Address by President Nelson Mandela at 21st anniversary of Cape Town Press Club

31 October 1996

Mr Chairman;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen,

I always relish the opportunity to be with journalists, knowing that I am among people who are brutally frank with me and my colleagues; and people who I know relish our frankness too.

This should be more so in the informal atmosphere we have today, what with the delicacies and drinks being served.

But today we gather, more than anything else, to celebrate. And I should say how honoured I feel to be part of this celebration.

However we may occasionally shout at one another from rooftops, we are partners in pursuit of the interests of South Africans and their democratic achievements.

May I take this opportunity to say: happy birthday and many many happy returns!

When the Cape Town Press Club was founded 21 years ago, the state was perfecting its security legislation to trample underfoot all opposition. The ANC was long banned. Student organisations and the nascent trade union movement were the prey in apartheid's open season. Bantustans and strange versions of these for the Coloured and Indian communities were in gestation.

Today, we can boast of one of the most advanced conditions in the world, steeped in a culture of human rights, justice and equity.

When the Press Club was founded 21 years ago, the space for media operations was being narrowed to such an extent that they could be little more than meek protesters against gross injustice.

Today, we can say without any shadow of doubt that the boundaries of free expression have been widened beyond what many of us had imagined.

When the Press Club was set up 21 years ago, plans to invade Angola and destablise Mozambique's transition were already in motion.

Today, we are a proud partner in a Southern Africa that is at peace with itself, a region on a path of renewal.

When the Cape Town Press Club was founded 21 years ago, this city had already gone into the black book of humanity with the District Six removals, and it was yet to experience more brutalities; and thus suffer isolation and humiliation.

Today, Cape Town features among the world's top tourist destinations. It is a front-runner among contenders for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

This then is the period the Press Club has lived through. At times, we acquiesced to the dictates of those wielding the baton. At times we protested. But all the time, all of us nurtured the burning desire in our hearts, to free ourselves from the suffocating embrace of apartheid and racism.

And so, the Cape Town Press Club reaches the traditional age of majority at an exciting time. A new South Africa is in the making; a challenging era is upon us.

We do have our many problems as a people; but no one can take away from us the vast opportunities that we have created for ourselves. Our challenge is to grab these opportunities with both hands and build this into a country of our dreams.

Ten days from now, South Africa will pass through the half-way mark of the first term of office of our democratic government.

It will be appropriate then to review, discuss and debate what the 30 months of freedom have brought us.

Quite often, when we speak about our achievements, we tend to forget the direct, practical role that the media has played and continues to play in the building of our democracy.

This is briefly what I want to reflect on today: to underline that the media fraternity is more than just a critical observer of history in the making. At least in our young democracy, it contributes not merely by being a watch-dog. It is a builder; it is an active participant.

In the difficult days of the World Trade Centre negotiations, all of us had to brave uncharted waters to define, in the detail, the negation of apartheid in all its forms.

The dispensation we have today on the regulation of the airwaves, cross-media ownership, local content and so on would not have seen the light of day without the direct contribution of editors and other journalists, media lawyers and a host of related organisations.

Thus we have today the possibility to achieve welcome diversity in the electronic media.

We had to define then, the parameters of freedom of expression; the kind of open government we want; and the instruments to achieve this. We did not see eye to eye on many issues, and some of the strongest points of view raised by the editors and others on the bounds of free speech were not taken on board.

But those contributions set the stage for the improvement of the interim constitution and the drafting of the Open Democracy Bill that is now being finalised. Again, in the drafting of the Bill itself, editors, senior journalists, professors in schools of journalism and others took active part.

While there may be misgivings in some quarters about the practicality of some of its propositions, we are determined that its content and its objectives shall not be compromised.

In a matter of days, the Communications Task Group will be presenting a report on how to improve government communications and the standard of media coverage in general. Again, not only did journalists make an important contribution in the deliberations; but prominent colleagues from among them are leaders of the Task Group itself.

Out of this process, we hope, South Africa will be able to rationally look at itself; that it will determine what needs to be done to ensure that citizens are afforded their right to a free flow of information and comment.

If there are many weaknesses in this area, both government and the media are to blame. And as joint culprits, we have a joint responsibility to rectify them.

It is heartening that at the launch of the South African National Editors' Forum, critical questions pertaining to training, affirmative action, ownership, and so on were frankly put on the table for debate. It is even more impressive that concrete programmes and targets, on some of these issues, are under consideration.

In this way, the editors are setting an example to the nation that they are prepared to address even the most difficult questions. The country, and certainly our democracy, will benefit from this.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

f I have bordered on sensitive and serious questions on this happy occasion, it is because I am fully aware that this is not an ordinary birthday. The age of majority means greater responsiblity.

But I have raised these questions, as we pass our half-term, also to pay tribute to the media fraternity for a practical contribution that is often overlooked.

I wish to thank all members of the Cape Town Press Club for affording me the opportunity to be part of this celebration.

Among them are members of the parliamentary press corps, some of whom are uitlanders and migrants like me. Soon parliament will rise and you can allow Cape Town some peace before the festive season invasion.

I am proud to be associated with the Press Club of our legislative capital; with all its members and with this beautiful city.

I wish you all a happy festive season. And I wish the Press Club another 21 robust years and more!

Issued by: Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website