Address of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki at the Millennium Debate of the Joint Houses of Parliament, Cape Town, 19 November 1999

Madam Speaker;
Presiding Officers of the National Legislature;
Premiers; and
Honourable Members

We meet today on the premises of the National Assembly to join in what has been described as the "Millennium Debate".

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 globe.

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 African experience.

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 apart.

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 describes.

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 our Continent.

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 Continent.

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 life.

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 socio-economic development.

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' and 'Faranani'.

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 Continent.

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 economy.

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 speaking.

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"; and that
"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 fulfilling lives."
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 States.

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 world.

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 sustained advance.

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 Century.

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 of despair.

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 rebirth.

Thank you.

Issued by the Office of the Presidency

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