Item 1125 - Address to the Foreign Correspondence Dinner

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ZA COM MR-S-1125


Address to the Foreign Correspondence Dinner


  • 1990-11-15 (Creation)

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Transcription of speech made by Mr Mandela

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(18 July 1918-5 December 2013)

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Migrated from the Nelson Mandela Speeches Database (Sep-2018).

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ANC Archives, Office of the ANC President, Nelson Mandela Papers, University of Fort Hare

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Foreign Correspondents Dinner

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  • English

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Mr Chairperson,
Ladies and Gentlemen of the media,
Distinguished guests and friends,

I would like to express our profound appreciation of your invitation to address you on this auspicious occasion. We, owe our thanks in particular to the executive committee of the Foreign Correspondents Association who have, by their invitation, to my person, honoured the movement I have served and with which I am identified in this manner.

I have chosen to address you this evening on a topic that should be particularly close to your hearts as people who work in the media. It is my contention, however, that this is a matter that should be of the most earnest concern of every citizen of our troubled land. You who work in the media, as purveyors of information and news, are perhaps in the frontline trenches. But, in my view, we should all give priority on our agendas to this issue because of the profound implications it has for our rights and liberties.

I shall speak on the theme: "Democracy and Freedom of Expression", firstly because it is highly topical, two days after the Harms Commission finally published its reports; secondly, because during this transition from apartheid authoritarianism to non-racial democracy, it is particularly important that we define more precisely our vision of South Africa after the demise of apartheid.

During the course of this week, one of the more courageous representatives of your profession spent his days in court to answer charges arising from his newspaper's expose of the covert organs of state repression, including the murder squads. It was in large measure as a result of that newspaper's determination to uncover the truth that the government instituted the Harms Commission, whose findings were made public two days ago. Mr Max du Preez, sprung from the very loins of Afrikanerdom and born in its heartland, the Orange Free State, has during the two years of the existence of Die Vrye Weekblad firmly nailed his colours to the mast of press freedom. For daring to espouse, in practice rather than mere words, this universally recognised democratic principle, he has been pilloried, harassed and persecuted by the South African authorities.

The African National Congress has, since its inauguration, sought to entrench democracy and democratic values in the body politique of our country. Democracy, as understood by us, means nothing more nor less than "government of the people, by the people, for the people". Freedom of the press evolves as one of the central planks of a democratic dispensation because it is so closely related to freedom of speech. In our modern world we may easily lose sight of this vital link between the spoken word and print, the electronic signal and image. Writing was originally invented to faciliate communication between persons who could not meet face to face. Humanity's infinite capacity for invention has since devised many more means of achieving that objective, including telegraphic, telephonic, radio and television communication.

Freedom of speech, the freedom to inquire, the freedom to know and the freedom to publish are inextricably bound together as among the many freedoms human society has attained in our struggle to uplift ourselves from domination by despotic secular or religious authority. These have become accepted as of intrinsic value because they empower us to inquire, without fear or favour, into the nature of our world and assist us to constantly expand the frotniers of our knowledge and understanding of both this peculiar human animal and the space he occupies in the universe.

Historically, it is no accident that the struggle for the realization of these rights coincides with the scientific revolution associated with the European renaissance and the political revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Trugh, like beauty and good, is as slippery and elusive as the most well-trained eel. It can neither be derived from divine revelation nor from poetic inspiration. We should know from our history as a human family that it can be arrived at only through debated, argumentation and fearless interrogation of surface appearances. Moreover, experience teaches that at the very moment we think we have grasped it, we discover that it is only partial and incomplete. Dialectics, a term that may send shivers down the spines of some, originally expressed the notion of a continuing dialogue in which every submission is tested against its opposite, which in its turn is questioned by means of a new submission.

As with science and philosophy, so too with human society. No person or group of people has a monopoly on truth. No human institution or school of thought can credibly assert a privileged knowledge of the truth. This being the case, every political opinion, economic theory and every sociological dogma should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny and examination. Such critical review can occur only within a legal framework free of ideologically or politically inspired proscriptions and prohibitions. It is for this reason that the ANC has insisted on the repeal of all the numerous repressive laws that clutter up South African's statute books. It is only in such an atmosphere of free political debate and discussion that the wisdom or otherwise of the ANC's political programme can be tested and weighed along with those of other political parties and movements.

Rational political discourse is ill-served by the proscriptions that constrain the ability of our journalists, scholars and artists to seek out the truth. Each individual citizen has the innate ability to sift and weight up the evidence placed before us and to make his/her own judgements. No censor or official can justly claim the right to "protect" us from such knowledge.

While the linkages between freedom of speech and the media are seen more clearly by most journalists, the same cannot be said of the right of the people to assemble, hold meetings, processions, public manifestations and stage mass demonstrations. After close on three decades, during which these rights were trampled underfood by the South African state, there are signs that Mr De Klerk and his colleagues are attempting to prepare public opinion for their violation. While not for one minute conceding the South African government's right to call these rights into question, we nonetheless realise that a regime accustomed to authoritarian behaviour needs time to grow accustomed to democratic practice.

We are, however, particularly alarmed by the editorial support the government's attitude has received from a leading weekly newspaper.

Mr Chairperson,

It is universally recognised that the various modes of political expression - be they the press, the electronic media, public meetings, demonstrations, rallies and even acts of non-violent resistance - are aspects of freedom of speech. It is time that this lesson was learnt and absorbed in South Africa as well. It is a matter of grave concern that editors who wish to abridge and otherwise circumscribe our people's right to exercise these freedoms appeal to the authority of democratic political traditions as justification.

In the pastoral setting of the Americas where George Washington and his colleagues first raised the standard of freedom of speech, it was relatively easy to communicate opinion through the medium of the town-hall meeting or printed news sheet. In the context of our urban society, we have had to devise new means to achieve this simple purpose. Our society is far more fleet-footed than that of 18th century North America; change occurs more rapidly and its citizens are engaged in a multiplicity of activities. One of the swiftest means of drawing their attention to issues of public concern, which might otherwise escape their notice, is the public meeting or rally, manifestation on demonstration. Anyone who seeks to curtail these rights interferes with the democratic process.

Since the political revolution referred to earlier, it has been an accepted norm of the democratic tradition that extra-parliamentary and parliamentary political activities constitute an interface that is essential for the unfolding of democratic politics. Indeed, virtually every major reform initiative this century originated outside parliament, gathered momentum and strength outside parliament before professional politicians who took serious account of it. This is true of the first wave of the women's rights movement, that won women the right to vote; of the workers' movement for the right of collective bargaining; of the movement of African-Americans for civil rights; and the movement for nuclear disarmament and peace.

It is foolhardy for anyone to connive at the government's attempts to curtail these rights. The history of South Africa during this century should be instructive in at least one aspect- political repression is indivisible! There is no way a Ken Owen can hope to secure his rights by assisting the government to violate mine!

We have, of course, been closely questioned regarding the strictures against the advocacy of racism, nazism and fascism contained in the ANC's Constitutional Guidelines. It is correct and proper that our reasoning on this matter be subjected to this form of questioning.

While the ANC's commitment to freedom of speech and political expression is testified to by more than 75 years of struggle, we would, however, insist that Freedom of Speech does not and cannot include the right to shout "FIRE!" in a crowded theatre. Equally, freedom of religion cannot include the right to practice human sacrifice. Political doctrines and ideologies whose known consequences are harm to one's fellow citizens cannot be considered legitimate and on par with others. The post=war constitutions of both Austria and Germany cast the radically evil doctrines of cazism beyond the political pale as a token of those coutnries total repudiation of the Nazi regime that had institutionalised them. It is our view that a democratic South Africa will require an equally strong riposte to its racist past.

In closing, Mr Chairperson, I wish to direct a few words to the media people gathered here. The ANC does not now, nor will it ever, seek to control or arbitrarily determine how you perform your work. We wish to see the media report the facts as they see them, without let or hindrance by the state or any political party. This, we believe, serves the public interest and is in the best interest of public debate, discussion and reasoned argumentation.

Ours is a highly politicised society in which the average citizen has learnt that every voice can be heard as long as it does not succumb to complacency. Our vision of a democratic South Africa is one of a politically engaged public which is jealous of its rights and which will be ever vigilant against any party, be it of left or right orientation, that seeks to usurp them. To help build that future is the challenge that faces journalists operating in this country. It is only those who have the moral courage and strength to fight for an extension of all our rights who will prove equal to the tasks of this transition.

Thank you.

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Acquisition method: Hardcopy ; Source: ANC Archives, Office of the ANC President, Nelson Mandela Papers, University of Fort Hare. Accessioned on 14/01/2010 by Zintle Bambata




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