Remarks by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the honourable Ms Sue van der Merwe, at a Lunch for European Union Ambassadors, Pretoria, 22 September 2004

Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased to have been invited here to share my thoughts on a matter, which is close to my heart, and that is the pursuit of multilateralism.

I believe that at the heart of our relationships with others is a sense of reaching out. This is both as a result of an almost natural (human) curiosity to get to know each other - but also more than that, it is through a desire - an affinity if you like - to see oneself as part of a wider world and to take on the practical responsibilities that such a vision demands of us.

International space ought to be one that is always opening up and out, re-organised and re-shaped to offer more possibilities of freedom and genuine dialogue, with walls that do not represent hardening of attitudes, but are permeable so that ideas can be exchanged between one way of life and another, in this way building on to the whole. The difficulty for all of us becomes of how to fashion these spaces so that we do not lose who we are, yet gain more of who we are in the process of cultural contact and exchange.

As Neil Ascherson tells us in an essay in the London Review of Books (24 May 2001),

"The international community, as we are still reluctant to call it, is a cellular structure whose most obvious spatial component is the nation-state… For the moment, the political world we inhabit is a cellular honeycomb of nation-states, though some cells are far bigger than others."

I have been reading a book by Richard Hall called Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and its Invaders, which recalls contacts between Asia and Africa from the pre-colonial period to the colonial period.

In this book we learn how the sea-captains of days gone by could not fathom why the monsoon happened, but nevertheless they knew that the winds came on time, year after year, to fill their sails. They knew how to use the monsoons to get from one place to another.

"Once, during the heyday of the Roman empire," we are told:

"a flourishing trade had existed with the East, conducted mainly by Greek mariners who had learned how to use the monsoons. They brought back jewels, cinnamon, perfumes and incense, as well as silks and diaphanous Indian cloth much sought after by the women of Rome. But with the collapse of classical civilization in Europe, all the knowledge acquired by the Greeks was lost to Europeans."

Hall ends the same book by saying that:

"The monsoons no longer dictate when ships can travel the Indian Ocean, yet their rhythms still pervade the lives of two billion people throughout the Indian sub-continent and from East Africa to Malaysia. The Indian Ocean is renewing its status as a 'zone of encounters and contacts' and a 'crossroads of culture….

"The challenge [he writes] of the next century for the Africans will be to escape from this subservient relationship with their Indian Ocean neighbours, to find an equal place in an arena where their main contributions were for so long limited to ivory, gold-dust, leopard-skins and slaves."

While this particular book focuses on the Indian Ocean as a site of possibilities, I think the same goes for relations across the Atlantic Ocean and for relations between Africa and Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. How should we, even and maybe precisely because we do live in the throes of a new information age, foster relations between countries that enable people and nation states to renew themselves, to cultivate relations not of subservience but of equality, not of racism but of a greater tolerance between people and understanding. How indeed can Africa find an equal place in the world arena?

I yearn for a time when encounters and cultural contacts between people across vast oceans, mountains or seas, are characterized not by borders, barriers, body searches, tariffs, toll-gates, duties, visas, passports, customs, checkpoints, walls and electrical fences, but rather by mergers, movements, handshakes and hugs, a journey of humankind walking hand in hand, statements of unity, acts of integration, moving towards coalescence.

This may well be an impossible dream, and here the words of the great Nelson Mandela come to mind- that it is "no easy walk to freedom" but I think we ought to still maintain and boldly assert that this dignified, righteous and good sense of a world community in the true sense of the word is what we still ought to strive for.

As South Africans we managed to transform our country from an outcast - a promoter of racism and reaction, a force of destabilization and aggression, into a facilitator of friendship, a promoter of peace, democracy, equality and social and economic progress not only for ourselves but for our region and for the whole of the African continent.

Our encounter with each other, at a crossroads in our history, enabled us to make a conscious, deliberate choice as a people and a nation. The choice we made was the road of peace and sustainable development, dialogue not war, reconciliation and not revenge. We chose to embrace the notion of unity in diversity, thereby recognizing similarities and the need to work together, without being dismissive of difference. We laid the foundations for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country.

In fact the early years of the 1990s had already seen extensive discussions and negotiations between different parties and people in South Africa to reach common ground, to establish trust, to avoid conflict and to provide an agreed-upon framework for the establishment of a new state. Without these processes, arguably the transition to a new South Africa would not have been as peaceful as it was and the ground would not have been prepared for the changes that were to come.

This also necessitated that the transformation of society and of the economy, should focus not only in changing the legislative framework and putting in place new policies and implementation plans, but also that we carry out concerted political processes to promote unity and to encourage reconciliation, that we put in place mechanisms and set up independent institutions to safeguard freedoms and rights.

At first, we declared that we were the rainbow nation and later this expression of purpose and identity was further enhanced when then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki at the adoption of the New Constitution in 1996 asserted that "I am an African."

Contrary to what some felt at the time, this was not meant as an exclusion, but in order for South Africans to see themselves with their feet firmly on African soil rather than looking northwards or eastwards or westwards for that matter in search of an identity to adopt as their own.

This African identity was also appropriate because in a larger context, our achievements came in the last decade of the 20th Century, which witnessed the start of the second wave of democracy to sweep the African continent. It was this second wave that also co-incided with the culmination of our own liberation struggle in South Africa and the holding of our first democratic elections in 1994 that ushered in a new era for the people of this country.

This was an important step towards cultural, social, political and economic integration from a new country whose predecessor had for decades of apartheid rule considered itself as other, that could exploit Africa as it wished.

I have said before and I wish to say it again that: this fundamental change in identity was almost as if the country had shed its skin and was now revealing its true self, beginning to articulate its own values, its own systems of thoughts, re-thinking, re-shaping and re-fashioning itself as an African nation. But part of this shift meant also refashioning itself within an international space through its foreign relations.

Thus in the international arena, it became necessary that as African countries we commit ourselves jointly as governments and as civil society to work in continental and regional structures to ensure a collective approach to good governance, to economic integration and development and to a greater protection and enjoyment of all human rights, including the economic, social and cultural rights of all our people.

As Africa, we have embarked on a comprehensive transformation, reform and renewal strategy that has as its over-arching objective to break the vicious cycle of political instability, to address the lack of a human rights culture, to end poverty and underdevelopment, and to improve Africa's capacity to defend and advance its own interests.

The key building blocks of this strategy have been increased political unity and concerted action through the African Union (AU). In order to give effect to these undertakings, a Peace and Security Council, African Court of Justice, Pan-African Parliament and Economic, Social and Cultural Council have been set up as organs of the AU.

But this must be seen in conjunction with the accelerated socio-economic transformation through the macro-economic development programme, namely the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) has been developed under the NEPAD process in order to promote democracy, good governance and the attainment of peace and stability. It reflects the commitment of African States to open their governments to scrutiny and points to fundamental issues of credibility and sustainability of policy reforms in a transparent manner.

The Pan-African Parliament in particular launched last week in its permanent home in Gauteng is intended to strengthen people-to-people interaction and to foster dialogue. What brings African countries together in support of this (45 have already ratified the Parliament) is the need to deepen and nurture democracy at a continental level, to avoid conflict and to resolve problems through negotiations and settlements.

The objectives of the PAP include - among others - the promotion of the principles of human rights and democracy in Africa; encouraging good governance, transparency and accountability in Member States; promoting peace, security and stability and contributing to a more prosperous future for the peoples of Africa by promoting collective self-reliance and economic recovery. In the first five years of its existence, the PAP will be advisory and not a legislative authority.

Thus far in its first week of work, the Parliament has focused on rules and regulations, thereafter there will be the establishment of committees. It is likely that the Parliament will meet in another session later this year to consolidate its work. What has provoked debate thus far is the matter of language and translation. This is of course a fundamental issue that needed addressing before other matters on the agenda could be handled.

President Mbeki has aptly called this Parliament an "African Parliament of Liberators". As the hosts of the PAP we have a responsibility to create the best possible conditions for this assembly of the peoples of Africa to carry out its work.

For us, this is only the beginning of a process. The eradication of poverty and the attainment of prosperity are our long term objectives. This is not only an African problem of course but one that the world community has addressed and must continue to address.

I think that the central task facing us is the cultivation of a multilateral milieu that is conducive to the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment, one that can assist us in the global fight against AIDS and other contagious diseases. We need to nurture a multilateral milieu in which marginality ought to become a thing of the past, where together we need to address terror, we need to come up with the best ways to address the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We need to be able to guarantee peace and security for all and as continents and countries take collective ownership of shaping a multilateral agenda for action.

Thus for us partnerships are important - true engagement and authentic interaction, especially as new challenges also emerge while other processes in Doha, Monterrey, Johannesburg and other important gatherings attempt to re-think the direction that current globalisation processes are taking. Specifically the Millennium Development Goals together with the Johannesburg Declaration and the WSSD Programme of Action have given us a development agenda for the world.

We are grateful of the support EU countries have given NEPAD processes and the consolidation of relations through the Africa-Europe conferences as well as support for peace-keeping missions on the African continent. Of course, the expansion of the EU offer new challenges for us as it does for the EU itself.

It opens a bigger international arena of possibilities and new areas for co-operation. Bilateral and multilateral relations ought to benefit from these developments.

And as I said at the beginning of my address, what we need is to open up the international space for interaction, for encounters, contacts and crossroads of a wholly new kind.

I would be eager to hear about what we can do together to enhance our own relations as South Africa with the EU countries, as well as to create new opportunities and new sites for interaction and mutual development.

I thank you.


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