Item 1209 - World Civilisation : Inuagural BP Lecture, British Museum, November 2000

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ZA COM MR-S-1209


World Civilisation : Inuagural BP Lecture, British Museum, November 2000


  • 2000-11-16 (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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Inuagural BP Annual Lecture

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  • English

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Distinguished guests and friends: I am afraid that I must repeat a remark which I made twice since I arrived in this country. I have no illusions why so many of you are here. You want to see what an unemployed pensioner looks like. Some of you who are observant will notice that I am shaking behind my trousers. It is not usual for me to address such a distinguished crowd. I hope that you will bear with me if, in the course of my address, I stumble because of the fear that has seized me.

It is a privilege for me to celebrate with you this extension of the British Museum, an institution about which I had heard so much as a young man. This institution, with its extraordinary collection, has a fascination and message for people far outside the borders of Britain. It represents a bringing together of works of art from all across the world, thus representing an image of the manner in which people have influenced and interacted with each other, over the centuries. The collection in this institution provides an opportunity for people to gain a greater understanding of each other’s culture, and to have a sense of the continuous history of world civilisation.

I am particularly proud that the museum is about to open three new African galleries that will give full credit to the contribution that Africa has made to world art. They will show the influence that African art and artefacts have exerted on European artists, particularly in the last century. They will be a reminder that Africa has not only learned much artistically from other continents; it has also significantly contributed its own values and creativity.

Reciprocal exchange and mutual influence among people from across the globe have a long history, as this collection reminds us. This global interaction has become much more rapid and widespread over the last few decades, as the amazing developments in communications and information technology have brought the world so much closer together. One consequence is that ideas, styles and ways of thinking can connect with each other more easily and quickly.

A feature of our contemporary world is the global market created by business and commerce. In this global market, our interdependence has increased and deepened dramatically. This speeding up of world communications is equally important in the fields of art and politics. New ideas and concepts can race across the world almost as quickly and casually as money and goods, interacting with the ideas of other people, often with far reaching consequences few people notice at the time.

This cross pollination of ideas and concepts played an important role in our struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The struggle was led by the liberation movements, and eventually successfully concluded through the participation of all South Africans, who sought the path of peaceful negotiations rather than destructive civil war. However much pride South Africans take from having resolved the conflict on their own, we recognise and acknowledge the crucial role played by international support and solidarity. The great schools of emancipatory thought from other parts of the world fundamentally influenced the concepts and ideas that directed our struggle.

Our fight against apartheid was for national liberation, at the same time as it was about the integration of our country and its people into the wider world of thought, culture, arts, trade and commerce. We remain indebted to the support that we gained from across the world, not only from our political allies, but also from performers, artists and writers, who saw apartheid as an outrage against the whole concept of cultural freedom and exchange.

The sense of solidarity and support from the world’s cultures added to our confidence about the political negotiations South Africans entered into at the start of the nineties. We knew that the exclusiveness that apartheid had deliberately fostered could be reversed, to produce a country where there was room for everyone and respect for one another’s cultures and traditions. We knew that we could learn much from other countries that had their own history and experiences of tolerance, co existence and mutual enrichment.

We were convinced that South Africa could bring something to the world through reconciliation and a joint effort of reconstruction, after our history of division and discrimination. We had faith that our insistence on a common humanity also had relevance to other countries.

This reciprocal learning is one of the great benefits of the globalisation of our contemporary world. The globalised nature of our world was one of the great new features that my colleagues and I had to catch up with at the end of 27 years sojourn on Robben Island, and other prisons.

Incidentally, my secretary says to me every day, "You have been loafing for 27 years. You must now work and be busy every day." So, if you see me here today and in California tomorrow, you must know who the culprit is.

I say that we had faith that our insistence on a common humanity also had relevance to other countries.

The world had become much smaller, as I realised when racing on jumbo jets that I had never seen before, and talked every day on amazing new international telephones. I had to acquaint myself with this new phenomenon of globalisation, that enabled money and capital to flow instantly across the globe, and made the economies of the world startlingly more interdependent.

The effects and consequences of globalisation had to be internalised by many other South Africans, as well. South Africa became isolated from the international community during the apartheid years, and now saw how closely interconnected countries and economies had become. We welcome the process of globalisation. It is inescapable and irreversible. We can no more ignore it, as I said before, that we can reject the idea of winter by refusing to wear warm clothes. It can carry with it not only investment and transfer of expertise, but also knowledge and understanding of other people and cultures.

But if globalisation is to create real peace and stability across the world, it must be a process benefiting all. It must not allow the most economically and politically powerful countries to dominate and submerge the countries of the weaker and peripheral regions. It should not be allowed to drain the wealth of smaller countries towards the smaller ones, or to increase the inequality between richer and poorer regions.

Equally important, the local and regional cultures must not be submerged and overwhelmed by the cultures of the richer countries, whether in art, film, music, or literature. Any healthy and vibrant marketplace consists of a fair exchange amongst a variety of goals. The fair exchange of the diversity of cultures is still important as the lifeblood of civilisation. African people are confident that they have contributed much to the world, and will continue to do so.

There is concern, though, that the playing field of cultural exchange is becoming lop sided, and that local artists and creators are finding it hard to make themselves seen and heard in the ruthless intensity of global competition. A peaceful and civilised world will always depend upon a balance between global organisation and communication on one hand, and healthy local traditions and dignity on the other, with each representing and cross fertilising the other.

In every continent, all through history, the great artistic achievements have depended on reaching out to other cultures, and learning from them. That is why I take special pride in being invited here to the British Museum, where the world’s art and artefacts are displayed all around us, each having played its part in enriching and cross fertilising the world’s civilisations.

This great museum may have begun as the beneficiary of British imperial power, but it has become a truly international institution, supported by global donors. It attracts scholars and tourists from across the world to its unique collection of artistic treasures, in which every continent is represented. And that is why I am also delighted that this occasion and this lecture theatre are sponsored by British Petroleum. For, this company has itself developed into being a genuinely multinational corporation. It includes managers and employees from every continent and almost every background, who can constantly learn from each other.

I came out of jail in 1990, and made it a point to take the private sector, black and white, Afrikaans and English speaking to the countryside, to build schools, clinics and community centres where such facilities have never been known. One of the countries that is in the forefront in this regard is BP. Therefore, it is a great honour for me to participate in an occasion that is sponsored by them. The sense of balance, mutual respect and sensitivity for the other is key to any successful global organisation. It is also key to the maintenance of world peace.

We in South Africa, for so long separated and divided by racial conflict, have learned that our safety and prosperity depend on breaking through divisions and realising that our well being is indivisible. So, too, is world peace. This museum reminds us of that, and inspires us towards that goal.

I will end by telling an anecdote that I have related several times, especially when I address such august gatherings. I also told it this morning, in this country.

A four year old young lady came to my gate, and security told me that there was a young lady at my gate to see me. I said, please open the gate, and let her come in. They said, but Mr President, she is arrogant and cheeky. I replied, precisely for that reason, let her come in. She came through the gate, and I was sitting in my lounge. She did not knock. She just stormed in, and then asked me the question:

"How old are you?"

Well, I said, I don’t know, but I was born long, long ago. She said,"Two years ago?"

I said, No, much longer than that. Then she suddenly changed subject, and said, "Why did you go to jail?"

I replied that I did not go to jail because I liked, but some people sent me there. She asked, who? I said it was people who did not liked me. She asked, "How long did you stay there?"

Again, the "two years" came up and, again, I pointed out that I cannot remember how long I was there, but that it was a long time. Then, she made this devastating observation:

"You must be a foolish old man."

Well, ladies and gentlemen: if you feel that my remarks this evening have not lived up to expectations, please, I implore you, just be a little more diplomatic than that young lady.

I thank you



Tenth paragraph: Robin changed to Robben; The Q&A session after the lecture has been included.


TRANSCRIPT (Question and Answer Session)

Sir David Attenborough

A number of questions have been submitted. Mr Mandela has agreed to answer some of them. We had difficulty in selecting them. There are four.

Joanna Thompson (Winner, BP Essay Competition)


Mr Mandela

I am more frightened than you are.

Joanna Thompson

That is scary. My name is Joanna Thompson, and I am a student at Pimlico School. I would like to ask you a question.

Mr Mandela, you have inspired so many people. Who inspired you?

Mr Mandela

Thank you. My heroes do not depend on the position that they hold, however eminent. My heroes are men and women who have committed themselves to socio economic issues, who fight poverty wherever in the world it is to be found. They combat hunger, illiteracy and terminal diseases, and want people to have a decent life. They choose the world as the theatre of their operations, and fight injustice wherever in the world they meet it. Those are my heroes.

As president of my country, I have honoured a number of people, mostly women who are hardly known beyond their villages. Some of them have never seen the inside of a school. They see children running around in the streets when they should be at school, dirty and wearing rags. They are moved to see such suffering, and they go from their village to business people and people with resources, however small they may be. They say to them, here is a crisis; I want to collect these children into my house, be able to feed them and, after school, to get teachers to come and teach them.

Such women are hardly known beyond their villages, but I have regarded those women as my heroes, and have given them honours as the head of the government. That is my approach to your question. Thank you.

Brian Sanderson (Chairman, Learning and Skills Council)

Mr Mandela, you have a wealth of experience of the best and worst that mankind has to offer. I have two children in their early twenties. What advice would you give to them and other people of their age?

Mr Mandela

Well, that is a question that frightens me. When I was in jail, my son, who was 16 years of age, came to visit me for the first time. And I thought, as a father who had left him behind when I was young, I must give him some advice. He listened carefully, so I thought, and obediently. I gave him extensive advice. After that, he said, "My poor father: these views are outdated. We no longer think in those terms. The times have changed. If I was as old as yourself, I probably would have accepted your advice"

So, unsolicited advice - unsolicited in the sense that it is you and not your children who are asking me - is extremely dangerous.

We must respect our children and let them express themselves. Apart from the generation gap, there is the question of cultural division. My culture would demand different advice from the advice a man in Britain, who knows British culture, would give. So, we have to be very careful.

A child asks you, "I have this particular problem, how do I solve it?" I would sit down and ask him if he has discussed the problem with his parents, teacher and colleagues. As a result of those questions, I might find I am able to give him advice that coincides with his problems, to respond to what he is asking for. But for me to give advice to children that I have never seen, and without a proper investigation, would be quite arrogant, and I hope that you will excuse me. Thank you.

Zenab Badawi (Freelance Broadcast Journalist)

Mr Mandela, may I first say that it is a great privilege to meet you, as the daughter of an African freedom fighter who was also imprisoned for his views, many years ago. It is a great honour.

I ask this question on behalf of my many impoverished fellow Africans. In your lecture, you spoke much about globalisation. However, you know that the United Nation’s (UN) figures say that the effects of globalisation have been not only unequal, but they have also widened the gap between the world’s richest and poorest. What key steps do you think that sub Saharan Africa should take to ensure that the people of these countries more actively enjoy the benefits of globalisation and the global market, as active participants and not as passive spectators?

Mr Mandela

Thank you. Africa has already taken significant steps to deal with your question. We used to have one party states, governments that came to power through undemocratic methods and economic and political instability. Africa, on its own, acting through the organisation of African unity, has moved away from that background. There are hardly any one party states in Africa. Democratic governments have been introduced. There is political and economic stability. Africans attach a great deal of importance to education, as the most important weapon not only to serve your community, but in order to compete with the entire world.

Africa is making a very important contribution to world bodies, like the UN. We appreciate that the UN is there to promote peace and that, as a result of its activities, there has not been a world war for more than 50 years. Indeed, there are local and regional civil wars. But, generally speaking, Africa understands the value of stability and democracy. There are exceptions, where there are conflicts in which innocent and defenceless men, women, children and the aged are being slaughtered. There are cases where the infrastructure and innocent civilians are being destroyed, and where development has been blocked.

But this is not happening in Africa alone. You find it in Kosovo. You find it in Chechnya. You find it in Latin America. You find it in Asia. At the moment, something is happening in the United States of America, where hardly any one of us ever suspected that the greatest democracy would not be able to conduct a smooth election, and to announce the winner in record time. But you have two presidential candidates fighting. Some are saying, let us have a recount. Others say that a recount must be blocked. They are going to court. You have these problems right around the world, and so we have ours. But, we have extremely capable and experienced leaders who are rising to the challenges that face them. Thank you.

Gargi Patel (BBC Presenter and Reporter)

Good evening Mr Mandela. Londoners like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan. However, we often feel helpless when it comes to stopping the destruction of other people and cultures. What would you say to the ordinary man or woman in the street here about the difference that they can make to the future of people elsewhere?

Mr Mandela

Well, that is a very difficult question. It describes something about yourself: that you are a highly philosophic and observant person. I doubt that I can match up with you and the question that you have asked.

We must not despise what you call ‘ordinary people’. You do not have to occupy a prestigious position to know what should happen in the world. There are many people who have got the natural intellect to address problems, even though their educational qualification is very low. Of course, we want education, because it is one of the most important weapons that we have to serve society and to compete with the world. Therefore, we want that.

But, let us not assume that ordinary people are unable to decide the destiny of their own country. After all, as I pointed out yesterday, these buildings that you see here, and this museum, the palaces of the British monarch, the Houses of Parliament: the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the institutions of government and so on, were built by ordinary workers. They are the people who are responsible for the progress that you see today. They have built the infrastructure of the country: roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and other important places in society. They can think for themselves. They are the people who vote for governments. We must not think that the elite has got a wisdom that is not shared by the ordinary people. Those who think so are those who really do not care for the ordinary people.

If you mix with the ordinary people, or you were brought up in an atmosphere where you had to interact with the so called ‘ordinary people’, you would respect them, and know that they have the same genius as the elite, who went to the best schools in the world. The important thing is to be honest with yourself, and to be able to address problems honestly. We must know that in every community, there are good men and women, educated and uneducated. A good leader is one who listens to everybody, and weighs what is said to them. They do not say: this man does not hold a position of prominence, I have no time to listen to him.

I have found that in history, right down the centuries, men and women come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. You would think they never existed at all. Others do leave something behind: the horrible actions which they have taken against other human beings, denying them basic human rights, using the name of God by a white minority to suppress the majority because their colour is different. But, there are those, as I have said, who have committed themselves to economic problems faced by the people. Those are the heroes, whether they are educated, or not. Therefore, if you are going to qualify as a leader, you must be able to listen to everybody, and to judge whether what they say is something creative, and something that can help the community. That is how I would approach your question.

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Acquisition method: From website ; Source: Accessioned on 20/01/2010 by Zintle Bambata




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