To stand here tonight as the recipient of the Freedom Award presented by the National Civil Rights Museum humbles and inspires us.What is regarded as having been achieved by me in the struggle for freedom and human rights is in fact the result of the collective efforts of hundreds and thousands of colleagues and comrades in the leadership of organisations I have worked in and with.It is, even more importantly, the result of the sacrifices, resolve and courage of millions and millions of so-called ordinary men, women and youth most of whom shall never even achieve a mention in the annals of history. One cannot but be humble for being singled out to be honoured for such a collective achievement.For a South African to be honoured here tonight in this place and by this body inspires as it reminds us again of the indivisibility of human freedom. Where the freedom and rights of people in one part of the world are violated we are all demeaned and diminished as human beings. Our freedom cannot be complete while others in the world are not free. Your award inspires us to continue the struggle for freedom and human rights. It reminds that the long walk to freedom is not yet over.Those of us who lived through most of the twentieth century can tell what high hopes for universal freedom were entertained in that century. The world fought two great wars that promised to end all wars and to end tyranny. The process of decolonisation, ending European dominance over the entire planet, got underway. World bodies were established to ensure a free and equitable world.The progress humankind achieved in the field of science and technology outstripped the accumulative achievements of all preceding generations. We were able to utilise the resources of nature and to produce far in excess of what was required to feed, clothe, shelter and care for the entire population of the world.
Yet we closed that century and entered the new millennium with the largest part of the human population still far from enjoying those fruits of freedom of which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks. Tyranny, oppression and abuse of human rights still rule in too many parts of the world for us to relent in the struggle for freedom.
Even in parts of the world where political freedom has been attained or where it has applied for long, the material fruits of a decent living have not always or universally accompanied that freedom.
The single most demeaning feature of our modern world is the persistence of massive poverty. The majority of the world’s population languishes in conditions of abject poverty and deprivation. This is in spite of the fact that we have the capacity to take care of all the world’s people. This is in spite of the opulence and privilege in which large sectors of the world live.
The divide between the rich and the poor, those who have plenty and those who suffer penury, is even widening in our contemporary world. And nothing threatens our collective freedom more than the persistence of this divide. None of us can sleep comfortably while our brother or sister goes hungry, cold, unsheltered, ignorant and ill.
We often talk about the globalisation of our world, referring to our world as a global village. Too often those descriptions refer solely to the free movement of goods and capital across the traditional barriers of national boundaries. Not often enough do we emphasise the globalisation of responsibility. In this world where modern information and communications technology has put all of us in easy reach of one another, we do again share the responsibility for being the proverbial keeper of our brother or sister.
Where globalisation means, as it so often does, that the rich and powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and weaker, we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom. Globalisation opens up the marvellous opportunities for human beings across the globe to share with one another, and to share with greater equity in the advances of science, technology and industries. To allow it to have the opposite effect is to threaten freedom in the longer term.
The right of a person to vote freely in democratic elections, to express him or herself without hindrance, to gather and associate as one wishes, to move freely in one’s land – these are precious freedoms that lift the human spirit and give expression to our God-given rights.
We must, however, at the same time as we cherish them remain constantly aware that those freedoms get devalued if they are for too long devoid of that dignity that comes with a decent quality of living.
That is the challenge to the freedom fighters of the twenty first century – the alleviation and eradication of poverty. Abject poverty is demeaning, is an assault on the dignity of those that suffer it. In the end it demeans us all. It makes the freedom of all of us less meaningful.
I thank you for this great honour. I wish you well in your work. May this century indeed be the one in which we achieve universal freedom and the universal enjoyment of those rights our glorious charters speak of.
I thank you.