“It is within our hands to forge a more representative, equal and fair United Nations that is empowered and equipped to lead the struggle to end poverty, unemployment and inequality in the world”.
Those were the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa during his first visit to the global organisation last September, after being sworn in as head of state following the forced resignation of former President Jacob Zuma in February last year.
It was also the occasion when South Africa gifted a bronze statue of the first democratically elected President of the Republic to the United Nations with a message that the example of Nelson Mandela serves as a new dawn for the organisation.
Ramaphosa’s first visit to New York at President was three-fold, to convene the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit, address the UN General Assembly and engage UN interlocutors and finally to allay the concerns of international business and the investor community about the country’s socio-political and economic trajectory including a conversation with former United States President Bill Clinton.
“Why should they invest in SA right now? What do you say, last word,” asked Clinton.
“Well, I would say what we are seeking to do on the land question is to manage risk, to minimize the risk but at the same time we are doing a whole lot of other things, we are working on policy issues to ensure that there’s policy certainty and consistency and this we’ve arrived at after talking to the business sector, the unions and we all agree that if we address this we’ll begin to see the investment community looking at SA in a different way.”
His maiden trip to the UN as President came just as South Africa was elected to a two-year term on the UN Security Council and after the General Assembly agreed to hold the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at which a life-sized statue of the former President was gifted to the organisation. A statue that now stands with pride of place at the visitor’s entrance to the UN.
“It is our deepest hope that this summit, in the name of one of our greatest exemplars of humanity, serves as a new dawn for the United Nations. We hope the Summit will give expression to the Secretary-General’s call for a ‘surge in diplomacy’. We hope we will rediscover the strength of will to save successive generations from war, and to overcome the hatred of our past and the narrow interests that blind us to the vision of a common future that is peaceful and prosperous.”
And with Pretoria’s new role in the most powerful decision-making body of the UN, the new President and his team had their work cut out for them and a great deal of expectation to boot.
Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Dr Simon Adams says, “Leadership is all-important and I think in many ways who’s at the helm whether they be Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma or Cyril Ramaphosa makes a huge difference to the sort of organisation that the ANC is. And there’s all the talk about collective leadership and so forth, but there is also a sense of leadership on these issues and certainly I think when I go back to the issues that I am very involved in – mass atrocities in the world and the need to stop them from happening, the need for the international community to uphold its responsibility to protect people, these are ideas that Cyril Ramaphosa was literally involved in creating in 2001.
“He helped coin the phrase “Responsibility to Protect”, he was on the intergovernmental panel that made sure that this was adopted by the UN. I think that’s a very important thing. I think that’s a medal which he should wear on his chest, and so I’m certainly hoping that he will be much more of a leader both in SA and on the global stage, who’s able to push these kinds of agendas around – not just the defence of sovereignty for sovereignty sake, but sovereignty as responsibility and human rights first,” Adams explains.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has often talked about South Africa as a key player in the arena of multilateralism.
His spokesperson Stephane Dujarric says, “We congratulate President Ramaphosa on his election. South Africa is playing a leading role in the work of the United Nations and in the support of multilateralism. Notably by its active presence on the Security Council, and all of the support SA and the South African Defence Force brings to UN peacekeeping both in terms of material, in terms of men and women and in terms of leadership, we have seen this especially in the DRC, in the force intervention brigade where SA Defence forces has played a critical role in helping bring peace to the Congo and to bring peace to the Congolese people.”
As the issue of Palestinian and Saharawi independence and the reform of the UN with a greater role for Africa in the multilateral arena become key international pillars of Ramaphosa’s full term as President.
“The history of the global economy informs us that no country can prosper at the expense of all others, and that no people can hope to live in comfort and security for as long as millions of others languish in poverty. It is therefore essential that we take collective responsibility for the development of all nations and for the improvement of the lives of all people.”
With a promise to this August assembly that this would be the generation that changes the world, the world, Mr President, is waiting.