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Have we turned to the clan and forgotten the nation?

When the constitution of the Republic was adopted on the morning of Wednesday May 8 1996, something else of great import also happened.

That was when then deputy president Thabo Mbeki took to the podium to deliver a statement on behalf of the ANC. That statement has come to be known by its title, “I am an African”.

Mbeki’s speech continues to resonate at home, across the continent and through the wider African diaspora for three reasons.

The first is that it was an inspired and inspiring denunciation of racism and the dehumanisation of a people that Scottish philosopher David Hume said were “naturally inferior”, with “no ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, [and] no sciences”.

And so, against Hume, Mbeki would assert and affirm the overriding thesis of the constitution: all shall “assume their place in society as equals with their fellow human beings without regard to colour, race, gender, age or geographic dispersal”.

Secondly, Mbeki’s speech was an inclusive definition of Africanness. “The constitution ,” he said, “constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins.”

Mbeki is “formed of migrants who left Europe” much as he is “the grandchild” of the Hintsa, Sekhukhune, Cetshwayo, Moshoeshoe and Nongqause. If Mbeki, the African, “made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which [our] stomach[s] yearn”, this could only be because the mental outlook of Africans is not confined to the reserves.

Twenty years later, we have to ask whether this republican vision is still shared, more so by all in Mbeki’s “titanic African army, the ANC?” What with today’s presidential campaigns being launched in narrower identity context, the clan, than the tribe whose demons the founders of the ANC sought to exorcise! If we have morphed to this extent, the republicanism of the constitution and the Pan Africanism of the liberation movement are in grave danger. Indeed, part of the constitutional crisis we see today consists precisely in this “Sebenzela ekhaya” (working for your homestead) mentality.

The third reason is that Mbeki continues to enjoy the respect of many Africans because his mental outlook is firmly rooted in international solidarity. He is “born of the peoples of the continent of Africa”. Consequently, “The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear … The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.”

It is this internationalist outlook that would take him to Haiti on January 1 2004 to celebrate the bicentennial of the world’s first black republic, a product of the sweat and blood of slaves from the African continent.

Mbeki exudes a commitment far beyond mere claims and pronouncements. So, in 2009, like the proverbial prophet, he would spend 42 days roaming the dessert of Darfur, Sudan on an African Union mission to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Darfur.

In that exercise lies the simple but valuable lesson that overcoming our challenges not only requires dirtying our hands but a conscious investment in personal sacrifice – a tall order.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the constitution and the speech, we must consider what discomfort we will each subject ourselves to to realise our stated commitments, at home and throughout the continent.