Bastille Day marks the beginning of the French Revolution with the storming of the ancient royal fortress on this day in 1789.
Ambassador of France to South Africa, Her Excellency Elisabeth Barbier, bestowed on Mr Ahmed Kathrada the signet of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (or Knighthood in the Legion of Honour) on behalf of the French President during the celebrations at the French Residence.
The French Legion of Honour celebrates the accomplishments of distinguished individuals, irrespective of sex, social background and nationality.
The national order of the Legion of Honour was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, and is the highest decoration in France and is divided into five degrees of increasing distinction: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross). It was first awarded on July 14 1804.
Mr Kathrada’s friend of 67 years – late former president Nelson Mandela – received the Grand ’Croix de la Legion d’Honneur (or the Grand Cross) in 1994 from former president François Mitterrand.
Two other prominent South Africans who have been awarded this honour are Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late Nadine Gordimer.
In her speech, Ambassador Barbier said: “Mr Kathrada, your life-long struggle for justice and freedom commands respect and admiration. Your example demonstrates that freedom, equality, fraternity, (in French Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité), are not just words devoid of signification. They are an ideal able to inspire the life and dedication of great, exceptional men”.
Speech by Ambassador of France to South Africa, Her Excellency Elisabeth Barbier at the Bastille Day celebrations
First of all, a very warm welcome, from my team, my husband and I, and a big thank you for joining us today in celebrating our Fête Nationale, which is better known here as Bastille Day. More than ever, in these difficult times we are going through, we need to remember the founding values of the French Republic: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité …
This is already my third Bastille Day as Ambassador to South Africa and I will be even shorter than the previous years. This is only the first part of our celebration, as you heard from our MC.
I will thus limit myself to a few highlights of the past year, to illustrate the ongoing progress of the strategic partnership concluded more than twenty years ago between François Mitterrand and Nelson Mandela. For instance, in Paris, at the end of last year, we held the political dialogue forum which allowed us to discuss strategic and topical African and global issues.
But this year, 2015, is particularly important for us all, and for France in particular, because from 30th November to 11th December we will be hosting and chairing the UN conference on Climate change, COP21 Paris.
The stakes are high: the aim is to reach, for the first time, a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards low-carbon and resilient economies that provide prosperity while protecting the planet.
To achieve this, the future agreement must focus equally on mitigation - that is, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming to below 2°C - and on societies’ adaptation to existing climate changes. These efforts must take into account the needs and capacities of each country.
We are working very closely with South Africa on this, because both our countries want it to succeed, in order to realise the commitments taken in Durban at COP17. Minister Fabius and Minister Molewa, for instance, met in New York two weeks ago, and Minister Molewa will be in Paris next week for an informal Ministerial meeting.
To quote UNSG Ban Ki Moon: “we cannot fail at COP21, there is no plan B, for there is no planet B”.
Let me come back to a brief overview of our bilateral relationship.
- Our economic relations are good, but they could be even better. In order to boost them, Minister Fabius has appointed Senator Robert Hue, a long time friend of South Africa, as special representative. Senator Hue is with us today, and this week. I want to extend to him a very warm welcome.Our joint economic committee was revived in April, through the visit of Minister Matthias Fekl together with his counterpart Minister Rob Davies.The number of French business subsidiaries settling in SA keeps growing (they are around 350), and SA remains the first export destination for France in sub Saharan Africa.Two important intergovernmental agreements have been signed, on cooperation in the fields of transport, as well as civilian nuclear energy.
- The French Development agency (AFD) celebrated its 20 years in SA with an important round table on “Sustainable Cities”, with the participation of the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, the City with which the visiting DG of AFD has very recently signed a 120 MEuros loan agreement. I should also add that the City of Johannesburg and the City of Paris have embarked in a promising partnership on climate.
- Cultural diplomacy is part of our DNA: we work closely with our South African friends in many fields, dance, and cinema (there will be a strong French presence next week at the Durban DIFF). Last month in Newtown, I hope you took part in Fête de la Musique, together with hundreds of enthusiastic and cheerful music lovers, despite the chilly and wet weather. Nothing is better than culture to draw people together. Even if they don’t speak the same language. We are presently working on a new bilateral cultural agreement, which we hope to finalize before the end of year, taking the opportunity of an upcoming VVIP visit.
- A propos language, nearly 30 000 people are learning French in South Africa: 21 000 in schools, 3 300 at University level, and more than 4 000 in the Alliances Françaises network. There is a big margin for improvement, and we are working on it. To learn French is an excellent investment: remember, out of 274 million French speakers in the world in 2014, 100 million live in Africa. So French is indeed the language of business in Africa.
- Another area on which we are working is student mobility: only 150 SA students are currently studying in France, whereas France hosts more than 111 000 students from Africa. With us today are a few of the SA students who are soon going to study in France on a French Government bursary. We’ll send them off tomorrow and launch the France Alumni platform, which will allow former students to interact with each other, have access to different opportunities for trainings, scholarships, internships or job offers, and stay updated on the latest in French culture and tourism.
- One word on tourism, which is as important for the SA economy as for ours. 130 000 French tourists visited SA last year. On our side, we are very keen to get more visitors from SA to France (they are about 125 000). Let me mention in particular La Réunion, this beautiful Indian Ocean island very close to you, an adventure paradise which an increasing number of South African visitors are discovering (more than 50% growth). Remember: no visa needed for SA citizens! As for the Schengen visas delivered by our Consulates, we are making it easier and faster to get them: the norm is now 48 hours, and you can apply in any of the 3 Capago visa centers (Joburg, Cape Town and Durban) wherever you live in SA.
You‘ll find on display some booklets with everything you always wanted to know about our cooperation with South Africa in the fields of scientific research, police and defence cooperation (let me just tell you that within a year, there were 5 calls by the French Navy who seems to enjoy SA shores very much), about the French Lycée Jules Verne in Joburg and its Pretoria campus, just across the road from this Residence… and so on.
I would like to end by thanking my team, at the Embassy as well as the Residence, who have worked hard for this celebration. Some members of the “French Team in SA” are leaving us, such as our deputy Defence Attaché, our Scientific and University Cooperation attaché, two of our political advisors, the Director of the IFAS, the head of communication services, and administrative staff etc… I can’t name them all, but I thank them all!
And now, let me raise my glass to the health of His Excellency Jacob Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa, and to the friendship between our two countries.
For the Tour de France, MTN /Qhubeka team!
Remise des insignes de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur à Ahmed Kathrada
Speech by Ambassador of France to South Africa, Her Excellency Elisabeth Barbier
It is a great honour, Mr Kathrada, to welcome you at the Residence de France on our National Day to bestow on you the medal of Knight of the Legion of Honour. It is a great honour and also a great challenge, to pay tribute to your exceptionally full life and to your exemplary personality in a few minutes only.
Mr Kathrada, the Legion of Honor, the highest distinction in France, aims to distinguish “eminent merits”. Yours really need no introduction. Your whole life has been one of courage and commitment, of patience and tolerance, of equality and justice. All your life you have been of service to universal values that constitute the core of the South African democracy you contributed to establish, as well as that of the French Republic.
You were but a child when you began your political commitment. At only 12 years old you joined the Young Communist League of South Africa and you started resisting injustice and discrimination. Your first arrest came when you were barely 17, while you were participating in the Passive Resistance Campaign of the South African Indian Congress. This arrest was followed by so many others, but you were not to be frightened or discouraged. Your determination was unwavering, despite the threats, despite the arbitrary detentions, despite the harassment. Together with 156 fighters for freedom, you were accused of treason in a four-year long trial and acquitted. But the worst was yet to come.
When you were finally arrested in 1963 at the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, it was your eighteenth arrest on political ground. You were sentenced to life imprisonment and it came as a relief, because you were expecting a death sentence. You spent the following 26 years and 3 months in prison. 26 years and 3 months. That alone is the measure of your commitment, of your dedication to freedom and to justice, of the greatness of your sacrifice.
While in prison, you were a model of dignity, “a tower of strength and a source of inspiration to many prisoners, both young and old”, said Walter Sisulu. You managed to pursue your academic studies and obtained four degrees.
While in prison, you also continued to face injustice and discrimination, being allowed small comforts such as wearing long trousers, while your black companions were deprived of it. Your reaction was of revolt and disgust, and you would have shown your solidarity by giving them up, wouldn’t Nelson Mandela have advised you otherwise.
Because of course, Mr Kathrada, you were not alone in your fight and you were not alone during your long ordeal. You were with your comrades of the African National Congress, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others. During all those years, you were the privileged friend and life companion of the great Nelson Mandela.
You have known Nelson Mandela for 67 years and shared his fight for a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa. You have shared his struggle. You have shared his detention in Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. After you were released in October 1989 and the ANC was unbanned, you have shared his work to build a new nation and to create reconciliation and unity in a democratic South Africa. You served at the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress, you were elected to Parliament and you served as President Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor until his retirement.
The new South Africa celebrated its twentieth birthday last year and during all those years, you worked tirelessly to keep the memory and the spirit of the struggle alive. Many a French visitor, head of state or minister, of the Robben Island Museum remains grateful to you for sharing your experience of this essential place of memory. Through your Foundation, through numerous conferences, you continue to share your wisdom and to promote the values you dedicated your life to.
Of course, when the people of South Africa and of the whole world mourned the loss of your iconic friend, your “elder brother”, Madiba, nobody better than you knew how to express the grief and emotion, the “traumatic reality” of his passing.
Mr Kathrada, your life-long struggle for justice and freedom commands respect and admiration. Your example demonstrates that freedom, equality, fraternity, “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, are not just words devoid of signification. They are an ideal able to inspire the life and dedication of great, exceptional men. If you would allow me to borrow the famous words of your great friend, they remain “an ideal for which we hope to live for and to see realized”. The French Republic is proud to distinguish heroes of that ideal like yourself.
I cannot conclude without mentioning the special relationship you maintain with a part of France not too far away from South Africa, the island of Reunion, where you even have some cousins. You visited the island in 1998, for the 150th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery, and more recently, last August, notably at the invitation of the local Muslim Association, Association musulmane de la Réunion, whose president, Mr Houssen Amode, is with us today. Mr Amode has actually been the initiator of today’s award ceremony. You are also Honorary Citizen of Le Port city, whose Dockers were active in supporting the struggle against apartheid.
Mr Kathrada, in the name of the President of the French Republic, I bestow on you the medal of Knight of the Legion of Honor.