Speech of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Africa-America Institute Gala: New York, 19 September 2006.

First of all, I would like to thank the Africa-America Institute for giving us the opportunity to participate in this AAI Annual Awards Gala. Anybody familiar with the struggles of the African people against colonialism and apartheid will know that for many decades, the AAI has occupied a place of honour as a friend of the peoples of Africa, a steadfast voice for the liberation of our Continent, respect for the dignity of the African people, and the preparation of the professional cadre that we need to reconstruct and develop our now liberated countries.

I am therefore privileged to have the opportunity provided by this Gala to convey our thanks to the Institute, its past and present leadership, and all partners of the Institute, for everything they did and are doing to advance the cause of the all-round emancipation and upliftment of the peoples of Africa.

In this regard, I am honoured to express our congratulations to our friend, the Honourable Alan Hevesi on his most appropriate selection for the AAI Economic Bridge-Builder Award. We are also honoured similarly to congratulate Professor Phumla Mtala for the AAI Distinguished Alumna Award.

The first Europeans to settle in South Africa occupied the present Cape Town just over 350 years ago, in 1652. The first violent conflict between the indigenous African population and the white European settlers, provoked by seizure of the land of the Khoi by the latter, took place within the first five years of this initial process of the colonisation of our country.

Thus began the inter-twined processes of the dispossession and impoverishment of the African people, the entrenchment of white minority domination, and the resultant conflict between black and white that only ended with our transition to democracy in 1994, 340 years after the first clashes between the Khoi people who live in the Cape and the Dutch settlers.

It would therefore not have come as a surprise to the distinguished audience present here tonight, many of whom played an outstanding role in the US and global anti-apartheid movement, that the Constitution of democratic South Africa prescribes that we should work to build a united, non-racial society.

Indeed, throughout the first twelve years of our liberation, to date, we have insisted that our central task is the eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. This includes the fundamental task to restructure and deracialise our economy and ensure its sustained growth to generate the resources we need to end poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment, end the gross racial and gender imbalances in the distribution of opportunity, income and wealth, and build a better life of prosperity for all South Africans, without regard to race, colour or gender.

In January 1987, the late President of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, addressed a meeting here in New York hosted by the AAI and the Foreign Policy Association. Among other things he said: "In our proposition as to what South Africa should look like, we do address the question of the economy too. And our starting point is what any economy should serve - the people. The economy should be so handled that the wealth is equitably distributed. Under apartheid and under the existing system, there is no (re)distribution of wealth, experts have said. What there is, is abject poverty affecting millions of people in the midst of that wealth. It is a glaring injustice which must be redressed …"

It is precisely to redress this glaring injustice that we have put in place what we have deliberately entitled Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment, the issue I have been asked to address tonight. In this regard, our parliament approved the enabling legislation in 2004. The Act states the objectives of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment as:

  • promoting economic transformation in order to enable meaningful participation of black people in the economy;
  • achieving a substantial change in the racial composition of ownership and management structures and in the skilled occupations of existing and new enterprises;
  • increasing the extent to which communities, workers, cooperatives and other collective enterprises own and manage existing and new enterprises and increasing their access to economic activities, infrastructure and skills training;
  • increasing the extent to which black women own and manage existing and new enterprises, and increasing their access to economic activities, infrastructure and skills training;
  • promoting investment programmes that lead to broad-based and meaningful participation in the economy by black people in order to achieve sustainable development and general prosperity;
  • empowering rural and local communities by enabling access to economic activities, land, infrastructure, ownership and skills; and
  • promoting access to finance to black economic empowerment.

Our government's intervention to attain these goals is based on our firm conviction that we would be making a fatal mistake if we decided to depend on the market to correct the disastrous economic outcome born of 350 years of colonialism and apartheid. In other words, we remain firmly of the view that no trickle down effect, even in the context of an economy growing at high and sustained rates, can succeed to help us produce the non-racial and non-sexist society that our objective reality and our Constitution demand.

In addition to what our government and the public sector in general are doing to meet the black economic empowerment objectives I have cited, there is another process of black entry into the economy, which tends to attract media attention, and is wrongly described as representing the essence of what we mean when we talk of black economic empowerment.

I refer here to private initiatives taken by some black people especially to purchase equity in existing major companies through business deals they negotiate privately, and finance with money they borrow from the banks, again privately.

These processes, which are perfectly normal in any capitalist economy, are often falsely described as the very essence of the public sector black economic empowerment programme, despite the fact that, while supporting them in principle, the government does not get involved in any of these entirely private sector deals.

In addition to this, various industries within the private sector have adopted or are processing voluntary Black Economic Empowerment Charters, which elaborate the steps they would take to open up greater black participation within these industries. Government welcomes and fully supports this development.

I must also make the point that the progress of the black economic empowerment programme is also predicated on our success in addressing the enormous infrastructure deficit that continues to afflict the historically black urban and rural residential areas. That required infrastructure includes electricity, water and sanitation, transport and telecommunications.

What everything I have said means is that:

  • we have set aside funds to finance the development of micro, small and medium business, as well as cooperatives;
  • the state corporations, and indeed some private companies, are using their procurement budgets to promote the development of small and medium black business;
  • government is currently considering accessing some of the goods and services it needs exclusively from small businesses, further to expand its preferential procurement programme;
  • we have put in place training programmes to provide skills in business management;
  • a large skills development fund has been put in place, with the necessary institutions to undertake the training;
  • we are currently reequipping and revamping our vocational training colleges to produce larger numbers of skilled workers and artisans; and,
  • we have initiated an expanded public works programme to absorb as many unskilled workers as possible, provide skills training to these workers, and employ them to address the infrastructure shortfalls, among others.

I am pleased to report to this distinguished Gala that we are indeed making progress towards the achievement of the objectives of our Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment programme. We are determined to accelerate that progress, bearing in mind that it will take time to eradicate the centuries-old legacy of colonialism and apartheid. We are convinced that we will, in the practice, continue to give meaning and concrete expression to the promise we have made, that we have entered our Age of Hope.

I would like to thank the AAI for using this Gala to celebrate Black Economic Empowerment in our country because that constitutes the celebration of a critically important initiative in our sustained effort to build a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.

In the face of the stubborn persistence of the scourge of racism throughout the world, and the need to guarantee the dignity of all our people, we have no choice but to succeed in the task to transform ours into a truly non-racial society. We continue to count on your support to achieve this noble objective, in the interest of all humanity.

Thank you.

Issued by Department of Foreign Affairs

Private Bag X152

19 September 2006


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