Address by Nelson Mandela at National Civil Society Conference

24 April 2001

Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honour to be the opening speaker at this event where South Africans are once more coming together to explore a specific aspect of their society in transition.

And it is a particular pleasure to welcome to this important meeting and old and colleague in the person of President Bill Clinton.

That he has agreed to join us at this conference not only adds enormously to the status of the event, but also is another demonstration of the seriousness with which he approaches African affairs.

We thank you, Mr President, and welcome you very warmly in our midst. The international perspective you bring to our deliberations in invaluable as no nation can conduct its important debates divorced from global and international trends. Your presence here this morning powerfully signals that fact and the recognition thereof by the organisers of the conference.

We need to strongly commend the organisers of the conference for taking the initiative. As we advance the process of fundamentally transforming our society away from it's divided past, we need to tap into the energies of all sectors of our society. This conference represents one such attempt to explore the breadth and depth of transformational energies residing in that sector called civil society.

We are aware - and it is good that one speaks about such matters openly - that from some quarters in the liberation movement there were reservations about attending this conference.

It is part of the health and vibrancy of civil society that differences can exist and be aired even about such basic matters as the desirability of a conference and the wisdom of attending it. One has no doubt that such a debate will explore underlying principles and points of view, and go above and beyond personalities and sectarian interests.

As for oneself, there could never have been doubts about participating in these deliberations. I am not here in the first place as a representative of a political organisation, but if I may for a moment speak from that perspective: the ANC and its allies have every reason to approach events like these with self-confidence and even an air of expansive generosity.

I have been a member of the ANC for 57 years, and there are others alive who have been in it for even longer. None of us can dispute the fact that the organisation has never before been as strong as at the present moment, whether at national, provincial or local level.

We therefore need not have any insecurity about events organised by others. It is in fact one of the major contributions that we can make to civil society by encouraging and strengthening debate at all levels, putting our points of view vigorously and with confidence.

The nature of our transition was not merely a one-off event informed by the expediency of circumstances at the time. To talk to one another as South Africans, to negotiate under circumstances that did not demean any of the involved parties, to seek solutions through honourable compromise: these approaches were always central part of the thinking of the liberation movement.

The world marvelled at the manner in which we confounded the prophets of doom who so confidently forecast the most destructive racial war. We were hailed a miracle nation for the manner in which we could solve our problems through talking to one another. The liberation movement gave the lead in this regard, opening up the way for the apartheid regime to enter into negotiations. At the same time the contribution of the leaders of the apartheid government in helping to create the circumstances for negotiations cannot be under-estimated.

The liberation movement remained true to this history and mission of being in service of the nation and representing the welfare of all South Africans. Other forces entered into the spirit during negotiations and together we established the tradition of talking through important national issues.

I see this conference as continuing that developing national traditional in our young democracy.

One of the outstanding features of these first few years of our democracy has been the emphasis on partnership. Nation building, transformation and the creation of a better life for all are the main national tasks facing us. In each of these interdependent areas of the national project, we need to forge strong partnerships across sectors and across social divides.

A democratically elected government cannot escape its mandated responsibility to give the lead in building the nation, transforming the society and bettering the lives of the people. Neither can anybody demand of that they step back from those responsibilities. The call from certain sectors of civil society too often sounds like a demand that government should forsake those responsibilities the electorate charged it with.

I am certain that there will be sufficient theoretical inputs and arguments about the nature of civil society during the course of this conference for me not to try to be intellectual about the subject.

What I do wish to say is that we cannot approach the subject of civil society from the point of view that government represents an inherent negative force in society; and that civil society is needed to curb government. Such an approach runs the risk of projecting civil society as an adjunct to the organised political opposition. Especially in a situation like ours where political opposition is comparatively weak, such an approach can undermine trust in the bona fides of civil society initiatives.

Such an outcome would be very negative and counter-productive, for we do need a vibrant network and range of civil society activities and organs if we are to permanently cement the foundations of our democracy. We cannot in the long term afford a situation where the majority of the population perceives civil society as something oppositional to their needs, wishes and interests because it is seen to instinctively oppose the government they voted into office.

Like in most human affairs, such relationships are at least two ways in nature and influence. Government too, while never abdicating from its responsibilities, should be tolerant and encouraging of civil society initiatives.

It should, as I am sure this government is doing, make allowance for the fact that views held and expressed in civil society organs may often not be totally at one with its own. Members and supporters of the governing party may quite conceivably hold views on particular matters in civil life that are not necessarily those of the party or organisation. As long as the healthy discipline of the party is not threatened by the manner in which these differences are expressed and manifested, they should be encouraged as a sign of the vibrancy of our democracy.

Of course, organs of civil society exist not only as debating chambers where views are expressed and debated. They are, more importantly, agencies to advance particular interests and to meet specific needs.

The challenge I see this conference posing for itself and for society, is how various organs of civil society can co-operate to advance overall national goads of transformation and creation of conditions for a better life for all.

In this manner, we can assure that we once more call upon the spirit of partnership that has stood us in such good stead in the past.

I wish you well in your deliberations over the next two days, and trust that these efforts at co-operative partnerships will bear fruit for our society as we strive to wipe out the divisions, inequalities and enmities of our past.

I thank you and have pleasure in declaring this conference open.

In that manner we can ensure that the energies of civil society are harnessed for the progress and unity rather than for division and dissipation of efforts.

Source: National Civil Society Conference website