Freedom Day Address by Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, May 15, 2014
It is today an enormous pleasure to welcome all of you to inaugurate our newly renovated and exorcised building, a building that served for many decades as the headquarters of apartheid South Africa’s efforts to persuade the world that its racism was no different to segregation in the United States, and that it’s repression of its black citizens was a necessity in the atmosphere of the Cold War.
For the last 2 decades these buildings became a symbol of a free and democratic South Africa, and symbolic of the ability of a nation to negotiate its future and to reconcile its differences.
Welcoming you today signposts yet another iteration in the genesis of the South African nation, signified by the changes in this building. We stand on enduring foundations, we preserve what is classical in the architecture, but we infuse it with the aspiration of a nation that takes its place in the world with pride, at peace with itself and its fellow citizens, and simultaneously symbolic of the modern African state that is under construction, in South Africa and all over Africa.
Welcome to the new South African embassy!
Our celebration today is not an ordinary celebration of freedom. We celebrate 20 years of South Africa as a free, nonracial, democratic and united country.
Nothing symbolised the depth of our democratic culture more than the 5th national democratic elections that were concluded only a week ago. Over 80% of our 31,4 million eligible voters were registered to vote and 73% of them braved long queues and late hours to cast their vote.
I am proud to represent a country in which the essence of the democratic act is not only intact, but is exercised robustly, enthusiastically, peacefully, freely and fairly.
South Africa remains stable and continues to grow, not despite democracy, but because of democracy; not despite freedom, but because of freedom. The electorate has spoken and now the work commences.
President Jacob Zuma has decreed that our celebrations of freedom should be dedicated to Nelson Mandela.
While South Africa has a long list of heroes worthy of this honour – Johnny Makhatini, to whom we would love to dedicate this atrium, comes to mind – it is ultimately Nelson Mandela who captured the global imagination first with his silence from prison and then with his generosity of spirit in rebuilding the country. His statue stands outside this Embassy replicating his first step out of prison after 27 years and placed approximately where Mary Frances Berry and others from TransAfrica and the Free South Africa Movement inspired Americans to court arrest and to boycott apartheid South Africa until Nelson Mandela was free and apartheid was no more.
Bertolt Brecht, in his work Galileo, declares: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero!” It is important to bring these words to mind because so often we may see the hero and forget the unhappiness that carried him; we may see Mandela and forget the depth of suffering that all South Africans endured; and we may be marvelling, rightly so, at the heroism of forgiveness, dialogue and reconciliation and forget how persistent and enduring racism, poverty and inequality can be.
Celebrating 20 years of freedom and democracy gives us the chance to reflect on the distance we have covered since those dreadfully unhappy days that characterised the land of South Africa.
Such reflection also gives us the opportunity to account to the American people who, sometimes despite their government, fought so hard and sacrificed so much for our freedom. The too will see, as the South African people have just affirmed through their votes, that indeed we have a good story to tell.
Today about 90% of South Africans have access to safe drinking water, electricity and sanitation, whereas in the unhappy land 20 years ago only about half of all people would have enjoyed these basic services. In the unhappy land 20 years ago men lived in hostels near the mines, while women and children were confined to the homelands.
Today over 3 million houses have been built and over 12 million people now have a place they can call home. Twenty years ago, old age, disability, poverty and malnutrition were death sentences in our unhappy land. Today 16 million people and 11 million children are eligible for social grants that have commuted the death sentences. In our unhappy land schools were for the privileged while illiteracy, innumeracy and functional unemployment was the lot of the many.
Today we have reached the millennium development goal of universal primary education and are seeing improved outcomes in all other categories of learning. In our unhappy land 20 years ago HIV and AIDS were not even a whisper but the unnamed silent assassin, ignored by the apartheid government.
Today South Africa has the largest roll-out of HIV prevention and treatment with thousands of lives saved, 6,8 million people tested, almost 1 million pregnant women with access to services to prevent transmission to the children, and 1,7 million individuals receiving antiretroviral treatment.
Particularly in these last set of statistics we have much to be thankful to the United States government for their continued contribution through PEPFAR to the fight against HIV and AIDS, and also assistance in many other spheres. Deputy Secretary of State, Heather Higginbottom, please convey South Africa’s sincere gratitude to your government and people for your continued involvement in ensuring that we have a good story to tell.
I could continue to present statistic after statistic to convey the message that indeed we have used the freedom and democracy that you have helped us achieve to good effect. Statistics vary over time but constitutional values endure eternally.
The South African Constitution continues to be a beacon for all nations yearning for freedom and democracy across the African continent where they are taking root; and even across the Middle East where the yearning flickered hopefully and is now in danger of being snuffed out; and even in the advanced democracies people look to our Constitution to solve the many emerging challenges that the globalising world faces today.
In South Africa we can declare that our constitution has guided us so that we have fundamentally achieved our human dignity, substantially our human rights and progressively our human needs.
But we remain a society in transition.
It is the Italian intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, who probably described the dilemma facing South Africa and other transitional societies the best, when he said that transitions are the most dangerous periods in the life of a nation because the old has not yet died and the new has not yet been born.
An article in the journal Foreign Policy recently asked the question why 17 years after the departure of Mobutu from the Congo the present government in the DRC does not take responsibility for the governance crisis and the insecurity faced by the country.
There are many who would want to ignore the insight offered by Antonio Gramsci about the uncomfortable and dangerous coexistence of the old and the new, and its persistence into the future, in the DRC, all over Africa, and even in South Africa 20 years after apartheid.
The new reality is that we have indeed grown South Africa’s GDP by 83% – helped with a current $16 billion trade exchange with the USA – over the last 20 years. The reality of the past tells us that unless we act decisively we will continue to have a racially unequal access to this economy.
The old template of the 1913 land act that dispossessed black South Africans of the land continues to haunt our new nation’s desire for equal access to the agricultural means in our country.
The constitutional freedom for women in the new South Africa is often undermined by the persistence of old patterns of patriarchy embedded in our religious and cultural traditions.
While we realise that our richest resource in a new knowledge driven world lies in the young people of our country, its fulfillment is hampered by the functional unemployment bequeathed by the old Bantu education.
And so for the next 20 years we must undo the inherent prophecy in Gramsci’s words. The next iteration of our transition must mean that we must become, with the help of international friends – whether in government or in civil society – the midwives of the best of the new and the undertakers of the worst of the old.
We have this opportunity later this year when President Obama convenes the US-Africa Leaders Summit. This is a moment that Africa has been waiting for. This is a moment that is long overdue and for which Africa has been ready for the last 20 years.
The fall of apartheid meant that the spectre of destabilisation and death for many African countries, that supported liberation in South Africa, was also removed. My colleagues, the Ambassadors of so many African countries who are here tonight, under the leadership of our Chair, the Ambassador of the Ivory Coast, have a full share in our celebration of 20 years of freedom because they too paid a high price for supporting us.
Today all of us together represent not a continent that laments but the continent that says to the USA that we are coming to Washington in August 2014 with our Heads of States to pursue further a partnership that deepens trade – with AGOA as its foundation; that opens investment opportunities in infrastructure and energy for the US private sector (and we are happy that the Deputy Secretary of Energy, Daniel Poneman is here to receive this offer); that invites the United States to help ensure that all young Africans are going to be a wonderful blessing as the next generation of human resources rather than the next wave of global insecurity; and that we are willing to work with the USA in resolving the pockets of insecurity that still exist on our continent, as seen by the horrific actions by extremist groups like Boko Haram who neither want our continent to rise nor our girls to be free. Development and economic growth are the surest antidotes to illiteracy, inequality, poverty and extremism.
The last 4 years have been wonderful years in Washington DC and in the USA.
I have been blessed to have been partnered by Rosieda Shabodien who made this journey to the USA with me despite her own importance to the struggle for gender equality and development back home. I have been fortunate to work with people in this mission who have not being distracted by bureaucracy but that have been driven by a passion to realise the South African dream. It is an amazing experience to have a team of South Africans–in Team South Africa–that keeps the country’s flag flying high: South African Airways is 80 years old this year and combines old traditions, like feeding your passengers, with modern aviation technology; South African Tourism has reached the milestone of a record 300,000 American visitors to South Africa in the last year; and Brand South Africa, under Simon Barber’s leadership, has helped to make our saddest moment – when Nelson Mandela died – the moment of discovering that our greatest brand is neither the beauty of our country nor the wealth beneath our soil, but the life, legacy and values of Nelson Mandela that defines who every South African is.
I invite you to enjoy our 20th anniversary celebration of freedom, democracy and human rights. This is your celebration because without you we would not be celebrating today.
Thank you very much.
THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.