Speech by Thabo Mbeki at the Paasiviki Society - Helsinki, Finland, 14 September 1998

"South Africa, Southern Africa and the African Renaissance."

Distinguished Members of the Paasiviki Society and Guests:

The long winter nights of Northern Europe lay waste to the human spirit - without light, without warmth, only giving hope because each of their passing days portends their ending.

Those who may know nothing about the eternal movement of the planets may conclude that the curse of the gods had been visited permanently on those of our human race who have to suffer patiently as they wait for the penetrating head of tomorrow's sunrays.

We who come from the other end of our common planet, which part Prometheus blessed with an abundance of the warming rays of the sun, a blessing which not even the Vikings could command to light up your world, have known nothing else from you except the warmth of your hearts.

And knowing that, we have known that in you, the people of Finland, of Northern Europe, we have true friends who will be friends with us not because we lead brilliant lives that evoke envy, but because of who and what we are and what we have done, which brings up from the depth of the universal soul the exasperation of the anger of pity.

And so we are here today to speak to you, as friends, about efforts that are being made which are helping to remake Africa, of attempts to do something that is good and right that fail, of a determination to succeed nevertheless.

A song of the musical, "The Man of La Mancha", speaks to the striving and hope of the peoples of our Continent, where its lyrics say:

"To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go,
To right the unrightable wrong,
To love, pure and chaste, from afar,
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star...
To fight for the right without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause,
And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned anc covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars!"
But you of the long winter nights will understand also the long winter night that descended on the African world when the magnificence of Carthage was reduced to rubble, when the ancient manuscripts of the libraries of Alexandria were consumed by fire, when Africa's talent travelled east and west and south in the chains of the slaves, when others from the European world took possession of our Continent as their personal patrimony, when others as indigenous to Africa as I, saw the millions of us across the face of Africa, as fit objects for a merciless and triumphant rapine.

When South Africa achieved her emancipation, all of us breathed a sigh of relief and sang a song of joy.

At long last, our common battle for justice and human dignity had overcome. This was a battle that we had all of us fought with great passion, even at moments when reason seemed to suggest that victory was impossible.

At that moment of celebration, not many could have stopped to absorb the import of the success and therefore to proclaim the view that the common victory over the apartheid crime against humanity signified also a commitment to build on that success, to bring nearer the realisation of the dream of Africa's rebirth.

As we, the South Africans, have lived our daily lives in conditions of freedom over the last four years, so have we come to understand that to give meaning to the lives of the millions of our people and to honour the perhaps unexpressed aspirations of even larger millions throughout the world, what we had to do was to undo the damage of two millennia, whose accumulated ravages made it possible for all to accept that it was acceptable to speak of "the Dark Continent".

And so what is this South Africa which the millions of our people, both black and white, seek to build!

We seek to create a democratic South Africa in which all our people can truly participate in the process of determining their destiny and in which their fundamental human rights are respected and protected.

Thus we are also continuously in search of the ways and means by which we can translate into practice the concepts of a people-centred society and people-driven processes of development.

Necessarily, the objectives of the accountability of government tot he people and transparent systems and processes of governance, and therefore a permanent vigilance against corruption and abuse of power, are among the important goals which have to be pursued continuously.

We have also had to recognise the fact of the geographic size of our country and the reality that ours is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society.

Accordingly, our Constitution provides for a structure and institutions of government which seek to ensure that these basic features do not become a source of conflict and instability but component parts of an interactive process which enables all our people to translate into actuality the view that they share a common destiny.

Necessarily also, the great struggle to build a people-centred society has also meant that we wage a determined offensive against the terrible apartheid legacy of poverty, human degradation and underdevelopment, of inequality between black and white, between men and women, between the rural and the urban areas.

Among other things this requires high and sustainable rates of economic growth and development, black empowerment and an equitable distribution of the national wealth, the integration of our formerly isolated country into the world economy, the restructuring and modernisation of our economy and the all-round development of our people so that they acquire the skills and knowledge which define the empowered citizen of the modern world.

Needless to say, time, resources and sustained effort will be required to attain these objectives, all of which cannot be achieved by the preservation of the status quo, all of which, in fact, constitute the negation of the apartheid reality which continues to define our country and society.

Thus, to live up to the ideals of a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society, we have to ensure that our processes of development successfully address such important questions as equality in the socio-economic sphere, the creation of jobs and the improvement of the access of especially the disadvantaged majority to a modern infrastructure, to health, educational and other services.

Equally important are the objectives of the emancipation of women, the empowerment and development of children, the youth and the disabled, the reduction of the levels of crime, including those against children, women and the elderly and the cultivation of a value system reflective of the high worth which we must place on the liberty and happiness of the individual.

The end of apartheid rule in our country has also meant that the opportunity has arisen for us to restructure our relationship with the rest of the world to reflect the goals of the independence and equality of nations, world peace and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means, the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights, the democratisation of the system of international relations, the upliftment of the developing countries and mutually beneficial cooperation among all nations.

When we speak of South Africa's own reflection of the African Renaissance and her participation in the struggle to realise that Renaissance, we speak precisely of the effort to achieve the objectives we have sought to explain.

These represent a break with the recent African past of military coups d'etat and one-party states, the seeming inability to address conflicting interests within states by peaceful means, a permanent state of underdevelopment for the majority and the enrichment of the few, in many instances by corrupt means, dependence on donor assistance and the marginalisation of the entire continent of Africa on the periphery of a world in the throes of rapid development.

The objectives we have spoken of, which constitute the essence of our reconstruction and development programme, also compromise the agenda which many others countries of Southern Africa are pursuing in accordance with the sovereign will of their own peoples.

It is for this reason that many have come to place hope on this part of our Continent as a cohesive region whose efforts will succeed to signal that independent Africa has, at last, emerged out of many decades of conflict and regression.

The challenges of peace, stability and democracy in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, more recently, Lesotho, are of course matters of great concern throughout the region of Southern Africa.

This arises both from their impact on the three countries and the negative effect they have on the region as a whole to attend to the common challenge of integrated regional economic growth and development and a regional contribution to the efforts of the Continent as a whole to address the fundamental question of peace and stability.

Our own views of these instances of continuing conflict and instability in the region is that, in reality these are but the negative elements of a larger and more positive process which will result in the birth of the new African societies which must characterise the African Renaissance.

We should not forget this that it was not so long ago that Angola was in fact involved in a hot war in which large numbers of people were being killed or forced to flee their homes.

Neither are we very far from the days when the Democratic Republic of Congo was rules by a neo-colonial product of the Cold War, despised throughout the world as a corrupt dictator and an embarrassment to all the peoples of Africa.

Similarly, we are a mere four years away from white minority rule in South Africa and an equally short period of time from the days of a vicious civil war in Mozambique and arbitrary one-man rule in Malawi.

That we speak of all these as belonging to the past, indicates the depth of the process that is taking place throughout Southern Africa towards the establishment of systems and practices consistent with the vision of an African Renaissance.

The same can also be said about other African countries beyond the region of Southern Africa.

Among these, because of its size and importance tot he rest of Africa, Nigeria deserves special mention.

We are convinced that Nigeria is, at last set on a course which will lead to the reestablishment of democracy. The steps that have been taken by the new military administration led by General Abubakar should also contribute to the enhancement of respect for human rights and the intensification of the struggle against corruption.

The point is obvious that such changes as we are speaking of in Nigeria will have a beneficial effect far beyond the borders of that country, adding great impetus to the process leading to the rebirth of our Continent.

We are very pleased that the governments and the political formations of Nigeria and South Africa are cooperating in the manner in which they are, to encourage and promote the emergence of the new Nigeria.

Similarly, we need to make the point that, however difficult it may be, peace will be realised in the region of the Great Lakes, based on a ceasefire in the Congo, the withdrawal of foreign troops, a stable regional security system and a process within the Congo leading to the holding of genuinely democratic elections.

It is also true that gradually the economies of a number of African countries have been recording positive growth rates and increases in per capita income, partly as a result of fundamental changes in economic policies.

These changes have resulted, in part, in the reduction of the involvement of the state in direct economic activity and therefore the reduction of budget or elimination of subsidies to inefficient enterprises, the mobilisation of domestic capital and larger inflows of foreign direct investment, both resulting in higher levels of real economic activity.

Obviously, many problems remain to be addressed.

These include the challenge of the cancellation of the relatively huge foreign debts which many poor countries have to carry and service, the continued dependence on raw materials and primary products in a situation of deteriorating terms of trade and the need radically to increase the skills levels in all the countries of Africa.

But the point we are making is that a new beginning has been and is being made to bring the African continent into the mainstream of international socio-economic development and sustained progress towards achieving the objective of a better life for all.

Of importance in this regard, is the combination of efforts and resources by the countries of Africa to overcome the weakness inherent in any approach whereby countries with severely limited resources seek to resolve their problems by relying exclusively on their own efforts.

Certainly for our region, the institution, the Southern African Development Community, with a combined population of over 135 million is a critically important instrument through which to actually to achieve progress in such spheres as the establishment of a Free Trade Area, the development of a regional communication, transport, energy, water and health infrastructure, industrial development and human resource development.

Needless to say, the African Renaissance of which we speak and which we are working to realise, cannot take place outside of the complicated and dynamic process of globalisation which is such a defining feature of the modern world.

It is probably true that no thinking person in the world today will question the fact that this process of globalisation does carry with it certain elements which have a negative impact on especially the smaller and weaker countries of the world, including ourselves as Africans.

It would therefore seem obvious that one of the challenges of the African Renaissance is for us, who are the victims of these negative elements, to contribute decisively to finding the responses to the challenge of globalisation so that the vision of the African Renaissance does not perish having been overwhelmed by blind forces which have an enormous potential to do good.

Indeed, it may be that the challenge whether it is possible so to regulate the process of globalisation so that it benefits both the rich and the poor will be answered by the ability of all nations, especially the most powerful, to ensure that the possibilities represented by globalisation actually reinforce the struggle for an African Renaissance.

We are also convinced that a country such as Finland, as well as the rest of the Nordic countries, which have a long history of acting in solidarity with the peoples of our Continent, can and must play an important part in supporting this Renaissance through their increased involvement in all aspects of the struggle to put Africa on a new road of development.

This must include the struggle to democratise the system of international relations, encompassing such organisations as the United Nations, the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions so that the voice of the poor is strengthened, the agendas of these important bodies is made more responsive to the needs of the developing world and the reduction of national the sovereignty of especially the smaller countries is counter-balanced by the ability effectively to influence the institutions of the system of international governance, some of which we have mentioned.

There is a new spirit that is abroad throughout Africa. Its essence is the conviction among millions of our people that they, themselves, have to do something to overcome the problems and forces that have condemned much of our continent to backwardness and dependence on charitable handouts.

Our very failures of the past and the present are precisely the factors which inform African option that the time to change is now. The achievements of other peoples throughout the world, such as yourselves tell us that we too have the capacity to emulate your example of success.

As we move along the difficult road towards Africa's rebirth, we will be encouraged by the fact that however difficult it may have seemed, we overcame the system of apartheid, white minority and colonial rule.

However impossible it may have seemed, the dictators of the ilk of Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire are a thing of the past.

In the end, we passed beyond the pain and barbarism of slavery.

The dim but glorious past of the African origins of homo sapiens is also returning to our consciousness, as is the recollection of a past of outstanding scholarship represented, among others by the African scholars of ancient Egypt who led in unravelling the secrets of nature more than two thousand years ago.

All these communicate the message to the millions of thinking Africans that we have the power in ourselves fundamentally to change the situation on our Continent for the better, to end the marginalisation of Africa, to secure her Renaissance.

Thus will it be that the long night of Africa's winter, which we as human beings have the capacity to banish, will come to an end and all humanity will together proclaim that a terrible blight on the human conscience has ceased to exist.

Thank you.

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