I was requested tonight to speak about my South African story, which in all honestly is quite a daunting task. Asked to open up as to what makes me South African, but also what makes me different?
In many senses my South African story is really not the typical South African story which you come to expect at an evening such as this one. It is not necessarily a story of victory against all odds in the face of adversity, or the type of tale which South Africa has become famous for since its transition to democracy.
In some senses though my story is one of the struggle for identity and recognition, and for the achievement of excellence in a country which sorely needs it. Most of all it is a story of a profound sense of duty. South Africa is at a crossroads and it does not need mediocrity or subpar leadership. It does not need another lost generation brought up in a broken education system, a job market where nearly every second youth is unemployed. It does not need more empty rhetoric and false promises. It needs a generation who are prepared to take ownership of their future.
My name is Wiaan Visser, I am a graduate student in Ancient Languages at Stellenbosch University. But don’t worry folks; I also have a degree in Economics so I will probably be able to get a job one day.
I grew up in what would be, at least by American standards, a small town. Paarl is the hinterland of the Cape, it is the homeland of Afrikaans, snuggled between the mountain ranges not too far from Cape Town. If you happened to drink some of the nice Red Wine tonight, it came from my hometown. I travelled nearly 8000 miles to drink wine from my hometown with people from my country. I always joke that when all of the Dutch Afrikaner people trekked away from the Cape to try and escape British Rule, my family did not get too far. They threw their bags down when they were barely out of sight from Cape Town.
Even today it still is a bastion of Afrikaans and to some extent the Afrikaner people. Change comes slowly. People are stubborn most of the time, and you would expect nothing less from a bunch of Dutch Colonists exiled to Africa mixed with some religiously prosecuted Frenchman thrown into the African sun.
I remember fondly growing up in Louvre Street, in the suburb of Courtrai. About 10, 15 years ago, maybe even in a previous millennium. It might not sound like a long period of time for some of those here tonight. Albert was already in the US, and then again some of our team members had barely been born. South Africa had become a democracy a few years ago. Mandela was president, and after that Mbeki’s first term. We had won the Rugby World Cup, the African Cup of Nations, been accepted to the UN and re-entered the international community. It seemed that there was no limit to our potential. But then as now even though apartheid is over its consequences were still very much alive.
My street, and basically my whole neighborhood only had white residents. The town itself was and is still very segregated. In my opinion one of the worst consequences of apartheid was the social stratification which occurred due to policies which dictated where people of different races could and could not live. It must sound like such a ridiculous concept in hindsight. An arbitrary line, a river, a neighborhood a beach being demarcated as black or white. As if some beaches and benches are inherently racist and dislike some people sitting on them.
Yet despite everything my heritage is one with which I still identify. Don’t all of us feel strongly about our family, our culture and even language? You can’t exactly escape where you come from. You can fly to Perth or trek over a bunch of mountains but a change of scenery won’t make your problems disappear. Like anyone it is a heritage which I want my children to be proud of, and their children. Most of all it is an heritage which I am afraid of losing.
This has been the biggest challenge in my South African story. How do you reconcile being a white male South African, who received all of this unjust privilege with, on the other side the profound sense of duty and an obligation I feel to make a difference in South Africa?
The South Africa Washington International Program has given me that opportunity. It has given me a platform to grow and become the type of leader which my generation will need. More than that it has given me an opportunity to interact and grow with 16 other young leaders as well as several leaders of industry in various fields, such as the political and the financial sectors who are both present here tonight.
Lastly and and maybe most importantly it has given me a new community to form part of, and identify with; A community of leaders and change agents who want to make a difference no matter who they are or where they come from; A community of leaders which I am proud to identify with.
In a period where South Africa will soon have to deal with a future without the father of our nation, one cannot help but reflect on his legacy. That I can stand here as a white Afrikaans male South African from Paarl, and declare my willingness, along with the rest of this group of young leaders to serve, speaks volumes about how far our country has come. I cannot help but think that Former President Nelson Mandela, Tata Madiba himself, would be proud of this SAWIP team if he could be here.