Distinguished leaders of the South African Jewish Community
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Compatriots and Friends,
I consider it a privilege to have been invited to make this keynote address to this congress. In the eighty one years of the life of our movement, this is the first occasion on which the President of the ANC has been asked to address a national congress of the Jewish community.
It is an index of the changes we have achieved during the first few years of this decade that the various South African communities are beginning to find each other and are striving towards a national consensus. A consensus not cobbled together through shoddy compromises, but rather one based on a recognition of a shared commitment to this country and a future founded on justice.
It is not uncommon these days to hear the plea that we should bury the past and focus our attention on the future. While we can all agree that the past should not be permitted to become a burden that impairs the ability of our country and its people to move forward, it would be extremely short-sighted to dismiss it and try to forget it as if it only had one single, brutal dimension. Your own experience of the holocaust teaches that one must learn from the past, not ignore it.
Casting our eyes back over the nine decades of this century it is clear that our South African past is as rich in the striving for justice as it is in the suppression of justice. It is as inspiring in the fight for democratic norms as it is depressing in the violation of those norms. South Africa's history abounds in heroes and heroines who have stood up for freedom as it abounds in persons who have sought to crush it.
The danger in trying to forget the past is that we may relegate to our collective amnesia the unequal contest between freedom and domination that has been the motor of our country's history for all of this century. It is to that unequal contest that I wish to address my remarks tonight.
Our national experience as South Africans is dominated by conflict. The three centuries of contact between the peoples of Africa, Europe and Asia on these shores have for too long been regarded as purely negative;as an object lesson in the incompatibility of peoples from different races, religions and cultures. Yet when viewed from another perspective, conflict can be a creative force through which the latent potential of a society is released. Perhaps because our shared past looks different from the perspective of most members of this audience we find it necessary to recount it as my comrades and I have experienced it.
It was the refusal of the then colonial government of Britain to listen to the entreaties of a non-racial group of petitioners who travelled to London in 1909 that led to the formation of the African National Congress. For three successive decades, until the 1940s, we continued to seek a dialogue with successive White South African governments around the grievances of the majority of South Africans who were born black.
By the-mid 1940s, the decade during which I entered politics in earnest, it had become clear that nothing would change except at the instance of massive pressure from below. It is a matter of record that our peaceful mass protests - strikes, stay-at-homes, defiance campaigns, demonstrations, marches and boycotts - were then, as they continue to be, met with brute force and armed repression. It was this studied refusal to respond to our reasonable demands for redress that compelled us, like many other people before us, to take lip the armed struggle more than three decades ago.
The possibilities for a peaceful transition to democracy, which everyone, including those who repressed us, says they welcome, became real because of and through conflict. South Africa stands on the threshold of democratic transformation today because there were women and men who refused to submit to the blandishments and bullying of tyranny.
It is important for our future that there is an understanding that it is struggle rather than submission that is the creative force. That it is the proverbial "troublemakers" rather than the silent conformists who are responsible for human progress. That it is those who resist oppression who make freedom a realisable possibility.
The struggle for national liberation and democracy in South Africa has never been a racial affair, though it has indeed always been integrally related to the overthrow of racism and racial oppression. From that early group of petitioners to London - which included W.P. Schreiner, (one of whose descendants today serves with distinction in the ranks of the ANC) Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, the famous Muslim physician;John Tengo Jabavu, the father of African journalism;J. Lenders and others - down to the present day, it has been a struggle waged by South Africans of all colours, races, faiths and classes.
That is a legacy we shall always uphold.
For many thousands it entailed immense sacrifices - imprisonment, exile, underground activity, the destruction of family life, injuries and death. Every racial group, every faith, every ethnic and language community in our country has contributed its quota to the roll call of martyrs, heroes and heroines. In honouring those who fell in the struggle for freedom we honour no single group - defined by race, region, religion or colour. We honour the daughters and sons of our country, South Africa.
South Africans of Jewish descent have historically been disproportionately represented among our White compatriots in the liberation struggle. The names of Emil "Solly" Sachs, Bennie Weinbren, Max Gordon and Ray Alexander are indelibly inscribed in the history of the South African labour movement because of the contribution they made to it. Among the champions of the rightless we shall always count Senator Leslie Rubin, Sam Kahn, Helen Suzman and Ruth First all of whom employed their talents in the pursuance of justice.
I want to take this opportunity also to make special mention of some of the other outstanding leaders and figures from the Jewish community who have been in the forefront of the struggle for Human Rights. All South Africans owe much to the example set by Mr. Gerald Leissner, the President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Mr. Mervyn Smith, its current Chairman, and Professor Michael Katz, its past president. Members of the legal profession cannot forget the name of Advocate Maisels, an outstanding civil liberties lawyer who had a very distinguished career at the Bar.
Many black South Africans are indebted to Jewish philanthropists who assisted them when opportunities in education, the professions and business were largely closed to them because of racist laws and practices. I would like to believe that this and future generations from your community will build on these firm foundations by fully committing themselves to the future of our country.
We in the African National Congress are well aware that the tasks ahead are many and difficult. To make our dream of a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist South Africa real is an immense challenge. Yet we look forward to the future with confidence and hope, because we know that the people of this country, all the people of South Africa, are possessed of many talents, skills and an infinite resourcefulness.
Even while the majority of our people are denied equal opportunities in education and work, much positive development has occurred in South Africa. In a number of fields - from transport to mining, in the universities and in the application of science and technology to life - our country stands poised to play its part in the modern world. What we must now do is to make good the enormous lag caused by the ravages of apartheid.
It is in this respect that I wish to appeal to the Jewish community in particular. Yours is a community that has a deserved reputation for being well educated and for the skills it possesses - professional, commercial and industrial. I believe those skills can and should be used both to help the development of the country and to mount programmes, using your own knowledge and skills, to contribute to the development of those who have been denied fair opportunities. The international community has begun to invest in our education and training.
I believe that cooperation, commitment and imagination could ensure that more programmes for larger numbers of people can be established. The Jewish community must find a role for itself in such activity.
Events in our country sometimes challenge the sort of confidence I am expressing in our future. The seemingly unending spiral of violence;the soaring crime rate;the decline of South Africa's economy are all real and very palpable threats to any future we might hope to build. There are, too, the fears of a community that is relatively small, and is a minority within minority. We cannot minimise these fears and must address them in all seriousness.
Yet I must sound a word of warning against the temptation to cast oneself in the role of a victim, even when this is unwarranted. It is important that we retain some perspective in relation to these matters. At present, most black communities in South Africa feel the scourge of violence and crime more keenly than any White community. The killings on trains have been confined exclusively to black commuter traffic. The sense of insecurity that grips some White residential areas is far more intense in the African townships of the East Rand, the Natal Midlands and Southern Natal.
I say this not to belittle what our White compatriots have suffered from crime and violence. But it does underscore that Black South Africa has an even greater interest and sense of urgency in reducing the crime rate and finding peaceful ways of settling differences.
There can no longer be any doubt that some of the political violence has been encouraged by agents provocateurs, and that many of these have been planted for that very purpose by agents of the White minority state. The violence is frequently presented as "black on black" violence;it is ascribed to ethnic conflicts and petty political rivalries. While elements of all these are manifest, the root cause of the violence, we have no doubt, is elements within the state's security services who are determined to thwart the advent of democracy.
We firmly believe that concerted action involving the police, the communities and the structures of the national peace accord, including international monitors, can reduce and finally end the violence. Peace will not come about by magic. It requires people of goodwill who must help to produce a more tolerant society where at least some swords will be beaten into ploughshares.
It also requires a police force that has credibility and that enjoys the confidence of the people. It requires a government that will make available resources to the peace structures and eschew bombastic law and order rhetoric.
We in the ANC are determined to do all we can to stop the killing.
A little over a week ago we were shocked to read the remarks of Mr. Ben Yehuda, the vice-President of the Jewish Agency in Israel. In an interview with the Agence France Presse, Mr. Ben Yehuda warned that catastrophe awaited south Africa's Jewish community as there was little doubt that the forthcoming general elections, planned for April 1994, will result in a black majority government.
I want to state in the most unequivocal terms that the African National Congress has stood firm against anti-Semitism as it has stood firmly against all other forms of racism. It is our belief that all citizens should be protected against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. Our track record on this score is there for anyone to examine! As a lawyer, I know there will be difficulties and problems of definition in law and interpretation of law. But these, we are confident, are issues that a Bill of Rights will and can address.
As democrats, we support basic civil liberties for all citizens, the separation of church and state, which necessarily entails the freedom of religious observance and non-observance. As long ago as 1955 we committed ourselves to the right of religious communities to establish and maintain their own places of worship, their own communal organisations and their own private schools provided there was no racial discrimination involved.
The suggestion that an ANC-led government could ever indulge in or connive at anti-Semitism is a scandalous slander inspired either by sheer ignorance or malice!
We were pleased to learn of the repudiation of Mr. Ben Yehuda's sentiments by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. That episode is now, hopefully, past.
The ANC's relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation have been a matter of concern for many Jews, not only here but also in other parts of the world. It was an issue we discussed when I recently met the American Jewish Committee.
As a movement we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of the Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination. We are gratified to see that new possibilities of resolving the issue through negotiation have arisen since the election of a new government in Israel. We would wish to encourage that process, and if we have the opportunity, to assist.
The ANC, in common with the international community, was extremely unhappy about the military cooperation between the State of Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The refusal of Israel, over many years, to honour its international obligations to isolate the apartheid regime did influence our attitude towards that government.
However, as my distinguished predecessor and colleague, the late Oliver Tambo, stated in Lusaka in 1989, we ask you, in your relationship with the ANC, to focus on our shared goals in South Africa. As South Africans we should avoid being drawn into conflicts and tensions arising from the agendas of others beyond our shores.
Democracy, respect for democratic norms, the rule of law, and an entrenched bill of rights are the surest guarantee of the security and well-being of the Jewish and every other minority community in South Africa. The demography of our country dictates that democracy inevitably entails a government led by the black majority.
I would like to end my remarks with a special appeal, addressed particularly to those among you who may sometimes feel the waves of despondency engulfing you when you contemplate the fraught transition our country is passing through.
There is much that we have achieved. Five years ago many of my comrades aiid I were in prison with very little prospect of being released.
Five years ago the African National Congress was an illegal organisation, whose name was spoken in whispers in secret meetings.
Five years ago thousands of our compatriots were in exile, some with fading memories of a homeland they left decades ago.
There is every reason to be optimistic!
This is not the time to beat a retreat. The future of our country beckons us all to rise to the challenge of building. South Africa needs all its people black and white;young and old;Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jewish. There is a place for all of us provided we have the courage to work together to build that common future.
I wish your 37th National Congress every success in its deliberations, which I am sure will help take us all forward to democracy, peace and justice.