This is an edited version of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s speech of at the inaugural Jakes Gerwel Commemorative Lecture.
Cape Town - Since being asked to speak to you tonight, I have grown more and more nervous about where to find the words to do justice to Jakes Gerwel’s multifaceted life and contribution to our country.
I think Jakes would approve if the annual lecture we have the honour of inaugurating tonight becomes a platform for honest reflection about who and where we are, and the direction in which our beloved country is heading.
I decided that the most appropriate starting point for this discourse would be the state of non-racialism.
We were a symbol of racism; now we have a constitution that enshrines the equal rights of all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religious belief. And Jakes was one of our architects.
Indeed, Jakes Gerwel’s greatest achievement was not merely to preside over the evolution of this institution from a bush college for people designated “coloured” into a university of repute. To create the circumstances for coloured resources to benefit Africans, and even a few whites, was utterly revolutionary. To succeed was extraordinary.
We all come from different traditions and cultures. Some of us have kroes hare, like Jakes, while others have silky soft locks. Some have bigger noses, some have paler skin, some worship in mosques, and some speak isiZulu.
But the point that should not get lost in all of this is that, amazingly, when you transplant a white person’s heart into a black person’s chest, it works. When we have blood transfusions what’s important is the blood type not the colour – it’s all red.
We are brothers and sisters – or, at least, distant relatives – in one family, God’s family, all of us!
In African we speak of ubuntu and say a person is a person through other persons. Together, we are stronger than the strength of our component parts.
Our extraordinary first president, uTata Madiba, understood this clearly, and one of the most remarkable and often-overlooked features of our transition to democracy was the manner in which he elected his team on merit.
He succeeded in plaiting a strong rope from three disparate and competitive strands of comrades – ANC members in exile, ANC members who remained within the country and people from the broader anti-apartheid movement – that epitomised our collective spirit of hope. And he put them to work in our government of national unity.
Had his approach to merit selection been similar to that of the Springbok rugby coach, a player such as Jakes Gerwel may have been put on the wing – and starved of the ball. (Dullah Omar would have been fortunate to make the bench… ).
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the birth of our democracy, many will express their views on the high or the low road we have travelled. Few will see beyond the noses of their own party or political perspective.
As a patriot with no fixed political allegiances, who is uncertain who to vote for in the 2014 election, I’m afraid that we have too quickly sacrificed the power of unity that marked us as something special.
We claim to be following in the footsteps of uTata Madiba, but we’ve thrown magnanimity out of the window.
We’ve created an environment in which the acquisition of wealth by the few somehow seems to take precedence over the delivery of decent basic services to those most in need.
And we have allowed a culture of entitlement and impatient anger to take root; those who do not receive what they feel they are entitled to, feel entitled to maraud and to loot and to destroy.
Instead of being able to celebrate 20 years of progress in forging unity and non-racialism, too many South Africans find themselves in utter anguish due to the high rates of unemployment and crime; due to the stories of ineptitude in our education and health systems; due to perceived widespread corruption, greed and waste – and due to grinding poverty.
This is not to blame the government alone; I think we are all to blame. I think that we are all guilty of taking our precious and hard-won freedom for granted.
We took our eyes off the ball. The sadistic crimes we witness today, the shocking manner in which our men treat our women and children, the way we drive with utter disregard for others, the litter we throw in the streets, the manner in which service delivery protests degenerate into violence, looting and the wanton destruction of property, all are a reflection of our unhealed brokenness.
The widening gap between rich and poor reflects our unwillingness to share.
We don’t seem to realise that the price of building a more equal society is far less than the cost of dealing with the consequences of not having done so.
How do we ensure that the country we have built on the contributions of Jakes Gerwel and so many others succeeds?
* Do not abandon the dream of a united and prosperous South Africa in which all have access to decent education and health, all enjoy a share in the country’s wealth, and the dignity of all is sacrosanct.
* In working towards achieving this united and prosperous South Africa for all its citizens, respect the principles of democracy for which we collectively paid a very steep price.
* Principles are more important than political parties. It doesn’t matter which political party you support, do not lose your ability to decipher right from wrong. When you remain neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
* We need to develop a culture in which people not only feel free to express their opinions, whether or not they differ with those of the ruling party, but also feel that their opinions are being heard. In the context of the service delivery protests in Cape Town, we should not allow the detestable tactics of the protesters to hide the fact that the gap in living standards in Cape Town is an abomination.
* Make a difference, yourself, each and every one of you – preferably every day.
* Finally, embrace the ideas of young people. Their hearts and minds are generally uncluttered by the anxieties of the accumulation of resources that afflict older people.
Jakes understood the power of the youth. Among my most abiding memories of him were during the states of emergency in the 1980s. Jakes would call me to say that this or that group of students planned to march on campus in defiance of the rules against illegal gatherings, and could I come and help deal with the police.
We’d see the police gathering at the gates checking their gear. On the campus itself, the tension was palpable, with student leaders preparing their peers to face what was really a brutal enemy.
In the midst of all this tension daar staan ou Jakes, in the centre of a knot of agitated people – a babble of Afrikaans, isiXhosa and English voices around him – looking as cool as a cucumber.
We thank God for the gift of people of the calibre of Jakes Gerwel when we needed them most.
* This is an edited version of the prepared speech of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the inaugural Jakes Gerwel Commemorative Lecture, delivered at the University of the Western Cape on Sunday night.