Today marks the 25th anniversary of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s opening speech at the World Council of the International YCW held in South Africa in November 1995.
Mandela, who clearly knew of and appreciated the work of the South Africa, made a point of attending the opening, flying by helicopter to Oukasie, a town 45km from Pretoria, where the event took place.
Seeing the young workers gathered in the hot sun, he left the sheltered stand from where he delivered his speech to individually shake the hand of every delegate to the World Council.
“It is indeed a great privilege for me to be present at the Official Opening Ceremony of the YCW World Council,” the South African president told delegates. “It is a special pleasure to associate myself with the Young Christian Workers` long record of standing up against injustice throughout the world, including South Africa.
“Your decision to hold your Council here in the small and poverty-stricken community of Oukasie speaks louder than mere words. Once more you are demonstrating in a practical way that a true commitment to justice demands more than good intentions and fine speeches. It calls for a full association with those who are struggling for justice.
“Oukasie became a symbol of the power of community resistance assisted by international solidarity. Eventually the apartheid regime retreated and the people of Oukasie were victorious… “I recall this history because it speaks of everything that Young Christian Workers stand for,” Mandela concluded.
Former YCW chaplain, Fr Joe Falkiner o.p. also recalls the event in his forthcoming memoir:
“I was able to attend the Opening Ceremony. It was held on the sports field of an even poorer township named Oukasie. ‘Oukasie’: the “Old location” attached to the recently industrialized city of Brits. Rather a mere squatter camp, made of makeshift shelters built on top of one another: no tar-roads, no sewerage, the old toilet-bucket system, twenty water-taps for its twelve thousands or so residents. It had escaped the huge black townships’ removal campaign of the sixties. But that had lasted for too long for the State and by the late seventies, time had come for it to go – and for its residents to be removed somewhere, over the border of the so-called ‘independent state’ of Bophuthatswana newly recognized by South Africa.
“Against all expectations a YCW group had started and developed in Oukasie. Through all sorts of harassments, dismissals, police brutalities, detentions, court cases, and even bombings by night of some of its leaders’ houses – in which one of them lost his wife – it had managed to launch and develop a strong Trade Union branch and a vibrant network of civil associations surrounded by a large national and international support: ‘We shall not be moved!’ did they claim. And the state had to back down. By the nineties Oukasie, after having been ‘de-proclaimed,’ was finally ‘re-proclaimed’ as a location. That is where the South African YCW had decided to host and hold the opening ceremony of IYCW International Council.
‘The highlight was a welcoming speech by the state president himself, Nelson Mandela. For this the football field was divided into by a rope. The residents of the township gathered on one side, and all the YCW’s on the other. There was a space between them and into that space landed the helicopter carrying Mandela and his people.
‘Mandela first walked along the rope shaking hands with the front row of township people, then came across to the YCW’s. On this side there was a small roofed grandstand and I happened to be sitting in it keeping out of the sun as it was a very hot day. Mandela and his staff came up and sat just in front of me. There were no YCW’s in this grandstand — they were sitting on a much smaller grandstand, open to the sun. I tapped the shoulder of the official sitting in front of me and pointed this out to him. He immediately told Mandela where the international delegations were to be found. Mandela jumped up, went across to the other grandstand, and shook hands with each person there. He then came back to the roofed grandstand to make his speech,” Fr Joe recalls.
The complete story of the YCW in Oukasie has also been well told by Kally Forrest in her book, Lessons from a township that resisted apartheid.
Nelson Mandela, Opening of the Young Christian Workers World Council (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Lessons from a township that resisted apartheid (Cardijn.info)
Joe Falkiner, The opening ceremony of the YCW World Council and Nelson Mandela (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)