Address by President Nelson Mandela to annual dinner of Foreign Correspondents Association

19 November 1996

Bob Drogin and other members of the Foreign Correspondents Association;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is almost fourteen months since I had the opportunity to exchange views formally with the Foreign Correspondents Association, and some four years since I addressed your annual dinner.

Many of the faces I see tonight are new; indeed reflecting the new emphasis that your organisations place on priorities in the South African story. I am informed that some of the veterans of the FCA departed for the Middle East and other conflict-ridden areas.

In this context, we can celebrate the fact that the South African story has become less interesting from the conflictual point of view. But precisely for this reason, it has become more challenging.

And it is thus a special honour for me tonight to be with the corps of journalists who are in many ways critical to the evolution of our nation's endeavours in conditions of peace and justice.

In a sense you are South Africa's ambassadors. For, you constitute a critical part of opinion-makers on the world stage about South Africa's trials and tribulations as our country reconstructs itself, about her joy and pain of creation; about her advance to a better future as our nation crawls from the dark alleys of an ignominious past.

In a sense you are part of the legion of builders of South African democracy. For, you bring the immense experience of the world to bear on our humble efforts. You enjoy a unique advantage over us: that ability to observe from near and judge from afar, untainted by the passions of the actors on the stage of an unfolding democratic revolution.

In a sense you are teachers, in a profession that is itself struggling to redefine its role in a changing society. You have brought to our shores decades of experience about the role of a free press in a democracy; about the necessary tension that the Fourth Estate should enjoy in its relations with government; about the dangers that would certainly befall government and the media alike if such a free press were to cease to exist.

Chairperson and delegates;

I say this with much conviction because, from my own limited experience, some of the most interesting features, news reports and documentaries on South Africa's transition have hailed from your stable. Some of them have been very critical and even scathing. But they were a source of inspiration because they addressed matters of substance about our economic strengths and weaknesses.

Thus, in more ways than one, you have assisted governments, investors, traders, tourists and others to make informed judgements about South Africa and its prospects.

Most of you should have keenly followed the intense debate in recent weeks between our government and the media.

From the meeting we held yesterday with a delegation of senior black journalists we agreed to disagree, knowing that creative and healthy tension between government and the media is natural in a democracy.

In this regard, in view of the fact that South Africans are sometimes given to hyperbole, a few basic things deserve restatement.

Firstly, media freedom is not, has not been, and will never be under threat in our country as long as the ANC is the majority "party" in government. This is not merely because of the provisions of the constitution and Bill of Rights.

It is in the selfish interest of the ANC that we should have probing, robust and critical media. We cannot change society in a fundamental way; we cannot change the state in a fundamental way, if we do not have a questioning media that seeks to expose the weaknesses of our inherited bureaucracy, security forces, judiciary and indeed the new politicians themselves who can easily be corrupted by power or co-opted into day-to-day practices of the past.

Secondly, freedom of speech is enshrined in our basic law of the land, as elsewhere in the world, not as an exclusive right belonging to this or the other sector or individual in society.

Thus, to the extent that we should have a robust and critical media, to that extent should we have a robust exchange of views between the media and other role-players in society. No institution nor individual can arrogate to themselves the title of repository of wisdom and knowledge.

What is critical though is that such debate should be within the normal bounds of decency; it should not be aimed, without justification, at impunging the integrity of any of the role-players.

Thirdly, in terms of distribution of wealth and power, ownership, management and senior positions in the media are predominantly in white hands. And we would not be talking about South Africa, if this reality did not impact on the mind-sets of the actors in the media industry.

Debate on all these issues will continue for many years. And our hope is that this debate will inform the actual practice, as the Fourth Estate transforms itself to become part of the new South Africa both in word and deed. In the process, we shall all learn and learn again from our achievements and our mistakes.

We do acknowledge as South Africans that we are not yet out of the woods. But we pride ourselves with the fact that democracy is firmly and irreversibly rooted in our body politic. Dangers there are, yes. But all South Africans, from whatever background they may come, have savoured democracy's immense advantages, and they shall never let go!

At all levels, democratic and legitimate government has been established, and independent institutions to protect the rights of citizens have already, in a matter of a few years, established their reputation.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

It is common, and perhaps understandable, that in the media industry, reference to South Africa's economy conjures up images of a volatile currency and the related problem of foreign currency reserves. But no-one can dispute the basic reality that our fiscal and monetary fundamentals are in perfect order.

At times, the industrial revolution occurring in our economy tends to escape the business of information dissemination. I am referring here to the many mega-projects costing at least half-a-billion Rand each, changing or set to change the face of our country in both urban and rural areas in the Western Cape, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu/Natal, Northern Province and Eastern Cape. In the past two years alone, over R18-billion in direct foreign investments have flowed into the country.

Now all this is insufficient to create the much-needed millions of jobs. But the plans to attain this are under implementation, including the restructuring of state assets, some of which are being privatised. We are on target with regard to our fiscal programme.

One can go on and on, extolling the virtues of our young democracy. One can draw mostly humble by the standards of those who have enjoyed simple things like running water, health care, a tarred road and a piece of land that families can call their own, access to decent education and so on.

There are many impressive examples of these. But we acknowledge that the pace has not been fast enough. We acknowledge that much needs to be done to change the bureaucracy so that it serves the interests of the people.

An uphill battle has to be fought all the time, to ensure that the ANC itself adapts sufficiently to its new role in government, including the leadership contests that sometimes become more than just contests to better serve and sacrifice in the service of the people.

All these are weaknesses that we not only acknowledge; but weaknesses that we are determined to correct as we adapt to the dynamics of the new situation.

This applies in equal measure to our foreign policy: both in theory and in actual practice defining the role South Africa should play in a changing world. Steadily but surely, we are cementing our ties with Southern Africa, and moving with a shared regional conviction towards full integration.

At the same time, we have to struggle to change perceptions about the actual status of our country, with its massive socio-economic disparities, in relation both to our continent, the developed countries and other regions.

The current negotiations with the European Union and the challenges of the Great Lakes region are good examples of this.

In so far as the Great Lakes region are good examples of this.

In so far as the Great Lakes region is concerned, we have assessed, consulted, cajoled and advised. And we shall continue to do so, to ensure that our readiness to act with speed, is shared by our partners in other parts of the continent.

What we know can no longer be postponed is the thorough preparation, now under way, of sections of our army to play a more active role in peace-keeping operations. But we know too that peace, anywhere, cannot be imposed. We shall therefore continue to emphasise the task of conflict prevention. Yet the longer Africa takes to gear itself for home-grown solutions, the more will its affairs be dictated to be outsiders.


All these issues demonstrate that our young democracy is entering a new phase in its own internal relations and in its engagement with the rest of the world. I am not given to the paradigm of honey-moons; but we have passed the stage of emphasis on planning and tentativeness in implementation.

In the same measure, on a matter close to your hearts, we have started to win the battle of perceptions about prospects for our country.

You will have noticed, that many leaders of influence in business, including Anglo-American Corporation and SANLAM have taken up the cudgels to encourage South Africans to act more positively in promoting the country and in finding common solutions to common problems.

We are emerging from what former Prime Minister of Canada, Joe Clark recently called a gloomy outlook and lack of national self-confidence; and we should thus be better able to impact positively on how others see us.

For, it was a matter of concern that virtually all government and business delegations that came to our country in the past two years were surprised at the great prospects that our country had, given their negative perceptions before they came. South Africans across the board have come to acknowledge that, for good reason and bad, we were mainly to blame for these misconceptions abroad.

I should therefore conclude by posing a question; are we as foreign correspondents contributing to an objective perception regarding this country's prospects, in the quest for a better South Africa, a better Southern Africa and a better world!

Issued by: SA Communication Service

Source: South African Government Information Website