Address by President Nelson Mandela at the General Meeting of Union of Radio and Television Networks in Africa (URTNA)

18 May 1995

Dr Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi and other members of the SABC Board;
Chief Executive of the SABC, Zwelakhe Sisulu;
Representatives of broadcaster from the continent;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

On behalf of the Government of National Unity, I wish to say to our guests from abroad: Welcome to South Africa. We are honoured by your visit here. And we are optimistic that this year's General Meeting of the Union of Radio and Television Networks in Africa will mark the beginning of a new era for broadcasters on the continent.

We live in challenging times. And it is appropriate that you meet this year in this building, where an authoritarian state broadcaster that viewed Africa as an enemy, has finally secured its freedom: freedom from state intervention, freedom from fear, freedom from isolation, and freedom from the stultifying ideology of racism.

Nowhere is the challenge facing our own public broadcaster more evident than in the sphere of language. The SABC is bound by the nation's morality and the constitution to provide equitable treatment of all our official languages.

Languages accustomed to a dominant place are understandably uncomfortable at proposals to change the status quo. On the other hand, those previously excluded rightfully demand their place in the sun.

The SABC, like the country as a whole, is grasping the nettle; and we are all learning that, to accomplish our democratic objectives, we have to act both with firmness and sensitivity.

I am confident we can negotiate this difficult path, as I trust URTNA will tackle the broader challenges facing Africa.

The rapid changes in broadcasting are daunting. But they provide African broadcasters with an immense opportunity. Ours is a wonderful, diverse and creative continent.

The launch into African skies of satellites that can fill the airwaves with television and radio from all over the world has already made the concept of the global village a reality.

But the question is: How is this village organised? The spectre of a privileged few setting the cultural agenda for the world's majority is very real. If we allow this to happen, then the potential of new technologies to build bridges will have been wasted.

As the leaders of the electronic media on this continent, you are responsible for the dissemination of information in an era in which effective communication has never been more important to development and economic upliftment.

We in South Africa are at the early stages of transforming our information system. The negotiations which led us to last year's historic election, produced a constitution which enshrines freedom of information. This is being crafted into an Open Democracy Bill.

We are also debating how government can exercise its obligation to communicate with the public about the tasks entrusted to it. Coming, as we are, from a history of widespread inequality, the issue of diversifying ownership and control of the media is also high on our agenda.

Through all these mechanisms, we seek to make our citizens full participants in changing society for the better. For a country previously isolated, we are keenly aware that we have much to learn from and about Africa.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

In managing the telecommunications and broadcasting changes which equally affect Africa, we dare not lose sight of the final objective: to empower people to obtain and utilise information relevant to their own lives, and to make them masters of their destiny. On this industry, more than on any other, rests the task of closing the cultural, religious and ethnic chasms both within and among nations.

This requires that broadcasters in Africa work together to build an industry which can truly inform, educate and entertain, in a manner relevant to the life experiences of the continent's people.

As information technology becomes ever more sophisticated, Africa cannot afford to hesitate. We owe it at least to the continent's children to make ourselves heard.

URTNA is in a unique position to co-ordinate the activities of African broadcasters and ensure meaningful cultural exchanges across the continent. It is best placed to help enhance Africa's standing in a changing world.

The exchange of ideas, expertise and programming between African broadcasters will help develop all sectors of the industry: public and private, continental, regional and community-based. We have a simple choice: to work together to put Africa on the world broadcasting map, or perish in isolation.

But the obvious fact needs to be repeated over and over again, that governments have a responsibility to create the conditions in which the media can thrive. Media freedoms and human rights in general are crucial for a free flow of information. To the extent that we rightfully claim equitable treatment in world affairs, to that extent should we be judged by the same human rights standards as everyone else.

It is our task, too, to ensure that the many splendid resolutions by continental bodies on communications policy are implemented.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the leadership of URTNA as well as the SABC Board and management for this opportunity to share the evening with you.

Your presence here today confirms once more the acceptance of South Africa into the many and varied continental endeavours. This has created unparalleled opportunities for South Africans to widen our horizons, and to make a humble contribution to the continent's renaissance.

Technological advance has created what is perhaps the greatest opportunity for sharing that human society has ever secured. Our challenge is to use it well.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation