The Presidential Years

If the caucus was a space for leadership of the party, and the committees a terrain demanding balance between executive and legislative prerogatives, the two Houses of Parliament were all that and more. For the president this was a public platform: a platform to account to Parliament and the nation about government’s programme of action; a platform for leadership of the country’s transition; and a multi-party arena. As such it called for a combination of vision and detail; unifying messages and, where necessary, combative engagement.

The parliamentary calendar brought two regular occasions for the president to speak. A joint sitting of the two houses at the start of the year became in the new parliament a debate on the State of the Nation. A second set piece, with somewhat lower profile, was the pair of debates in the National Assembly and in the National Council of Provinces (initially the Senate) on the budget allocated to the president’s office.

In those debates Mandela sustained a core message across the five years of his term – South Africa’s destiny depended on two interrelated imperatives for transforming a divided and oppressive past into a united, democratic and equitable future. In his address to Parliament on the president’s budget, 100 days after his inauguration, he spelt out the interlinkages of reconstruction and development on the one hand and reconciliation and nation-building on the other:

At the end of the day, a yardstick that we shall all be judged by is one and only one. And that is, are we through our endeavours here creating the basis to better the lives of South Africans? This is not because the people have some subjective expectations fanned during an election campaign. Neither is it because there is a magic wand that they see in the new government. Millions have suffered deprivation for decades and they have the right to seek redress. They fought and voted for change and change the people of South Africa must have.

What is crucial, however, is that we have forged an enduring national consensus on the interim constitution and the broad objectives of reconstruction and development. This consensus is neither an imposition of one party over others nor a honeymoon premised on the fickle whims of a fleeting romance. What brings us together is the overriding commitment to a joint and national effort to reconcile our nation and improve its well-being.

A unique product of our negotiations -- the interim constitution and Charter of Fundamental Rights, and now the RDP - constitute the firm foundation for launching our nation from the mire of conflict, poverty, disease, and ignorance. These agreements were reached because they were, and still are, absolutely necessary for South Africa. They are not about to fade away like a passing bliss.

This does not subtract from the fact that there are different constituencies with divergent interests represented by our diverse parties here. We should not be fearful of the obvious consequence that there are bound to be differences of emphasis and approach on a variety of matters.

To present a facade of unity on each and every issue would be artificial, undemocratic, and patently pretentious. The more these issues are aired and opened up for public debate, the better for the kind of democracy we seek to build. Handled within the bounds dictated by the interests of coherent and effective governance, such debate will definitely enrich our body politic. This applies equally to debate within parties about how to manage this novel experience.

From the outset, the Government of National Unity set itself two inter-related tasks: reconciliation and reconstruction; nation-building and development. This is South Africa’s challenge today. It will remain our challenge for many years to come.

A hundred days after our inauguration, our overwhelming impression of our reality is that our nation has succeeded to handle its problems with great wisdom. We have a government that has brought together bitter enemies into a constructive relationship. Our Parliament and Cabinet have properly focused on the task of reconstruction and development. And we have a government that is in control and whose programmes are on course.

This is the essence of our collective success, an achievement that no sceptic can take away from our nation. In this regard, we should congratulate all South Africans for the reconciliatory spirit with which they have handled the transition, and for their patience as the new government found its feet. ...

In reviewing the implementation of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, we should keep in mind the reality that the progress that we make in reconciling our nation, will determine the pace at which this programme is implemented. On the other hand, reconciliation will remain shallow if it is not accompanied by thorough going changes in all areas of life.

The RDP should, therefore, be understood as an all-encompassing process of transforming society, in its totality, to ensure a better life for all. It addresses both the principle goals of transformation and ways of managing that transformation.324

By harnessing the nation’s energies to more rapidly develop and reconstruct our country, he concluded, our society will experience meaningful and lasting reconciliation.

This coupling of the twin objectives and the consequent obligation on all sectors of society to work together in a national effort to achieve them was inflected towards prevailing conditions as they changed. In 1996, when it was apparent that the business sector was slow to respond to the opportunity to reap the ‘democratic dividend’ as it had pledged in the heady days of the ‘new beginning’ of 1994, Mandela made the need for a ‘new patriotism’ the theme of his State of the Nation Address.

We must unite in a New Patriotism to achieve the goal of creating a new society. …

All South Africans, are called upon to become builders and healers. But, for all the joy and excitement of creation, to build and to heal are difficult undertakings.

We can neither heal nor build, if such healing and building are perceived as a one-way process, with the victims of past injustices forgiving and the beneficiaries merely content in gratitude. Together we must set out to correct the defects of the past.

We can neither heal nor build, if on the one hand, the rich in our society see the poor as hordes of irritants; or if, on the other hand, the poor sit back, expecting charity. All of us must take responsibility for the upliftment of our conditions, prepared to give our best to the benefit of all.

We can neither heal nor build, if we continue to have people in positions of influence and power who, at best, pay lip service to affirmative action, black empowerment and the emancipation of women, or who are, in reality, opposed to these goals; if we have people who continue with blind arrogance to practice racism in the work-places and schools, despite the appeal we made in our very first address to this parliament. We must work together to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunity and power in our society.

We cannot build or heal our nation, if – in both the private and public sectors, in the schools and universities, in the hospitals and on the land, in dealing with crime and social dislocation – we continue with business as usual, wallowing in notions of the past. Everywhere and in everything we do, what is now required is boldness in thinking, firmness in resolve and consistency in action…

All of us must take the national project of accelerated and fundamental transformation of our country very seriously indeed. The achievement of the objectives of equity, non-racialism and non-sexism constitute the very essence of the new society we seek to build.

In the history of nations, generations have made their mark through their acumen to appreciate critical turning points, and with determination and creativity, to seize the moment. South Africa is well on its way to a new and better life. This we will achieve only if we shed the temptation to proceed casually along the road; only if we fully take the opportunities that beckon.

We must unite in a New Patriotism to achieve the goal of creating a new society.325

These expectations of the ‘spirit of national unity’ in the period of transition also shaped the president’s responses to debates on his addresses. Party leaders and critics distancing themselves from or opposing measures for change and transformation, political parties adopting merely oppositional stances, or critics emphasising problems, were reminded of the founding consensus on reconstruction and reconciliation. In the context of the country's transition, special pleading, Mandela suggested, generally amounted to trying to preserve privileges of the past. The inclusive approach of the liberation movement offered a place in the sun for all in the new South Africa – but a place that had to be earned by sharing the effort of dealing with the legacy of the past. This was the burden of his reply to the 1997 National Assembly debate on the president’s budget, the first such debate in which the National Party, having withdrawn from the GNU, was unrestrained in its opposition.

1994 was not just a change of government – but a revolutionary change in the political system.

Many of the speakers presented proposals for implementation; and the executive shall not hesitate to examine them in order to improve our work. Perhaps it is not the role of the opposition to do so; for are they not supposed merely to revel in the weaknesses and failures of the incumbents!

But ours is a different and special kind of relationship. Because, in the first instance, the historic change that South Africa underwent in 1994, was not just a change of government. It was a change of a political system - a revolutionary breakthrough after centuries of colonial domination.

And for many years to come, the primary pre-occupation of all those who owe allegiance to the new order - which I believe applies to all parties in this chamber - will be how to improve the fledgling democracy that we have together established; how to ensure that it is reflective of the needs of society; how together to defend it; and indeed with pride to proclaim our loyalty to the Constitution; to proclaim from the mountain-tops our South Africanness.

It is natural, therefore, that the character of our debates will not be so much about policy as about how to implement it effectively. And this in part reflects the fact that this government has got the best policies to make South Africa succeed in building a better life for all.

Yet precisely because we are not yet out of the woods, conceptual issues about the nature of our democracy and its meaning to various sectors of our divided society will always come to the fore, the better to fashion a system and a national mind-set that should be characteristic of true new South Africans. Breaking the electoral racial mould requires transforming society

Related to this is the desire, proclaimed or otherwise, by a number of parties to break the racial mould in the voting patterns of our country. This is a welcome endeavour which we hope will contribute to the de-racialisation of our society, a fundamental element of the transformation that we pursue.

What does such de-racialisation mean in actual practice? It means that we must improve the conditions of the poor, the majority of whom are black - so that we should not have a South Africa in which the ownership of wealth, the spatial demography of communities, and positions of power and influence in the public and private sectors, are delineated according to race or language group.

It means that we should all recognise that South Africa belongs to all who live in it; and ensure that this finds expression in the distribution of land and resources.

It means that we should work for the success of an educational system that spreads resources equitably across communities and provinces so that all our children are provided the best that South Africa can offer.

It means that we should have a national policy, as well as a public broadcaster, that recognises equity among all languages without the privileges of the past.

It means these and many other things that are at the core of our Reconstruction and Development Programme. These principles are at the pinnacle of the ANC's approach to the transformation of South African society; and they have been so for decades.

It is therefore a contradiction in terms for anyone to seek to protect privileges of a by-gone era in education, in land distribution, in the employment of blacks and women in management positions in the public and private sectors, in the distribution of wealth, in the status of languages, to wash one's hands of the mistakes of the past - in brief, to seek to perpetuate apartheid relations - and at the same time pretend that one is keen to unite South Africans across divisions of the past.326