Good afternoon, my fellow South Africans
Today is the twentieth time that we have come together as people on 24 September to celebrate our rich heritage.
Since it was proclaimed a public holiday in 1995, we have had many opportunities to reflect on our past, and to remember what brought us together as a nation. We’ve honoured people, celebrated traditions and commemorated events and places that have shaped the South Africa we see today.
Remembering and honouring the milestones of our past
But, in remembering and honouring the milestones of our past, one of the places that has largely been overlooked is this building behind me. Given its historical significance, it should be preserved as a monument to our struggle for a free and democratic South Africa. But, as you can see here, it stands derelict and sadly neglected.
It started out as the Old Pretoria Synagogue in the 1890’s. But in 1952 the Apartheid government expropriated it and converted it into a special Supreme Court, specifically intended to try cases relating to the struggle for freedom.
Four years later, in a series of dawn raids on 5 December 1956, police would arrest 156 people under the Suppression of Communism Act and charge them with treason. They faced the possibility of a death sentence. Their trial would become one of the pivotal moments in the anti-Apartheid struggle, and certainly the most significant event in this building’s history.
The people arrested that morning represented just about every influential struggle leader at the time. And covered a number of different political persuasions including the African National Congress, South African Communist Party, Federation of South African Women, Natal Indian Congress and the South African Congress of Democrats.
All 156 defendants were initially tried in Johannesburg’s Drill Hall, but the second half of the trial took place here at the old Pretoria Synagogue building.
Throughout the trial, the State battled to build its case. And eventually in 1961, in a significant victory for freedom and a vindication of the illegitimacy of the Apartheid regime, the final 31 defendants were found not guilty in this very building.
As a court house, the building would feature again a number of times in momentous events in our history.
Eighteen months after the Treason Trial, Nelson Mandela would return here, this time to stand trial on charges of incitement to strike and leaving the country without travel documents. He would be sentenced to five years in prison with hard labour.
And another 15 years later, this same building would be the venue for the inquest into the death in custody of Steve Biko.
But it is that first big trial – the Treason Trial – that I want to speak about today.
What happened here in the late 1950’s had consequences that the Apartheid government did not foresee.
The government thought they were smothering the struggle. They thought that by intimidating, arresting and publicly trying all the leaders of the struggle – by casting the shadow of the death penalty over them – they were extinguishing the flames of resistance.
An extraordinary thing took place here
But an extraordinary thing took place here during that trial. Without realising it, the Apartheid government had succeeded in bringing together the largest gathering of struggle leaders ever assembled. They had effectively set up the biggest and most influential anti-Apartheid meeting in the history of the struggle. They had aided the beginning of a coalition of the willing, a coalition towards change, a coalition of anti-apartheid movements.
This was not a coalition of black leaders but South Africans from all walks of life. The 156 accused included black, Indian, white and coloured leaders in numbers that reflected the country’s rich diversity.
Both here in Pretoria and at the Drill Hall in Johannesburg, struggle leaders who might not have encountered each other outside of this incarceration, were made to spend long periods of detention alongside each other.
People from different backgrounds were brought together by a common dream of freedom and democracy. Forced together by the very government whose goal was to separate them, they could exchange ideas, talk about their doubts and allay each other’s fears. I can imagine that here, the defendants would debate policy, the country’s direction, the struggle for freedom and the hope for a better tomorrow. It was here where unity in the struggle for freedom was forged.
Even the daily journey between Johannesburg and Pretoria played a role in this unification, as this group of prisoners turned the so-called Treason Bus into a place to plot strategy, sing struggle songs and discover common ground.
In the holding cells, these prisoners remained segregated. But in the courtroom they were seated alphabetically, and this served as a daily reminder to the Apartheid government – and the world – of the struggle’s diverse make-up, and what South Africa could and should look like.
In retrospect, the Treason Trial had the proverbial unintended consequences. The spectacular collapse of their own case embarrassed the Apartheid government. The global publicity of the trial garnered a huge amount of international sympathy for the anti-Apartheid cause. And they had somehow managed to unite a fragmented, multi-racial resistance around a shared dream of a free South Africa.
In a way, this building here is so much more than an old synagogue or and abandoned courthouse. Although the authorities intended the exact opposite, this place here represents a victory of integration over segregation. Of freedom over oppression.
It is a symbol of what can be achieved when we are guided by what unites us rather than what separates us. It didn’t take long for the accused in the Treason Trial to overcome their initial doubts and suspicions. And when they realised they all wanted the same thing, they knew that their numbers were their strength.
We celebrate our heritage and honour our past
Today, almost sixty years later, we would do well to reflect on this lesson. As we celebrate our heritage and honour our past, we must ask ourselves: what can we learn from this past that will help us to own and build our future?
When I think of the events of the Treason Trial – of all the people brought together here to face a common enemy and, in the process, discover their solidarity – it is crystal clear to me. The dream of the people who sat in this courtroom was that of a unified, non-racial South Africa. A South Africa where freedom means equality, security and access to opportunities for everyone who lives here.
And in the course of the trial, they discovered that they shared this dream with many people who didn’t look exactly like them or speak their language or worship their God. But none of those things mattered. The only thing that mattered was the one thing that united them.
That united dream of theirs for a free South Africa is now woven into the fabric of our history. It is part of our heritage.
But here’s the thing about heritage: we don’t stop creating it. Everything we do today will one day be considered the heritage of our children and their children. And so we are tasked with the big responsibility of forging a new heritage that they can be proud of.
Twenty years into our democracy, this is still a work in progress. We share the dreams of Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Joseph, Suzman, Leon and Zille for a non-racial future of opportunity for all, but we have not achieved them yet. We have come a long way since the fall of Apartheid, and the progress is evident all around us. But for many South Africans, this political freedom has not yet translated into economic freedom.
We must roll up our sleeves and build the country of their (and our) dreams ourselves
On this twentieth celebration of Heritage Day, if we truly want to pay homage to these leaders, we must roll up our sleeves and build the country of their (and our) dreams ourselves. A tomorrow that they dreamed of, a future of a new generation of leaders. Leaders who are not self-serving, but who dedicate their lives to the benefit of their people.
We won’t achieve this by remaining divided and mistrusting. We won’t achieve this by driving wedges between groups of people for cheap political gain. We won’t achieve this by focusing on all the things that separate us from each other.
There are people and parties in South Africa that still do this. There are parties who can only build their support around divisions and racial identity. There are racists who claim to speak on behalf of us whether we like it or not.
South Africa still remains painfully unequal on the basis of race. If you are black you are generally poor and if white, still wealthy. I can’t live with that, but I also can’t live with those who take the cause for equality and turn it into a race war. To quote Nelson Mandela at the Treason Trial:
“I want to make it clear that I am no racialist and I detest racialism as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a Black man or a White man.”
In this very place, race mattered in how people got prosecuted and tried. Yet the defendants in the Treason Trial realised that together they could achieve freedom and together they did.
Unity in purpose needs to prevail now more than ever
Even though the struggle was for the liberation of black South Africans, it was a dream owned by all South Africans. That unity in purpose needs to prevail now more than ever.
We must own the South African dream and believe in hope for a better South Africa for all. We must believe that a reconciled South Africa is still possible.
Friends, fellow South Africans there is one party in South Africa that is truly trying to fulfil this dream of building a non-racial future.
The DA is the most diverse party in South Africa, the most progressive party and the only party that has consistently grown since our very first democratic election.
The reason for this is that we offer a political home for all South Africans. We offer a vision for South Africa that is built purely on values that unite us: Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity for all South Africans.
And because we are the only party attempting this project of uniting South Africans, we will prevail. We will work hard to take this message across the breadth of the country, and ultimately we will convince enough South Africans that the dream of a prosperous, equal and non-racial South Africa is absolutely still worth fighting for and well within our reach.
We will stand by our convictions. My predecessor of many years ago, Helen Suzman, instilled this as part of the party’s heritage. For years she was ridiculed and booed in parliament for sticking to her principles, but she was not deterred. And history has well and truly vindicated her.
As a party, we try to honour the heritage of Helen Suzman by applying the same steadfast principles in everything we do. I recently got a small taste of what life in parliament would have been like for her during the debate on the government’s failure to arrest the Sudanese president and wanted war criminal, Omar al-Bashir.
Standing on the side of our Constitution and the separation of powers, the DA had to endure a continuous chorus of booing and taunting from the ANC benches. This did not deter us. The heritage that may be before the ANC constitutes relics of past associations. Their NGC documents reflect a foreign policy that rings of a world we have left behind. The war is no longer West vs East, Communism versus Capitalism, Black versus White. It is about a contestation for a better tomorrow and a future we can ALL have.
When I listen to the ANC speak in Parliament, they appear to miss the divisions of the past, blame our energy problems on Jan Van Riebeeck, and our Minister of Police asks why anyone should be held accountable for Nkandla, when there was no accountability for such things during Apartheid.
The effects of our painful past are still with us but they can’t hold us back anymore from building a better tomorrow. Today’s contest is for Vision 2029, a better tomorrow and better heritage for our children. A tomorrow where the poor find jobs, where our communities are safer: an inclusive tomorrow founded on freedom, fairness and opportunity.
We know what job we have to do, and we know what it will take. We have accepted the responsibility to honour those who laid the foundation for our democratic society by continuing their work.
At the start of the Treason Trial, in December 1956, a photographer had planned to take a group photo of all 156 of the accused. He had obtained permission to use Joubert Park in central Johannesburg, but when the park’s superintendent saw who he was trying to photograph, he immediately withdrew his permission.
Instead, the photographer had to set them up outside the court building in four groups – seated alphabetically as per their courtroom appearance – and then stitch the four photos together. The result was a remarkable image of unified struggle, all 156 accused giving the photographer a defiant thumbs-up.
It’s a tremendous reminder of South Africa’s rich struggle heritage. The heroes in that photo knew that it was better to build a non-racial movement and that they were fighting a system and not a race. They knew they were fighting against white domination and black domination and they knew that the politics of the future ought not to be the politics of a black party vs a white party but a contestation of ideas where one man will have one vote.
And so it is perhaps fitting that I leave you, on this Heritage Day, with some words on this historic photo penned by then President Thabo Mbeki at the 50th anniversary of the Treason Trial in 2007. He wrote:
“Merely to study the faces on the photograph is to undertake a journey into our history, reminding us of the obligations on us as current members of the democratic movement as we walk in the footsteps of the patriots who were photographed here.”
I assure you, we at the DA are aware of those obligations, and we fully intend to honour them.
Our dream is their dream, our heritage must live on. Together, we will build a non-racial party, a South African party. A heritage FOR ALL. A better future FOR ALL.
Ke a leboga
God seen Suid Afrika
I thank you!
NATIONAL LEADER OF THE DEMOCRATIC ALLIANCE