Cape Town-120805-Former Irish president Mary Robinson walks on stage at the Cape Town City Hall to deliver the 10th annual Nelson Mandela lecture. Sharing the podium with her is Prof Jakes Gerwel (left), chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela. Reporter Michelle Jones. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

South Africans and their leaders need to ask themselves why the education system is underperforming and to demand transparency and accountability in the government.

This was said by Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 10th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on Sunday at the Cape Town city hall. The hall was where Mandela first addressed the nation after his release from prison in 1990.

Robinson said as “a true friend of South Africa, she must tell us not only what we want to hear but also what we need to hear”.

“In recent years my South African friends tell me the ANC’s moral authority has been eroded, tainted by allegations of corruption, a temporary betrayal of its history.

“South Africa remains, as my friend Dr Mamphela Ramphele, puts it, ‘a nation of wounded people’. We need to ask ourselves: is this young democracy living up to those high expectations and ideals [of 1994]?

“In spite of the innovative provisions of the South African constitution, can it be truly said that freedom from want has been adequately secured for all in the past 18 years,” she asked.

Robinson said for citizens to remain stewards of democracy, issues of accountability and transparency in governance were important.

“It is with great concern that I have followed the progress of the ‘Protection of State Information’ legislation. From my experience as a human rights lawyer, I can give you a certainty: if you enact a law that cloaks the working of state actors, that interferes with press freedom to investigate corruption, that stifles efforts by whistle-blowers to expose corruption, you are sure to increase those levels of corruption tomorrow,” said Robinson.

She added that public interest demanded accountability and transparency in government.

“Secrecy is the enemy of truth in this regard. Another aspect of ‘truth’ is admitting mistakes. My own country, Ireland, is going through a very difficult time, struggling to recover from self-inflicted financial collapse and the humiliation, for a proud nation that experienced its own fight for freedom and democracy in the early 20th century.”

She said many Irish households were unable to pay their mortgages and bills and many businesses had closed.

“Unemployment is once again a scourge and emigration is back as a reality for new generation of Irish people. Now as part of the national conversation, we have to acknowledge these mistakes as we try to regain a sense of ourselves.”

Robinson later said the transformation process in SA was “unfinished business”.

“We cannot deny that South Africa faces serious problems. Where you witness extremes of wealth side by side with dire poverty within the same country. The Republic of South Africa is a young democracy. It is hard to address all the structural problems and inequalities in such a short time.

“You have both the positive resource and the acute problem of a young population with high unemployment and a deficit of skills. Those young people who feel discouraged need to be given a positive sense of self, and the support and resources needed to complete their education, to learn the necessary skills and then access a job market, and one where there are jobs to be found,” she said.

[email protected]

Cape Argus