On the 27th April 1994 millions South Africans voted in the first ever democratic elections. It was the very first time that black South Africans were allowed to vote, so it was a day that I will never forget. For generations South Africans had been divided by a system called apartheid, a legalised system of racial discrimination that benefited the ‘white’ minority whilst severely restricting the ‘black’ majority. This was the day for which we had waited many long years, the day for which the struggle against apartheid had been waged, for which so many of our people had been tear-gassed, bitten by police dogs, struck with quirts and batons, tortured, banned, imprisoned, sentenced to death and driven into exile. The day had finally dawned when we could vote for the first time in a democratic election in the land of our birth. On the 9th May 1994, Nelson Mandela was duly elected president by the first democratically elected national assembly in the new South Africa and finally we got to witness the beginning of the end of apartheid. The ‘miracle’ we now call the rainbow nation was born.
In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of freedom, I was privileged to spend the day with the staff and students at Bitterne Park School in Southampton. Never in my wildest dreams during those horrid days of apartheid, did I ever think that I would ever be standing in front of young students relating ‘our’ truly remarkable story. It almost seemed like yesterday as I related stories of the difficulties of growing up during apartheid and how long and difficult the road to freedom had been. I never ever imagined that I would ever live to see the dawning of the day when I could truly say ‘I AM FREE’. Even after 20 years of freedom it still feels like a dream. It sometimes feels like someone will wake me up to tell me it was all just a dream. With all the stories of pain and horror of the past, it seemed so surreal to see the positive impact and response my visit had on these students. I still get ‘goose bumps’ thinking about how intently they all listened.
It became very evident from the many positive comments and messages I received following my visit, that important lessons had been learned. One of these being what Nelson Mandela said, ‘There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires’. The key lesson for us is to ‘NEVER GIVE UP’, regardless of the many challenges we face along the way. Every accomplishment will always bring its fair share of pain and difficulty. As human beings we’ve been BLESSED with the amazing ability to choose how we respond to challenges. We can choose to either ‘give up’ or remain focused, resolute, committed, patient, passionate and persevere and eventually triumph and fulfil our true potential regardless of the challenges.
Today, South Africans are casting their votes in the fifth democratic elections. FREEDOM is no longer just a dream but a REALITY. My only hope is that every human being will get to experience true FREEDOM.
Thank you to all the staff and students at Bitterne Park School. A very special thanks to Mr Whitbread for inviting me.