Borrowing from JFK in addressing "xenophobia" in South Africa

The last two weeks in South Africa have been marred by violence and inhumanity. Call it xenophobia, tribalism or just plain opportunism – the fact is that a sticky mess of contributing factors has led to a loss of life, displacement, maltreatment and exposure of the shortcomings of our young democracy.

Today I am a proud South African, but not proud to be South African.

The current situation has brought focus onto the worst of our society – but has also highlighted the best. Over the last two weeks I have seen my fellow South Africans by and large make personal sacrifices of time, money and material commodities in meeting the humanitarian crises that has developed as a result of displacement. Schools, churches and police stations have become places of refuge, safety and shelter and ordinary South Africans have answered the call for blankets, food, nappies and other requirements. This makes me proud.

Last night I listened to the speech of our South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who rightfully positioned the situation as a disgrace. He also accurately reminded us that the perpetrators of the heinous crimes we have seen committed over the last two weeks are a minority of the population. His speech was succinct and poignant, although sadly a tad late. But it got me to thinking about famous political speeches; those that have molded history, changed entire global climates, stemmed violence and eased tragedy. Speeches that are repeated throughout the annals of history in quotes and art.

One of my favorite speeches was made by American president John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address on 20 January, 1961. Kennedy was speaking to a challenged America facing its own questions of inclusion and diversity and dealing with its own climate of fear and uncertainty. As I read over the words he spoke on that day I find numerous parallels between his message and the current situation in South Africa. Consider the following:

“To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do – for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom – and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge – to convert our good words into good deeds – in a new alliance for progress – to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbours know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.”

This powerful section of the speech from a new president was preceded with an acknowledgment of universal rights:

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

And let us not forget what has become the most repeated piece of this particular address, in greater context:

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Basic integrities and freedoms are universal and have stayed the ages since we found our civlisation. I am proud of my fellow South Africans who have answered the humanitarian call of the displaced multitudes we host in our country. They have come here because South Africa, like the United States of America, is seen as a beacon of hope and democracy with celebrated diversity. It is a country in Africa where human rights are respected and upheld and where basic freedoms are cast in a progressive constitution. Sadly this image has been tarnished by a group of hooligans.

As eloquent as Mr. Thabo Mbeki is and as good as I personally believe his speech was last night, I call on him and our other leaders to tear a page from John F. Kennedy’s book; address universal rights and freedoms, remind us of the fragility of our liberties and the duties we have to our fellow man. End the madness that has gripped our society by speaking to people on the ground.

I for one stay committed to our beautiful country as I walk hand-in-hand with it into a new future. We have current problems and challenges to face. The future is uncertain. But I will meet it with my country. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Ons vir jou, Suid Afrika.

The entire speech by John F. Kennedy can be found by clicking here.

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