Thabo Mbeki’s speech at Howard University, Washington on 23 May 2000

South African President, Thabo Mbeki, Howard University President, H. Patrick Swygert, and Distinguished Professor Joseph E. Harris

President H. Patrick Swygert, President of Howard University; Mr. Frank Savage, Chairperson, Alliance Capital; Dr Joseph Harris, Committee Chairperson.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is an honour for me to receive the Doctor of Laws Degree from Howard University. This honour is not for me alone, but it is also a recognition of the people of South Africa, many of whom sacrificed their lives for the democracy we now enjoy.

John Berger in a poem titled “Dream” writes:

“In a pocket of earth
I buried all the accents
Of my mother tongue
There they lie
Like needles of pine
Assembled by ants.

One day the stumbling cry
Of another wanderer
May set them alight
Then warm and comforted
He will hear all night
The truth as lullaby.”

Buried in the pocket of South African soil a story of human evolution is unfolding as scientists assemble the remains of our ancestors.

South Africa has dolomite caves in which some of the most significant human fossils in our evolutionary history are found. These include Homo fossils, which are ancestors of humanity. This is one of the many indicators of the African origin of hominids and humans.

Furthermore, there is evidence of human existence in South Africa dating back to 250 000 years ago.  We have recently found anatomically modern human remains belonging to an earlier period of human existence. This complete human form was found in the southern coast of the Cape in South Africa.  We have bone tools, decorated ochre and ostrich eggshell at several sites in the country. There is, again in South Africa, evidence of the earliest systematic exploitation of marine foods including shellfish, and well-made stone tools that only appear in Europe many years later. Some of the earliest depictions of humankind are captured in the oldest and largest rock paintings, which are found in South Africa.

All of these demonstrate that Africa is indeed the cradle of humanity.

Recently, about a decade ago, the Sinologist Martin Bernal caused a huge stir in western academic circles by publishing a book, “Black Athena”, suggesting that the origins of Ancient Greek and, consequently, European civilisation lay in Africa and Asia.

It soon became evident from the academic heat generated by Bernal’s thesis that to most Europeans, even those schooled in the best universities, the notion that the Greeks owed anything to Africa was unpalatable. The chagrin he occasioned among some of his interlocutors betrayed that, what was really at stake, was not ancient history but 20th century politics. In their enthusiasm to refute him, many a reckless statement was uttered and published.

Despite the controversies, the question remains that if Africa occupies such a central place in the evolution of humanity, why is it that that which defines Africa seems to be war, conflict, power struggles, disease and even greed.

The history of Africa is one of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and racism, which conditions have for many years impacted negatively on the development of the Continent. In addition, the cold war also contributed to the exploitation and underdevelopment of Africa.

Almost everyday in the media we see images of a continent at war with itself. There are stories about the collapse of civilian governments, life-threatening drought, famine, natural disasters, military coups – all of which might well give the unwary consumers the impression that ours is a continent teetering on the brink of total collapse.

This is often reinforced by the opinion that this continent has produced little of value.

Yet Africa produces hides and leather, even though the majority of Africans are bare-footed. Africa produces cocoa, yet African children do not eat chocolate. Africa produces some of the world’s most expensive diamonds and other precious stones, yet it is the poorest continent on earth. Africa’s natural wealth in gold, platinum and other strategic minerals is legendary, yet millions of Africans starve!

The end of the twentieth century should mark the end of that era. In the new century Africans are now making a new beginning. The commencement of the third millennium is witnessing the emergence of a new generation of African leaders, steeled in the harsh school of post-independence Africa.

It is a generation nurtured on the post-colonial experiences of Africa and the Caribbean. This is a generation, which has seen the end of the cold war; which has been witness to, and participants in Africa’s greatest success – political liberation – but has also been witness to her most tragic and disheartening failures. History has decreed that it will be this generation of leaders who lead our continent and the African peoples into the 21st century.

Already signs of Africa’s rebirth are there for us to see. More countries in Africa have embraced democratic governance than was the case ten years ago. In our own Region of Southern Africa, five countries have successfully held democratic elections in the past year alone.

There has been an unprecedented economic growth in many parts of Africa, including three countries which are amongst the fastest growing economies in the world.

Furthermore, for the first time in the history of our continent, Africans are beginning to tackle their own problems, seeking solutions to some of the seemingly intractable conflicts by addressing their root causes.

The movement for the renewal of Africa has from the beginning involved both the Africans living on the continent and those of the diaspora.

It is this diverse African humanity, with its vast untapped potential, that has to be harnessed for this movement. A Renaissance must entail Africa and the African peoples catching up with the rest of the world. One of the impediments towards the realisation of our renaissance is the question of racism.

As a response to this problem, South Africa will host the United Nations conference on racism and xenophobia next year. In preparation, South Africa will hold a national conference which will work on practical mechanisms which must translate into closing the chasm that still separates Black and White. The South African contribution will obviously be stilted if only a fraction of our population contributes to the resolution of the question of racism.

The international climate in which we are called upon to act is decisively different from that of Europe in the 15th century. An African renaissance will have to unfold in co-operation with sister countries, rather than at their expense.  It is in that context that the African populations of the Caribbean and the Americas assume a special significance. To catch up, Africa needs the accumulated skills, talents and capacity of the Africans of the diaspora.

The African-American community in the USA constitutes the largest body of Africans living in the developed countries of the North. Provided it is mobilised, the political weight of this community could be a formidable factor in determining the direction of US African policy and in support of the renaissance.

When we factor in the African states themselves, the Caribbean states and these huge African minorities in the Americas, the potential of a focused programme of action becomes very real. Its voice in the fora of the world could not be stilled and its capacity for collective action seems almost infinite.

This will have to be accompanied by a great continent-wide cultural revival – based on the spreading of literacy, numeracy and knowledge of the sciences. In the age of the Internet, the mastery of modern technology is a must for success. The schools, adult education projects, colleges, the universities and other institutions of higher learning would have to assume a leading role in such a revival.

A meaningful cultural revival would necessarily entail a critical revisiting of indigenous African cultural institutions, customary practices and mores, in order to review, re-assess and where necessary, reform, restructure and modernise these so as to harmonise them with the larger cultural project.

It is clear, despite what the Afro-pessimists may say, that Africa’s contribution to humanity is at least equal to that of other continents.  Africa can make an even greater mark during the next millennium provided we all join hands and refuse to be distracted by temporary setbacks.

A renewed sense of common purpose among Africans, centred on the as yet unrealised potential of African humanity is essential.

We need to ensure that we are no longer vulnerable to curable diseases and find appropriate and effective ways of reversing the debilitating trend of diseases such as TB, Malaria and AIDS.

We have to focus our energies on basic programmes that will ensure that we have infrastructure and programmes for clean water, proper roads, basic hygiene and sufficient clinics and hospitals.

We should do these things inspired by the words of Callisto Madavo, Vice-President for Africa at the World Bank:

“Africa is poised for transformation in both political and economic spheres, which even optimists would have been weary of predicting ten years ago.”

In this political and economic transformation of Africa, all of us will be able to ensure that “the accents of our mother tongue” shall never be buried, but that as we reclaim them, they shall bring us together as never before.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen;

May I, on behalf of the entire South African nation, and on my own behalf, extend our sincerest appreciation for the role you played in our struggle against apartheid. I would like to assure you that our victory is also your victory. As we rebuild our country and continent, we urge you to continue to participate with us in the new partnership that must surely bring about a better life for all our people.

I know that I can count on your continued support in our new struggle for African renewal.

I thank you.