Reconciliation Day Reflection

by Pieter-Simon Basson

Robben Island, 16 December 2022

On behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation I thank you for the opportunity to address you all, and to join you in reflecting on this day of reconciliation in a place that holds such significance in the collective consciousness of our young democracy.


The preamble to the Constitution reads:


“We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as a supreme law of the Republic so as to – 

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

May God protect our people.”


Central to our constitutional project is the concept of reconciliation. At the birth of our new democratic society, this concept was codified in the preamble to the supreme law of our land, our Constitution, and in doing so, we as a people, declared our commitment to reconciliation and the healing of the divisions of the past.


In reflecting upon this commitment and the importance that doing so bears for the people of our country, we would do well to consider the concept of reconciliation and the role that it played in our recent past, but also, and perhaps more urgently, what it means for our future


Without forgiveness there can be no reconciliation. The fuel that keeps conflicts smouldering is the memory of past wrongs, carefully nurtured and remembered, all of them unforgiven and therefore unresolved. Until we truly forgive those that have wronged us, we carry within our hearts a bitterness which can poison every other aspect of our lives. By continuing to nurse these grievances, we give them continuing power over us. And so, in the end, we forgive those who have done us wrong not only for their sake, but also for our own liberation. 


Only through forgiveness can our people liberate themselves from the burden of bitterness and grievance, and only once unburdened can reconciliation take place, and can those that have previously been alienated from one another come together. 


Nowhere better was this illustrated than through many of those that were incarcerated right here on this very island. Despite the grievous injustices done unto them, the greatest of these men demonstrated an unparalleled ability to forgive and in doing so, made a critical contribution to the foundation upon which our society was built, thereby paving the road for reconciliation and lasting peace.


Central also to the concept of reconciliation is justice or the balancing of scales. Justice requires us to carefully and dispassionately consider the imbalances that have been caused by past injustices and to make concerted and continuous efforts to rectify these imbalances in a way that reflect our constitutionally enshrined democratic values. 


Many of our fellow countrymen feel disenfranchised by our collective inability to ensure economic justice and our continuous failures in doing what must be done to ensure an economic future for our country.



Despite the progress that we have made in improving the lives of millions, it will be our failure to uplift the majority of our people from abject poverty and to deliver on the Constitution’s promise of improved quality of life and social justice that will define us in the times to come, and it will be these failures which make us ever more vulnerable to the onslaught of intolerance, of populism, of hatred, and of all the evils of men.


Reconciliation and the balancing of scales in an economic sense must therefore be urgently realised, however in doing so, and despite growing temptation, we must be careful not to create a reversion to the kind of reproach or retribution which caused our alienation from one another in the first place.


Another core element to the concept of reconciliation is compromise. Compromise is the acceptance of things, that in an ideal world, we would rather not accept, where we would have preferred more, but where the imperative for compromise requires us to accept less. We do not live in an ideal world and our South African reality is often difficult and complex. The reality is that our search for lasting solutions to the problems that have caused conflict in the past, will require all of us to make real -and often painful compromises. At a time where these virtues are perhaps unpopular and scarce commodity, let us remind ourselves that lasting peace, in a diverse and vibrant society such as our own, will always require sacrifice and compromise.


Today more than ever, we as South Africans, that enlightened people, a people who overcame more than was ever thought possible and achieved great constitutional victories, must re-commit ourselves to those founding values that allowed us to emerge as victors from the abyss of history.


For make no mistake, our Constitution and the founding principles upon which it is based, including the reconciliation of our peoples are under constant and vitriolic attack. We live in an increasingly divided and polarised world. The wave of radicalism and intolerance is sweeping across the globe and we here in South Africa are not immune to the ravages that it brings. 


To the youth in our country, and I count myself as one of you, I say this:


Although we live in times of conflict and uncertainty, we also live in a time where our voices may more easily be heard than ever before in our history. We must not be afraid to enter the fray to defend our constitutional values, to show moral courage and to reject the outworn slogans of dogmatism and bigotry. 


We as the youth of our country have the advantage of hindsight. We must learn from our fathers and forefathers before us, and we must not allow ourselves to make the same mistakes that they made. We must reflect upon our history, and we must strive towards a higher moral standard. There can be no excuses for this. There is no alternative.


Let us join hands, as many of our patrons and founding fathers once did, and re-commit ourselves to our Constitution and the founding values enshrined therein through which the birth of our nation was made possible. 


In the words of former President De Klerk, “let us commit ourselves to put the hurt, reproach and conflict of a divided past behind us and to concentrate, instead, on the promise and common purpose of a united future”.


May God bless our people.


Thank you.