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The intention of this paper is to stimulate a conversation about the existing opportunities to change the world and the extent to which South Africa can and should contribute towards that. It celebrates the human effort to achieve liberty, equality and fraternity and the ways in which these elude us even as they invigorate, as Wordsworth recognized after the French revolution.
It is however not the story of the ways in which the world is changing, of the signs and portents that arise from the collapse of unilateralism, the global recession, the emergence of experiments in global governance and in civil society formations which indicate the transitional crisis in which people find themselves. It is not the intention of this paper to reflect on the manner in which, while inequality has entrenched itself, the prosperity of a portion of the world has driven new communications technologies and infrastructural development, mobility and connectedness which now become available both to the poor and the rich, opening up new crises and driving unimaginable aspirations and unfulfillable desires, creating the potential both for a new world, for the construction of new realities and also the unpredictable destruction of the old.
The balance of forces is changing. The tectonic plates of global power are shifting. To the extent that we can ever see beyond our own human horizons, and lift ourselves above the self-centerdness which limits us all, it appears as if the 21st century is dawning.
This however is a smaller attempt to encourage a conversation on whether South Africa has a significant role in this century. During the 20th century it came to occupy a place in the global consciousness out of all proportion to its size. This paper will remind us of some of the reasons for this, of the romance of the moment, of the slow dying embers of that romance, and of the quest that both South Africans and their friends continue on. It will ask the question whether this is a quest worth continuing or whether, like the Grail, it will come to stand for an unrequited moment to which all look back in true nostalgia—the pain of recalling the past.
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* A Rainbow Nation. Music and video prepared on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s liberation from prison.