24 November 2004
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has criticised South Africans who sell their country short, saying many seem to be “embarrassed” by the nation’s successes.
“The result is that we have tended to be despondent, to seem to say, ‘Behind every ray of sunshine there must be an invisible cloud, just you wait long enough and it will soon appear'”, the Nobel laureate said during the second annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
At the same time, he warned against “party line-toeing”, calling for open debate on the problems still facing the country.
Tutu said that the country – which he termed “Madibaland” – had come a long way and was now reaping a number of socio-economic and political fruits, and producing more heroes and heroines every day. This, he said, called for a celebration – but not for pessimistic South Africans.
“I think we should change our perspective”, Tutu said. “If we are forever looking at our shortcomings and our faults, then the mood will be pervasive and pessimistic and in a way we will provide the environment that encourages further failure.”
The Archbishop Emeritus was the second person to deliver the Nelson Mandela Lecture, following in the footsteps of former US President Bill Clinton, who presented the inaugural lecture in 2003.
Tutu reminded his audience of apartheid’s draconian laws and the “scariest” moment, when the nation was on the brink of what he described as “comprehensive disaster, a bloody conflagration”.
“But it didn’t happen … We really have much to celebrate and much for which to be thankful”, he said, marvelling at mixed-race couples who would once have been victimised by the police and the way the new society was reflected in the demographics of the school near his home.
The world was still mesmerised by the way in which South Africa had transformed itself from a brute regime to a constitutional democracy, Tutu said, adding that by working together, the country could become a huge success.
Call for open debate on problems
At the same time, Tutu conceded that the country had problems, the most serious of which was HIV/Aids, and called for robust, open debate on such issues, saying: “The truth cannot suffer from being challenged and examined”.
“We should debate more openly, not using emotive language, issues such as affirmative action, transformation in sport, racism, xenophobia, security, crime, violence against women and children.
“It should be possible to talk as adults about these issues without engaging in slanging matches”, Tutu said. “My father used to say, ‘Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument’.
“We want our society to be characterised by vigorous debate and dissent, where to disagree is part and parcel of a vibrant community, that we should play the ball not the person, and not think that those who disagree, who express dissent, are ipso facto disloyal or unpatriotic.
“An unthinking, uncritical, party line-toeing is fatal to a vibrant democracy”, he warned.