Speech By President Thabo Mbeki At The Celebration Of His 75th Birthday: Johannesburg, 20 June, 2017.

On June 20, WIPHOLD and the TMF hosted a party to celebrate the 75th birthday of our Patron, President Thabo Mbeki, which was on June 18, 2017. The Patron made some remarks at the party to thank all those who had gathered to celebrate the birthday. However he informed the gathering that he had prepared a written speech for the occasion which he requested the TMF to distribute to make it available to the celebrants. We therefore publish this speech below and hope that all our readers will enjoy it.

Max Boqwana, TMF CEO.


Director of Ceremonies,

Our very dear hosts, WIPHOLD, and its esteemed leaders,

Gloria Serobe and Louisa Mojela,

Dear friends:

Throughout my thinking years, the thought has never occurred to me that I would grow old, much less grow so old that I would attend a 75th celebration of my own birthday!

Even as I stand here this evening, at this birthday party, I know that I will still have to consult others among our people, who are older than me, especially the male species, to request them to explain to me what it feels and means to be 75 years old, and how a 75-year-old is expected to behave.

I am indeed very interested to hear how these men who are older than me will advise.

The Americans have a very useful expression – stuff happens!

In this regard I am certain that many of us will remember the terrible disaster which befell Iraq after the 2003 US military invasion when anarchy prevailed and the ceremony of innocence drowned in the blood of countless Iraqi lives.

When the then US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was challenged about this disastrous outcome, contrary to what he and his colleagues in the US Administration had promised, of how the millions of Iraqis would welcome the US aggressors with roses as very welcome liberators, he gave the inimitable response – stuff happens!

More as a surprise to me, rather than as amazement, here we are today to celebrate my 75th birthday. In this context, I must repeat after Donald Rumsfeld – stuff happens!

Our national cultural norms, encompassing both black and white sections of our diverse population, give freedom to the elderly, such as me today, to speak their minds freely, even if they say things which the younger generations would describe among themselves, in whispered words, as arrant nonsense!

In this context I am happy to recall that the poets historically attached to the traditional African royalty, to this day, as represented in much the same way in Shakespeare’s plays, had and have the liberty freely to speak their minds.

It was because of this liberty accorded to the poets that when the British King George VI visited our country after the Second World War (WWII), in 1947, our then ‘poet laureate’, SEK Mqhayi, could write of the British King, communicating the African denunciation of the historic British betrayal in our country of 1910, as:

Wen’ umlom’ ontshuntshu,

Omilel’ ukusuza.

[You with a pointed mouth,

Designed to emit loud farts.]

Much as I know that many among us this evening, the younger generations, will whisper beyond my hearing that what I will say is arrant nonsense, I am very glad that the years which have caught up with me, by surprise, have given me the possibility and liberty to speak as I will, as Mqhayi did.

Stuff happens!

Because of my own misdemeanours, some in our country who are, or consider themselves to be the educated, have spoken or written in supposedly learned condescension about a tendency on my part, to which I confess, of quoting poetry in quite a few of my speeches.

These, quite correctly, have drawn attention to my predilection, a black South African, to cite poems by the outstanding Irish poet, W.B. Yeats.

In this regard, the proposition has been advanced, in various ways, that it is strange that I have thus relied on W.B. Yeats despite the great geographic and other distances between South Africa and Ireland – a fault to which I plead guilty – but nevertheless respond, stuff happens!

Taking advantage of the liberty I have mentioned, which our cultures accord to the elderly and the poets, I will now refer fairly extensively to various poems by W.B. Yeats to communicate to you some of the views of a 75-year-old South African.

I request, humbly, that you, our celebrants this evening, listen carefully to what the poet, W.B. Yeats, had to say, thus to communicate my own views.

In this regard I plead that you accept that even such an occasion, a birthday celebration, nevertheless gives all of us an opportunity to speak to one another beyond and outside the demeaning paradigm of banalities.

Yeats wrote a poem which spoke to the challenges of growing old. He entitled it “Sailing to Byzantium”.

It says, in part:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

I hope that you will understand why I have cited this poetic text which, among others, says:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress…

We have gathered here this evening to celebrate what Yeats described as ‘an aged man’ who he says, making a prediction about himself, born of previous experience, is:

But a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick…

I am certain that all of us, consistent with our own value system, will agree that this is not a pretty and acceptable image of our elderly, whom, to my surprise, I represent this evening.

And yet it is true that to the extent that I and others of my generation do not understand that ours in “not a country for old men”, so will we continue to behave in a manner such that:

all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

Accordingly the question posed by the poet, and very relevant to our current reality in our country is – what is the relevance of what we, the elderly, believe is our ‘unageing intellect’ to the challenges which face the young today?

In what ways have we, the elderly, thus to make ourselves relevant to the young, ensured that we, the elderly cohort:

Soul clap hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in (our) mortal dress…

In this context the poet has argued that as a people we have a past which must not be forgotten, beyond the individual.

For the poet, W.B. Yeats, we must respect this past through the celebration of our national identity and cohesion, contrary to the intentions and practices of a colonising power.

During an extended period covering many centuries when the English colonisers of Ireland sought to deprive the Irish people of their national identity, the oppressed worked very hard to sustain that sense of national unity and identity.

Accordingly, in creative arts which the coloniser could not suppress, the Irish celebrated the independent Ireland for which they fought, as a traditional mythical Irish figure the English could not deny – ‘Cathleen of Houlihan’!

It has been written that ‘Cathleen of Houlihan’ was represented in Irish mythology, literature and the arts as:

“an old woman who needs the help of young Irish men willing to fight and die to free Ireland from colonial rule, usually resulting in the young men becoming martyrs for this cause…”

I mention all this about ‘Cathleen of Houlihan’ to present to you a very evocative poem by W.B. Yeats entitled “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland”, which says:

The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,

Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand;

Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies,

But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes

Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,

And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.

Angers that are like noisy clouds have set our hearts abeat;

But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet

Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

This poem speaks to various phenomena with which, given my years, I am familiar.

It speaks of the imperative for all nationals always to love their colonised country as patriots.

Nevertheless, it also acknowledges that at times such might be the weight of repression that it might be impossible to generate popular opposition to colonial rule.

It acknowledges that in these circumstances “courage (might) break like an old tree in a black wind and die”.

And yet, even in this condition, the defeated, provided that they are true patriots, would still not abandon their commitment to the sacred cause of national liberation, which means that as an expression of this commitment:

we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet

Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

Thus would they have quietly confirmed to the nation, despite a temporary “(hiding) in our hearts the flame out of the eyes of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan”, that they remain committed to the goal of national liberation.

For me, this describes and characterises the period, even for our liberation movement, when extreme repression, following the Sharpeville Massacre, characterised our national politics.

Consistent with this, the poetry of W.B. Yeats acknowledged the fact that there were many in Irish history, as in our own, would did not “break like the old brown thorn trees under the bitter black wind”.

Rather, many stood out, ready to sacrifice their lives for liberation. These are the patriots whom the English colonial power hanged after the failed Easter 1916 Irish Armed Uprising.

Yeats celebrated these in his famous poem, “Easter 1916”, which said, in part:

Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream…

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

In this regard Yeats spoke about specific Irish patriots who acted within the perimeters of the boundaries of the island of Ireland.

However he was also concerned about the world as a whole. In this context he made prescient comments about world developments as he saw these after the end of the First World War (WWI) and before the onset of WWII.

These comments are contained in yet another famous poem, “The Second Coming”, in which he wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

I believe that all of us present here today can see the manifestation of what W.B. Yeats feared, both in our country and globally.

The facts are that:

  • the centre is not holding both nationally and internationally;
  • things are falling apart; and,
  • the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I know this as a matter of fact that all of us present here this evening understand very well what all this means in terms of our state of the nation, as represented by the poetic comments made so many years ago by the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats.

Some years ago, when the late President of our Republic, Nelson Mandela, was preparing to travel to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly for the last time as our Head of State and Government, I prepared a draft of the Statement he would deliver at that year’s UN General Assembly.

That draft included the text of a poem which W.B. Yeats had written when he was only 23 years old, entitled “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.

The poem reads:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping


Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket


There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I thought that Nelson Mandela should say all this to what would be the assembled UN world Heads of State and Government, precisely to communicate the view that life after serving as Head of State did not mean an unproductive and useless life of misery, even for the elderly.

Our delegation which accompanied Madiba to that UN General Assembly, perhaps in 1998, vetoed my draft.

Consequently the speech Madiba delivered at the UN General Assembly excluded all reference to Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.

Accordingly, as Madiba made his final address to the assembled nations of the world, he did not say:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping


Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket


Nevertheless we, on our own, products of the upbringing of Nelson Mandela and the many others of his generation, his comrades, must always remind ourselves of the gentle but critical advice which W.B. Yeats has conveyed to all those who will be leaders, as communicated in his poem, “Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, which says:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Ignorant as I am of the thoughts of the many Muses both of our Nation and others from elsewhere in the world, I am happy that circumstance has given me the possibility to know and say something about this one genuine, truly creative and passionate human artiste, the Irishman, William Butler Yeats.

I must confess that I know of many others, whom I have not mentioned this evening, who have equally helped to form my consciousness.

Fortunately both my late parents, Govan and Epainette Mbeki, both of them trained professionally as teachers, in addition to other qualifications, and as practitioners as teachers, always communicated the messages to us as children that we must read, think and take our own decisions.

It is exactly this teaching which instructs me to this day that as South African patriots we must:

  • always be loyal to the task to serve the national good;
  • always serve in any position in any organisation, of any kind whatsoever, without any intention to achieve personal gain; and,
  • always act in such manner that we set an example to the whole of society.

At the end of it all, stands out the humble directive of an eminent poet to all humanity, especially to those who lead, such as our own, conveyed on behalf of the poor whose only possession is their dreams:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I must concede my penultimate words to W.B. Yeats, spoken through his poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”.

I must confess that I will excise a few lines from this moving poem because unlike the Irish airman who served in the Air Force of the British Empire, then the colonial rulers of Ireland, I have not as yet foreseen my


Here is part of what Yeats’ Irish Airman said to himself:

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds…

Thus would I dare to say that we too, as young fighters for liberation, were inspired not by any law or cheering crowds, but by:

A lonely impulse of delight (at the prospect of freedom)

Which drove to our tumult in the battle fields of struggle.

Surely that same impulse of delight must, yet again, drive us back to our tumult in the battle fields of struggle, because those who would be our governors have refused to tread softly even as they tread on our dreams.

I am very honoured and privileged that all of you, dear friends, took the trouble to come here this evening to help me and my wife, Zanele, to help us celebrate my birthday, fully conscious of the fact that today’s angers that are like noisy clouds have set our hearts abeat!


Thank you.

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