It was good to wake up to this — Fergal Keane of the BBC reporting from South Africa on a delegation of former antagonists from Ulster — IRA men, Protestant paramilitaries, police officers –who were visiting the beloved country to see how reconciliation is done and learning to see each other’s humanity.
“Your country needs you,” Ambassador Rasool told South African expatriates at the weekend, urging them to come together in the spirit of former President Nelson Mandela “to help us back home find ways to solve the many urgent problems in our country” and “realise his vision in his lifetime”.
A cross-section of South Africa’s diaspora in the Washington area braved an icy Saturday evening to discuss the embassy’s 2012 programme and how they might contribute to it as members of Team South Africa. They gathered at the Intelsat campus where the South African mission is temporarily housed while its own building is renovated.
The 2012 programme is built around a celebration of the values, life and legacy of Mandela, and will culminate next year with the unveiling of a statue in his honour outside the refurbished embassy, just across Massachusetts Avenue from the statue of Winston Churchill erected outside the British ambassador’s residence by the English Speaking Union in 1966.
This was about more than just putting up a “physical statue”, Rasool stressed. It was about “mobilising the South African spirit that resides in every South African living in United States, a spirit of healing, of unity, of transcending difference, of looking forward while being mindful of what happened behind us, a spirit that is able to help every society that finds itself in one form of trouble or another, to help and be a resource for the world.”
South Africans, the ambassador said, were called upon to share that spirit — ubuntu — “with a troubled world…not in arrogance but humility, not as if we were self-sufficient and had all the answers, but in the same way we were able to take each other’s hand and lead each other through the darkest moments of our country.”
Rasool himself had just returned from Egypt where he had been invited to practice what he calls “the diplomacy of ubuntu” using the example of Mandela’s willingness to form a government of national unity with FW De Klerk “despite the fact that there was a clear winner in the election”.
“That’s the spirit they are willing to embrace in Egypt on the word of a South African. They are able on the word of a South African to say that ideology — or in the case of Egypt, Islam — must take a back seat so that pragmatic solutions can be found to the deep challenges that confront the country.”
Throughout the year, Team South Africa will be working with and through South African musicians, filmmakers and artists to share the message of ubuntu via a series of “festivals”, Rasool said. These will include a “festival of ideas” featuring a range of conferences and seminars.
In March, the embassy, working with the James Madison Centre for the Constitution in Montpelier, Virginia, hopes to convene constitutional experts and practitioners from both countries to discuss what the experience of each has to offer the Arab Spring nations and others in transition.
Joining Washington monuments to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King, the Mandela statue will complete, in the ambassador’s words, a “golden triangle” of Washington memorials to 20th century titans of the struggle for human rights and dignity.
Standing on ground where thousands of Americans came to protest apartheid during the ’80s by having themselves symbolically arrested for trespassing on South Africa’s diplomatic soil, the statue is being funded through public subscription. Proceeds from the fundraising effort, which kicks off with a gala dinner in Washington on February 11, will be divided between the statue project and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital to be built in Johannesburg.
Giving thanks to Americans who marched, mobilised their fellow citizens, organised boycotts, and lobbied for sanctions against apartheid will be another important component of the 2012 programme as the South African liberation movement marks the hundredth birthday of the African National Congress and as the African Union convenes a summit of the African diaspora in Durban.
In his call to the South African diaspora, the ambassador acknowledged the resentment that was sometimes felt at home about South Africans who had chosen to emigrate or not return after the end of apartheid. It was time to put such feelings aside, he said.
“That’s the language of the past. The question is not whether you are going home, but what you can do for home. The question is not why did you migrate, but how can you contribute. The question is not how comfortable are you here, but what influence do you have here that can benefit our country. That’s the new discourse, the new narrative, the new discussion.
“2012 is a wonderful year for all of us to reach out to each other, to complete the healing, to overcome the brokenness, to make 2012 year of catharsis, in which we can all look at each other and be able to say we are South African.”