Address of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Dinner in honour of South African Olympians and Paralympians: Bryntirion Estate, Tshwane: 11 December 2004

Master of Ceremonies,
Honourable Deputy President Jacob Zuma,
Honourable Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Honourable Premiers,
Your Worship, Mayor of Tshwane, Father Mkhatshwa,
Distinguished Olympians and Paralympians,
President of NOCSA, Sam Ramsamy,
President of DISSA, Peter Goldhawk,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen:

I am delighted to be afforded this honour to address our sports heroines and heroes who took to the world stage in Athens. On behalf of the government and all other fellow South Africans, I warmly welcome you here tonight to celebrate and rejoice in the Olympic spirit.

Each and every one of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes has done South Africa proud and we cherish and salute your supreme athletic ability.

The ancient Games were held in honour of the Greek God Zeus, whose statue became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, all the participating Olympic and Paralympic athletes have themselves become the wonders of the Modern World.

For three heart-stopping minutes and 13.17 seconds, four young compatriots swam their hearts out for South Africa, registering stunning Olympic and world records. Roland, Ryk, Lyndon and Darian dared to dream the impossible dream and taught us that the pursuit of excellence even by those considered to be underdogs can triumph over the seemingly invincible.

In later days, the grit, muscle and steely courage across those sparkling aquamarine waters brought tears of joy and laughter - as did the prowess of our golden athletes, Natalie du Toit and Tadgh Slattery, the deft, elegant throw of Zanele Situ, Nicholas Newman, Michael Louwrens and Fannie Lombaard, and the extraordinary sprinting feats of Tebogo Mokgalagadi, Malcolm Pringle and double-amputee, Oscar Pistorius.

We marvelled at the exhilarating agility of Hestrie Cloete whose electrifying leaps into the air defy gravity. We savoured the magical speed of Mbulaeni Mulaudzi. We were in awe at the endurance and dexterity of a good number of our Olympians and Paralympians who brought silver and bronze medals to our country.

We are immensely proud of all these good representatives of our country. At the same time, to us, each of our Olympians and Paralympians - from the swimmer, the archer, the runner, discus, shot put and javelin thrower, the boxer to the equestrian, the hockey player, the rower, and weight-lifter - is a victor. You are all our ambassadors. You are our role models whom our youth aspire to emulate. You are indeed nation-builders.

Let us celebrate tonight and enjoy the abundant feast in the time-honoured tradition of Ancient Olympia. And let us do all this conscious that our participation in the Olympic and Paralympic Games also contributed to the striving towards the achievement of the goals of friendship among the peoples and peace in our common world.

The ancient Greek Historian, Herodotus, tells us this story:

"When the Persian Military Officer, Tigranes, heard that the prize was not money but a crown [of olives], he could not hold his peace, but cried, 'Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have pitted us against? It is not for money they contend but for the glory of achievement!"

All of us gathered here tonight should re-affirm our commitment to the glory of achievement and excellence. But in order to excel, to train and to live, athletes need more than our congratulations and blessings.

As government, as business leaders and sports administrators, let us join hands as social partners and invest, in material, financial and other terms, in the future of our young sportswomen and men.

As we advance towards the end of our First Decade of Democracy none can doubt the giant progress we have made towards the building of a winning nation. We have achieved this because the millions of our people voluntarily and willingly joined together in the common effort to create the new society we described in our Constitution.

Everyday we criticise ourselves for goals we have not yet achieved. Sometimes we set ourselves benchmarks that even countries that have enjoyed democratic rule for centuries have not yet attained. We become our own hard taskmasters, even to the point that we fail to see the glorious victories we have scored as a country and a people.

We need only look at the violent conflicts that continue to afflict various countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere in Africa to appreciate the significance of our own achievements that forever ended our own internal conflicts that were claiming many innocent lives a mere ten years ago and less.

In many parts of the world human beings are killing one another because of their differences in terms of race, colour, culture and religion. Because entrenched prejudices and old grudges make it difficult for them to live and work together, they choose to destroy those that these prejudices and grudges define as enemies.

And yet we, who may have become slaves to such entrenched prejudices and old grudges have chosen another path - the path of national reconciliation, of national unity and a shared destiny, respect for the diversity of our nation and friendship among all our people. That too is a remarkable achievement in a world that seems prone to division and conflict within and between nations.

It is true that we continue to face formidable challenges. One of these is the endemic poverty in which millions of our people are entrapped. But again I would say - let us look at the performance of our economy, which must produce the resources to enable us to extricate these millions from the intolerable conditions of want and underdevelopment.

Over the recent past even those most pessimistic about our future have had no choice but to admit that ours is one of the best performing economies in the world today. And we know where we come from - a past in which the economy was in decline and immersed in a crisis that spelt a further lowering of the living standards of all our people.

But today I have no hesitation in saying that our national wealth will continue to grow and expand, and that we will meet and surpass the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations for years ago directed at significantly reducing the global levels of poverty and underdevelopment.

I make all these observations on this occasion when we have gathered in a festival to celebrate our achievers of whom we are immensely proud, to make the statement that we are entitled to describe ourselves and rejoice in the fact that we are a Nation of Achievers.

The international community has also sought to acknowledge this fact in various ways, signalling that our achievements have an impact that is felt beyond our borders. Within a matter of a few months:

  • FIFA decided that we should host the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the first African nation to do so;
  • The African Union decided that we should be the home of the Pan African Parliament;
  • J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature;
  • Charlize Theron won an Oscar because of her skill in the performing arts;
  • Jackie Selebi, our National Police Commissioner, was elected President of Interpol, the international police federation;
  • Mohamed Valli Moosa, our former Minister, was elected President of the World Conservation Union; and only a few days ago,
  • William Rowland was elected President of the World Blind Union.

Our people have celebrated all these accolades showered on our country by the nations of the world, in the same way that they have rejoiced in the achievements we have scored as we worked on the reconstruction and development of our country.

But I would dare to say that some of the best and happiest moments we have shared as a united people during the last ten years have been when you, our sportsmen and women, and others involved in other codes, such as soccer, rugby and cricket, have triumphed as champions.

There can be no doubt but that sport touches the very soul of our people, unites them and inspires the noblest of feelings among them and strengthens their confidence in the certainty of a better for all.

As I have said, I believe that those among us who are able to produce such beautiful results among our people, our sportswomen and men, deserve not only our praises, but also all our support as they labour to excel as competitors.

Accordingly, as we begin our Second Decade of Democracy, perhaps we should set ourselves the goal to create the best possible conditions within our means, for the millions of our youth to participate in sport and to develop their prowess as conquering world champions.

Let our nation give them a real possibility of competing as equals in the fiercely competitive sporting world. At the same time, may the spirit of Olympism long continue where we value excellence and courage and still aspire to the olive crown.

Ladies and gentleman:

Please rise and join me in a toast to the glory of achievement and to the spirit of Olympism, and may our Olympians and Paralympians always be victors!

To our sportsmen and women!

I thank you.

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