Address by President Nelson Mandela at the African Regional Workshop of the International Ombudsman Institution

26 August 1996

President of the International Ombudsman Institution,
Public Protectors and Ombudsmen,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen

I must begin by making a confession. When I first heard of the invitation to this conference, I was quite concerned. I wondered what I had done that had not only incurred the wrath of our own Public Protector's Office but had also brought the entire international community of such offices to summon me here. You can imagine my relief, this morning, on seeing the programme of this event.

It is truly a privilege to welcome such a large gathering of distinguished people from all over the world at this historic meeting. Today marks a milestone for our nation and its Office of the Public Protector. Your presence is a sign that we are moving in the right direction, confirming that we have at last taken our place among the nations of the world striving to uphold good governance and entrench democratic practices.

To reach the point of staging this workshop has required the joint co-operation of government and other organisations with the Office of the Public Protector. They have worked hand in hand with our international partners, in particular, the International Ombudsman Institute, the Commonwealth and the United Nations Development Programme.

Just over two years ago, on the inauguration of a democratic government in South Africa, we pledged that our land would never again experience oppression and domination. We knew the daunting task of building peace, prosperity, non-racialism and non-sexism required that a culture of democracy should take root in a society accustomed to violent discrimination and autocracy.

We were mindful from the very start of the importance of accountability to democracy. Our experience had made us acutely aware of the possible dangers of a government that is neither transparent nor accountable. To this end our Constitution contains several mechanisms to ensure that government will not be part of the problem; but part of the solution.

Public awareness and participation in maintaining efficiency in government within the context of human rights are vital to making a reality of democracy. Many South Africans can still recall a time when the face of the Public Service was hostile, and a complaint could lead to victimisation or harassment; when access to justice seemed an unrealistic dream. In the new South Africa the face of the Public Service is changing radically.

However, we are not yet out of the woods; much still needs to be done in terms of transformation. In this sense, therefore, our Public Protector's Office is not only a critical instrument for good governance. It also occupies a central place in the transformation of the public service by, among other means, rooting out the arrogance, secrecy and corruption so rampant during the apartheid years.

One current instance of this is the decision by our Ministry of Justice to assist in rooting out the problem of disappearance of dockets and other forms of corruption in the criminal justice system, a scourge which has hampered the campaign against crime. As such, we have come to appreciate that the Public Protector may require much more resources than we had originally envisaged.

Chairperson and delegates;

We all know that, for this Office to succeed, it is the ordinary citizens who should take responsibility for enforcing good governance.

People must be encouraged to speak out against maladministration with the surety that their complaints will be taken seriously and in confidence. Every citizen needs to be familiar with their obligations and duties. They must be able to claim the right to be treated justly, promptly and courteously, and to claim their due under the law. Only then will we be able to ensure that government is dedicated to public service and a culture of efficiency and transparency.

In this regard, it is the duty of government and the institution which you represent to educate citizens about their rights and obligations; to encourage the forthrightness that will help transform the state from a colossus to be feared, into a public servant to be employed to build a better life.

In its short existence, the Office of our Public Protector has been greeted with enthusiasm; and it has established its credibility across the spectrum.

This gathering then is both a celebration of the empowerment of ordinary citizens, and an exercise in further empowering their agents for good government.

Every one of you here today is entrusted with the very important task of serving the citizens of your countries with diligence. It is thus incumbent upon you to expose every wrong you find committed in the public administration, without fear or favour. This means that the role of ombudsman is sometimes a lonely one, often the only voice of the public in the face of opposition from powerful officials.

This is why gatherings such as this are so important. They provide each of us with the opportunity to compare our situation with that of other countries, to keep in touch with the latest developments, to exchange skills and experiences and to inspire us further for the benefit of all. South Africa, so new to this field, has a great deal to learn from everyone else.

Among the common challenges that we face is ensuring equitable involvement of women in this work. It was to voice our commitment to this objective that, with the advantage of latecomers, we decided to give the office of "ombudsman" a formal designation reflecting the culture of non-sexism that its duties, by definition, imply.

I wish you well in your deliberations. I am confident that the people of South Africa and Africa as a whole will benefit from your conclusions.

To our visitors from other countries, may I say how privileged we feel to be your host. May your stay in South Africa be a pleasant one.

I thank you.

Source: South African Government Information Website