We South Africans are fortunate to have such a rich paleontological history.
The ancestors of homo sapiens came from Africa - and many of them originated right here at the Cradle of Humankind.
Perhaps, even more significantly, South Africa was the home of the earliest members of our own species, homo sapiens. We have some of the oldest homo sapiens sites in the world. Some of the world’s earliest art - dating from more than 100 000 years ago, was discovered at Blombos in the Western Cape.
At some point between 100 000 and 200 000 years ago - right here in Africa - something happened in the cerebral cortexes of our ancestors. Unlike any of the species that lived before them, they were able to imagine things that did not yet exist and to consciously change their environment accordingly. That was the moment when we left all the other species behind us and became truly human.
According to Charles Darwin the success of species is not determined by their relative strength or intelligence, but by their ability to adapt to change. It was in this area that our ancestors did really well. Not only were they able to adapt to the rapidly changing environments created by a succession of ice ages, they were progressively able to change the environments in which they lived. In effect, we humans became the only species with the ability to manage change.
Our ability to deal with change has been one of the competitive advantages of our species. We have done really well during the past 20 000 years, precisely because we were better able to deal with rapidly changing environments than any of our competitors:
- In the last 12 000 years our numbers have grown by a factor of 10 000.
- In the last 200 years we have really taken off: we have established ourselves in virtually every single corner of the inhabitable world and our wealth and technology have grown exponentially.
- We continue to record steady growth of about 3% per annum.
- We have no competition. Our last real competitors - the Neanderthals - disappeared 30 000 years ago.
The ability to manage change is still a critical success factor for mankind.
20 years ago we South Africans were able to manage one of the greatest change processes of the 20th century. We transformed our society from the division and isolation of the past to a new era based on inclusivity and non-racial constitutional democracy.
Since then our new society has served us well. We have resumed our honoured place in the international community; we have seen our economy grow by more than 250% to US $400 billion; we have made major strides in combating poverty and in providing basic services to the vast majority of our people. We have held five free and fair elections - and we continue to enjoy the fruits of constitutional freedom.
However, we have also learned that the process of change never ends.
We continue to be faced by major national challenges that will require further fundamental changes in our society.
- We must work together to improve our dysfunctional education system and ensure that everyone emerges from school or university with a decent education;
- We must take effective steps to promote equality - since it is now clear that our present approach is not succeeding;
- We must continue to work for a society based on our core constitutional values of equality, human dignity, the enjoyment of basic rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism.
- We must strengthen our constitutional system to ensure respect for the rule of law; the supremacy of the Constitution, and a genuine democratic system that is open, responsive and accountable.
When I imprint my foot here today, I shall do so in the awareness that I am continuing the long march of change that we began right here at the Cradle of Humankind so many eons ago.
However, my footprint will also indicate that this is an unfinished journey on our way to a better, more just and more equal future for all our people.
Photo credit: Anthony Paton, Gauteng Tourism Authority