ADDRESS BY PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI OF SOUTH AFRICA AT THE EBENEZER BAPTIST CHURCH, ATLANTA, USA, 26 May 2000
There are very few places in the world which carry within their bosom a sense of ubiquity and wholesomeness, as does this place in which we are gathered this morning. We meet here today after a visit to a number of cities such as Washington, San Francisco, and Austin.
My wife, my delegation and I looked forward to this morning with excitement because this place, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is a place where a great deal of what we are still grappling with, evolved.
Ebenezer is indeed the kind of place where many of us would have felt at home during the dark days of our struggle for liberation from apartheid. This was the flagship of the civil rights movement which was an instrumental chapter in the history of oppressed people all over the world.
We indeed feel a sense of excitement because this magnificent house of worship is a home for all of us, whether we are rich or poor, whether we are powerful or weak, no matter what colour we are, as long as we come to share our thoughts, to engage in solidarity and to pray for a particular kind of humanity. A humanity that cares and seeks to assist the less fortunate, a humanity that strives for a better life for each and every person in every part of our common universe.
We come here this morning with a commitment to reconnect, recharge and redirect our collective understanding of who we are. We meet today being in a better position to deal with circumstances that, although not of our own making, have nevertheless disadvantaged us as a people.
We have to confront these unfavourable circumstances that seek to define and equate black with failure, and redirect our energies and resources towards a new role for all of us and for Africa and all who are associated with that mother continent of humanity. One way in which we can do this is to look back and reflect on the history that this church shares with us, lest we forget what it is that continues to beckon us together, despite the geographic distances that separate us.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church, founded in 1886, was in existence 14 years before the turn of the previous century. This is 14 years before WEB Du Bois made his famous statement in England in 1900:
"The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line."
1886 is also exactly one year after the European potentates carved up the African Continent with arbitrary borders that gave it the character which we have to live with today.
Since the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, African-Americans have made tremendous progress in the improvement of their life circumstances despite formidable odds.
Although as South Africans, we have been commended for what many call a political miracle because of the manner in which we arrived at a political settlement, we are, however, faced with the challenge to address the legacy of apartheid. Your own experience in the USA is a telling lesson that the resolution of the burden of race and its legacy is something that is not easy to conquer.
As we enter the 21st century, racism is rearing its ugly head in different parts of the world but particularly in Europe in the form of xenophobia. In South Africa this problem is reflected in the continued existence of two nations - one white and rich and the other black and poor. Here in the USA racism has manifested itself in various ways including the recent spate of what has been referred to as hate crimes.
We have already imposed on ourselves the obligations of ensuring that this century will be an African century. I think we will all agree that it is important to further impose on our shoulders the task of finally and forever resolving the colour problem.
We feel more than privileged to be in this sanctuary in this town of Atlanta where so many brilliant ideas were so extraordinarily articulated by that son of former slaves, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
The ideas that were germinated at that time are as relevant today as they were then, the only difference now being one of content, both of our characters and of the conditions within which these ideas are to be tested and implemented.
One of the characteristic traits of an African identity is the importance of giving tribute to those who had prepared the road for us to walk on.
We realise that we, in whatever we do and with whatever level of success, are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.
It is thus most proper for us to unite our minds around the significance of the place where we are gathered today. Martin Luther King, though he was raised here in Atlanta and assumed junior and later senior pastoral roles of Ebenezer, has done more for humanity than we with our limited human comprehension of who we are, can appreciate.
It is thus not an historical accident that in last year, Dr. King's speech "I have a dream" was designated by historians as the most eloquent statement of the century.
To us in South Africa, indeed to all Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, Dr. King - and the extent to which this church was instrumental in shaping him - will remain an indelible mark in the kinds of human relations that we are forging in our own country, our continent and in our lives.
You will recall that since it was founded in 1886 under the leadership of Dr. Alfred Daniel Williams, Dr King's grandfather, this church stood at the forefront of the advancement of African-American participation in the economic development of the American south. With that, went a commitment to support Black owned businesses and institutions and dedication to community service.
I am sure you will appreciate that these are some of the same goals we are striving for in a liberated South Africa and toward the African Renaissance. Already there are a number of people from Atlanta and other parts of the USA, who are engaged in business in our country, who are investing and imparting skills to our people in South Africa. We wish to thank them for this important work.
As a developing country, South Africa like other countries in similar positions needs your support. We need your skills, your expertise and your investment. In a world where no country can insulate itself from other parts of the same world, our success is highly dependent on your concrete support.
This global solidarity between ourselves was part of the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, and some of us will remember that Dr. King was one of the first world leaders to call for a boycott of South Africa as part of the struggle for democracy. This kind of solidarity amongst those who work for the same objectives, has been the hallmark of our own movement and struggle for democracy.
We are therefore saying that we should continue with this struggle of working together and striving for social and economic justice for the poor, for countries of the South, and come with practical ways of assisting Africa to pull herself out of the quagmire of poverty. I can assure you that you will find many amongst Africans who are ready to work in honest partnership with yourselves.
It is in this very place where Dr. King delivered one of his most important sermons, "The Drum Major Instinct", on 4 February 1968, exactly two months before he was taken away from the people whose cause he championed, by a supposed lone gunman.
The wreath we are about to lay symbolises in many ways that the people of South Africa are with you not only at the resting place of Dr. King, but everywhere and in our hearts.
I am certain that we shall continue to work together in our collective efforts to make this world a better place. We have come this far in the true meaning of the word Ebenezer - God has been with us thus far. The ideas, which were incubated right here in Ebenezer and during the Civil Rights Movement, now belong to the whole world.
I thank you.
Issued by the Office of the Presidency