University of Johannesburg Law School Commencement

Ambassador Gaspard accepts honorary degree on behalf of President Obama; delivers keynote address

Remarks of Ambassador Patrick H. Gaspard
[As prepared]
University of Johannesburg Law School
Johannesburg South Africa
May 22, 2014

Thank you Vice Chancellor and Principal, Professor Ihron Rensburg. Members of the Executive Committee, distinguished guests, law school faculty, parents and loved ones – and most especially the outstanding class of 2014.

It is the greatest privilege to join you on this unique occasion on behalf of my friend and leader, President Barack Obama, in order to receive this extraordinary honor which you have seen fit to bestow upon him.

President Obama delivered an address at UJ’s Soweto campus one year ago this month, but was not able to participate in this ceremony at that time. I hope I make a suitable stand in today – though I’m considerably less charismatic, utterly lacking in the President’s gift for the turning of a phrase or his exceptional comedic timing; admittedly, the wisdoms I impart will be faint echoes of his inspirations. And most significantly, my security detail arrived in a mini cooper whilst his would have dwarfed your graduating class. I learned long ago in my career that a man’s got to know his limitations.

All this confessed, please know that while I salute you as a proudly patriotic American, my pulse is governed by the same deeply African blood that courses through my President’s veins. As a son of the continent, born in the Congo, of Haitian descent, I recognize what has been built in this institution and in your lives because my orientation in struggle and self liberation is informed by L’Ouverture and Lumumba.  As a pilgrim for democracy who traveled to your country a quarter century ago when places not far from here like Boipatong Township were filled with the specter of revolution and death, I know that your achievements here are nearly miraculous and are to be guarded like precious treasure. So it is with an unadorned insistence on respecting your place in history, that I accept this honorary degree in the shadow of my President.

I have yet one more confession to make. The address I’m delivering now was crafted today, at dawn, after I completely rejected the arc of my original draft. Commencement addresses are bracketed by such traditional expectations of exhortative language that one tends to bury the desire to express any sincere sentiments that don’t neatly fit the rubric. There’s a liturgical order to these things. I’m supposed to look out upon you, ordain your absolute beauty and brilliance, acknowledge your exceptionalism, lift up the example of a great South African jurist like George Bizos, and command you to go forth to shine your light on the world. I would pull down an appropriate quote from classical scholarship as your new soundtrack to achievement – something like Pindar from the Pythian Chronicles, “Oh my soul do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.”  Voila.  Applause.

There isn’t much room for any nagging doubts. While your parents, who paid dearly for the privilege, can trust that I will do some version of all of the above, there’s a different emotion that quickens my heart rate today. That was all in the draft I shredded last night. In the spirit of the transparency I often preach, I have to share with you that I composed this version today with the fire of a righteous anger and a clear eyed sense that I do not want to be here right now. I do not want to be here right now and I am mad at the world. All of this needs explaining. And since the plain spoken American statesman Benjamin Franklin reminded all diplomats long ago that “anything begun in anger ends in shame” I’ll dutifully right my course before the end of this time with you. But first some context for this anger.

I have now been in your remarkable country for a full eight months as the US Ambassador. My journey here was both unremarkable and unbelievable. Unremarkable in logical, cumulative experiences and incremental career advancements. Unbelievable in the backdrop of the historic transformations in my country and yours in the shortest of timespans. And here we all are.

I’m obliged at this point in my remarks to recite all of the achievements in our bilateral partnership which are a source of pride. And there are many. We should all take heart in our joint accomplishments on healthcare where through the US PEPFAR program we have significantly reduced the rate of HIV transmissions, have protected vulnerable children and are working together to capacitate a lasting healthcare infrastructure in even the most rural parts of the country. In education, the U.S. Agency for International Development supports a public-private partnership with South African organizations to develop local solutions to education challenges, with a real emphasis on training more effective, better equipped teachers.

When President Obama was here in June of last year he announced the Young African Leaders Initiative which will see 46 young South Africans join a total of 500 emerging leaders, screened from 50,000 applicants across the continent for a 6 week training program in some of the finest US universities to enhance their skills in entrepreneurship, public management, and civic engagement.  On trade and investment our relationship has grown exponentially. Through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, South Africa was able to export over $2 billion dollars of duty free goods to US markets last year alone. Over 600 American companies have planted roots here and are contributing more than 150,000 good jobs to the economy. All of this is occurring as global investors get more deeply engaged in Africa as a target rich environment with a young and hungry workforce and increasingly more democratic structures. I was proud last week to have the opportunity to travel from one polling station after another to observe a well-organized election where South Africans were able to express their preferences at the ballot without fear of reprisals or vote suppression. From trade to energy to improved governance, there is indeed wind in Africa’s sails.

And yet here I am with an anger and an urge to race out of this hall. My anger is all in the unseen, the undone. The harshly compromised, the unduly corrupted.  The viciously silenced. I’m angry that in this era of internet activism,” The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

I’m angry that too many of our brothers and sisters will never have the opportunity that you and I have had to pursue excellence. I’m angry that some of you will be turned away from meaningful employment because you don’t have the right relatives. I’m angry that there’s a radius of hunger from Detroit to Diepsloot. I’m angry that some here will see their talents and achievements as belonging strictly to themselves and not their communities. I’m angry that others will look past the library that needs to be refurbished in order to instead chase further consumption in a sea of poverty. I’m angry that our sisters can be brutally denied access to education or can be abused behind the closed doors of their own homes. Maybe I’m angry because Lumumba’s lament echoes still across the ages that “our wounds are too fresh and too painful to be forgotten” while many are complicit in the act of erasure. And I’m angry that you and I aren’t out instead right now in Thembisa, rolling up our sleeves and creating a micro enterprise for unemployed youth or an arbitration training module for workers in Rustenberg  who have gone months without a paycheck.

Mine is an urgent anger. One that is measured out in conference rooms during each meandering meeting. One that will be tapped out on a metronome in my head as each of you takes the stage to receive your diploma and I sit and wonder what verse you might contribute to the tragedy. It is not an impotent anger. As Malcolm X slyly intoned, “usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they’re angry, they bring about change.” The uses of anger. When Robert Kennedy visited South Africa in 1966 in defiance of the oppressive regime, he called South Africans to their heroic natures by invoking Pericles who told the Greeks that “if Athens shall appear great to you, consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty.” So I say to you graduates that as you inherit a nation that appears great know that South Africa’s glory was purchased by the brave and sometimes angry acts of men and women who performed a duty in the interest of your prosperity.

When Barack Obama received his law degree, he accepted it as an insurance policy that meant he was now free to go off to take some risks in order to bring about change he believed in. He had the credential as a safety net while he dived into civic engagement with Dr King’s fierce urgency of now as his unswerving mantra. Decades later when he returned to African shores as President of the world’s most powerful democracy he reminded all engaged with the law in African nations that “At their best, our courts are venues where justice and equality can be realized for women and children and the poor, for marginalized groups, for victims of discrimination, victims of violence, but it is also a critical ingredient for economic development and prosperity in Africa.”

In my pocket and now placed on this podium, I have a treasured photograph of my father from the 1950’s. He’s resplendent in a graduation gown replete with satin flourishes. In his hand he’s clutching, seemingly for dear life, to his law diploma which he had just received from the finest school in Haiti. The world was very much before him, but even at that moment the diploma was losing all value as a brutal dictatorship was taking hold of that proud island nation and dismantling the concept of justice. He never practiced his profession. Our ideals of peace and justice are ephemeral and fragile things without sustainable institutions and independent leaders.

My father’s degree was printed on stock equal to yours. You must prove the value of it every single day. Every day. In courts, in corporate boardrooms, on township streets. What is in your hands graduates? What is in your hands? Remember, in my country Rosa Parks changed the world with nothing but a bus ticket in her hand. In Sharpeville the world came to a halt because of young people who had nothing but burning passbooks in their hands. Surely you have more power in your hands. You are the most powerful generation that this world has ever known. In one hand, you have degrees that say that you are indeed brilliant and beautiful. In your other hand many are even as I speak scrolling through your smartphones which concentrate more human capital in your hands than has ever been deployed in recorded history. What is in your hand? You could use your data to stream and watch yet again the attack Beyonce’s sister launched on Jay Z. You could go down that rabbit hole again. Or you might combine that law degree and smartphone and create a tool that completely changes the interface and accountability between civil society and government. What is in your hands?

As I come to my conclusion, my anger dissipates as I consider you in the light of what’s been accomplished against the tide. You are the embodiment of the age old contest between change and resistance and change and resistance. You lead me to arrive at a radical acceptance of some of our challenges whilst drawing inspiration from the inherent goodness of our collective ambitions. I recall Aimee Cesaire’s faith towards the end of Notebook of a Return to the Native land:

“It is not true that the work of man is done/ That we have no business on earth/that we parasite the world/ whereas the work has only begun…/And no race has a monopoly on beauty, intelligence, on strength…/and we know now that the sun turns around our earth/ lighting the parcel designated by our will alone/ and that every star falls from sky to earth at our omnipotent command.”

Congratulations class of 2014. I urgently await your good deeds as you arrest the heavens.