File picture. DURBAN 10 JAN 1991: Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress (ANC). Picture: Sunday Tribune Archives

Thabo Mbeki

I have prepared this lecture deeply troubled by a feeling of great unease that our beloved motherland is losing its sense of direction.

Today, I, for one, am not certain about where our country and nation will be tomorrow, and what I should do in this regard, to respond to what is obviously a dangerous and unacceptable situation.

That feeling of unease is informed by questions I have not been able to answer about what happened which allowed the eminently avoidable massacre at the Lonmin Marikana mine in the North West province to happen.

My feeling of unease is also informed by what I sense is a pervasive understanding throughout the nation that there is no certainty about our future with regard to any of our known challenges, and therefore the future of the nation.

This is underlined by a troubled sentiment among many families in our country about whether their children can expect a future better, contrary to the travails the parents of these young people had to endure.

My sense of unease is also informed by the fears I know are shared by many throughout our continent, rightly or wrongly, that they face the threat that because of our internal conflicts, our country could lose its ability to defend its possibility to be an exemplar of resolute African independence, self-determination and African pride, as did Ethiopia during an earlier period of Africa’s struggle for emancipation.

I know that what I have just said might not sit easily in the minds and hearts of some circles here at home and abroad, which I would understand.

However, I also know this as a matter of fact that it will not be possible to correct whatever might have gone wrong, and therefore address our challenges in this regard, unless all of us have the honesty and courage publicly to state what we believe is true.

Equally, of course, we must be ready to accept such criticism as might result from everything we say, ready to engage in any consequent open debate – thus to engage in the processes for which I have consistently urged, borrowing on the task the great Chinese people set themselves – to let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend!

Obviously, such an intellectual contest would have to be based on the firm understanding that those who control the levers of state power would not misuse such control to stifle or suppress any opinion, regardless of its content, and would also not remain silent when others wilfully and recklessly abuse their right to freedom of thought and speech.

By definition, and inevitably, revolution means that there must take place a titanic struggle for victory over each other and one another, between and among the forces representing the new, and the forces seeking to preserve the old order.

Very often, these forces, the old and the new, enter into unavoidable compromises which throw up their own challenges.

In this regard I would like to quote a famous paragraph in a book by the eminent revolutionary, Karl Marx, which explains some of the dialectical relationship between the new and the old.

In his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx said: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolu- tionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service…”

As they engaged in protracted struggle to make their own history, the masses of our people, who sacrificed everything for the victory of the first strategic objective of the national democratic revolution (NDR), achieved this objective under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

The political compromise of 1994 was born of this concrete and historical reality, in which “men do not make history as they please”.

In this regard the NDR entered into agreements during the 1990-1994 negotiations taking into account the conditions which Marx described as not being its “self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

You will have heard the regular refrain repeated constantly by influential voices in our county and abroad, including through our domestic media, that Oliver Tambo’s movement, the African National Congress, after 18 years as our country’s ruling party, has no right to blame our current reality on our colonial and apartheid past.

This assertion seeks to advance the self-serving political proposition that the 1994 political victory wiped our country’s colonial and apartheid

slate clean.

In this respect I can refer to countless occasions when, in the past, I said that the central and immediate task of the national democratic revolution after the political victory of 1994 was to dismantle the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. This evoked major opposition, on the basis of the strange and false argument that the apartheid legacy died in 1994.

What is this colonial and apartheid heritage? Among others, colonialism and apartheid have meant that democratic South Africa has inherited:

l The legacy of the impact of the most pervasive colonial and imperialist system in terms of the dispossession of the indigenous African majority and the destruction of its communities, resulting in deculturation, the radical weakening of any sense of African identity, and the destruction of the traditional value system, identified as ubuntu/ botho, which would ensure African social cohesion.

l The imposition of a capitalist system of property relations across the board, originally exclusively for the benefit of the white minority, which has nevertheless educated our entire population, both black and white, to accept the capitalist value system as the only relevant value system .

l A related culture of violence, based on the notion of individual benefit at all costs.

l A predominantly landless, propertyless and unskilled African majority, constituting more than 75 percent of our population, which depends for its livelihood on employment in the public and private sectors, but much of which is “unemployable” because it does not have the skills required by a modern economy and society.

l An educational system consciously designed to produce an African majority which would have no skills and impetus to enable it to carry out more than clerical and manual tasks.

l The absence of a rural peasantry with access to land, steeped in peasant productive culture, having the means and capable of sustaining even subsistence peasant farming, therefore representing a significant section of the indigenous majority capable of acting independently.

l The creation of an entrenched social order of privilege and power.

l Given the foregoing, the construction of South Africa as a state built in all respects as a racist entity of defined unequal racial communities.

l The positioning of South Africa as an economic outpost of the developed Western world, and therefore a producer and exporter of precious minerals and raw materials, and importer of manufactured goods.

l The positioning of South Africa as other than an African country, arguing that it occupies a special space as the exemplar of “modern” human development within a “pre-modern” and regressive African continent.

The imperialist and colonial reality was accompanied and sustained by forcible and exclusive white minority rule.

From the time of its foundation, the ANC set itself the task to end colonial and white minority rule in our country, and indeed our region, therefore to transform South Africa into a non-racial democracy.

It would therefore be correct to say that this was the first strategic task of the national democratic revolution, which the ANC pursued up to the historic political victory of 1994.

I would insist that the second strategic task of the national democratic revolution in our country, consequent upon the political victory of 1994, is the eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid.

I would also insist that the third strategic task of our revolution is the entrenchment of a national democratic society, focused on ensuring the permanence of the genuinely democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society visualised in our constitution, which would define the long-term character of South Africa, as a truly egalitarian society.

Earlier I referred to the historic challenge that faces all revolutionaries to fight for the revolutionary transformation of society, to create a new social order which would benefit the ordinary masses in all these societies.

That challenge of revolutionary transformation has faced and will face the NDR as it has and will confront all three of the strategic tasks I have mentioned.


nless we produce other leaders and cadres of the calibre of Oliver Tambo, it is almost inevitable that the national democratic revolution will fail.

We must therefore ask ourselves the difficult questions:

l Whether yesterday the democratic revolution produced and has produced the calibre of leadership exemplified by Oliver Tambo, and therefore whether we, who directly inherited the Tambo legacy, lived up to the demands of this legacy.

l Whether we cultivated in the past, including when I served as one of the leaders of the ANC, the leadership cadre required by the continuing national democratic revolution.

l Whether the national democratic movement is doing anything now to develop the broad corps of cadres who would gain acceptance by the masses of our people as their genuine leaders for the further advancement of this revolution.

I must accept that during the years when I served in the leadership of the ANC, we failed to achieve the objective of sustaining the calibre of a membership made up of politically mature and committed cadres.

The real and hard truth is that, in this regard, the current leadership of the ANC and the broad democratic movement, at all levels, have inherited this failure, which lies at the base of much that is going wrong in our country.

l All of us should position ourselves as revolutionary democrats, to do everything possible to protect and advance the national heritage I have mentioned – the genuine democratisation and deracialisation of our country, fundamentally based on our constitution, in its letter and spirit.

Essentially this boils down to two major tasks:

l Successfully to address the objective of the eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, this being the second strategic objective of the national democratic revolution.

l Producing yet more Oliver Tambos to lead the struggle to achieve this objective.

We have an obligation to ensure that our continuing national democratic revolution and struggle are led by people who:

l Accept completely and absolutely and ensure that their actions are informed by the imperative, never, in any way, to abuse state power to advance their personal interests.

l Conduct themselves in keeping with moral practices informed by a commitment to serve the people.

l Are determined to conduct themselves in their personal lives so that at all times they do not betray the ethical standards viewed by the masses they lead as fundamental to their definition of themselves.

l Commit the entirety of their intellectual and other capacities to pursue the objectives of the national democratic revolution.

l Have the strategic ability to lead our country to ensure that at no moment does it lose its focus on its fundamental goals as spelt out in our constitution.

l Respect the truth and are ready at all times to take actions that respond to our objective reality, not informed by narrow party political and otherwise partisan objectives rather than national goals.

l At all times can and communicate a credible message of hope to all our people, regardless of race, colour, gender, ethnicity and age, which gives the nation an authentic and real sense of certainty about its future.


can think of no better response to these historic challenges, to guarantee our victory over human deprivation and the dehumanisation of the African, than to do what we must, to emulate the example that Oliver Tambo set, which helped to define what the ANC must be.

l Former president Mbeki is the patron of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. This is an extract from the OR Tambo memorial speech he delivered at the University of Fort Hare as part of the celebration of the centenary of the ANC.