Fulfil vision of 'rainbow nation', Robinson tells South Africa


SOUTH AFRICA must realise its opportunities before its humanity will fully emerge, former Irish president Mary Robinson yesterday warned in a public address in which she touched on many of the country’s failings and challenges.

Mrs Robinson gave her views on the current state of South Africa’s society 18 years into democracy during her delivery of the keynote address at the prestigious 10th annual Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture held in Cape Town.

“My challenge today is to speak to you, South Africans, as your friend,” she told guests who gathered at City Hall to hear her speech titled Freedom, Truth, Democracy: Citizenship and Common Purpose.

“A true friend tells you not only what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear,” she added.

The former UN high commissioner for human rights said that speaking on the 50th anniversary of Mr Mandela’s arrest, and during the African National Congress’s centenary year, gave her an opportunity to reflect on the challenges South Africa still faced nearly two decades after the demise of apartheid.

With that in mind, she expressed grave concerns about the current levels of poverty, inequality and gender-based violence in South Africa, as well as the controversial Protection of State Information Bill being championed by the ANC.

Detractors of the so-called “Secrecy Bill” say that in its current form the legislation would make journalists and whistleblowers vulnerable to prison sentences of up to 25 years, and make it extremely difficult for civil society to access information held in government departments.

“I can give you a certainty: if you enact a law that cloaks the workings of state actors, that interferes with press freedom to investigate corruption . . . you are sure to increase those levels of corruption tomorrow,” Mrs Robinson warned.

She also described her dismay at seeing the continued disparity of wealth between South Africa’s prosperous citizens and the millions who live in abject poverty, while visiting the country last year to attend her niece’s wedding.

“Where you witness extremes of wealth side by side with dire poverty within the same country, it is more divisive than an overall condition of poverty,” she said, adding South Africa was a nation of paradoxes.

When touching on the idea of “truth” and how it could be used to better society, she said an aspect of this was the need to admit mistakes when they were made. This was a process Ireland was going through as part of its national conversation to regain a sense of itself.

“Mistakes were made during the boom years. We somehow lost our way, became obsessed with personal wealth and material possessions,” she reflected.

She went on to say that as South Africa faced into its 20s, there was a great opportunity to draw on its strengths and renew the inspirational vision it set out of a rainbow nation, which the world stood in admiration of in 1994.

“I have every confidence in South Africa realising the opportunities for its humanity to fully emerge,” she concluded.