It’s remarkable that we are already commemorating the 20th anniversary of the birth of democracy in this extraordinary country. South Africa has come a long distance in an incredibly short period of time. Sometimes we forget just how terribly oppressive this society was and lose perspective on all of the great gains that have been attained. But at this moment when we recognize all of the sacrifices that have been made to arrive here, it is also the perfect opportunity to pause and use this period of reflection as a guide for what still needs to be done on infrastructure, education, healthcare, and security.
As someone who grew up in the United States and who is acutely aware of the struggles that we have had in perfecting our own union and creating a more equal society, I can recognize that South Africa is still a beacon and an example of what is possible. I can well recall the patient throngs of South Africans who, in 1994, earned the opportunity to express their preference at the ballot box for the first time. Those long lines twenty years ago still have resonance and conjure the spirit of "aint gonna let nobody turn me around" that existed in America during the Civil Rights period -- a choral reminder of all we continue to share.
This moment means so much for Americans who toiled in the fields of the anti-apartheid movement in firm solidarity with the liberation struggle activists in exile, on Robben Island and in the schoolyards of Soweto. This anniversary enables us to once again affirm those bonds of friendship and to work together on the many issues where we have common purpose and where we can all make a contribution.
I first came to South Africa in 1991 after Nelson Mandela had been released from decades of confinement. I was privileged to play a small role as a young person in the sanctions movement and was able to meet the future president when he first came to America. There were many questions about the direction South Africa would take, with active political violence in the townships that was being sponsored by the regime. It was in that most dangerous period when Nelson Mandela displayed forceful leadership and paved a path to peace with a fierce demand for equity. That example inspired me just as it inspired millions of others and it continues to inform my public service today.
As President Obama has said we are seeing an awakening in Africa with new growth and possibility. South Africa is still the shining example as a country with a mature finance sector, a vibrant press corps, an engaged civil society, independent courts and levels of government transparency unparalleled in the region.
Having only served six-months as U.S. Ambassador, I am already convinced that it is the young people in particular who will be the ones to step forward and realize the great potential of this remarkable nation. They are the real treasure of this country. The more I meet and interact with them the more I am convinced that there are no limits to what South Africa can accomplish in the 21st Century.
About the Author: Patrick H. Gaspard serves as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.