Response of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, to the State of the Nation Debate: National Assembly, 9 February 2006

Madam Speaker and Deputy Speaker,
Honourable Deputy President,
Honourable Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I would like to acknowledge the presence of several African Ministers of Mining who have joined us after their deliberations at the African Mining Partnership meeting this week. The African Mining Partnership is an important forum for collaboration by African countries to develop common positions on issues facing the mining sector on our continent. I hope you had fruitful discussions.

On September 30, 2005, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed in various guises. Some of these directly associated the Prophet and therefore Islam with terrorism.

According to press reports, one of these cartoons depicts the Prophet with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb. Another depicts the Prophet standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with the words, "Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!", this being an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.

The publication of the cartoons has led to angry Moslem demonstrations in many countries, with some of them including violence that has resulted in the burning of Danish and other diplomatic chanceries.

The global Moslem community has denounced both the fact of the representation of the image of Prophet Mohamed, which Islam prohibits, deeming it blasphemous, and his representation as a terrorist. Those who have published and support the publications of the cartoons argue that such publication was and is a legitimate exercise of the important democratic right to freedom of speech.

In this regard, the Culture Editor of the newspaper wrote:

"The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him."

Our Constitution entrenches the right to freedom of speech. I am certain that all of us in this House, and our people as a whole, respect this right and would do everything possible to protect and defend it.

At the same time, our Constitution also entrenches the freedom of religion, belief and opinion, which I am equally certain all of us in this House, and our people as a whole, respect this right and would do everything possible to protect and defend it. With regard to freedom of expression in this context, it says that the right to freedom of expression "does not extend to…advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm."

With regard to the issue of the publication of the Danish cartoons in our country, our courts have already taken the decision that this should not be done, presumably basing themselves on the constitutional and legal prescripts that are binding on all of us.

However it is clear that this judgement will not end the debate in our country which, in its narrowest terms, relates to the balance between the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of religion. Naturally, we must defend everybody's right to participate in this debate peacefully.

In this regard, I would like to join the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan, and other leaders across the world, who has appealed to everybody concerned not to engage in acts of violence, such as those that resulted in the destruction of the Danish diplomatic missions in Damascus and Beirut. In this context, Kofi Annan drew attention to the fact that the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had apologised for the publication of the cartoons.

In an Editorial entitled Honourable Fellow Citizens of the Muslim World, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper said:

"In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize… Maybe because of culturally based misunderstandings, the initiative to publish the 12 drawings has been interpreted as a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and the rest of the world.

"I must categorically dismiss such an interpretation. Because of the very fact that we are strong proponents of the freedom of religion and because we respect the right of any human being to practise his or her religion, offending anybody on the grounds of their religious beliefs is unthinkable to us. That this happened was, consequently, unintentional…

"It is the wish of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten that various ethnic groups should live in peace and harmony with each other and that the debates and disagreements which will always exist in a dynamic society should do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

Earlier, the British newspaper The Independent, had said in its own editorial: "While we defend Jyllands-Posten's right to publish, we also question its editorial judgement. It is not a decision we intend to emulate. This newspaper could have published the photos at the centre of this row to make a point about free speech - as newspapers in Germany, France, Italy and Spain have done - but we believe this would have been a rather cheap gesture. There is no merit in causing gratuitous offence, as these cartoons undoubtedly do. We believe it is possible to demonstrate our commitment to the principle of free speech in more sensible ways."

Some of the European media have gone beyond the narrow but important debate concerning the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, to discuss what they viewed as a matter of serious concern, relating to the rise of racism in Denmark.

In this regard, in its ENAR Shadow Report 2004 Denmark, partly funded by the EU, the European Network Against Racism said:

"Populist political statements and distorted media coverage (have) not helped to better the situation (rising racial tensions in Denmark). Politicians hide behind "freedom of speech" to get away with the most hateful propaganda against certain groups, while the media holds the microphone. Mainstream media not only indulge in the generalisation of minorities but are also steadfast in denying any responsibility in creating an atmosphere in which racism thrives…

"The ongoing propaganda against Islam is aided by many writers, commentators and academics who use their freedom of speech to write what they like and often in derogatory and insulting language. One such so-called historian is Lars Hedegaard. He is the former Editor in Chief of the most progressive newspaper in Denmark, Information, and a permanent contributor to two national newspapers - Berlingske Tidende and MetroXpress. He has specialised in commenting on anything and everything which has to do with Islam. One of his statements to a right-wing newspaper Jyllands-Posten (01.08.2004) says a lot about his mental picture:

"Islam is even more totalitarian than Nazism. Nazis did not demand that people should grow a Hitler type moustache. Islam interferes in every aspect of life, right from dress to eating habits."

The ENAR Report also quotes Karen Wren, whom it describes as a British academic with a lifelong relationship with Denmark and many years of experience researching immigration, asylum and racism. She wrote after a visit to Denmark:

"I was also concerned by the very high levels of ethnic minority unemployment, and the view among skilled refugees I interviewed that they had no hope of using their skills in Denmark's discriminatory labour market. I was also very surprised by the lack of comprehensive and effective anti-racism legislation. This situation seemed to allow the press and politicians a free hand to propagate racist views without restraint, while there were no effective mechanisms through which ethnic minorities could respond and put their views across to the public."

I have spoken at this length on the matter of the Danish cartoons because I believe that this affair in all its ramifications has some very important lessons for us as well.

When we established our democracy, which included the adoption of our Constitution, we knew that we were inheriting a very diverse society that had been divided into many fractions by our history of colonialism and apartheid. We knew that for us to survive and thrive as a nation, we had to bridge the many fissures in our society created by our past.

The motto on our Coat of Arms constitutes a call to us to live up to the vision contained in the Preamble to our Constitution which says, "(We) believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity." Our National Anthem was constructed with the aim to achieve national reconciliation. Concepts such as "the rainbow nation" sought to express the vision of a diverse but united nation.

I believe that one of our greatest achievements since the dawn of democracy has been precisely the advance we have made towards building the united but diverse society which is so fundamental to our future.

In this context, and with reference to the Danish cartoons, I am certain that we would all agree with what the British newspaper, The Independent, said, that "there is no merit in causing gratuitous offence."

Similarly we would agree with Jyllands-Posten that "various ethnic groups should live in peace and harmony with each other and that the debates and disagreements which will always exist in a dynamic society should do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

For us these are not academic matters. They go to the very core of the task we face to build the new South Africa.

The Hon Patricia de Lille was therefore correct when she drew our attention to the need for us continuously to focus on the critical question of social cohesion saying, "the destructive divides of our society (should be) bridged. We will only succeed as a nation if we recognise the problems that are faced by all our communities, and are prepared to make the necessary compromises needed to address them. The problems of the poor are the problems of the rich, and the challenge of building social cohesion rests on the shoulders of all of us. The task at hand cannot be restricted to the government alone and the ID would like to see a hand being extended to our citizens making them partners in our development."

We have taken to heart the comments made by The Hon Dr Gavin Woods when he said: "We would have wished to hear the President's thoughts on the democratic health of the nation and, as importantly, we would have been interested in his views on the evolving post-apartheid society and how government is trying to facilitate a more unified nation. We see the progress that is being made towards social integration over the past twelve years as quite exceptional against the world experience, and would have been encouraged to hear that the President also sees it in the same way."

I hope that Parliament will have time to engage with the issues around social cohesion.

When we discuss this matter I am confident that we all agree, among other things, that our constitution is an important foundation in ensuring social cohesion in South Africa. Generally, from the family unit, to communities, political organisations and various institutions in our society, we share the principles and values contained in our constitution. Indeed, if we did not share the values enshrined in our constitution the country would have long degenerated into civil strife, anarchy and possibly even civil war.

Indeed, some of the important elements for social cohesion are represented by public representatives as constituted in the national parliament, the provincial legislatures as well local government councils. I am therefore very happy that parliament has taken a decision to engage in an Equality Review Campaign, as Madam Speaker said, "to help answer the question relating to progress or lack

The challenge facing all of us is to strive for social and economic equity in our country, so that we move away from the divisions that defines a section of the South Africans population as poor, labourers, unemployed and under-employed and the wretched of the earth; while another is characterised by the rich, the bosses, the fully employed and the affluent who enjoy good things in life.

Accordingly, it is important that we should identify common positions that are important to all South Africans, irrespective of ideology and party affiliation and develop a common platform that helps to enhance social cohesion.

Madam Speaker,

The Hon Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi was correct when he said that "our liberation movement" must not lose its long-term vision. We must heed the call he made that "this is the time to hold the country together and ensure the unity of our people: …"this is the time in which history demands of us to rise above…petty division in politics."

As is their right, a number of the Honourable Members focused their statements on what they saw as the failures of our government. In many instances they spoke about the very same matters that cause grave concern to the government itself.

To say that twelve years after we liberated ourselves from 350 years of colonialism and apartheid we still face a huge housing backlog is not to say anything new or unexpected.

To say that twelve years after we liberated ourselves from 350 years of colonialism and apartheid there are still many people without access to clean water and modern sanitation is not to say anything new or unexpected.

To say that twelve years after we liberated ourselves from 350 years of colonialism and apartheid we are still confronted by a very serious challenge of poverty and unemployment is not to say anything new or unexpected.

Like Dr Woods, "we see the progress that is being made towards social integration over the past twelve years as quite exceptional against the world experience…"

Nevertheless we recognise the fact that much more still needs to be done to create a truly socially integrated nation.

That is why in the State of the Nation Address we spoke about ASGISA, housing, health, education, water, sanitation, land and other programmes precisely to answer the question - what should be done to accelerate the advance towards eradicating the many backlogs that undermine social integration, that most obviously could never have been dealt within a short period of twelve years.

In keeping with what the Hon Patricia de Lille, the Hon Gavin Woods and the Hon Mangosuthu Buthelezi said, I believe that one of the critical challenges we all face is not to communicate a false message to the people that our Rome can be built in a day.

One or two of the Hon Members correctly pointed out that we are running a marathon and not a sprint over a short distance. No amount of words will change this reality, and I dare say that the ordinary people of our country understand this reality very well.

As we did last year, once more we will study the comments made by the Hon Members, drawing on them to improve the performance of the government as we strive, hopefully together, to accelerate our advance towards the new South Africa for which our people yearn.

Before I conclude, I would like to return to the important comment made by the Hon Dr Buthelezi when he said that "this is a time in which history demands of us to rise above…petty division in politics", and refer to the matter of the Hon Deputy President's holiday in Abu Dhabi.

The security arrangements in place since 1994 and before provide that both the President and the Deputy President are provided with security on a 24-hour basis. Among other things, this means that when they travel by road, they do so in transport provided, managed and run by the South African Police Service.

When they travel by air, unless circumstances make this impossible, they travel in planes provided, managed and flown by the South African Air Force.

These transport arrangements, which are an integral part of the security system decided exclusively by the state security services, and not the President or the Deputy President, apply regardless of their destinations and the purpose of their travel.

The South African Air Force therefore carried the Deputy President to and from Abu Dhabi, as the security regulations require. This was the only cost of the holiday of the Deputy President that accrued to the state. All other expenses incurred by the Deputy President by going on holiday were met entirely by the Deputy President, with absolutely no charge to the state.

I am certain that now and again the Deputy President will have to take a break from work and rest wherever she may choose. Unless the security arrangements are changed, leaving her unprotected because she is on holiday, it will remain the responsibility of the South African Police Service and the South African Air Force to transport her to her holiday destination.

I trust that, after this explanation, nobody will find it impermissible that she should continue to be provided with security on a 24-hour basis, which includes the periods when she is on holiday.

I would like to thank all the Honourable Members for their participation in the debate of the State of the Nation Address, and the various suggestions that have been made as to what we should do further to accelerate the process of transforming our society.

As I have said, we will follow up on these suggestions.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish all the parties that have registered for the local government elections success in their campaigns, and urge that all of us should respect the Code of Conduct we have signed, so that we further entrench the tradition of holding peaceful, free and fair democratic elections.

This is central to the achievement in our country of the critically important objective stated perhaps belatedly by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, that "various ethnic groups should live in peace and harmony with each other and that the debates and disagreements which will always exist in a dynamic society should do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

Madam Speaker,

In closing this debate I would like to convey to the Martin Luther King family our heartfelt condolences for the departure of their mother and leader not only of the African-Americans, but of many people across the world, Coretta Scott-King. On our shores we also pass our condolences to the family of Vish Sewpersad who dedicated his life to the struggle for freedom but has now passed on and was laid to rest this past week.

Once more, I would like to thank all those who participated in this debate.

I thank you.

Quick Links

Disclaimer | Contact Us | HomeLast Updated: 9 February, 2006 3:58 PM
This site is best viewed using 800 x 600 resolution with Internet Explorer 5.0, Netscape Communicator 4.5 or higher.
2003 Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa