Nelson Mandela smiles on the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, December 5, 1999. That evening, the world leader shook the souls of thousands with a soaring oration on the changing global family approaching a new millennium. Critical junctures faced humanity that still persist 19 years later.
President Nelson Mandela's Wish
for the 21 Century
Madiba's speech at the 3rd Convening of the
Parliament of the World's Religions
Cape Town, South Africa • December 5, 1999
Master of ceremonies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Unfortunately, I must tell a story, which in gatherings of this nature I have told more than a hundred times. Because that story puts in context some of the remarks that have been made here about one individual. This is when I spent a holiday in the Bahamas in 1993. I met some tourists — a man and a wife — as I was taking a walk and the man stopped and said, “Mr. Mandela.”
I said, “Many people mistake me for that chap.” And he said, “Would I be entitled to take you for that chap?” I said, “You’d be doing what many people are doing.” He then turned to his beloved wife and said, “Darling, Mr. Mandela.”
She was totally unimpressed.
She said, “What is he famous for?” And the husband in his embarrassment dropped his voice and said, “Mr. Mandela, Mr. Mandela.” And the woman insisted “I asked what is he famous for?” And before the husband answered she turned to me and said, “What are you famous for?”
I couldn’t answer the question.
But there is another incident near, at home, when a five-year-old lady — I was told by security that she was at the gate. And I said, “Let her come in.” And they said, “She is very cheeky” I said, “Precisely for that reason let her come in.” And indeed she was quite a lady because she just stormed into my lounge without knocking, did not greet me and the first remark was, “How old are you?” I said, “Well, I can’t remember, but I was born long, long ago.” She said, “Two years ago?” I said, “No, much longer than that.”
She suddenly changed the topic and said, “why did you go to jail?” I said, “Well, I didn’t go to jail before because I liked. Some people sent me there.”
I said, “Some people did not like me.” And she said, “How long did you remain there?” I said, “Now I can’t remember.”
I said, “No, more than that.” Then she says, “You are a stupid old man, aren’t you?” And having made that devastating attack, she sat down with me and joked with me as if she had paid me a compliment.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I hope at the end of my speech if you feel that I have not risen to expectations, I hope you will be more diplomatic than that young lady.
The truth of the old African proverb that we are people through other people is tonight very evocatively being demonstrated by this gathering of so many people from all parts of the world. This coming together here in this southernmost city on the African continent of representatives from such a wide range of the faiths of the world simbolizes the acknowledgement of our mutual interdependence and common humanity. It is to me a humbling experience to be part of this moving expression and reaffirmation of the nobility of the human spirit. This century has seen enough of destruction, injustice, strife and division, suffering and pain and of our capacity to be massively inhuman the one to the other. There is sufficient cause for being cynical about human life and about humanity. This gathering at the close of our century serves to counter despair and cynicism and calls us to a recognition and reaffirmation of that which is great and generous and caring in the human spirit. We are being reminded in the words of the psalm that we were indeed created a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.
I accept with humility and great appreciation the honors that you have sought fit to bestow on an old man in the years of his retirement. If nothing else, it demonstrates that old age still intimidates people into paying respect and homage.
I accept these awards not merely on my behalf. I do so in recognition of the three persons after whom the awards are named and in celebration of what they stood for. I wish through the receipt of these awards to identify with those values which they represented so powerfully in their respective lives and works a commitment to peace, nonviolence and dialogue.
I also dedicate these awards to those millions and millions of ordinary unsung men and women all over the world who throughout this century courageously refused to bow to the baser instincts of our nature and to live their lives in pursuit of peace, tolerance, and respect for differences.
Even in the closing decade of the century, we have witnessed how internecine strife degenerated into genocide with former neighbors participating in the slaughter of each other. This century, unfortunately, had too many leaders attempting to exploit communal differences for their own political ends. In most instances, it was the resolve and the determination of ordinary citizens to resist this course to destructive sectarianism that saved our world from even more instances of genocide and violent conflict. It is them the decent, general citizenry who we salute at the close of the century that has its share of war and strife. We have had men who were so arrogant that they wanted to conquer the world and turn human beings into their slaves. But the people always put an end to such men and women. Alexander the Great thought he could conquer the world. Caesar also had the same ambitions. Napoleon almost succeeded in laying the whole of Europe at his feet. And during our time, there emerged Hitler who did exactly the same thing. But it was the ordinary people, not kings and generals, it was the ordinary people, some of whom were not known in their own villages who put an end to those tyrants — to those dictators. And it is for that reason that the real leaders of the world are those who for 24 hours a day think in terms of the poorest of the poor. It is those men and women who know that poverty is the single most dangerous threat to society in the world today.
In our country, my generation is the product of religious education. We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites: a minority of less than 15 percent. They took no interest whatsoever in our education. It was religious institutions whether Christian, Moslem, Hindu or Jewish in the context of our country, they are the people who bought land, who built schools, who equipped them, who employed teachers, and paid them. Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today. It was for that reason, that when I was ready to go to the United States on the first of this month, an engagement which had been arranged for quite some time, when my comrade Ibrahim told me about this occasion I said I would change my whole itinerary so I would have the opportunity to appear here.
But I must also add that I do appreciate the importance of religion. Apart from the background that I’ve given you, you’d have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid where you can see the cruelty of human beings to others in their naked form. But it was again religious institutions, Hindus, Moslems, leaders of the Jewish faith, Christians, it was them who gave us the hope that one day we would come out. We would return. And in prisons, the religious institutions raised funds for our children who were arrested in thousands and thrown into jail.
And many when they left prison had a high level of education because of the support we got from religious institutions. And that is why we so respect religious institutions and we try as much as we can to read the literature which outlines the fundamental principals of human behavior like the Bhagavad Gita, Koran, the Bible and other important religious documents. And I say this so that you should understand that the propaganda that has been made, for example about the liberation movement in this country, it is completely untrue. Because religion was one of the motivating factors in everything that we did.
In some respects, the turn of the century is an arbitrary happening in the cycle of human life where there is always change from one day to the other. In other respects, it provides us with the symbolic opportunity to take stock of the substance of our lives and of what lies ahead.
As we approach the 21st century, we cannot but be starkly aware that we stand at a crossroads in our history. That the general citizenry to which we referred — those women, men and children who merely desire and have inalienable right to lead a decent life — continue to suffer deprivation and poverty. The world is still marked by massive inequality. In too many parts of the world warfare and violent conflict still reign. The powerful dominate at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable. The symbolic turn of the century calls us to a commitment to make the coming century one in which these and other issues of human development are fundamentally addressed. We shall have to reach deep into the wells of our human faith as we approach the new century. No less than in any other period of history, religion will have a crucial role to play in guiding and inspiring humanity to meet the enormous challenges that we face. In our South African society, we have identified as a crucial need for our efforts at material and social development and new construction to be matched and accompanied by what is called an RDP of the soul — a moral reconstruction and development program. That is no less true of our entire world.
The world is undergoing a profound redefinition of values and modes of perception. The globalization of the world economy and the outstanding advances of communications technology have drawn all of us together into a smaller world. Those technical advances might, however, also have contributed to a growing confusion of values as people seek to find their localized places in that globalized world. The escalation of poverty in a world that is at the same time marked by such opulence and excessive wealth, the suffering and marginalization of vulnerable groups at a time when the concepts of democracy and equality are supposed to have become universal, the growing degradation of the environment often caused by the greed of industrial development. These are but some of the contradictions that at heart are moral and ethical questions. And on the level of personal life as the world supposedly becomes smaller, the loneliness of individual human beings across the globe increases.
Religion, like all other aspects of human lives, of course faces its own challenges. We have seen how religion at times provided the basis and even gave legitimization to violent expressions of intolerance and conflict. Tragically, religion sometimes seemed to have lost its ability to hold people to good values and to inspire in them those articles and approaches that transcend the narrow and immediate considerations. Religious leaders, institutions and adherents now once more need to draw upon those critical resources that have made it such a central part of human life throughout the ages. Few other dimensions of human life reach such a massive following as the religious. Its roots are in every nook and cranny of society where political leaders and the economically powerful have no sway. The religions and faiths of our world have pondered over and listened. Hence the importance to once again draw on those forces of spirituality and innate goodness.
No government or social agency can on its own meet the enormous challenges of development of our age. Partnerships are required across the broad range of society. In drawing upon its spiritual and communal resources, religion can be a powerful partner in such causes as meeting the challenges of poverty, alienation, the abuse of women and children, and the destructive disregard for our natural environment.
We read into your honoring our country with your presence an acknowledgement of the achievement of the nation and we trust in a small way that our struggle might have contributed to other people in the world.
We commend the Parliament of the World’s Religions for its immense role in making different communities see that the common ground is greater and more enduring than the differences that divide. It is in that spirit that we can approach the dawn of the new century with some hope that it will be indeed a better one for all of the people of the world.
I thank you.
Full text of speech by Nelson Mandela at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Cape Town, South Africa, December 1999. Transcribed by Gillian Hagerty, “The Word Foundation.”