Public Lecture by the Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe, at New York University, New York, United States of America

28 March 2011

Programme director, Professor Teboho Moja;
Ministers and the South African delegation;
Professor John Sexton, President of the University;
Professor Nyarko, Director of Africa House;
Professor Dietrich, Assistant Dean of Global and Academic Affairs;
Students of New York University;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen:

I am deeply honoured for this opportunity to address the University of New York on the theme: ‘South Africa and the Africans in the Diaspora’.

Let me also take this opportunity to thank New York University and the organisers for making their facilities available and affording us an opportunity to interact and share ideas.

While at it, I wish to draw your attention to history, or at least to some memorable aspects of history that the United States and Africa share.

This deep and shared history goes back centuries and revolves around the practice of slavery.

The United States was the recipient of slaves from Africa while South Africa was also a recipient of slaves from Asia, especially Malaysia and Africans from the north of our country.

In both cases such experiences shaped political consciousness also left a mark on the political systems in Africa and the United States.
However, through struggle our people continued to win back their humanity and dignity.

In time this struggle has steeled our resolve as a people and continues to enable us to overcome many formidable challenges that confront us today.

Today we are standing here interacting with each other as free people who enjoy human rights thanks to the sacrifices of those countless, unknown heroes and heroines who came before us.

This interaction reflects historical seamlessness; it continues what was started by the early leaders of the African National Congress who came to the United States, to study and to mobilise international solidarity against the increasing tide of oppression back home.

They used their international exposure to enrich human experience in the struggle for freedom. 

Commendably, the flow of these ideas continued to find expression and to bloom over time.

One of the crucial results of these flowering of ideas was the germination of international solidarity, which also found rugged expression in the United States.

In this regard, various sections of the America society took a principled stance that they would have no truck with this obnoxious system of apartheid.

Among these were the religious institutions, sporting bodies, artists, trade unions, universities, individuals and many other segments of the American society.

Once again we wish to express our gratitude to the American people for this morally commendable stand they took when history did not demand otherwise.

As we act in solidarity with others we are simultaneously enhancing our own ability to deal with our own challenges.

Thus, all of us, Americans, South Africans and others all over the world, need to continue with this admirable tradition lest we lose our humanity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Before I delve into matters concerning the continent of Africa, let me foreground what is happening in our country by sharing the post-apartheid South African story with you.

South Africa, like the United States, is a cosmopolitan society as a result of the historical contribution of people from all corners of the globe who over the centuries have made our country their own home.

As a nation, our strategic goal is the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist, just, democratic and prosperous society.

To this end, South Africa has well-established institutions that support democracy and protect the rights of our citizens.

Free and fair elections are held every five years, and this democratic practice has enabled South Africans to choose a government of their choice.

South Africa’s Parliament is vibrant and holds the executive accountable.

We have a constitution which guarantees basic human rights such as freedom of association, freedom of the press, and the independent judiciary.

On the building of social infrastructure and the provision of basic amenities, we have also made much progress as shown in our 2010 MGD Country Report submitted to the United Nations.

We have laid a solid foundation for a developmental state which includes the extension of social security to the poor.

The macro-economic fundamentals are in place, a critical ingredient for a stable and growing economy.

Infrastructure development is the mainstay of our reconstruction, development and growth.

Our banking system is efficient and well-regulated. The tourism sector is growing and so is our internet connectivity.

More importantly, given our past, we are making some strides towards building social cohesion that will manifest a non-racial society stated above.

However, we are aware that despite this progress outlined above, much more still needs to be done to combat poverty, unemployment, and under-development, to mention but a few.

Internationally we are playing a recognisable role in fostering peace, security, a human rights culture and promoting multilateralism as well as fair trade.

Programme director,

On this account, we are determined as a nation to play our role not only in the building of a better Africa but also, and equally critically, the building of a better world.

We consider it our historical and moral duty, and indeed obligation, to join forces with the rest of the continent in advancing the cause of African development.
There are certain historical variables that necessarily thrust us into the forefront of this continued struggle for a better African condition.

While we are only 5% of the population of Africa, South Africa accounts for 50% of trade in Africa.

Africa has commonly been perceived by investors and business people as a difficult place to do business, charecterised by slow and complicated business requirements, widespread regulatory obstacles, inefficiency, poor infrastructure, a high degree of uncertainty and risk brought about by macro-economic and political instability, poor governance and corruption.

The World Bank report titled ‘Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?’ expressed a pessimistic sentiment by declaring that:

“Making matters worse, Africa’s place in the global economy has been eroded, with declining export shares in traditional primary products, little diversification into new lines of business, and massive capital flight and loss of skills to other regions. Now the region [Africa] stands in danger of being excluded from the information revolution.”

These negative perceptions of Africa are at least partly occasioned by the post-colonial history of our continent, which was replete with coup de’e tats, often instigated by the hidden hand of the former colonial master.

A new breed of African leadership is emerging, driven by a vision of progress and development and committed to democracy, peace and stability.

The onset of the African Union is a clear signal to this progressive development, where increasing emphasis is put on constitutional democracy and fundamental human rights.

Consistent with this vision, the Constitutive Act of the African Union expressly rejects any government that comes into power through undemocratic means.

And thus steadily the winds of change continue to blow in Africa, sweeping away political oppression as the people’s yearnings for fundamental freedoms grow with each generation.

For its part South Africa puts a premium on peaceful resolution of conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction, a role we have been playing over the years since our re-acceptance into the international community of nations.

In point of fact, the principles guiding our foreign policy in our own continent, Africa, are:

  • Support for political stability and security;
  • Support for post-conflict reconstruction and development;
  • Coordination at multilateral economic level to adopt common positions;
  • Cooperation around macroeconomic stability;
  • Support for finance for development; and
  • Support for debt forgiveness.

By way of an example, we are championing conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction in countries such as Sudan.

In fine, let us re-emphasise that political stability and democratisation have asserted themselves on the African political landscape, thus laying the foundation for growth and development.

Notably, 10 years after the rather dejecting World Bank Report, the McKinsey Global Institute in June last year delineated a completely inverse picture about the African continent.

In the Lions on the Move, the McKinsey report observes:

“Africa’s economic pulse has quickened, infusing the continent with a new commercial vibrancy. Real GDP rose 4.9% per year from 2000 through 2008, more than twice its pace in the 1980s and 90s. Telecom, banking, and retail are flourishing. Construction is booming. Foreign investment is surging… the continent is among the world’s most rapidly economic regions. This acceleration is a sign of hard-earned progress and promise.”

I suppose we won’t be violating rules of academic rigour if we use the World Bank sentiment as a baseline (of the state of affairs in the continent in the year 2000) and the McKinsey project by way of evaluating progress a decade later.

In summary, the report reflects changing performance and perception of Africa where:

  • Africa’s collective GDP in 2008 reached $1.6 trillion;
  • Africa’s combined consumer spending topped $860 billion in 2008;
  • Cellular phone subscribers grew from 184 million in the year 2000 to 500 million in the year 2010;
  • At least 20 African companies now have revenues of $3 billion each; and
  • Foreign Direct Investment reached $514 billion in 2009 up from $154 billion in year 2000.  

These developments are encouraging as Africa strives for greater regional integration, fair trade and a reformed international financial system.

South Africa thus seeks to make a constructive contribution to Africa’s economic revival and socio-economic development by supporting the continental efforts to diversify and strengthen economic capabilities.

Our own development and security are intertwined with the reconstruction and revitalisation of Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On a global scale the world faces a number of challenges, including extreme poverty and hunger, huge differentials between the rich and the poor, unemployment, challenges around access to quality health and education, and issues related to sustainable development in the context of climate change.

In South Africa we face these issues on a daily basis as we steadily work towards developing a more prosperous society.

I therefore beg your indulgence, as I seek to touch on some of these issues and relate them to the need for the government and the people of the United States, especially Africans in the Diaspora, to contribute towards building the African continent, particularly in relation to aspects connected to the higher education sector, skills development and capacity building.

These are crucial for the continued economic growth and development of South Africa and the whole of Africa.

In the past we saw the migration of skilled Africans to other countries across the world, especially the developed west, linked to opportunities for economic advancement.

The need to reverse emigration of much needed and strategic skills is a critical issue for our continent. 

Ironically, in every developmental problem in Africa lie new vistas of opportunities which have the potential to absorb African skills that reside abroad.

The world today is far more open than it used to be, and during the last quarter of the 20th century became increasingly interconnected thanks to massive improvements and innovation in transportation and communication.

Virtually any place on earth can now be linked to any other place and the global economy and networked society are increasingly been driven by connectivity of markets and people.

Within this globalised economy, while it is true that the world has become increasingly interconnected, it is also the case that it has become increasingly unequal.

In the main the globally competitive parts of the world are those with access to the cultural, social and economic means to participate in the ‘knowledge economy’.

In particular these parts of society have local ecosystems of resources supporting innovation and productiveness, especially a healthy, educated and skilled workforce.

Programme director,

This is where the people in this audience came in. I have catalogued some of the major developments in South Africa and the African continent.

Among these are the stubborn challenges of achieving universal access to quality education as the pre-condition for reconstruction and development.

Accordingly, the South African government has thrown down the gauntlet to our higher education and training institutions to ensure that the education and training programmes are accessible, relevant, and of high quality, leading to economic productivity and decent work.

To make this possible, our government has prioritised education, training and skills development as a critical priority.

We are increasing the intake into and the quality of our further education and training system. We are increasing access, improving quality and throughput in our higher education sector.

More recently, we have introduced an unprecedented bursary scheme for our youth in the vocational and higher education and training institutions.

In simple terms, we are investing in our human capital in the knowledge that a skilled citizenry drives research, development and innovation, and ultimately spurs the economy to higher rates of growth.

Once again, universities and colleges play a critical role in this regard.

 A university such as the University of New York can help us with the necessary intellectual apparatus to manage our developmental challenges.

On a different note, universities can also arm us with a conception of education that helps us appreciate our role in the world beyond socio-economic imperatives.

Necessarily, this approach would then enable us to see beyond the needs of the moment, appreciate our indivisible humanity and our indissoluble relation with the universe of which we are but a minor part.

For instance today humanity faces ‘nature’s fury’ manifested in global warming with negative effects on human existence.

Other thinkers intimate that this turn of events is imputable to human actions.

Whatever the merits of the case, with a correct and visionary system of education humanity can be equipped with elevated consciousness to achieve far more than it conceives possible under present conditions.

I am holding forth in this way because I am confident that universities in free societies such as the United States have the moral and social responsibility to look beyond the confines of nationalism and contribute to expanding the frontiers of possibilities for human society at large.

Programme director,

The motto of our government says: ‘working together, we can do more’.

Therefore we call upon the American people in different fields of human endeavour to once again join hands with us so that together we can contribute to the achievement of these important goals of reconstruction and development.

In effect, challenges of development in Africa offer opportunities for academics and intellectuals in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world to make a meaningful contribution in this regard.

The partnership we are calling for works out to a win-win situation in that Africa is ripe with opportunities.

What this means is that while the American partners bring invaluable capital investment, they also stand to gain in terms of healthy returns.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to conclude by stating, once again, that South Africa is on the right path towards creating a better life for its entire people.

Similarly, we continue to strive for a better Africa and a better world characterised by equality, peace and stability.

Once again, it is perhaps important that we take note of the major conclusions of McKinsey’s “Lion on the Move”.

The report highlights the important correlation of peace, good leadership and sound macro-economic policy as critical elements of this African growth, away from reliance on a commodity boom.

The last major conclusion is that the demographic dividend  that is, the youthfulness of Africa’s population, the internal social dynamics such as human capital, urbanisation, and the rise of middle class consumers, will contribute to the development of the continent.

It is now accepted that the dismal picture that characterized Africa shortly after independence has been replaced with optimism of an Africa determined to turn the corner and claim its place in history.

The sustainability of all our attempts to build an Africa that can claim its place and catch up with the rise and speed of development of the emerging powers, will largely be informed by sound institutions necessary to provide support to commerce-driven development, under free, just and democratic political arrangements.

Importantly, history enjoins us to make the aspirations of our people a reality!  And herein lies the challenge to you in the developed world.

The question is how will history judge us in relation to Africa’s march to claiming the 21st century?

Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a great son of Africa, reflected this key issue almost as if speaking for his generation back in 1906 here in the United States when he resoundingly said that:

“The African already recognises his anomalous position and desires a change. The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities. Her Congo and her Gambia whitened with commerce, her crowded cities sending forth the hum of business, and all her sons employed in advancing the victories of peace - greater and more abiding than the spoils of war. Yes, the regeneration of Africa belongs to this new and powerful period!”

Let us all work together to make this vision a reality!

I thank you

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