Speech of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Funeral of Raymond Mhlaba, Port Elizabeth

A Generation That Gave Us Our Humanity
Mam' uDideka and the rest of the Mhlaba family,
Fellow mourners and fellow South Africans:

It is not possible to stand here next to the still life of Oom Ray, without being awed by what his generation of freedom fighters did to give us our humanity.

It is not possible to stand here next to the still life of Oom Ray and not finally come to understand the message his generation has been communicating to us for some time now, that given the rhythm of human existence, its days to join the ancestors have come.

Raymond Mhlaba lived a long and full life of four score and five years. We must therefore accept that to everything there is a time and a season - a time to live, which Oom Ray did for many years, and a time to pass on, as Oom Ray has done.

We often say this with seeming ease, that when we come to bury great patriots and outstanding leaders of our people such as Raymond Mhlaba, we do not mourn their departure but celebrate their lives. We speak these words routinely as though we had committed them to memory, as part of a catechism we have been trained to recite.

But it is not possible for me to stand here next to the still life of Oom Ray and say that we do not mourn his loss. This is even as we accept and must accept that we cannot credibly claim that death took Oom Ray away from us too early, given that he had achieved the ripe age of 85 years.

Raymond Mhlaba, Ndobe, devoted his entire adult life, covering 60 years, to the service of the people and the cause of freedom. Starting as a trade unionist in his early twenties, he grew to become the giant he was, one of the great guides of the struggle our people had and have to wage to free themselves from oppression, poverty and dehumanisation.

As we bury him today, we dare claim that even if it is still at a great distance, yet we can see the outline of the destination towards which he and his generation have steered our great ship of struggle and state, as our Captains.

We mourn the fact that our Captain, Raymond Mhlaba, could not have stayed longer with us to see the dream that inspired him for 60 years and more, the dream of a life of dignity and plenty for all his people, gradually emerge out of the mists of future time as a concrete and lasting thing of beauty and joy.

Today we borrow the words of the American poet, Walt Whitman, and call out to our own Captain, Raymond Mhlaba!

"O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting…
"O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up - for you the flag is flung - for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths - for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning…
"My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."

Indeed we too should exult and ring the bells of victory to celebrate the life Oom Ray gave to our people so that we could secure our liberation. We should exult and ring the bells of victory that he lived long enough to see our country freed from the curse of white minority rule.

We should rejoice that he saw it safely on course, on a new journey to transform itself into a common patrimony of all our people, giving effect to the vision he espoused and fought for, that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.

"But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."

I walk our deck with mournful tread because, like you fellow South Africans, I know what it means to lose a Raymond Mhlaba. Like you, I know what it means to our country to see an entire generation of liberators, the liberators of the generation of Raymond Mhlaba, disappear from our ranks, one after the other.

My generation of the followers of these giants will perhaps experience a deeper sense of loss than others because it had the privilege to learn at the feet of these titans, to study directly from them what it means to serve the people, to understand from them what it means to be a cadre of our liberation movement.

Perhaps our generation will carry a more profound sense of grief because as those who were our teachers and captains depart the world of the living one by one, it will understand what it has not done as the successor generation.

Today, we will perhaps understand better than we might have in the past, that we have not done enough to create the circumstances such that all our people can celebrate these, who were our teachers and captains, as the true national heroes and heroines of all our people that they are, the mothers and fathers of the new South Africa that is being born.

For the majority of our people, every day that dawns is a day of celebration, the celebration of the freedom we have enjoyed during the last ten years. But truly to value that freedom, we must always remember that at certain times in the past, when the brutal might of the oppressors bore down mercilessly on those who carried freedom's torch, that future freedom seemed to be nothing more than a mirage.

But thanks to the leadership, the determination, the perseverance, the courage, the inspiration, and the confidence in the people conveyed by Raymond Mhlaba and his generation of titans, we were able to overcome all obstacles until we gained our liberty.

I am therefore honoured to speak for our nation and say, thank you Oom Ray for what you did to restore to us our humanity by leading us to freedom!

For the majority of our people, every day that dawns is a day of celebration, the celebration of the advances we are making towards the creation of a non-racial society, with our people united in their diversity, and joined together by the common striving towards national reconciliation.

And yet it was not always obvious that non-racialism would emerge victorious, vanquishing all efforts to confine our people into racial and ethnic segments, and that national reconciliation would triumph over the then threatening perspective of a bloody racial war.

These are outcomes that had to be fought for, with many losing their lives. The time will come when the full story will be told of how Raymond Mhlaba and his generation of titans stood firm as even some who saw themselves as our liberators challenged the wisdom of the non-racial project.

I am therefore honoured to speak for our nation and say, thank you Oom Ray for what you and the other titans of your generation did to restore to us our humanity by teaching us that racism dehumanises both the perpetrator and the victim!

For the majority of our people, every day that dawns is a day of celebration, the celebration of the advances we are making towards the creation of a non-sexist society, to end the experience of millennia, which imposed a life of subservience on the women of our country and the world.

Even within the ranks of those who fought for our freedom, it took time properly to entrench the understanding that for freedom to reign, it had to encompass the emancipation of the women of our country.

Today we are proud to claim our place among the front ranks of the countries of the world that are making significant progress towards the attainment of the goal of gender equality.

I am therefore honoured to speak for our nation today, and say, thank you Oom Ray for what you and your generation of freedom fighters did to restore to us our humanity by teaching us that our freedom could never be complete while the women of our country remained victims of gender oppression!

For the majority of our people, every day that dawns is a day of hope, hope that in time, our country will lift from the shoulders of all our people the heavy burden of poverty that many centuries of deliberate inhumanity by some towards other human beings, has imposed on millions.

That hope is sustained by what the people have experienced during the first decade of the freedom for which Oom Ray was ready to lay down his life. These masses are inspired by the vision projected by Raymond Mhlaba and other titans of his generation, who gave our country and people the historic Freedom Charter.

I am therefore honoured to speak for our nation today, and say, thank you Oom Ray for what you and your generation of titans did to restore to us our humanity by teaching us that we should not abuse the freedom for which you fought, to benefit the few, but that we should use it to free the people from dehumanising poverty and want!

Today we can speak of people-driven processes of change. We speak of the need to mobilise the masses of our people fully to participate in the struggle to determine their future. We define ours as a participatory democracy which must draw its vibrancy from the involvement of the masses of the people mobilised to act as their own liberators.

Oom Ray and the other titans of his generation took it upon themselves to organise and educate our people to become the makers of history. They unleashed the enormous energies of the masses of the people, creating a mighty force which not even the armed might of the brutal apartheid state could vanquish.

That people's power will stand at the centre of our continuing struggle to achieve the goal of a better life for all. It will continue to serve as the principal force mobilised to defend our democratic gains and advance the goals of our democratic revolution.

I am therefore honoured to speak for our nation today, and say, thank you Oom Ray for what you and your generation of titans did to restore to us our humanity by teaching us to respect the toiling masses of our country and to strive to live up to the injunction that the people shall govern!

The freedom we achieved a decade ago through a difficult struggle brilliantly led and fashioned by Oom Ray and the other giants of his generation of liberation fighters, has placed demands on our people to produce leaders capable of leading our country and people successfully to create the humane and people-centred society to which Oom Ray dedicated his life.

To define those leaders for ourselves, we must once more refer back to the example set by Raymond Mhlaba and the titans of his generation, who taught us what it means to serve the people, and what it means to be a cadre of our liberation movement.

Oom Ray engaged in struggle not for personal gain or glory. He became a trade unionist, a communist and a fighter for national liberation because he understood the imperative that for the oppressed to achieve their liberation, they had to be organised; they had to act in unity; they had to be ready to make the necessary sacrifices, expecting no personal reward except the reward of freedom.

He was ready to carry out any mission he was given and to pay any necessary price, to advance the cause of freedom, again with no expectation of personal gain or glory.

This has seen him serve the people of South Africa as a trade union and political organiser, a leading volunteer during the Defiance Campaign, a military commander, a political prisoner, a government leader, a diplomat, and a veteran dedicated to the defence of our national democratic gains.

Today, as we lay the mortal remains of our Captain and titan to rest, and if we would be the successors to Oom Ray and his generation of liberators, we too must make the solemn pledge that we will not dishonour the memory of the patriots who have departed the world of the living, as Raymond Mhlaba has done.

We too must make the commitment to our people that we will serve them as the Raymond Mhlaba generation served them, with no expectation of personal gain or glory, ready to carry out the tasks that the needs of the people demand.

We must make the unequivocal undertaking to pursue the goals they set together with our people, to defend the democracy that our people have won, ever loyal to the injunction that the people shall govern; to use the power the people have gained to free our country from poverty, racism and sexism; to build the humane and people-centred society of which an entire generation of liberators dreamed and fought.

It is not possible to stand here next to the still life of Oom Ray, without being awed by what his generation of freedom fighters did to give us our humanity.

It is not possible to stand here next to the still life of Oom Ray and not be moved to make the pledge to him and the generation that restored our humanity that we who live, will spare neither strength nor courage until the dream they dreamt for our country and people is realised.

I am privileged to convey the sincere condolences of our government and people to Sis' Dideka and the rest of the Mhlaba family, and thank them that they surrendered Oom Ray to the nation, to be our captain and our guide.

Farewell Oom Ray, Ndobe, Sithwalandwe, revered patriot and leader of our people!

Rest in peace! Akuhlanga lungehlanga!

Issued by: The Presidency
27 February 2005

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