On Mandela’s first day in the Union Buildings as President in 1994, the building had seemed lifeless and forlorn as he walked along the corridor to what was to be his office for the next five years. On the last day, in 1999, the building really was deserted when he went there, no longer the president of South Africa, to collect his personal effects.794 It was a public holiday, the afternoon of the day Thabo Mbekiwas inaugurated as president.
There had been many farewells before this day. Taking leave as president from the people of South Africa and from countries and multilateral organisations across the world, Mandela conjured up a life of quiet reflection spent in his home village in the countryside, watching developments from afar, concerned at the problems South Africa and the world faced but nevertheless hopeful that leaders would rise to the challenges of peace, equity and development. For him, it was going to be time to read again and think and enjoy family life in a way that the pressures of governing – and intense political activism before that – had not allowed.
The long farewell began at the time of the ANC’s 1997 national conference. In a television interview the evening before the conference began he spoke of his feelings as he prepared to step down from the leadership of the ANC.
One of the things I have missed very much is the opportunity to sit down and think. The tight programme that I have, as President of the organisation does not allow me that opportunity. I also miss the opportunity to read which I had in prison, as ironical as that might appear to be. But the opportunity to sit down and think is part and parcel of your political work and I have missed that tremendously. And finally, the opportunity for me to sit down with my children and grandchildren and to listen to their dreams and to try and help them as much as possible.795
Closing the conference he crystallised the thought in an image of his home village.
I look forward to that period when I will be able to wake up with the sun; to walk the hills and valleys of Qunu in peace and tranquillity.796
During the last year of his Presidency, he took that image to many communities and countries, from the United Nations General Assembly to a crowd of people gathered in the street during an election walkabout:
Every one of you know that I’m stepping down as President of this country and I am walking around just to say goodbye to all of you and to thank you for the support and even love that you have given me. I am going to my country village. That is where I’m going to be because I am essentially a country boy. I want to see a blade of grass; I want to see the birds as they are flying around. And I want to listen to the noise of the streams.797
There were also light asides, as he presented a picture of ‘an old man by the road carrying a placard saying, ‘No Job, No Money, New Wife, Big Family’.798
At the final sitting of Parliament, Mandela accounted for the last time to the country’s elected representatives for what had been achieved and what was still to be done, emphasising as always, that South Africa’s progress was the result of collective effort that would continue.
Each historical period defines the specific challenges of national progress and leadership; and no man is an island.
And for me personally, I belong to the generation of leaders for whom the achievement of democracy was the defining challenge.
I count myself fortunate in not having had to experience the rigours of exile and decades of underground and mass struggles that consumed the lives of such giants as Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, Duma Nokwe, Moses Kotane, and JB Marks, Robert Sobukwe, and Zephania Mothopeng, Oscar Mpetha, Lilian Ngoyi, Bishop Alpheus Zulu, Bram Fischer, Helen Joseph, Alex La Guma, Yusuf Dadoo, and Monty Naicker. Unfortunately, Steve Biko passed away in his youth, but he was a rising star, if he had been given the chance I would have counted him among these.
I count myself fortunate that, amongst that generation, history permitted me to take part in South Africa's transition from that period into the new era whose foundation we have been laying together.
I hope that decades from now, when history is written, the role of that generation will be appreciated, and that I will not be found wanting against the measure of their fortitude and vision. …
To the extent that I have been able to achieve anything, I know that this is because I am the product of the people of South Africa.
I am the product of the rural masses who inspired in me the pride in our past and the spirit of resistance.
I am the product of the workers of South Africa who, in the mines, factories, fields and offices of our country, have pursued the principle that the interests of each are founded in the common interest of all.
I am the product of South Africa's intelligentsia, of every colour, who have laboured to give our society knowledge of itself and to fashion our people's aspirations into a reasonable dream. I am the product of South Africa's business people - in industry and agriculture, commerce and finance - whose spirit of enterprise has helped turn our country's immense natural resources into the wealth of our nation.
To the extent that I have been able to take our country forward to this new era it is because I am the product of the people of the world who have cherished the vision of a better life for all people everywhere. They insisted, in a spirit of self-sacrifice, that that vision should be realised in South Africa too. They gave us hope because we knew by their solidarity that our ideas could not be silenced since they were the ideas of humanity.
I am the product of Africa and her long-cherished dream of a rebirth that can now be realised so that all of her children may play in the sun.
If I have been able to help take our country a few steps towards democracy, non-racialism and non-sexism, it is because I am a product of the African National Congress, of the movement for justice, dignity and freedom that produced countless giants in whose shadow we find our glory. ...
When, as will be the case in a few months, I once again become an ordinary citizen of our land, it shall be as one whose concerns and capacities are shaped by the people of our land.
I will count myself as amongst the aged of our society; as one of the rural population; as one concerned for the children and youth of our country; and as a citizen of the world committed, as long as I have the strength, to work for a better life for all people everywhere. And as I have always done, I will do what I can within the discipline of the broad movement for peace and democracy to which I belong.
I will then count myself amongst the ordinary men and women whose well-being must, in any country, be the standard by which democratic government must be judged.
Primary amongst these criteria is the Reconstruction and Development Programme aimed at building a better life for all.
Primary amongst these criteria are national unity and reconciliation amongst communities and citizens whose destiny is inseparable.
It is a measure of our success as a nation that an international community that inspired hope in us, in turn itself finds hope in how we overcame the divisions of centuries by reaching out to one another. To the extent that we have been able to reciprocate in renewing hope amongst the people of the world, we are grateful indeed and feel doubly blessed. And it goes without saying that we should all live up to those expectations which the world has of us.
As I was reminded yet again on the visit which I have just made to the Netherlands and four Nordic countries, the world admires us for our success as a nation in rising to the challenges of our era.
Those challenges were: to avoid the nightmare of debilitating racial war and bloodshed and to reconcile our people on the basis that our overriding objective must be together to overcome the legacy of poverty, division and inequity.
To a national television audience, watching him being interviewed for the last time as president, his assessment of the five years was that he regarded them as
five years of unexpected achievement although there have been weaknesses and mistakes. We have succeeded in confounding the prophets of doom and we have achieved a bloodless revolution. We have restored the dignity of every South African in this country. Nobody can now be called upon to produce passes and no policeman will be authorised to break into a house at midnight without a warrant and we have brought stability, both political and economic to the country. We are uniting all the people of South Africa, we are promoting reconciliation and we are making quality deliveries to our people. These are the credit side of these five years. But of course there have been weaknesses because we have had no experience whatsoever in governance. We have learned through trial, through mistakes and there is the question of the high level of crime – although we know the background. There is the question of corruption. But nevertheless notwithstanding those weaknesses I think the achievements have been impressive. ...