Address of the President of South Africa,
Thabo Mbeki at the Millennium Debate of the Joint Houses
of Parliament, Cape Town, 19 November 1999
Presiding Officers of the National Legislature;
We meet today on the premises of the National Assembly
to join in what has been described as the "Millennium
This gives all of us the opportunity to reflect on
what the passing millennium and more immediately, the
century that is progressing towards its end, what they
have meant with regard to the evolution of human society.
But perhaps more important than this, our debate provides
us the possibility to indicate what the new century
and millennium should represent.
The picture we would paint of that future would also
constitute our commitment to work to ensure that we
transform what may seem to be a dream into the new reality.
When we spoke at the United Nations University in Tokyo,
Japan, last year, we quoted from a tract written by
Pliny the Roman, during the first century of this millennium,
in which he sought to educate his fellow Romans about
the Africans of the day.
Here is what Pliny wrote:
"Of the Ethiopians there are diverse forms and
kinds of men. Some there are toward the east that have
neither nose nor nostrils, but the face all full. Others
have no upper lip, they are without tongues, and they
speak by signs, and they have but a little hole to take
their breath at, by the which they drink with an oaten
straw...In a part of Africa be people called Pteomphane,
for their king they have a dog, at whose fancy they
are governed...And the people called Athropomphagi,
which we call cannibals, live with human flesh. The
Cinamolgi, their heads are almost like to heads of dogs...Blemmy
is a people so called, they have no heads, but have
their mouths and their eyes in their breasts."
We said, then, that "these images must have frightened
many a Roman child to scurry to bed whenever their parents
said: The Africans are coming! The strange creatures
out of Africa are coming!"
As we approach the end of the millennium, we can say
with absolute certainty that today's Romans have a more
accurate picture of what we, the Africans, are. They
know that we are not the grotesque creatures born of
the fertile imagination of an eminent Roman scholar,
nor are we the savages and cannibals that were the offspring
of that imaginative mind.
I suppose we should be grateful that in the passing
of a thousand years, we have so recovered our heads
and eyes and nostrils and lips and tongues that we too
can claim to be as human as any who lives on our common
The Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, writes differently
and gloomily about the future of the very human Africans
who occupy our Continent. He says:
"Warriors will fight scribes for the control of
your institutions; wild bush will conquer your roads
and pathways; your land will yield less and less while
your offspring multiply; your houses will leak from
the floods and your soil will crack from the drought;
your sons will refuse to pick up the hoe and prefer
to wander in the wilds; you shall learn ways of cheating
and you will poison the cola nuts you serve your own
friends. Yes, things will fall apart."
Unlike Pliny, Chinua Achebe speaks directly to our
Far too often have the warriors fought the scribes
for the control of our institutions.
It has happened that throughout our Continent we have
allowed the wild bush to conquer our roads and pathways.
Many of our sons have refused to pick up the hoe, preferring
to wander into the wilds.
Many among us have used our native and acquired intelligence
to learn ways of cheating.
Enslaved by the most selfish passions, many have poisoned
the cola nuts they serve their own friends.
Through the long hours as this century wore on, so
did it seem many-a-time that indeed, things were falling
So must it have seemed to one African generation after
another as they saw their ancient empires collapse and
many hide in fear in the forests, as the slave traders
kidnapped millions and transported them across the oceans.
The gloom would have deepened as countries were seized
and attached to foreign lands as colonies owned by foreigners,
to be occupied, governed and disposed of by these foreigners
as they saw fit.
In many instances the rejoicing at the regaining of
independence was short lived, as the new rulers set
about to create the world which Chinua Achebe so vividly
As we pondered the experiences of a millennium, we
knew that no god had decreed that we should be the frightening
freaks whom Pliny imagined, nor that fate had predetermined
that things on our Continent should fall apart.
We knew, instead, that there exist enough genius, pride,
energy and imagination among the peoples of Africa which
will enable us to undo the damage which the ebb and
tide of events over half-a-millennium has visited on
Confident that our efforts will be crowned with success,
we have said that the challenge rests with us to use
all these attributes to rebuild our country and our
Accordingly, we have made the call, which we repeat
today, that, through our sustained efforts, we must
define the new century as an African Century.
Thus would we end the tragedy according to which, as
each century ended and hopes were raised that the next
would be better, the result always seemed to be that
we sank further into the abyss.
I am certain that all of us who are gathered here,
regardless of party affiliation, are of one mind that
we want to see an African Continent freed of the processes
of which Chinua Achebe wrote.
Ours must become a continent of democracy, justice
and respect of human rights. It must become a continent
of peace and stability.
It must become a continent of prosperity and a decent
and rising standard of living for all its peoples. It
must be part of the world revolution in science and
technology and a beneficiary of the benefits that come
in its wake. Africa must flower once again as a continent
of learning, of art and thriving cultural activities.
No longer sliding towards a slow and painful death at
the margins of an advancing global community, Africa
must regain her place as an equal among the continents.
This result will not come of its own accord. None sits
somewhere in the world who has the capacity to achieve
this historic transformation of our fortunes as Africans
except we, the Africans.
If what we have spoken of is nothing but a dream, there
is none but ourselves who will dare to dream as we must
dream, of a future of the recovery of the dignity of
the peoples of Africa.
Nothing can stop us transforming this dream into the
actual rebirth of our continent except the collapse
of our self-confidence.
However hard and protracted the struggle, we will emerge
victorious unless we allow the cynicism of the defeated
to overwhelm the confident hope of those who have the
courage to take their destiny into their own hands.
Success will not come unless we plan for it. The African
Century will not be unless we help to mobilise the forces
that must engage in struggle so that the hopes of the
people for a century and a millennium that bring something
new are realised.
We would therefore urge that, as a people and a country,
we should devote the Year 2000 that is upon us, to do
everything that needs to be done to ensure that by its
end, we see our entire Continent at the ready to join
in a powerful movement of the peoples of Africa for
the realisation of Africa's century!
Were we to adopt this historic decision, we would,
consequently, impose on ourselves critically important
tasks without whose achievement the renewal of our Continent
would remain a pipe dream.
The first of these tasks must surely be that, as Africans,
we aim to ensure that by the end of the Year 2000, no
part of our Continent should be victim to the destructive
fury of war.
The OAU has already taken the important decision that
it will work to ensure that the Year 2000 is Africa's
year of peace.
We have no choice but to rise to this challenge finally
to bring to a close a period in our history which has
condemned many peoples on our Continent to the cruelty
and indecency of military conflict.
Similarly, the Organisation of African Unity has already
taken another important decision that, with effect from
the Year 2000, it will no longer admit military regimes
into its ranks.
Once again, to help realise the intention of this decision,
we must join with others on our Continent to strive
so that by the time the year ahead of us comes to an
end, power has been or is irrevocably being returned
to the people in all countries on our Continent.
Throughout our Continent, peoples and government, including
our own, have understood that Chinua Achebe was correct
when he said that we shall learn ways of cheating and
would poison the cola nuts we serve to our own friends.
We have to use the Year 2000 further to help strengthen
the impetus towards the containment and eradication
of corruption on our Continent, aiming to have the understanding
firmly established in all our countries that none of
us will allow that corruption is accepted as a way of
Our work in this area will clearly require that we
bring on board the corporations and governments of the
developed countries of the North, so that they lend
their own strength to the removal of a cancer which
impacts negatively both on their countries and ours.
It goes without saying that the elimination of poverty
and human deprivation in all its forms has to be a defining
feature of the African Century.
Critical to the achievement of this objective is the
inculcation in all our minds of the understanding that
all of us - politicians, business people, workers, peasants
and professionals - have a common obligation to bring
our resources and our various strengths into the pursuit
of the common objective to achieve our own sustained
Certainly, we have to push back the misconceptions
that overseas development assistance on its own will
pull us out of the poverty trap or that our governments
dispose of unlimited resources on which we should base
the hopes of the people for a better life for all.
We are arguing for the rediscovery and the redefinition
of the concept of a partnership based on self-reliance
within and among our countries as one of major ideas
that should fuel the striving towards an African Century.
Africa's political leadership has a critical role to
play in turning into a real motive force for change
the concepts, with which we are all familiar, of 'Masakhane'
Many of Africa's intellectuals, scientists and professionals
have been obliged, as Chinua Achebe wrote, to wander
in the wilds.
Work is already going on to prepare a directory of
this extraordinary human resource which lives and earns
its livelihood outside of the African Continent. And
yet we know that many among these are very interested
to use their knowledge to benefit the peoples of our
We must use this coming year to find ways and means
by which we help to position the African brain power
both within and outside Africa so that it is also drawn
into the project of the renewal of our Continent.
It is obvious that we cannot successfully address the
challenge of socio-economic development of which we
have been speaking outside of the context of the global
The very process of globalisation requires that our
own activities should be informed by the objective to
carve out the space within this process so that it impacts
on all our countries and peoples in a way which helps
to achieve the development goals of which we have been
We are strengthened by the fact that, among other things,
we can draw on the conclusions arrived at during the
recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which,
in its Fancourt Commonwealth Declaration on Globalisation
and People-Centred Development, stated that:
"poverty and human deprivation...constitute a
deep and fundamental flaw in the world economy";
"the greatest challenge...facing us today is how
to channel the forces of globalisation for the elimination
of poverty and the empowerment of human beings to lead
The special task we face as the Continent which poses
the most urgent development challenge globally, is that
we should use the Year 2000 ourselves to build a united
position with regard to what all humanity should in
fact do, to channel the forces of globalisation for
the elimination of poverty on our own Continent.
The urgency and importance of the matter we are addressing
is illustrated by the fact of two major international
meetings that will take place in the immediate future.
These are the Summit Meeting of the African, Caribbean
and Pacific countries to be held in Dominica and the
WTO meeting that will take place in Seattle in the United
Both of these meetings are confronted precisely by
the question - what is to be done to deal with the problems
posed by what the Commonwealth described as the deep
and fundamental flaw in the world economy!
Africa and the rest of the developing world require
urgent and correct answers to this question. The point
however is that it must be us, who are surrounded by
poverty and human deprivation, who must lead in the
search for these answers. This has to be one of the
tasks we set ourselves for the Year 2000.
Obviously, this relates more generally to the entire
system of global political and economic governance which
has to be reformed, among other things, to address the
issue of equity among the nations and peoples of the
Once again we have no choice but to elaborate a common
view as to the nature and intent of that reform process,
because without this, much of what we would want to
do, properly to impact on the process of globalisation,
would come to naught.
Everything we have said bears directly on our own future
as a country. Such prescriptions as we might have made
about our Continent in general apply equally and in
particular to our country as well. Equally, we must
fully absorb this lesson that, as demonstrated by the
process of regionalisation globally, we too will not
achieve the success our people desire unless the larger
region of which we are an integral part, the African
Continent, also succeeds.
In addition to this, we must also recognise the fact
that the relatively greater strength and capacity we
have, places an obligation on us, in our own interest,
to use these to promote the common cause of Africa's
Our liberation came upon us as the century and the
millennium were winding down towards their close.
Thus have we had the opportunity to build on all human
experience to design our own project for the reconstruction
and development of our country.
I hold firmly to the conviction that, as a country,
we are indeed on course. We too are involved in the
complex process of undoing the damage which the ebb
and tide of events over many centuries visited on us.
We have a duty to ourselves and the rest of the world
which fought with us to end the system of apartheid,
never to waiver from the struggle to create the kind
of society visualised in our Constitution, free of oppression,
racism, sexism, poverty and human deprivation.
It is this which will also help to define us as a legitimate
activist for the realisation of the vision of an African
It remains for all those among us and in our society
in general who have the capacity to transcend the limited
boundaries of immediate space and time, to contribute
to, and embrace, the generation of what might appear
to be a superhuman effort to give a new birth to a Continent
which has seemed to be the permanent object of the curse
Surely, none can hope to be as blessed as we all are,
that we should have the possibility and the opportunity
to do things which, if done well, would make a real
difference to the lives of billions of people, whose
existence is defined by a life without dignity, dire
poverty, rampant diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria
and HIV-AIDS and violent crime.
As we approach the end of a century and millennium,
and seek to write compositions different from those
of Pliny and Achebe, the question we must answer is
- what shall we do to achieve Africa's Renaissance!
It is my hope that this Millennium Debate will help
us to arrive at the correct answers which shall also
constitute our commitment to act in favour of Africa's
Issued by the Office of the Presidency