Quotations on Democracy in South Africa (set 1) | Facing History & Ourselves

Quotations on Democracy in South Africa (set 1)

Reflect on quotes from South Africans about how the country's history informs its democracy.
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At a Glance

reading copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

“What makes democracy work is a complicated question in South Africa. We have a unique history, a racial history. The bedrock of democracy coming out of imperial thinking: free speech, free elections, independent judiciary, freedom of association, were refined over centuries and came out of liberal, imperial thought. That was the same history that oppressed, colonized people. So there are some people who struggle to see even good ideas, the resonance of good ideas because they were terribly humiliated and degraded for centuries. Their struggle to recognize or give credence to ideas that came from those people. So, it is a complicated thing in South Africa...You can talk about what are the good ideas for democracy but I think one has to unpack our history here to unpack those ideas . . . .”

–Josh Hawks, Freshlyground, South African band member

“...One makes a mistake to believe that you can just forge ahead without having a clear understanding of the journey that we have all traveled. In this country, we have traveled different journeys. We have to take a moment to share our journeys and share our experiences because we don’t have a perfect past; we aspire to have a perfect future. But what is clear is that we don’t have a perfect past. As people have often said: The future is clear, it is the past that is so unclear. Now the past is unclear because it is so divided.

I think Nelson Mandela in particular taught us a great lesson when the constitution was signed on the tenth of December 1996. He explained that 94 years after an initial peace, after the Boer republics had waged war against the British, the so-called South African War, there was a peace treaty signed. But it was an unfinished peace, because in that peace treaty it was clearly stipulated that the political future of all South Africans, it would only be decided at a later stage. It took us 94 years to have that inclusive constitution that we were denied in 1902. I think that is the important lesson of history and of the individual that one should always be alive to, that you cannot conclude that you are done with the past because the past is very much with us, in the present, not only in South Africa, but everywhere.”

–Leon Wessels, Director for Human Rights at the University of the Free State, Former Human Rights Commissioner and Negotiator at Constitutional Assembly


Connection Questions

  1. How are both quotations connected to thoughts raised by Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray in the podcast?
  2. What is similar about Hawkes’ and Wessel’s thinking? What is different?
  3. How do you unpack a history?
  4. Why do you think both men believe that it is necessary to look backwards in order to move forwards together?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Quotations on Democracy in South Africa (set 1)," last updated June 27, 2017.

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