Celebrations as Mandela takes over

Wednesday, May 18, 1994 - 10:00

By Norm Dixon

JOHANNESBURG — "The people of South Africa have spoken ... They want change! And change is what they will get. Our plan is to create jobs, promote peace and reconciliation, and to guarantee freedom for all South Africans. We will tackle the widespread poverty so pervasive among the majority of our people." With these words, Nelson Mandela greeted 100,000 elated, cheering supporters in the streets of Cape Town soon after being elected president of South Africa at the historic first sitting of the National Assembly on May 9.

Celebrations, formal and informal, took place throughout the country, beginning with the first sittings of the provincial legislatures and election of premiers on May 7 and culminating in a monster party on the lawns of the Union Buildings in Pretoria to coincide with Mandela's official inauguration on May 10. The whole country has been in a well-deserved, long-awaited, non-stop party since Mandela's victory speech on May 2.

The happiness and growing confidence of the people in the streets is obvious. They laugh, joke and greet total strangers. The elections and the ANC victory are never far from their lips. "Freedom" is a word often heard as you catch snippets of conversation. The perpetual tension that is a hallmark of this city has dissipated. Continuing the trend that began during the voting days, political and criminal violence has all but evaporated.

One particularly popular T-shirt that has suddenly appeared on hawkers' stalls depicts the old flag being painted over by the new multi-hued national flag. Its slogan announces: "I'm the boss in the new South Africa". The smiling face of Nelson Mandela is available on everything from T-shirts, dresses and scarves to mugs, plates and carpets.

One by one, the monuments and icons of white rule were subsumed by the representatives of South Africa's majority. On May 8, the ANC's 252-strong National Assembly caucus met in the chamber of the old House of Assembly. Taking delight at dancing on the grave of apartheid, veteran Walter Sisulu sat down in the seat where apartheid architect Dr Hendrik Verwoerd and his National Party successors once sat. The ANC caucus begins it meetings with the strains of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" and raised clenched fists.

Among the ANC's newly elected is was Melanie Verwoerd, grand-daughter-in-law of apartheid's founder. "It is a bit unreal but it is great", she told the Johannesburg Star. Hendrik Verwoerd's grandson, and Melanie's husband, Wilhelm Verwoerd, is also an active ANC member who works at the institution that was once the intellectual cradle of apartheid, the University of Stellenbosch.

Housing minister and South African Communist Party chairperson Joe Slovo said the chamber was no longer the "old white parliament". It's now "the new people's parliament".

On May 9, black South Africans took their seats for the first time in a democratic parliament. Many MPs chose to take their oath or affirmation in now officially recognised African languages. Nelson Mandela was then elected unopposed as the new president of South Africa. A traditional praise singer entered to extol the virtues of "Madiba" and the struggle of the ANC. A noted feminist and former head of the Women's National Coalition, Frene Ginwala, was elected South Africa's first woman parliamentary speaker.

Following his election, Mandela addressed a huge crowd of 100,000 on the Grand Parade, the site of his first speech after being released from prison in 1990. "Perhaps it was history that ordained that it be here, at the Cape of Good Hope, that we should lay the foundation stone of our new nation. For it was here at this cape, over three centuries ago, that there began the fateful convergence of the peoples of Africa, Europe and Asia on these shores. It was to this peninsula that the patriots, among them many princes and scholars of Indonesia, were dragged in chains. It was on the sandy plains of this peninsula that the first battles of the epic wars of resistance were fought.

"When we look out across Table Bay, the horizon is dominated by Robben Island, whose infamy as a dungeon built to stifle the spirit of freedom is as old as colonialism in South Africa. For three centuries that island was seen as a place to which outcasts can be banished. The names of those who were incarcerated on Robben Island is a roll call of resistance fighters and democrats spanning over three centuries. If indeed this is a Cape of Good Hope, that hope owes much to the spirit of that legion of fighters and others of their calibre."

Mandela told the exuberant crowd that the ANC was committed to a multiparty democracy, a bill of rights and a democratic constitution. He pointed out that the ANC had led the way in fighting for these ideals. The ANC stands for "a constitutional, democratic, political order in which, regardless of colour, gender, religion, political opinion or sexual orientation, the law will provide for the equal protection of all citizens".

"The struggle for democracy has never been a matter pursued by one race, class, religious community or gender ... In honouring those who fought to see this day arrive, we honour the best sons and daughters of all our people. We can count amongst them Africans, Coloureds, Whites, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews — all of them united by a common vision of a better life for the people of this country", Mandela said.

"You have mandated us to change South Africa from a country in which the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future. The cornerstone of building a better life of opportunity, freedom and prosperity is the Reconstruction and Development Program", he promised.

In Pretoria on May 10, an estimated 150,000 people began gathering in front of the Union Buildings, the citadel of white power in South Africa for over 80 years, before dawn. They came to see, hear and celebrate Nelson Mandela officially become South Africa's first democratically elected president.

Again preceded by two praise singers, Mandela took the oath of office before 180 foreign delegations and 41 heads of state. The proceedings were televised via a huge screen to the crowd on the lawns. Apart from Mandela, the biggest cheers went to the images of deputy president Thabo Mbeki, PLO chairperson Yasser Arafat and Cuban President Fidel Castro. Following his inauguration speech, Mandela joined the massive crowd outside and danced briefly to the music of the African Jazz Pioneers, much to the delight of the cheering audience.

Mandela dedicated his inauguration speech to all those who had sacrificed their lives for a free South Africa: "Their dream had become reality. Freedom is their reward."

He urged the many international delegations present "to stand by us as we tackle the challenges of building peace, prosperity, non-sexism, non-racialism and democracy". He praised the role played by outgoing president F.W. de Klerk and paid tribute to the security forces "in all their ranks, for the distinguished role they have played in securing our first democratic elections and the transition to democracy, from bloodthirsty forces which still refuse to see the light". The time has come to heal the wounds, he added.

"We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination ... We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world", Mandela promised.

"... We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world."

Cuba has officially resumed diplomatic relations with South Africa, Angola opened a embassy in Pretoria on May 11, and the Commonwealth announced that South Africa is certain to be readmitted. Hundreds of millions of rands in aid have been pledged from throughout the world.

From GLW issue 143