It is both a privilege and a pleasure for me to accept the cordial invitation of the Honourable Mr Ajit Kumar, Consul General of the Republic of India, to attend this celebration of a milestone in the history of India. Republic Day is rightly one of the most important celebrations on the Indian calendar, and carries significance in world history which makes it worthy of remembrance in even the furthest corners of our globe. Yet here, in South Africa, it is a day celebrated with all the joy and patriotism of India, for here, in this province, the largest population of people of Indian descent living outside India, find their home. I am honoured to have shared a great deal of my life in dialogue with this community. This is a good people, an industrious people, a South African people, and a people after my own heart.

I have always been inspired by the degree to which the Indian community in South Africa maintains ties with its motherland. On the many occasions I have participated in events and celebrations of this community, I have often remarked on the wisdom inherent in a people who teaches their children to live within the culture of their community, respecting and understanding the religion, philosophy and history which has shaped their society. Most children of this community are born on South African soil, yet carry within them the essence of India, bestowed by the cultural education of their upbringing. The spirit of patriotism which consequently lives in this community is tangibly felt in today’s celebration at the Durban City Hall.

I believe that this year’s celebration of India’s Republic Day should offer the opportunity to our own Indian community to take stock of the status of racial relations in South Africa. Following from our first democratic elections of April 1994 and the establishment of democracy in our country, our public discourse has emphasised its need for nation building. The emphasis on nation building has displaced focus from difficult dynamics at play within our society in respect of racial relations. During my life I have never swept problems under the carpet and I know that a lot remains to be done in order to promote mutually profitable and harmonious racial relations within our communities. The notion of nation building by itself will not accomplish this unless accompanied by the recognition of our respective cultural diversities and the different needs and aspirations of our diverse communities. It should be a great challenge before all centres of policy-making, including the national and the provincial legislatures.

There are strong tendencies within our society which would wish to eliminate this debate from our political agenda and bury it under the pressing demands of social imperatives of reconstruction and development. The Indian community may remain assured that I will remain an unwavering advocate of building racial relations from the bottom up and not from the top down and by recognising the autonomy, specific cultural features and diverse needs and aspirations of each of the building blocks of our society. For this reason I was proud to be one of those who opened the Conference and also co-chaired with the Bishop of Natal, Bishop Rubin Phillip, the Conference on Indo African Relations which was held in this city last year. We hope this very year to launch the Institute that will concern itself with teasing out ethnic problems of our Province.

It is necessary that we intensify our dialogue on these issues, rather than shying away from them. For example, I have always done my best to be with our Indian community on India’s Republic Day because I recognise the specific needs of our fellow South Africans of Indian extraction and the role that the Republic of India plays within their community. Therefore, today is an important day for India but it is also for South Africa. India also played a very significant role in the liberation struggle of South Africa.

Throughout the Republic of India today events are taking place which draw every level of Indian society into a celebration of pride, unity, independence, ancient traditions, a multi-cultural society, and progress in modern fields of advancement. Today, we are celebrating August 15, 1947. We are celebrating India’s independence. We are celebrating almost 54 years of democratic government, from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Moreover, today we celebrate the strength, fortitude and courage of a people which span the entire period of India’s history, and which have brought the nation of India to this point of liberation, independence and democracy.

I pray that the isolated incidents of violence which tend to cast a shadow over such festivities will be negligible this year and serve only to remind us that there are always those elements in every society whose ill-intentions we must constantly work, through goodwill, to counteract. Here, in South Africa, we are blessed to share such celebrations in an atmosphere of complete amiability and camaraderie. I believe we may raise a toast to the close ties which exist between this community and the plurality of communities across South Africa. I am pleased that my own ties with this community remain intimate, long-standing and of mutual value.

As one of the world’s largest post-colonial democracies, India has a great deal to teach South Africa, which is yet a fledgling democracy. I am pleased to say that our two countries have shared the vast benefits of our respective experiences through cultural, tourist and educational exchanges, and have likewise established strong ties in the fields of business, technology, investments, trade and industry. I continue in my belief that we may increase such exchanges and enhance our mutually beneficial dialogue on these and many other issues. In this regard, I am pleased to have established a frank and open dialogue with many business, political and social leaders in the Indian community, which has reinforced my life-long relationship of trust and co-operation with the Indian people, both in India and South Africa.

Over the years, I have recognised that I share with the Indian people many of my philosophies and approaches to life in the social compact. My enthusiasm for cultural pluralism has never diminished, even while some believe that unity in South Africa could only be achieved if we were to level down our cultural heritage into homogeneity. I have always said that our diversity is the greatest element of our strength, and I hold fast to the belief that while we reach out for one another in tolerance, goodwill and cross-cultural education, it is essential that we maintain our cultural identity and preserve its features for the generations to come. This is the greatest gift we may bestow upon our children, who must continue to build where this generation leaves off, complimenting one another’s strengths and supplementing any weaknesses.

I have watched with enthusiasm the development of India’s population through programmes of education, which I have always advocated as one of the cornerstones to South Africa’s struggle for higher levels of employment, skills and economic growth. The success of such programmes of education and training hinge upon the decision of what will be taught and for what people will be trained. I believe that we in South Africa need to look ahead to where world trends are leading, and train our people not merely to catch up with a global society far advanced from where we now stand, but to catapult our country to meet the world where it will be in ten or twenty years. It is alarming that while government has begun an unprecedented training programme to be funded through a national skills training levy, a direction, strategy or vision is yet to be identified.

Today, India is celebrated as one of the world’s leaders in technology. Ahead of the times, India identified the direction of technological development and the impending shift from hardware to software. The promotion of massive government-driven programmes to train citizens in computer software sciences, were recognised and rewarded by Microsoft’s announcement that India was to become its main software supplier. Such grand scale training of human resources is essential to the development not only of a country’s economic growth, but also to the growth and empowerment of its people. For this reason, I have accentuated the irreplaceable role of skills training, education and career guidance within South Africa.

Our people continue to suffer under the burden of ignorance for lack of education, exposure and experience, as a direct result of apartheid’s hostile approach to black education. It is incumbent on us as a generation dedicated to liberation, democracy and social justice, to ensure that we shift the weights to begin restoring the balance. I know that we cannot achieve a genuinely liberated South African people within one generation, but we must move in the right direction from the very beginning so that our goal may one day be achieved. Throughout my political career, I have dedicated all my efforts towards raising the level of skills and education among my people. I know that knowledge is a tool for liberation, far more so, than guns and riots.

Genuine liberation from the social and economic difficulties which continue to plague South Africa, depends upon the holistic development of our people, our government and our economy. While the promotion and successful completion of social development programmes requires the contribution and involvement of community members, they also rely heavily on an economy which is able to sustain them. At present, South Africa is fighting an uphill battle for economic growth, which has eluded overly optimistic predictions since 1994 with central government’s good intentions being sidelined by the undue influence of its alliance partners. Economic growth remains one of our most pressing priorities if we are to correct the legacy of social injustice.

For this reason, I have continually called for tough economic measures based on a long-term vision of what we need to have achieved in years to come. On every occasion, whether in Parliament or in boardrooms, in KwaZulu Natal and in Cape Town, I have advocated the need for privatisation, the establishment of a free market economy and greater flexibility in the labour market. I was pleased to note how, in January 1994, Air India and Indian Airlines were converted into companies and, in May 1994, the Telecom Services Sector was opened to private companies. It is now time that South Africa’s government makes a firm commitment to a strategy aimed at growth and redistribution. We are still moving too slowly towards the goal of genuine liberation, and should perhaps look towards the success stories of countries similar to our own, to seek inspiration.

I am proud to say that the shaping of my political perspective from a young age enjoyed the benefit of great leaders such as the Mahatma Gandhi, one of the founding fathers of our own liberation struggle, who formed the Natal Indian Congress to unite all Indians. I consider it one of God’s blessings of mercy that Mohandas K. Gandhi lived long enough to see his beloved India gain its independence before he was tragically assassinated on the 30th of January, 1948. Among members of the Natal Indian Congress, I particularly admired the leadership of Dr. Monty Naicker who was a fellow fighter in the liberation struggle with Inkosi Albert Lutuli. I can never forget the days of this leadership under which we all struggled with my late brother, Ismail Meer, and people like Debhi Singh, Masabalala Yengwa, J.K. Ngubane and several others too numerous to mention here by name.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr Meer through his then fiancé, Fatima, whom I met at Sastri College following my rustication from Fort Hare University. Theirs was the first Indian wedding I ever attended and, from that time onwards, I developed close friendships with many members of the Indian community in South Africa. I consider myself fortunate to have studied under teachers such as Professor Kenneth Kirkwood at Sastri College. I shall always consider Sastri College one of my alma maters, and it fills me with deep admiration when I consider how the Indian community established this college at its own expense, bestowing upon South Africa a vast and long-standing gift. Sastri College was founded by India’s first diplomat to South Africa, Sir Srinivasa Sastri, and inaugurated by Sir Kurba Reddy, South Africa’s second diplomat from the Republic of India. Today, I wish to pay tribute to the representatives and ambassadors who continue to come from India to enhance relations between our two countries. It is indeed true that the fate of entire nations rests on the goodwill of individual men and women.

Throughout India, Republic Day is celebrated with military parades in honour of the heroes and heroines who have built their country through their sacrifices, dedication and patriotic pride. I am reminded of the memorial erected and dedicated with these words to the gallant men of the Indian armed forces who died so that we may live, "A man is not dead until he is forgotten". In the presence of all that we have today, we may never forget the historical role played by those who worked, fought and died to secure the prosperity, freedom and peace of their posterity. This is equally true in South Africa as it is for the Indian people.

Our two countries have engaged the battle against colonialism, and won through in the struggle for liberation. However, I am deeply saddened that South Africa and India are again fighting the same battle, which is relatively new but, beyond doubt, disastrous. We have engaged the battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS which is taking lives in a faster and quieter way than any of the wars we have fought. Last week, Indian press reports raised concerns that the AIDS population in India was in danger of overtaking that of South Africa. The figures of infected people quoted were 3.6 million and 4.5 million respectively, with the rate of infection steadily increasing. I believe that we ought to encourage one another in this fight against HIV/AIDS, to speak up and speak out about the truth of the pandemic. It is very worrying that the rate of the spread of this pandemic is greater in this Province of KwaZulu Natal.

You and I come from communities which hold high moral values and there is always the threat that those contracting HIV/AIDS will be vilified and shunned. Yet we know that HIV/AIDS is not strictly a disease of the poor, or a disease of addicts, or even of those leading questionable lifestyles. Anyone can contract HIV/AIDS and those living with the disease require support, affection and compassion. That is the duty of our communities. Government is limited in what it can provide through health-care and information campaigns. As members of strong and unified communities, we are all required to examine our beliefs and biasses, and are called upon to correct the way we think about those who, right now, desperately need our help.

I believe that a strong community, motivated by enthusiasm, goodwill and co-operation, may achieve a tremendous deal of good and overcome all obstacles in its path. We have yet to win the battle against criminality, unemployment, the rise of dangerous and anti-social sub-cultures, substance abuse, moral breakdown, poor service delivery, and a lack of social justice, equal opportunities and proper education. These evils do not belong in a successful multi-party democracy. If we wish to give substance to the form of democracy, we need to address the heart and mind issues of the people living here.

The greatest difficulty we face in respect of community development remains the ongoing battle over the powers and functions of amaKhosi within the communities which they have traditionally served and led for generations. There has still been no action taken by government to fulfil the promises and reassurances that the powers of traditional leaders will be protected, and not undermined or eroded by municipal powers and functions. There remains a clash and our amaKhosi are already being treated as ceremonial figures as municipalities are established across South Africa. The danger is that the growth, development and stability of communities will be threatened when municipalities foreign to the people attempt to fulfil the role of established and trusted amaKhosi.

This is not an issue to be swept under the carpet, particularly in this province of KwaZulu Natal. There are going to be very real consequences if this impasse remains unresolved, and we must commit our every effort to maintaining peace even when peace is threatened. I pray that this issue will be addressed and resolved with swift, tangible actions, and taken seriously by a leadership who should know better than to try the patience and goodwill of the people. I feel it necessary to speak briefly on this matter on this occasion, for the development, peace, stability and growth of the province in which we live, depends on a swift and satisfactory outcome to this problem.

I am pleased that today’s celebrations of India’s Republic Day are taking place in the centre of Durban, which deserves its title as home to South Africa’s Indian community. This city and this province owes a debt to the Indian people who have helped shape its prosperity and mould its history. I believe that as we move into a future of greater stability, social justice and economic growth, the Indian community of South Africa will sustain its place as one of the most important building blocks of our society. I am proud to continue my close friendship with this community and wish you everything of the best on the occasion of Republic Day 2001. May this be a year of increasing prosperity and collective growth for us all.



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