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I first came to South Africa in 1994 for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, someone who is of course a great leader and a hero to many, including myself.
I sat at the inauguration and watched as jets from the SADF streaked across the sky, their contrails tinted with all the colours of the new national flag. For decades, those jets had been a powerful symbol of the system of apartheid. But on that day, they dipped their wings in salute to their new commander in chief.
For those of us who witnessed the ceremony, it was a searing moment. Here was a man who had spent 27 years as a political prisoner not far from here, now being sworn in as president. And Mandela’s journey represented something even larger – his country’s journey, the journey of your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, a long but steady march toward freedom for all its people.
Being present at the birth of this new democracy was an experience that not only I, but the world, will never forget. We are now 18 years removed from that iconic moment.
Today, your country is different from the one I visited in 1994 and so too are the challenges you must confront and the opportunities that are there for the seizing. In this pivotal time, the United States of America is committed to supporting you.
As President Barack Obama said so memorably in Ghana in 2009, the nations of Africa need partnership, not patronage; not strongmen, but strong institutions. And the United States seeks to build sustained partnerships that help African nations, including this one, to fulfill your own aspirations.
Consider some of the problems we face today – an anaemic global economy, transnational crime and terrorism, climate change, disease, famine, nuclear proliferation. None of these problems can be solved by any one country acting alone or even by several countries acting together.
Each one calls for a global network of partners – governments, businesses, international and regional organisations, academic institutions, civil society groups, even individuals all working in concert. And there cannot be a strong global network unless there are strong African partners.
Now I’ve often heard it said that African problems need African solutions. Well, I’m here to say that some of our global problems need African solutions too. And few nations on this continent can carry as much weight or be as effective partners and leaders as South Africa.
You are a democratic power with the opportunity to influence Africa and the world. You have led on nonproliferation at the International Atomic Energy Agency and on climate change at the Durban conference. You’ve led on economic co-operation at the G-20.
You’ve led on women’s participation in politics. And a South African woman will soon become chair of the AU Commission, a first in the history of that organisation.
All of this is good news for the people of South Africa, this continent, and the world. But respectfully, I say that we and you can, should, and must do more. [Last week] I had the honour of visiting Mandela and his wife, Graça Machel, at their home in Qunu.
The man who did so much to shape the history of a free South Africa has never stopped thinking about the future of South Africa. You, the young generation, are called not just to preserve the legacy of liberty that has been left to you by Madiba and by other courageous men and women.
You are called to build on that legacy, to ensure that your country fulfills its own promise and takes its place as a leader among nations and as a force for peace, opportunity, equality and democracy, and to stand up always for human rights at home and around the world.
Discussions about the rise of emerging powers like South Africa usually start and too often stop with people simply saying: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is worth considering what this really means.
Some critics are quick to say, when America says emerging powers have great responsibility, they mean great responsibility to do whatever America wants. Well, I do believe that because of your history, South Africa has an obligation to be a constructive force in the international community just as the United States does.
But that obligation has nothing to do with what America or anyone else wants you to do. It has everything to do with who you are. Here in South Africa, you achieved something that few countries have ever done.
You proved that it doesn’t take an all-out civil war to bridge the divide between people who grew up learning to hate one another. You showed that the rights of minorities can be protected even in places where the majority spent decades and decades living in oppression. You reminded the world that the way forward is not revenge, but truth and reconciliation.
Of course, you know better than I how much work needs to be done. South Africa faces daunting economic, social and political challenges, but you have laid the foundation for a society that is more prosperous, more inclusive, more peaceful, more democratic.
And the world needs you to contribute much because you already have accomplished much.
For nations like ours, the United States and South Africa, doing these things that reflect our values, our histories for our own people can never be enough. We have to look beyond our borders.
And if South Africa is to achieve the full measure of your own ambition, you, too, must face and solve your own challenges in health and education, economic inequality, unemployment, race relations, gender-based violence, the issues that you live with and must address.
These are areas that we, too, face, and we stand ready to work with you, but only the people of South Africa can make the decisions about how you will solve these problems and overcome these challenges.
Only South Africans can fight corruption. Only South Africans can prevent the use of state security institutions for political gain. Only South Africans can defend your democratic institutions, preventing the erosion of a free press and demanding strong opposition parties and an independent judiciary.
Only South Africans can truly preserve and extend the legacy of the Mandela generation.
And these are tasks not just for governments. These are tasks for every citizen – political leaders, teachers, civil servants, entrepreneurs, community activists.
And there is a special responsibility for the young people of South Africa to define the very nature of your citizenship and your country’s approach to your fellow citizens and the world; decide whether South Africa moves forward and not backward, and seeks to erase old dividing lines in global politics.
You will decide whether South Africa seeks to set aside old suspicions and instincts and embrace new partnerships tailored to 21st century challenges.
One of my personal heroines, and a former predecessor as first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt once said that human rights really started in the small places close to home.
It’s easy to talk about the big, sweeping issues, to pledge ourselves to the abstractions of human rights.
It’s harder – much harder – to reach deep inside of our hearts and minds to truly see the other, whether that other is of a different race, ethnicity, religion, tribe, national origin, and recognise the common humanity.
I have been in and around politics for a long time.
It’s easy to lose sight of the common humanity of those who oppose you. You get to feeling that your way is the right way, that your agenda is the only one that will save the people. And all of the sudden, you begin to dehumanise the opposition and the other.
The greatest lesson I learned about this came from Nelson Mandela. When I came to that inauguration in 1994, it was a time of great political conflict in my own country. My husband was president. People were saying terrible things about us both. And I was beginning to get pretty hard inside. I was beginning to think: “Who do they think they are? What can I do to get even?”
I, along with other dignitaries from all over the world, were invited to a great lunch under a huge tent at the president’s house.
There were kings and prime ministers and presidents, and just a glittering assembly.
When Mandela stood to welcome us to that lunch he said: “I know you are all very important people, and I invite you all to our new country. I thank you for coming. But the three most important people to me, here in this vast assembly, are three men who were my jailers on Robben Island.”
I sat up so straight. I turned to the person next to me to say: “What did he say?”
Then Mandela asked those three middle-aged white men to stand up. He called them by name. He said: “In the midst of the terrible conditions in which I was held for so many years, each of those men saw me as a human being. They treated me with dignity and respect. They talked to me; they listened.
“And when I walked out of prison, I knew I had a choice to make. I could carry the bitterness and the hatred of what had been done to me in my heart forever, and I would still be in prison.
“Or I could begin to reconcile the feelings inside myself with my fellow human beings.”
That is the true legacy of Mandela, calling all of us to complete the work he started, to overcome the obstacles, the injustices, the mistreatments that everyone – every one of us – will encounter at some point in our lives.
That is truly what South Africa is called to do, to continue the struggle, but the struggle for human dignity, the struggle for respect, the struggle to lift people up and give children a chance – every boy and girl – to fulfill his or her God-given potential in this beautiful land that has been so blessed. It’s a burden being an American or a South African, because people expect you to really live up to those standards.
People hold us to a higher set of standards, don’t they?
And we owe it to all who came before, all who sacrificed and suffered, to do our very best to keep working every single day to meet those standards. But we mostly owe it to our future.
Many things have changed since Robert Kennedy came to Cape Town and Nelson Mandela left Robben Island.
But some have not.
The world we want to build together still demands the qualities of youth and a predominance of courage over timidity. So in that spirit, let us work together so that the values that shaped both our nations may also shape a world that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more just.
* This is an edited extract from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address at the University of the Western Cape last week