Address by President Nelson Mandela at the 50th anniversary of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Geneva - Switzerland

19 May 1998

Your Excellencies;
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today's auspicious occasion is rich with the ironies of this latter half of the Twentieth Century.

As the international community painstakingly assembled a new order amidst the devastation of a war fought for universal principles of freedom, there were just two countries of Africa that signed the original GATT agreement. They were Southern Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa, now Zimbabwe and the Republic of South Africa.

At that time both were components of the British Empire in differing stages of colonial rule. We need not dwell on why they were selected to become the two African states that entered the GATT. We do know that the peoples of Africa were not consulted. I and the vast majority of South Africans had no vote and were completely excluded from any such decisions.

I have discovered that the then government in South Africa expressed itself as party to a collective recognition, in the introduction to the 1947 agreement, that,
"relations in the field of trade and economic endeavour should be conducted with a view to raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a large and steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand, developing the full use of the resources of the world and expanding the production and exchange of goods."

These noble sentiments would have our agreement then, as they do now. What is so painful is that they were not realised in my country - nor for our continent or indeed for most of humanity.

It took another 47 years of struggle before there was a democratic election in South Africa. In those 47 years South Africa traded extensively, and provided an object lesson, if such were needed, that trade does not of itself and in itself bring a better world.

Over those 47 years, too, the international community came to insist with increasing vigour that freedom is indivisible, identifying with our aspirations and supporting their achievement. In doing so it made our struggle less costly than it might have been.

Today, I am proud to be able to address you as the President of a free and democratic Republic of South Africa, and as the representative of one of many African members of the WTO.

Freedom has brought South Africa the chance to achieve a better life for all our people, through our Reconstruction and Development Programme. As a part of this Programme we are strengthening out engagement with the WTO because of it's importance to our economy.

In commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the GATT, therefore, South Africa chooses to look forward rather than deal with the imperfections of the past.

But in seeking to build a better future we ignore the lesson of the past at our peril.

Though international trade and investment have always been an integral part of the world economy, the extent to which all parties have benefited has depended on the circumstances in which they have been conducted. The current process of globalisation is no exception.

In the 50 years of the GATT we have surely learnt enough - despite the de facto exclusion of many, many developing countries - to vastly improve on the management of the world trading system to the mutual benefit of all the trading nations.

We are firmly of the belief that the existence of the GATT, and now the World Trade Organisation, as a rules-based system, provides a solid foundation for ensuring that increased flows of both trade and investment bring mutual gain for all.

To realise this, however, there is work to be done.

The WTO came into being precisely as a response to the need for a more effective regulatory, supervisory and enforcement environment for world trade and investment than the GATT could then provide. But the success of the system agreed to in Marrakech in 1994 does depend on the wisdom with which it is implemented.

It is natural to fall back on one's own experience, and I hope you will permit me to do so.

South Africans fought a horrifying abuse of power and were determined that it should never happen again. We therefore elected to be governed by a constitution that protected all in equal measure.

If our constitution was blind to the reality of inequality and historical imbalances that prevent equal access to opportunity; if it was not applied without fear or favour, if it contained prescripts that could not be complied with by all or which did not bring benefits for the greater good of all - then rather being cherished by our people as it is, our constitution would be a source of both actual and perceived injustice.

In the end we must remember that no amount of rules or their enforcement will defeat those who struggle with justice on their side. That too is part of our experience, and that of all peoples everywhere.

Where there are manifest inequalities then special and thoughtful measures have to be applied. Thus it is that our programme of affirmative action or empowerment is underwritten by a constitution that enjoins all our citizens to work together to overcome the legacy of our past. Such programmes also promote the conditions that sustain the constitution through voluntary compliance rather than enforcement.

It is time for us to be frank in our assessment of the outcome of the Uruguay Round. The developing countries were not able to ensure that the rules accommodated their realities. For understandable reasons it was mainly the pre-occupations and problems of the industrial economies shaped the agreement.

The sections dealing with the developing countries and the least developed countries were not adequately thought through. Nor have they been fully implemented. There are elements of an answer: in the mechanism of extension of time to comply; and in recent improvements in the capacity of the WTO to give technical assistance in co-operation with other multilateral agencies. But they are not the full answer.

What exactly can be done?

Certainly we do need to stop endless bickering around the balances of the agenda in the WTO's work. South Africa supports the view that more work should be done to find the right balance between implementation; the built-in agenda; and the new issues.

We do need, at the start, to clarify our support for the multilateral rules-based system. This applies to both the developed and developing countries.

Powerful economies cannot apply unilateral sanction on the basis that it is in their national interest even when the bulk of the trading world says it is not for the common good. Rules which seem to be expediently used by the strong soon fall into disrespect.

When the comparative advantage in agriculture, textiles and steel lies with developing countries, then we have to adjust to changes in world production patterns rather than revert to protection.

The developing countries must accept that we want to be fully part of the WTO, and that includes improving the management of the world trading system to ensure that our economies do develop.

These are complex matters, and in dealing with such matters there are no easy solutions. But where there is a determination to find joint, negotiated, solutions then there is a way.

South Africa is prepared to play its part in helping develop a positive and detailed agenda for the next Ministerial Meeting so the challenge of eradicating and defeating underdevelopment is fully addressed.

We believe that Unctad in co-operation with the WTO, ILO, UNDP, the World Bank and the IMF should all be involved in and open and frank dialogue on this matter.

There can be no refusal to discuss matters such as labour standards, but equally all must be prepared to listen carefully before judgements are made. If developing countries feel that there is nothing to gain but further burdens, then it will prove difficult to talk about these crucial social matters.

This is a process that needs to be led by the developing countries, but it can only succeed as a partnership with the developed countries. It is after all in our collective interest that it should succeed.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

Fifty years ago, when the founders of the GATT evoked the link between trade, growth and a better life, few could have foreseen such poverty, homelessness and unemployment as the world now knows.

Few would have imagined that the exploitation of the world's abundant resources and a prodigious growth in world trade would have seen the gap between rich and poor widening. And few could have anticipated to burden of debt on many poor nations.

As we celebrate what has been achieved in shaping the world trading system, let us resolve to leave no stone unturned in working together to ensure that our shared principles are everywhere translated into reality.

As we enter the new millennium, let us forge a partnership for development through trade and investment.

Thank You.

Source: South African Government Information Website