This week in 1994: Democracy 25

Nelson Mandela at Capitol Hill
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This week 25 years ago – late statesman Nelson Mandela became the first foreign leader to address a joint session of the US Congress twice.

Mandela thanked the US lawmakers for the country’s role in ensuring the dismantling of apartheid.

Despite long and intimate historic ties between South Africa and the United States, Washington is credited with effectively facilitating the end of the legislated racial oppression.

This was done through the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which ordered sanctions against Pretoria.

It was passed by the US Congress and sought to push the apartheid state into the negotiation table with anti-apartheid activists.

During his address, Madiba expressed the hopes and fears of his young government.

“We came also to share with you our dreams of genuine independence, democracy and the emancipation of all our people, you whose forebears had, at earlier times, dreamt of independence, of democracy and of the emancipation of all the people of these United States.”

On challenges that lie ahead as South Africa embarks on the road of democracy he said: “The question that arises is whether we shall embark on that road walking alone or whether you will be with us, having decided thus, in the process of the exercise of your own sovereign will.”

Mandela also called for the eradication of poverty and conflict across the world.

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The US Congress was left in awe by Mandela’s sense of purpose, lack of bitterness and hope for not just a fair, peaceful and just South Africa but a better world for all.

Reflecting on his legacy soon after his passing, Former House Speaker John Boehner referred to him as a champion of peace and racial harmony.

“His perseverance in fighting the apartheid system will continue to inspire future generations. Mandela led his countrymen through times of epic change with a quiet moral authority that directed his own path from prisoner to president,” he said in a statement.

Mandela’s address of the joint the US sitting on 6 October 1994 was a second one.

His first was on June 26, 1990, two months after his release from prison.

He is, however, the only SA president and the third private citizen in US history to have addressed the US Congress.

Mandela is also the first foreign leader to have addressed the Congress twice.

He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1998, which is the highest civilian honour bestowed by the United States Congress.