Programme Director, Dr Essop Pahad;
Mrs Camantha Reddy, Acting Principal of Midrand High School;
Dr Mukanda Mabonso Mulemfo, Founder of the Olof Palme Youth Education Initiative;
Her Excellency Ms Cecilia Julin, Ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of Sweden to the Republic of South Africa;
Ambassador Billy Modise;
Students of Midrand High School;
Ladies and gentlemen;
Thank you for the kind invitation to address you on this celebratory occasion. To be called to remark on the life and legacy of the great Swedish Statesman, Olof Palme, and consider the role of the youth in moving South Africa forward, is an immense honour and privilege indeed.
As we collectively launch the Olof Palme Youth Education Initiative this afternoon, I am reminded that he ranks amongst those who history will honour, and whose name we ought to inscribe on our consciousness.
Ensuring the longevity of such historical memory is the task of us all, as we seek to make tangible the narratives of our past.
Concerns with memory and legacy are foremost in the minds of South Africans. Our student population have catapulted us into considering both what it means to remember, how we remember and who gets to count among the ranks of those who are remembered.
Memory is central to our evolution as human beings. It is a key part of our education about who we are, and where we come from.
I am reminded, here, of the words of Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once wrote:
“Without memory it would virtually be impossible to learn…We could not learn from experience, because experience is something remembered. I would forever have to start at the beginning, not realising that a hot stove invariably burns the hand placed on it. What I know is what I remember, and that helps to make me who I am.”
These words tell us that we are made by our memory.
Through the tireless work of Dr Mulemfo, who has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that we do not forget the lives of key historical figures, the initiative joins the ranks of others across the world that memorialise the life and great acts of Olof Palme, and ensure that we both learn and remember. For this I, and many others, thank you, Dr Mulemfo.
The Former Swedish Prime Minister’s name is worthy of such remembrance, as his life was lived in accordance to the highest democratic principles that are deeply connected to the belief in our collective and shared humanity.
He epitomised the values of the African principle of Ubuntu/botho, by demonstrating that although free in his own country, he only thought himself free if those who lived thousands of kilometres away were free as well. In acting on this belief, he connected the path of South Africa and Sweden by being willing to act, journey across borders and commit his voice to ensuring that those who were oppressed and silenced could be heard by the international community.
Olof Palme had the ability to feel very deeply the suffering of the vulnerable and oppressed people in far flung places of the world.
In his contribution to realising a world in which no person would live chained to the shackles of injustice, he stands as a beacon to those of us who share his beliefs and ideas, and who seek to make our world a better place.
We can, as a result, draw many life lessons from his example that should inspire us both to be better as individuals, and to come together as a collective to change the conditions that so many South Africans find themselves in.
All of you who are gathered here today stand as the benefactors of this initiative, and because of the reality of our immediate circumstances today, I have framed my discussion to address you, the youth of our country, on your duty as a South African citizen and the importance of holding onto your dreams during difficult times.
As you have reached the senior ranks of high school, I am sure that many of you find yourselves both wondering about and planning for your future. As you do this, you are perhaps thinking of going out to work, attending university, considering moving provinces, countries or continents, assisting your parents and family, and fulfilling the dreams that occupy your thoughts at night.
It is important to hold onto these dreams, even when obstacles emerge and appear to threaten your ambitions and goals, and seek to turn them to dust.
Indeed the obstacles that appeared before me, at your age, were large and powerful. The apartheid regime sought to rob us of our destiny; rid us of our ambition and convince the black population of South Africa of a status as secondary citizens in our own country.
Growing up, we had to contend with the realities of Bantu education, a system that segregated our schools and was designed to offer us a lower class of education and prepare us for low-ranking jobs.
Such a system was designed to abbreviate our dreams and impose limits on who we saw ourselves as and dreamed of becoming.
As young people, we became actively engaged in the struggle against apartheid as we sought to change our circumstances – and refused to believe the lie that some are better than others simply because of their skin colour.
Our struggle succeeded not because of individual actions, but because of unity. This unity was between South Africans and Africans of all backgrounds, and international citizens who refused to stand by and bear witness to the inhumane conditions that defined our daily lives.
Such unity is a central tenet of Olof Palme’s life – as he worked with us in solidarity, on our journey to end the apartheid regime.
Speaking to the Swedish Parliament, he once said:
‘It is by taking joint responsibility that we can contribute towards abolishing the apartheid system. This system can live on because it gets support from outside. If the support is pulled away and turned into resistance, apartheid cannot endure. If the world decides to abolish apartheid, apartheid will disappear.’
Olof Palme demonstrated that we are responsible for not just ourselves, but also for the greater human society that we live in.
As Oliver Tambo noted:
“Our own people will always remember Olof Palme as one of us, an unswerving opponent of the apartheid system, one who took sides by supporting the oppressed and our organisation, the African National Congress”.
The close friendship and affinity between Oliver Tambo and Olof Palme was one that reflected their shared values – they were two of a kind, connected by their commitment to the highest of human ideals. No doubt, this influenced the stance that Olof Palme took on apartheid’s injustices.
With the South Africa-Sweden Schools Exchange Project that is incorporated as a part of this initiative, perhaps you will form similar friendships and bonds that will stand the test of time, influencing your thoughts, values and actions. Indeed, this is my sincere hope.
With the examples of Olof Palme and OR Tambo in mind, we should continually strive to create a better society than the one that we have inherited, seeking to change our condition and with the knowledge that we are building a better world for those who will come after us, bearing in mind that we are also responsible for those outside our borders – as Olof Palme’s legacy instructs us.
We share the destiny of other African people, and as a result xenophobia should not be allowed in our communities – since everyone is a stranger somewhere.
The respected philosopher Frantz Fanon once said: ‘every generation must discover its mission, and fulfil it or betray it’. Collectively, as the South African youth, you are tasked with taking us further than the freedom that we have brought you to, and discovering the mission and struggles of your lifetime.
Many South Africans, including perhaps some of you, continue to live under conditions that are undignified, violent and unjust. These conditions have no place within modern societies, yet have persisted in spite of the formal end of the apartheid regime.
While apartheid officially ended in 1994, and we now live in a democratic state, the struggle to end the legacy of apartheid continues as many of its features remain embedded in South African life. Poverty, unemployment, starvation, gender violence, against women and children and many other social ills are the regrettable fact of our reality – they build on the convergence of historical injustices of the past and the current inefficiency, greed and corruption which are a stain on the present.
There will always be new struggles to take up in the fight for a freer and more equal society.
Olof Palme was a symbol of all the democratic values that we continue to fight for and uphold in our society: unity, democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism, equality, justice and peace. His life serves as a reminder that we should never rest on our laurels, and continue to fight for a better reality.
You can choose to stand on the shoulders of the remarkable men and women who transformed our societies and act to change our world. The power of that choice rests on your own shoulders. You can make the work of Olof Palme and Oliver Tambo your own.
In doing this, there are many questions that you will have to ask yourselves, should you choose this route. These are questions about your beliefs, values, ideas, hopes, dreams and about the person that you want to become.
Life is not a destination, but a journey – that requires you to think about the endpoint that you hope for. Having a vision for where you want to be in life is crucial to your young imaginations. You are bigger than where you are right now. You are greater than this moment. You are capable of anything. Your today does not define your tomorrow.
I hope that you will be inspired to choose the most moral and ethical route, in spite of the fact that this often proves more difficult than the easier paths. I hope that you will choose to change your immediate circumstances through education, rather than accept the facts of your reality.
You stand as the inheritors of South Africa and the world-at-large. In recognising this, realise that your age is no signal of any kind of weakness or inability to affect the country that you live in, and to bring about change in our society.
To quote from 1 Timothy 4:12:
‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity’.
In setting this example, the South African Constitution grants you various rights, accompanied by responsibilities.
To assist you on this journey, the Olof Palme Youth Education Initiative is committed to your enrichment, education, success and development.
As I conclude, I would like to leave you with the words of John Still to remind us that:
“The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang
The struggle we face today is the struggle against forgetting. We all have the responsibility to ensure that we do not allow the rich lessons from our past to fade into historical oblivion.