk continues. (vernacular) Mooi loop. (vernacular)

(applause and singing)

Frene Ginwala:  We thank you Mr President. Honourable members and guests, we request you to remain in your places until the procession has left the chamber. This joint sitting is now adjourned.