Address by Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad on Disability Awareness Day, 05 September 2003

Ladies and Gentlemen

As Patron of the Disability Forum of the Department of Foreign Affairs, it is a great pleasure to address this gathering on 2003 Disability Awareness Day.

For the past number of years, the Department has set aside the first Friday in September to highlight the potential, opportunities and challenges of colleagues with disabilities. It is my earnest wish that today's events will further promote the acceptance of people with disabilities as normal and valuable members of the DFA team, dedicated, like the rest of us, to the attainment of South Africa's foreign policy objectives, and with important contributions to make in this regard.

With our stated foreign policy objective of support for NEPAD and the upliftment of the African continent, it is important that we also pay attention to the challenges faced by the estimated 80 million disabled people in Africa. While many regions of the world have made progress with their developmental challenges since 1984, we on the African continent have in many respects regressed further and further into underdevelopment. The reasons for this are well known. The consequences of this underdevelopment has been that we have been unable to attend fully to the social, political and economic rights of our citizens. A further consequence has been the marginilisation and impoverishment of people with disabilities. We are almost half way through the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities, which was adopted by the OAU in 1999. It is in this context that we approach the issue of disability, both as challenge of themselves as well as part of the broader challenge of the reconstruction and development of our continent.

However, in order to respond adequately to the challenges of disabled persons, we must address critical issues such as:

· Wars, instabilities and conflicts (wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and Burundi added significantly to the number of disabled persons on the African continent)
· Lack of Human Rights, justice and peace
· Abuse of Vulnerable people in society, including disabled persons, women and children
· Homelessness and inadequate shelter and housing
· Lack of sanitation, health facilities and services
· Absence of facilities and programmes for persons with all types of disabilities, including physical, psychiatric and developmental
· Lack of jobs and economic development and
· Lack of education and access to educational institutions

Since our democratisation process, the Government realised that the disadvantaged status of women and people with disabilities, accumulated over centuries, could not be erased overnight. Action had to be taken to level the playing-field and to give these historically disadvantaged people a fair opportunity in the struggle for survival in a competitive world. It was with this in mind that the Government, in 1998 and 2000, passed legislation which included people with disabilities as a "designated group". This meant that Government undertook to make a special effort to affirm and promote the interests of people with disabilities in the work-place and in society in general.

The Department of Foreign affairs met this challenge in several ways. In the first place, it set up the DFA Disability Forum - an advisory body which would give a voice to people with disabilities in the Department. The Disability Forum consists of colleagues with disabilities, as well as of able-bodied members of the Department who are interested in helping to promote the total normalisation of the position of colleagues with disabilities.

In 2001, the Forum, together with Human Resources, drew up a business plan, constitution and policy guidelines for the employment, promotion and posting of employees with disabilities. In terms of these documents, the Department set itself the objective of raising the number of people with disabilities in the Department to 2% by 2005. In addition, these documents state that at least 2% of foreign postings should go to people with disabilities.

· As spelt out in the Department's Employment Equity Plan, section 7, quotas will not simply be filled on the lower levels, but, where justified by merit, the Department will attempt to spread the 2 percent target throughout the various ranks, including senior management.

· Also, Subparagraph 7.8.1 (iii) of the same document states that, "Where the disabled candidate for the position has at least equal merit with any other candidate or shows equal potential to develop the required skills, the disabled candidate will be appointed."

People with disabilities desire no more than this. They are eager to emphasise that they want only to be given a fair opportunity in the work-place. They are keen to play an active and meaningful role in their environment and to contribute to the well-being of those around them. Countless overseas studies have shown that people with disabilities, when given the necessary support, are generally reliable and hard workers. They are prepared to walk the extra mile to surmount their disability.

To help them in this task, the Department has, for some time now, provided physically impaired people with assistive equipment. This, however, has taken place on an ad hoc basis and needs to extended and made available more freely to all disabled persons within the department.

It is the rapid improvement of technical aids for people with disabilities that have enabled them to accomplish what has been unheard of before. There is still great misunderstanding with regard to what people with disabilities are capable of. How many people know that there are visually impaired diplomats in the US and South Africa, several university Professors in Germany, Legal Practitioners in the UK, the US and South Africa, visually impaired Judges in Germany and South Africa, blind computer scientists and newspaper reporters all over the world, a visually impaired Professor of Political Science at UNISA, two former South African movement-impaired Heads of Mission and a blind Cabinet Minister in the UK?

On 7 May this year, President Mbeki addressing a conference on people with disabilities in Africa, suggested that a watchdog body may have to be set up to ensure the implementation of legislation intended to advance the position of people with disabilities in society. Legislation, the President said, was by itself not enough. Care had to be taken that good intentions found expression in the real world.

For its part, the Department of Foreign Affairs will see to it that this warning by the President is not ignored. We have already come some way in realising our plans towards the levelling of the playing-field. It is our firm intention to proceed on this path and to make sure that our colleagues with disabilities, too, get their place in the sun.

Thank you.

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2003 Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa