Debate On The Centennial Anniversary Of The Signing Of
The Act Of Union

Contribution By Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
President Of The Inkatha Freedom Party

   

 

National Assembly: 1 June 2010

 

We have dedicated a day to the celebration of Human Rights, Africa, Heritage, Freedom, Workers, Youth and Women. But the celebration of the centennial of South Africa's birth as a united nation goes by almost unmarked. In this debate, we need to consider how our national identity has been shaped by events both noble and deplorable, and accept that history cannot be painted over with prettier colours.

 

In remembrance of the signing of the Act of Union of 31 May 1910, I have said that even bastards are entitled to celebrate their birthdays. There is no doubt that there is great controversy around the events that led to the genesis of South Africa as a united country. We did not have a glorious process of unification creating a mythology with which we can all identify.  However, the unity of the country and the moment of its birth are facts which can neither be denied nor ignored.

 

We no longer talk of bastards, but rather children born out of wedlock, because we recognise that at the time of birth no one is to bear the sins or faults of his or her parents. The unification of South Africa was preceded by the Anglo-Boer War, the Anglo-Zulu War, the so-called Kaffir Wars in the Eastern Cape, the resistance of King Sekhukhuni, and other conflicts which bear memories of horrors, glory and mixed feelings.

 

The founding fathers of our liberation struggle reacted to this white unilateral declaration of South Africa as an autonomous state by meeting in Bloemfontein in January 1912 to found the South African Native Congress, later the African National Congress.

 

Four years prior to the Act of Union, a last attempt was made by black South Africans to throw off the yoke of oppression through revolutionary violence.  After the Zulu Rebellion, often referred to as the Bambatha Rebellion, the white presence in this country and the destruction of the boundaries of existing black kingdoms became realities that had to be faced. A new multi-racial South Africa had come into existence and the options were war or participation.

 

It is a tribute to the statesmanship of early black leaders that they elected to begin campaigning for the inclusion of blacks in the newly born Union through peaceful means. The Act of Union made black South Africans citizens, but denied them fundamental social, political and economic rights.  As black leaders turned to grasp at new realities and to evolve tactics and strategies aimed at gaining full acceptance of blacks as citizens of the country, a new political tradition was born and a long struggle began.

 

The Act of Union was the culmination of very problematic processes and sets of events, but in itself did not necessarily carry the sins and stains of that which preceded it. It was an act of hope for a better future. That hope was realised for a minority, while the majority remained hopeless. But the fact that hope was asserted was of immense importance for, a century later, we may now rise to celebrate its final triumph for all South Africans.

 

Other countries have been unified by a shared national identity, ideology, religion or common interest, which is what underpinned the unification of Germany and Italy, or the French Revolution, or the American Declaration of Independence. These events acted as the crucible for the birth of a new nation.

 

In our case, the birth of the nation was the result of an accommodation arising out of the settlement of many conflicts, all of which were rooted in greed, need for survival, fear of those who were different, quest for more land or the desire to protect one's own ancestral land, depending on who tells the story.

 

The moment of birth was not the act of a phoenix rising out of a crucible of fire, but rather eight years of lengthy negotiations after the Anglo-Boer War which resulted in the type of compromises which underpin our country having been born out of mutual accommodation, rather than a collective will.

  

We ended up with three capitals, spread between Cape Town, Pretoria and Bloemfontein, with Durban becoming the seat of railways and ports; a situation which persists one hundred years later. We ended up with cohabitation between the then two ruling groups, the English and the Afrikaners, which then led to a bilingual society which now has eleven official languages.

 

It was a political marriage of convenience. From that time, we blacks became "a problem". When I was growing up, white politicians openly spoke of us in this Parliament as "the native problem". And worse; we became "Die Swart Gevaar".

 

All this might be less than desirable. But we are what we are and neither a country nor a person can deny the fact and significance of South Africa's birth. Like many other countries, we should have had the courage, self-respect and pride to organize a grand parade which could show to ourselves and to the world where we come from.

 

This would have been particular poignant coming just nine days before the kickoff of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as the eyes of the world are upon us. We may have used this opportunity to open a debate on the independence of nations and the interdependence of history. We could have shown the world how a country like ours, born out of compromise, could grow into a shared identity. We should be proud of our diversity, and this was an opportunity for us to showcase it, for to me it represents the every strength of our nation.

 

The patriotism on full display in South Africa is not diminished by reminders of where we come from, but rather enhanced. On the centennial anniversary of our country's birth, I would have liked to see celebrations across the country, a dedicated day and all the other public and private activities which have marked in our country the significant striking of the clock of history.

 

I would have liked to see a re-enactment of the Great Trek's ox-wagons parading alongside Zulu regiments and other African ethnic formations, the ancient Asian dances and the Coon Carnival, together with British Redcoats, to be followed by the sign of our modern nation which stands proud of its achievements and confident of both its future as well as its past.

 

We can speak of reconciliation and building national unity. We can even speak about a rainbow nation. But we cannot brush some aspects of our past under the carpet and celebrate others in the hope that the next generation will adopt an enhanced and edited version of our history.

 

We have always been at risk of having the past rewritten by the victors, at the expense of the facts. Today, let us have the courage to accept the circumstances of our birth, as a sign of our maturity as a nation.

 

May our achievements remove any uncomfortable feeling we may have had with our country's genesis as we commit ourselves to creating a future which will enable our posterity to equally forgive the terrible social and economic conditions which still tarnish our present.

 

 

Contact: Ms Liezl van der Merwe, 082 729 2510.