THE ADDRESS
H.E. Franklin Abraham Sonn
Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa
Washington, DC

See also... Biography of H.E. Franklin Abraham Sonn

A PERSPECTIVE ON SERVICE
IN THE AFRICAN CONTEXT 

Eight years ago our leader Nelson Mandela stood in this place. Only two days ago Nelson Mandela stood in the innermost core of the USA – in the Rotunda of the US Capitol Building. He stood calmly, totally at peace with himself, imperious and wholly unintimidated by the symbols of glory, might and power around him. He stood in the high place of arguably, the greatest nation ever. Looking up at the platform from where we sat, we saw the triumph of what you in America call Soul Power over temporal power and military might. We saw moral power personified and it made us proud to be human; proud to be African. Once again Mandela brought us face to face with History: We saw a black man. We saw an African who can truly claim that he has overcome. A man who can proclaim that he defied human’s inhumanity to human and survived with his soul in tact and the strength of his personality predicated on humility rather than arrogance.
    We heard the tributes paid to him by the powerful in hallowed tones. Mandela looked congenial and at the same time severe. We all stared intensely trying to penetrate his composure to fathom what this icon truly signifies. We pitched our senses to establish whether it could indeed be possible that anyone is able to reflect such a lack of self-opinionatedness in the face of such effusive praise and exuberant generosity. He knew that speaker after speaker was as much talking about him and what he represents as to that part of themselves that they hope will gain ascendancy over who they are from day to day.
    We live in a society and world where values have become uncertain and conflicting; where the confusion between words and actions; ideals and deeds have reached grotesque proportions and where the dichotomy between intentions and implementation; dreams and performance have come to give new meaning to the concept irony, at times attaining outlandish proportions.
    On that historic day in the Rotunda it was as if we were given a respite to this state of contradiction. For a moment we had a glimpse of the possibility to believe in what we see before us and in what we were brought up to believe. We were all seated within the inner core of our world, our gaze hovering between figures before us: the two arch opponents; the Speaker of Congress of the USA on the one hand and the President of the major nation of the world on the other (Two of the three most important political figures in the US): And – in the middle – President Nelson Mandela. The symbolism of the possibility of unity and togetherness which was portrayed by the picture of that powerful trio was edifying in its promise, yet tragic in its transience and bizarre in its contradiction. It moved one to remember St. Paul when he proclaimed "that which is good and I want to do and don’t and that which is wrong and I do not want to do, I do." We all at that historic moment could have been forgiven for praying that image of promise and goodness would prevail beyond the ceremony of the occasion and that we would walk out of that hall of power better able to bring congruence between what we all wish to be and how we in reality and fact live our lives.
    The journey through the life of humans, and of nations as also between various and diverse nations of the world is equally mostly a confused progression between what nations want to be and what they, in fact, are. It is an oscillation between what they believe and pronounce and what they, in reality do. It is a succession of goodness by evil; between a desire to praise virtue on the one hand and the imperative of deceit, vengeance and arrogance – always in the name of goodness, duty and service.
    For a moment, the trio standing before us in the Capitol represented the utter complexity of human and socio-political existence. It is no wonder that emotions ran so palpably high in the face of such solemn gravity. Indeed there are moments in life that reality traverses understanding and feelings take over.
    Against the background of these complex conditions, I, for the umpteenth time felt deeply proud of our President, Nelson Mandela. I was proud to be associated with and serve someone who act as a constant reminder to us all that it is possible for all of us to live in victory over vengeance and retribution; that we indeed can choose forgiveness and reconciliation; that we can heal rather than wound, that we can extend ourselves to make others succeed and that we can live for what is right rather than who is right. Mandela demonstrated that there is a better way and that that way is far less convoluted than the road of destruction and subversion. Mandela never shirks his responsibility towards moral considerations above expediency. His recipe of life is simple: "Do what is moral rather than what is expedient." When, after 23 years in prison under abject circumstances he was offered his freedom, he turned it down.
    Compromising his moral authority over the apartheid regime was unthinkable. With the decision never to do so, he consolidated his moral right and in fact earned for himself the right to speak out against injustice anywhere. For example, when a few days ago he visited the US, he once again spoke out directly in defense of President Clinton. He made it clear that he is uncomfortable with interfering in the domestic affairs of this country, but nonetheless emphasized that President Clinton’s progressive record and support for Africa, minorities and the mass of black people earned him our friendship and makes him deserving of our unconditional support. He simply made the moral point that he never deceives or abandons his friends and that this is the exercise of a principle. Again the irony that this ethical position does not only hold for the President of the US, but also for the President of Cuba.
    My mind went back to the critical decade of the 60s in South Africa: the era of uncontrolled racism and bigotry. I often wonder whether it is far fetched to suggest that when in April 1964, Mandela sacrificed his life by defying cowardice in the face of the death sentence, he in a sense spiritually traversed life. He must on that day have had an experience of the transient nature of our human existence. It is possible that he could have had a spiritual traversal which enabled him to see more deeply and to know with greater insight, but equally to be compassionate even towards those who inflicted the worst inhumanity on him. It is also not uncommon that humans who have had such close encounters with death emerge with greater humility to and a more acute aversion to equivocation, deceit and injustice.
    We must recount our History. Our students here were not born yet when these momentous events occurred and in the spirit of oral tradition we must also use this opportunity to tell them the story of our leaders. On April 20, 1964, Nelson Mandela and a few other of our leaders gathered in the South African court to hear the pronouncement of a probable death sentence. On the preceding day everything had depended on Mandela’s plea. For more than four hours he argued not his innocence or that of his co-accused, but unapologetically showed why it was in fact the perpetrators of Apartheid who should have been on trial and facing a death sentence.
    Instead of pleading for clemency he, to everyone’s amazement, ended his argument with immortal words that will forever stand out as the mark of this great man. He uttered words that over decades to come will not only serve to inspire us all but to inform us of the essential bravery of the Black struggle: "During my lifetime," he said, "I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die, I will face my fate like a man."
    This statement, replete with moral heroism and sated with inner power and courage, encapsulates not only defiance of evil, but crystallizes the combined black history which is one of bitter struggle not only of South Africa, but of Black people everywhere, notably also in the United States – A struggle that many have not survived. Nelson Mandela articulated the recognition of the gravity of a struggle that in deed was between life and death and that death was for our heroes not a threat large enough to move them to desist from the call of duty.
    Events like these sharpened our faith that we as humans were not alone, they led us not only to recognize suffering and injustice when we see it, but to respond to it as a moral struggle, informed by our strong sense of a Higher Being which promises victory for the believer as the central pillar of the tradition of the faithful.
    Mandela’s consciousness of the plight of the poor is strong. His message is constant:
    For children of the struggle, social morality is not only a matter of elaborate conceptual formulation, but of the day to day life and living conditions of our people. Social morality finds expression in the unambiguous utterances of our leaders, but is at the same time translated into the actual social conditions in the township and the ghetto social morality also was the guiding star to our forebears on the cotton fields of the south and of the original Americans of the reservations of the west. Poverty and social degradation stripped our forebears of material possession and physical dignity it is true but our African pride and rectitude survived and was fortified in the crucible of vilification and suffering. Our leaders spanned different periods and continents leaders too numerous to mention eg W.B. du Bois, Frederick Douglass A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel. But the embodiment of all this is Nelson Mandela. The call to all of them to give not only of themselves, but indeed to give their veryselves – their own very lives. This is the epitome of the African tradition. It is the mark of the Black struggle. This is the nobility which survived in the midst of slavery and throughout this harsh inhumanity of Apartheid. It tempered the African spirit of caring for one another and putting the good of the community before one’s own.
    From these experiences we take the lesson of our African tradition that individual security is consummated in the good of the whole – that for the oppressed the whole or the community is paramount.
    Scholars like Menkiti; Mbiti; Senghor Dickson; Nyerere and Nkrumah have all argued, as Kwame Gyekye puts it:

"Africa though considers personhood as something defined or conferred by the community and as something to be acquired by the individual."

    In other words, we are because our communities are. Our individuality is critical but never so important that it can thrive or even survive outside or in spite of the community. Communalism is the social system which defines Africanness. The supreme honour of being in succession to a line of proud ancestors. This receiving of our persona from the community gives meaning to practices like tribal initiation ceremonies. It also creates an understanding of lobola which obligates giving in order not only to beget a wife but to become part of the bigger whole.
    If we understand this, we better understand Mandela. We know better why this figure who enjoys probably better face recognition than any other living being is happiest in his tiny village amidst a sea of poverty. His connection is with the wide world but his identity connected to Qunu – his village. Here amidst the sounds and smells which inspired his ancestors he finds peace. These notions are empowering if one thinks about. It is centered in the understanding of the warmth provided by fellowship with the community. By reconfirming, one’s existence is a mere link in a chain stretching from ancestors of long ago to generations yet unborn. If we comprehend the existential quality of community, we are able to fathom why Martin Luther King battled on even in the face of threats to his life. This existential notion helps me to understand why there is a time line – a trajectory – which runs between W.B. du Bois; Frederick Douglass; Martin Luther King and Albert Luthuli; Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela – Leaders from different continents and periods yet from the same tradition and common ancestral heritage.
    On April 3, 1968, King died in the US in struggle. Duly, four years later, in April 1964, Mandela was given a life-sentence in South Africa. King died with his dream unfulfilled. Twenty-seven years later and twenty-three years after King fell in Memphis, Tennessee, the prison doors swung open in a country, 7,000 miles to the south – South Africa – and Nelson Mandela walked forth.
    King’s body was dessimated; yet His message remained universal in its Africanness. As Mandela strode from prison with back unbent, head unbowed, and brow unfurrowed, it was as if the world – our world came to a standstill. The aged-old struggle against institutional oppression of African people by European people was over, not only for South Africans, but for us all. On this day South Africans were liberated, but the African spirit was set free. We not only could assume responsibility for our own fate but we could proclaim the dignity of Africannes.
    This ended an era and reminds us of the next challenge --to live by our revenge or to live according to the dictates of our legacy and tradition that the real triumph over persecution lies in reconciliation and forgiveness.
    The next generation of African Spokespersons and Black leaders emerged of whom Thabo Mbeki is increasingly taking centre stage. His appeal is distinctly logical existential of the African traditional of Mandela, Tambo and Luthuli: I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom." But also to say "I am formed of the migrant who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me." Africannes or even African Nationalism is proud and justified because it is large open and INCLUSIVE not inward, selfish and EXCLUSIVE. It affords a place for all without requiring anyone to deny his/her own heritage. Africans and for that matter African-Americans must remain proud yet HUMBLE because our ancestors were dignified yet HUMBLE.
    Howard’s success is an American achievement as much as it is an endorsement of Africa and of Africans.
    Nelson Mandela is a remarkable leader, because he represents victory yet remains humble. He is what he chose to be. But he also is because he is Africa. Every people deserves and needs a leader of exceptional moral courage. A leader who will live forever. Nelson Mandela is such a leader. Yet Nelson Mandela is reflected also in Martin Luther King.
    The spirit and ethos of Nelson Mandela is also prevalent at Howard University. Howard is a University of black people, of African people whose forebears were demeaned through sale. Howard is accordingly wrestling within an unequal world of discrimination yet remains dedicated to excellence. It grew out of and still lives within the aura of oppression which is the history of modern Africa. Howard’s success in being a solid terrain in which leaders are honed is part of all our success. President Swygert enjoys our admiration for leading a university that is unique yet universal in its excellence. We admire him because he excelled in America and is American yet is my brother because he is also African. The Board of Trustees, too make all Africans proud and so do the distinguished academics. They must be honoured not only because of outstanding support and academic performance, but for making our students assured of themselves as Americans, conscious and confident in their Africanness. Confirmed in the realization that, as Americans they have received a great deal – and responsive to the knowledge that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. Howard is in essence American, yet can never be and neither does it ever want to be divisible from its continent of origin – Africa.
    Finally to be part of a community in the African communalist tradition also means that we in a very real sense do not belong to ourselves anymore. We are because our communities are service to the community, is accordingly a compelling obligation and the culmination of a tradition. Our great leader Martin Luther King expressed this conviction better than anyone of us ever can and underscored the quintessential element of our combined tradition:

"Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle or Einstein’s theory of relativity . . . To serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A Soul generated by love."

       We as individuals are fulfilled within the context of our community and nation and I thank God that Howard University’s fulfillment lies in understanding the essence of oneness – our togetherness, and its willingness also to serve South Africa.
    We are proud of Howard and I consider myself particularly and singularly honoured today to become a proud alumnus of this truly great University. Thank you for the honour of confirming on me a doctorate which I will carry with African humility; a knowledge that I am admitted to a singular community and resolve to dignify through service to all.
    Thank you.