17 DECEMBER 2006



It is appropriate for us to gather here today in this place of exile and political imprisonment.  It is appropriate to commemorate the role played by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa’s long march to freedom.  He spent many years as a political prisoner – in South Africa and in India.

Mahatma Gandhi will, of course, always be primarily associated with his motherland, India.  Perhaps more than any other person, he was responsible for the relatively peaceful liberation of India, after almost two centuries of British Imperial rule.  His figure – clad in a home-spun white cotton loin cloth – became synonymous with his country’s struggle for freedom.

However, his was a liberation struggle that differed from any other in history.  It was not a struggle of armies and weapons.  It was a struggle of principle and peaceful resistance.  He believed that non-violence was the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.  He said that it was mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.  Only through non-violence could mankind break the vicious cycle of repression and revenge.  As he observed: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

If Gandhi had a second homeland it was undoubtedly here, in South Africa.  It was here as a young lawyer and political activist – and as a stretcher–bearer for the British forces in the Anglo-Boer War – that Gandhi began to develop the philosophy and approach that would dominate the rest of his life.  Central among these approaches were the principles of satyagraha – devotion to the truth – and ahimsa – non-violence.  Together, these principles coalesce into a powerful approach of non-violent mass civil disobedience and resistance.

He used these weapons with great affect against the pervasive racial discrimination that he encountered in South Africa.  He was one of the first leaders to organise resistance to colonial domination – and in 1894 established the Indian National Congress.

Although Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, the principles and approaches that he espoused continued to have an enormous influence on the political development in South Africa.  The African National Congress implemented his approach of non-violent civil resistance until the early 60s.  Its President, Albert Luthuli, remained a firm believer in non-violence until his death.

One of the seminal questions of our history is whether South Africa would have moved more, or less rapidly, toward democracy if the African National Congress movement had adhered to Gandhi’s approach.  I expect that historians will differ on this.  However, fact is that many lives could have been saved if all sides had adhered to a non violent approach.

In the final analysis, despite the subsequent escalation in violence in South Africa, it was ultimately Gandhi’s spirit of non-violent compromise and accommodation that triumphed.  Our constitutional settlement was guided by his view that “we win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”  Indeed, we were able to move forward to constructive negotiations only after all sides accepted that our problems could not solved by violence – and that continuing conflict would simply leave the country in ruins for all our people.

Between 1990 and 1994 we underwent a non-violent revolution.   After the announcements that I made on 2 February 1990, we South Africans began tentatively to talk with one another.  At the subsequent meetings and at CODESA we discovered that the common interests and hopes that united us were stronger than the bitter history and injustices that divided us.

Now, 100 years after Mahatma Gandhi launched his first satyagraha campaign against the Transvaal colonial government, we are able to experience the true fruits of non-violence.  This is particularly the case when we consider how this, our beloved country, would have looked by this time if we had continued the downward spiral of violent repression and violent resistance.

Standing here in Robben Island, on this Weekend of Reconciliation in 2006, I would like to think that Mahatma Gandhi would be pleased with the progress that we South Africans have made since he left us 92 years ago.

Our challenge now is to uphold the historic agreements we peacefully reached through genuine negotiations.  Also to come to grips with crime.  Political violence has unfortunately been replaced by criminal violence.  Against his wishes we still live in a violent country.  The violence of today is as devastating as the violence of the past.

We urgently need to continue our quest for a truly non-violent South Africa.  I believe that is what Gandhi would have advocated, had he been with us.