Why South Africa should be heard internationally

I would like to extend a very warm welcome to all the members of the international media who have travelled to our wonderful country to participate in this conference and welcome to the delegates who represent an impressive cross-section of managers from the public and private sector as well as practitioners in media and communications.

The title of my address could be read to imply acceptance that South Africa should plead with the world community for a hearing; or at least should make an eloquent case, on bended knee, to be so heard.

It would be imprudent for us to draw a cordon sanitaire between South Africa and the rest of Africa, and would be equally imprudent to draw a cordon sanitaire between the communicator and moral, psychological, political and social complexities of the continent – for it is not only South Africa that needs to be heard but it is Africa as a whole that has many tales of woe and wonder to tell.

The reality is that we can simply point to incontrovertible fact, to show that South Africa is being heard, and our counsel on matters of global importance is regularly sought, precisely because those who seek it feel we have much to offer as a result of our immensely positive experience in dealing with the difficult and complex issues that faced us in our struggle for freedom and democracy; and that continue to confront us as we endeavour to build a truly non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and socially cohesive and prosperous South Africa.

It is natural for democratic states with some moral aspirations to wish to extend their influence for constructive good in the world, and we are no exception. The strategic programme undertaken beyond our shores by President Mbeki – together with his heavy on-going domestic duties –  is evidence that we take our role in the world seriously. In fact, not many world leaders can match this record – in the past fortnight alone: visits, despite a bout of flu, to Tanzania (over the Burundi situation), the Democratic Republic of Congo (Presidential elections run-off preparation), Brazil (the first summit of IBSA), Cuba (the non-aligned movement) and, finally, the USA (for the UN General Assembly).  And amidst all this President Mbeki took in his stride an imbizo in the Eastern Cape Province, to hear the South African people!

Because of our long history of struggle against apartheid led by the African National Congress, our experience in dealing with racism, our smooth transition to democracy, and our experience in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many feel we have something to offer especially with respect to conflict resolution and post conflict reconstruction. As a result we are continually being asked to bring our expertise to bear both on our continent and globally. So my remarks should be seen against this background.

The International Marketing Council, which has given this conference its blessing, is brimming with facts and figures about proven South African success, and I have no doubt that it is continuing its splendid job in disseminating this. So I shall merely skim across the surface with my own brief observations.

In 1994 we turned conventional logic on its head and showed that politics could be the art of the impossible. This happened as we dared to be bold and forged ahead, together, into a brand-new, non-racist, non-sexist democracy. Our transition to freedom and democracy was smooth, and ever since our democratic elections have been free and fair. We defied the expectations of pessimists and in so doing we were in fact defying the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

A country that once tried so desperately to deflect world attention from its appalling record of racist repression by boasting of its gold reserves and the Cape route for “Western” ships, is now a totally different proposition. From being what the Editor of Die Burger once called the “polecat of the world” (or, as the Times of London aptly put it years ago, “marching resolutely out of step with humanity”), South Africa is now a moral force and fellow-player for world peace and security. We in South Africa prefer it that way, and we hope we do make a difference.

South Africa now has an independent judiciary, we are experiencing the longest sustained period of economic growth in our country’s history. We now have over 4% growth (for the first time since 1960) in a strong economy, with low inflation, if a slightly volatile currency. We have initiatives underway to boost growth further, and resolutely to find the skills, locally or abroad, to fuel this advance.

A recent IMF report notes that South Africa accounts for 6% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population but over one third of its GDP (on a purchasing power parity basis). This is more than three times as much as Nigeria, the region’s second largest economy and almost 40 times as much as Mali. Our investments in the rest of Africa have more than doubled since 2000, – in 2004 it stood at $3.7 billion.

Internally, we have greater social cohesion and social stability. But we do have protests and demonstrations on a daily basis somewhere in South Africa –  protests which are the absolute democratic right of our citizens. There are 11 million South Africans – a quarter of the population – who are now on one or other form of welfare grants, and here too we are engaged in a healthy debate about the affordability of our social safety net.

We hosted the rugby and cricket world cups with great flair post-1994, and our success as a nation is durable and sustained enough to complete the hat-trick: Adding the World Cup of soccer in 2010 with its more than 300 000 medium-stay visitors, who will have to be fed, housed, entertained, transported and looked after. We are cognisant of the challenges we face in preparing for 2010, but we pledge that we will be ready to receive the world and that it will be Africa not just South Africa that will host a memorable World Cup that will do us all including FIFA proud.

Delivery of some basic services like water (with more than 10m people given access to running water in a decade) and also delivery areas such as housing and electricity provision has been on a scale that must be close to world record-breaking, in comparable conditions. But the protests our people mount speak to the challenges of service delivery that we still face.

We adhere to a People’s Contract, our Constitution is the Supreme law of the land, we respect the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and we respect and promote rights, responsibilities and freedoms.

Our President and Government keep touch with the coal-face of opinion over a very wide range of matters, through working committees with business, trade unions, agriculture, religious leaders, information technology and investment.

And, of importance to this forum, in world affairs we hope we are respected for taking principled stands on the great issues of our age – conflict, ideology, religion, demographic diversity, economics, aid and trade, reform of multilateral institutions of global governance and finance, sustainable development and environmental degradation. Our positions ensures us a very wide degree of support, and, incidentally, greater safety for our citizens when they travel abroad.

We are ardent proponents of the reform of the United Nations. When requested, we put our resources at the disposal of those parties and states seeking peaceful resolution to regional and national conflicts.  And Nepad conceived by a number of African leaders including President Mbeki, is now becoming institutionalised as the development arm of the African Union. We are about to undergo the final stages of the APRM process, which openly and rigorously measures our progress towards the good society. We have agreed to undertake this process and allow ourselves to be assessed by peers from Africa precisely because we are deeply committed to participatory democracy and transparency and because we believe we need to be open and welcome positive suggestions which enable us to build a better life for all South Africans.

Yet, with all this goes a certain modesty, even a sense of mild surprise. We know we are a relatively small nation; and that we face continuing problems of daunting magnitude. Not the least of these are the threats to our whole society posed by unemployment, poverty, by HIV and Aids and other communicable diseases; we also face the massive challenges of delivering more services to the people and ending backlogs; we face a crime rate that is much too high for national comfort, and yet we can see the outlines of rates dropping in the more serious, violent, categories. We see around a quarter or a third of our people desperately poor, and we know that the better-off will not sleep while others do not eat. And we know we need to use the fiscal levers at our disposal to be both prudent and socially just.

Finally, and I address this to the audience today, there is a dogged mindset about South Africa – and indeed about Africa – which places many critics in a permanently pessimistic frame of mind. It crops up now and then in the media and elsewhere, though does happily seem to be on the wane. The special report on Business in Africa by the Economist of 9 September observes that the “optimists may yet prove to be right” and speaks about “the flicker of a brighter future” for the continent. The pessimistic mindset finds it difficult if not impossible to believe that Africa can be a place of efficiency and progress.

It just cannot comprehend the concept of an African century ahead, let alone one based on an African Renaissance.  It assumes the worst about black leadership, whether in matters of purely private expenditure on a house or a place of well-earned eminence in the business world after generations of being shut out. It concentrates on the corrupted rather than the corrupter, when it comes to dubious commercial relations between developing and developed states. This mindset must, in short, be eradicated. And those with the mindset must take trouble to look afresh around them, and they must be balanced in their reporting, they must report on the successes as well as the challenges and they have a responsibility to the ideals of democracy to report on where it has been entrenched and where it is currently taking hold.

In making this request, we are not asking you to report on that which does not exist.  You know what you see but how do you decide what you want to focus and report on? To break out of the cordon sanitaire I referred to at the beginning, it is imperative that we reflect on and understand the filters which mediate the media/society relationship and how what is seen gets translated into reportage. We need to ask what role does ideology, religion; socio-economic status, education, race and gender play in mediating, internalising and then communicating what we see. We need to be more self conscious about how deep and psychologically perplexing are the bonds that tie Africa to the West.

We may not all agree with Chinua Achebe’s assessment of why Western writing on Africa is preponderantly negative but you at least we have to engage with his analysis that “If there is something in these utterances more than … a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest”.  Africa does not want to be damned by faint praise. We ask for balance, for nuance amidst complexity, for a muliti-layered textured approach rather then simplicity and for breaking the ever reinforcing cycles of pessimism. These cycles of pessimism benefit no one. A balanced reporting of positive trends in Africa will have a beneficial effect on trade and investments in Africa, which in turn will have a deep impact on poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment, which in turn will generate more positive news. Surely readers and investors around the world do want to hear about economic growth, about the growth of the middle class, about stability, about democracy taking root, and about women entrepreneurs in Africa?

In asking for complexity, balance, critical reflection of the reporting gaze of the communicator we simultaneously recognise that in Africa we also need to be more open to investigative journalism. We cannot simply dismiss negative reportage as the product of the racist or the colonial mindset, nor must we paint all reporters with the same brush.

Now however is the time to go beyond the morally ambiguous Marlow of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Certainly Marlow was ambivalent about the humanity of Africans, but it was Joseph Conrad who put the words in his mouth. Joseph Conrad allows for a Marlow who reflects on the limits of his own understanding of the people of Africa, but in the final analysis it is the reproduction of negative stereotypes of Africans that prevails in the novel. In failing to see Africans as humans Marlow and by extension Conrad, who refuses to allow a non-racist Marlow to emerge from his experience in the heart of darkness, betray their liberalism. For all its anti-colonial stance, for all the moralizing about the evils of colonialism and mercantilism, Heart of Darkness through its use of language, imagery, metaphors and symbolism, actively and consciously reproduces the most negative stereotypes of Africans and of Africa. The effect of this is that racism in an ostensibly anti-colonial novel is continually reproduced.

What Heart of Darkness allows us to reflect on is how through the various mediums of communication, the communicator can consciously or unconsciously engage in forms of oppression of Africans that is far more problematic than may be readily apparent at first sight. As communicators this is where we need greater introspection and this is what we need to be most conscious of – the telltale signs of our own complicity.

The world is too perilous a place these days for anyone to be complacent or judgmental about others. Typecasting and talking up “clashes of civilizations” will get us nowhere. Dialogues of civilizations will. In the current conjuncture, what we need are new global partnerships, to deal with the multiplicity of challenges that face global peace and security and I can unequivocally and without any degree of hesitation state that South Africa will always be in the forefront of forging them. This is our duty and our responsibility to a world that demonstrated its solidarity with us in our struggle for freedom and democracy.

Thank you.