Statement by His Excellency, Mr Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, at United Nations African Meeting in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Cape Town, 29 June 2004

Thank you very much Ambassador. Your Excellency Minister Saeb Erakat, Excellency Peter Hansen, distinguished delegates; I am very privileged to welcome you to this important meeting. And for those of us who come from outside of South Africa I would like to say welcome to South Africa and to Cape Town. Indeed it is very important that we meet as we do, to discuss this burning question of the need for support of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. It is clear from the programme that we will have an opportunity to discuss this question quite comprehensively, both in this meeting and in the Forum for Civil Society. It is important I believe that we should indeed keep this matter constantly under review, learning as much as we can every day about developments in this area. I say that in particular because obviously there are other issues of preoccupation in terms of the international situation. It therefore becomes possible that important issues like this can get displaced by attention on other matters. Undoubtedly all of us would have been watching and following the situation in Iraq, as we should, but certainly that does not mean that we should then put this matter to the side or put it on the back burner.

I think probably something like 25 years ago, the American television network CBS did a documentary on South Africa. And there was a lady among the two producers of that programme and they came into this country to do part of that documentary. At that stage we were still in exile. They came back to see us when we were in exile in Zambia and Lusaka, and completed this, and spoke about the challenges and difficulties that they saw for the struggle in South Africa, and thought that it was going to take us a long time, indeed for us to achieve liberation for ourselves. Perhaps 18 months or 2 years later I saw one of the producers of the programme, and she told me that she had - by this time she was working for another television network, the NBC - and she said that the documentary that they had done on South Africa had inspired her to want to do a similar documentary on this issue, of the conflict of the Palestinian question, and so she had spent three months in Israel doing some research trying to understand the situation better. And she said to me when I saw her then that I will remember that I had said to you that it is going to take you a long time in my view for you to win your freedom in South Africa.

And she said that if this will be any matter of comfort to you, I am quite convinced it would take the Palestinians much longer, to gain their freedom.

I am mentioning that story because we dare not suffer from fatigue. To say this situation has been going on for too long, that we do not see that there is going to be a solution, or it will be there tomorrow, it will be there the day after tomorrow, and suffer therefore from fatigue and therefore loss of attention and focus on this matter.

As I was saying that looking at the programme for the conference it is clear that we will be able to deal with many important issues apart from anything else to update ourselves on the situation, as it exists.

But of critical importance are the outcomes that should come out of this meeting, this African meeting, in support of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Again now everybody in the room knows that our own continent faces its own challenges.

We have situations of conflict around the continent, which have to be dealt with. Many of us around the continent are preoccupied about the situation in the Cote d' Ivoire, with a serious danger that that might degenerate into a resumption of that civil war. We are preoccupied about the situation in the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recent events there have indicated that it is possible for that situation to worsen.

There's much discussion, quite correctly, about the situation in western Sudan but what is happening in Darfur and indeed the African Union is paying particular attention to that matter, looking at the possibility of the deployment of troops and other interventions in Darfur to deal with that particular situation.

But it is important that even as this African continent is preoccupied with those issues quite correctly, and other matters, we have to ensure that that African agenda includes this matter. It must include this matter of the resolution of this conflict.

That is why I am saying that the outcomes of this meeting and the outcomes of the civil society meeting would be important in terms of giving guidance and direction as to what it is that we expect the African continent to do.

And clearly as Africans we have got to make sure that such outcomes as come out of here indicating what it is that needs to be done, that we pursue those outcomes and try our best to make sure that the African continent does indeed respond to what would have been said by this important meeting as to what needs to be done.

We have all of us welcomed the formation of the quartet to deal with this issue. We have all of us agreed to the need for Palestine to have its own independent sovereign state, with its capital in Jerusalem. We have all of us agreed about the urgency of this matter and the need to find the resolution as quickly as is possible. There is not one of us who can feel that we are completely free when we are faced with the situation that the Palestinians face.

And there is not one of us who can feel that we are secure while we see so many people dying all the time. And therefore surely it must be part of our principal agenda, I am talking about as the African continent, it must be part of our principal agenda, to make sure that we engage this issue and contribute what we can to the resolution of this.

Again I would like to insist, Ambassador, that the outcomes of this meeting are important in that respect. They are important too because shortly in less than a fortnight the African union will be meeting in its annual summit. It would be important that that summit should consider the outcomes of this meeting and take such necessary decisions as may be required to make sure that we promote the agenda of the difference in the protection of the rights of the Palestinian people.

I am quite certain that we are all of us in any case engaged in this struggle on a daily basis, and have to contend with a false view that is sometimes promoted, which is that to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for their own rights is to make a statement hostile to Israel. It is a false position, because indeed we want peace and prosperity and stability for the Palestinian people and we want peace and prosperity and stability for the Israeli people and that cannot be achieved in a situation in which those rights are denied for the Palestinian people.

We have all of us I am sure been concerned that even if we had wanted President Yasser Arafat to be here and he was willing and able to come, he cannot come. And I am quite certain that all of us have said this all the time that nobody should decide for the Palestinian people who their leadership should be.

And that indeed any serious consideration of this matter would say that no solution is going to be found without the participation of Yasser Arafat, elected by his own people as their leader and indeed I am convinced that nobody has a right to say he should not play that leadership role.

And many of us who have interacted with Yasser Arafat would know that when he speaks about this matter of peace and the need to find a solution when he addresses for instance the issue of the role and positions taken by the late Yitzhak Rabin, we all of us know, that he is genuine in that feeling, that he is genuine in that commitment to finding a peaceful solution that would address the interests both of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is a matter I am quite sure that we would want to look at in the course of our discussion, to make sure that President Arafat is liberated from his prison, so that he can discharge his role as given to him by the Palestinian people.

As I was saying we have a responsibility, all of us as Africans, to make certain that we do not forget this issue, we do not treat it as secondary and that indeed we engage a practical programme of action that would assist with regard to moving this matter forward. There were expectations that once a road map was announced that urgent practical steps would be taken to ensure that that road map was realised. That hasn't happened.

All of us have placed our faith in these important countries and institutions that constitute that quartet and perhaps we need to look among other things at ways by which we as this African continent can impact on that quartet in all of its elements to make sure that it discharges its responsibilities in this regard. In the end having learnt everything that we will learn during the course of these two meetings, there must come a view, a programme, a vision, as to what it is that we need to do. And in that context I would therefore like to say that we would be most honoured indeed if we had the possibility of working together with our colleagues from the Palestinian authority to communicate to the African heads of state and governments as they meet next month, to communicate the decisions which we would want them to take and to agree with them as to what needs to be done to make sure that we not only take those decisions and leave them as conference decisions, but to ensure that those decisions which must constitute that practical programme of action, are actually followed up and monitored and acted upon. I think we owe that to the people of Palestine who have suffered for too long. I think we owe it to them to communicate a message that however long that struggle has taken; the fact of its length does not mean it will not succeed. I think we need to communicate the message that even for Israel its own future and the future of its own people lies in an independent Palestinian state, consistent with all of the decisions that have been taken by the international community in this regard to communicate to Israel the understanding that no amount of force is going to force the Palestinians to give up their struggle for their rights.

So Ambassadors, your Excellencies, I am pleased again to say welcome, and to wish you successful deliberations.

Thank you very much.

Issued by: The Presidency
29 June 2004

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