South Africa’s former President, Thabo Mbeki’s speech poem of, “I am an African.”

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Table Mountain Cape Town

I am making an exception today by posting something unrelated to kidlit/writing, but I want to share this beautiful inspiration with you today. This is poetry, my friends! South Africa’s former President, Thabo Mbeki’s speech of, “I am an African.” This is the full, extended version of his video speech. As one who has spent much time on African soil, I think this is one of the most beautiful political speeches I have heard during my lifetime. The courage to look at your past, your present and your future, and acknowledge the good and the bad, is rare in politics. Former President Thabo Mbeki is a formidable man – a man that many would be proud to have had as president of their  nation. I hope this will have some resonance too for my American friends celebrating Martin Luther King Day today!

On 8 May 1996, then deputy president Thabo Mbeki made a speech to the people of Africa and the world.

The video at the end of the post is a shortened version of this speech, if the length seems a little formidable to read. 😉

“I am an African!

I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.

My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun.

The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightening, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope… The dramatic shapes of the [landscape] have… been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day.

At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.

A human presence among all these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African! …

Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.

In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done…

My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert….

I have seen our country torn asunder as … my people, engaged one another in a titanic battle, the one redress a wrong that had been caused by one to another and the other, to defend the indefensible. I have seen what happens when one person has superiority of force over another, when the stronger appropriate to themselves the prerogative even to annul the injunction that God created all men and women in His image.

I know what it signifies when race and colour are used to determine who is human and who, sub-human. I have seen the destruction of all sense of self-esteem, the consequent striving to be what one is not, simply to acquire some of the benefits which those who had improved themselves as masters had ensured that they enjoy. I have experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest.

I have seen the corruption of minds and souls [in] the pursuit of an ignoble effort to perpetrate a veritable crime against humanity. I have seen concrete expression of the denial of the dignity of a human being emanating from the conscious, systemic and systematic oppressive and repressive activities of other human beings. There the victims parade with no mask to hide the brutish reality – the beggars, the prostitutes, the street children, those who seek solace in substance abuse, those who have to steal to assuage hunger, those who have to lose their sanity because to be sane is to invite pain.

Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage. To these the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare…

All this I know and know to be true because I am an African!

Because of that, I am also able to state this fundamental truth that I am born of a people who are heroes and heroines. I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression.
I am of a nation that would not allow that fear of death, torture, imprisonment, exile or persecution should result in the perpetuation of injustice. The great masses who are our mother and father will not permit that the behaviour of the few results in the description of our country and people as barbaric. Patient because history is on their side, these masses do not despair because today the weather is bad. Nor do they turn triumphalist when, tomorrow, the sun shines.

Whatever the circumstances they have lived through and because of that experience, they are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be…

As an African, this is an achievement of which I am proud, proud without reservation and proud without any feeling of conceit…

But it seems to have happened that we looked at ourselves and said the time had come that we make a super-human effort to be other than human, to respond to the call to create for ourselves a glorious future, to remind ourselves of the Latin saying: Gloria est consequenda – Glory must be sought after!

Today it feels good to be an African…

I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.

The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share. The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.
This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned. This thing that we have done today, in this small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes…

Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!

However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!

Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now! “

VIDEO I am an African

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19 Responses to South Africa’s former President, Thabo Mbeki’s speech poem of, “I am an African.”

  1. Joanna, thank you for sharing such an inspiring speech by South Africa’s former President, Thabo Mbeki. His speech poem “I am an African” was absolutely beautiful and perfect for Americans today. What an enlightened soul. I like how many of have contributed something different today. Your offering was just stunning and left me speechless. Pure poetry. It is a day for all of us to recognize the past, strive for equality of all cultures and acknowledge our oneness as a humanity.

  2. Susanna says:

    Wow. How very beautiful and inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Powerful. Moving.

    Thank you.

  4. Joanna says:

    Thanks, Pat, Beth and Susanna. Listening to this gives me goosebumps and if I close my eyes I am back there!

  5. Tara says:

    Powerful words – I love the sense of conviction and hope and celebration. Thank you, too, for sharing the audio link.

  6. MiMi Atkins says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Too often people think of Africa as extremely impoverished and not realizing some of our richest soil (silt) slides through deposits and rivers there as well as the rich culture in Africa. The tribes and the families are extremely close and have amazing traditions that we can learn from in America. Mbeki’s speech reminds me of Nelson Mandela’s many speeches and prose on Africa.

    • Joanna says:

      Mimi, I hear these misconceptions often about Africa!

      I have read that Mbeki wrote the vast majority of Mandela’s speeches, so I am not surprised this one reminds you of Mandela’s prose!

  7. Thank you for telling me about this! This gives me a lot to think about. I like this quote ” I have seen what happens when one person has superiority of force over another, when the stronger appropriate to themselves the prerogative even to annul the injunction that God created all men and women in His image.”

  8. Bill Kirk says:

    Beautiful imagery in his words. Simply stated but very powerful. Thanks for sharing this. I’m glad I found your blog during the Comment Challenge.

  9. I think that’s what is needed for any social change – a sense of belonging & vision. Very inspiring to hear such optimism!

  10. Joanna says:

    Jeanine, yes an optimism in the face of much to be pessimistic about, based as you say, on identity and vision!

  11. Mary says:

    This is incredible, inspiring and so unbelievably moving. Thank you for posting.

  12. Joanna says:

    I so agree, Mary, and for me it evokes such strong imagery too!

  13. Hi Joanna, I agree with all the comments shared above. Very inspiring indeed. I recalled that the last full-length speech I listened/read was the one by Hillary Clinton – also awe inspiring as it discusses gritty, oft-believed-to-be-taboo topics. Thank you for writing this down for all of us. 🙂

  14. Joanna says:

    Myra, if it’s Hilary’s speech a month or so back to the UN, I applaud wholeheartedly what she said, as I too listened to/watched the video. I saw a new and impressive side to her!

  15. Pingback: Comment Challenge 2012 – GatheringBooks Dives In – A Running Update «

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