Address by President Jacob Zuma at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Conference opening ceremony; Sandton

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Programme Director;
Zev Krengel, Chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies;
Chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein;
President of the World Jewish Congress, Mr Ronald Lauder;
Chairman of the SA Zionist Federation, Avrom Krengel;
His Excellency Ambassador of Israel, Dov Segev Steinberg;
Your Excellencies Ambassadors present;
Former Minister of Justice in Canada, Hon Irwin Cotler;

Distinguished guests,

Good evening to you all.

Let me begin by welcoming the international guests who have taken time to attend this conference. We hope you will find our country warm and welcoming.

This National Conference of the Jewish Board of Deputies is an important event in the calendar of the South African Jewish community.

Given the Board's active role in South African society, it is an important event for many sectors in our country too.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me commend the Jewish Board of Deputies for unifying the Jewish community in this country over many years.

Through their continued work over the years, a rich tapestry of Jewish traditions and culture has been developed, preserved, and passed from generation to generation.

In addition, over the years the Board has become an important structure to articulate issues of interest to the Jewish community. These include the promotion of civil rights and religious freedom, and combating anti-Semitism.

The Board also provides an important avenue for us as government to engage the Jewish community on issues that take forward the national objectives of the country.

The Board has also participated in programmes that have assisted us in entrenching our democracy.

Earlier this year, the Jewish Board of Deputies made a significant contribution towards the democratic elections through voter education, awareness and mobilisation among communities.
We commend this important contribution. It demonstrates a healthy commitment to the promotion of democracy in our country.

We also invite the Board to continue its lively interface with government, on behalf of the Jewish community, to enhance mutual understanding and broaden areas of cooperation and participation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The preamble to our Constitution makes the bold statement that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
As President, I regard as one of my duties the need to preserve the unity of this nation, and to cultivate its diversity.

While there may be diverse communities in South Africa - defined by religion, culture, heritage or language - they are all part of a unified whole and all share a unity of purpose.

While we promote this wonderful expression of diversity, there is a common understanding in our country that our individual identities as different groups must not be above our national identity.

Much as we are conscious of who we are culturally and otherwise, it must not take away the national identity, as we should be South Africans first. This principle continues to guide the nation and our diversity remains a source of strength rather than a challenge.

Our Constitution further guarantees freedom of association, and disavows the racial bigotry that characterised our past.

This occasion is therefore also a celebration of the civil liberties reflected in our Constitution, and of the important contribution that all communities have to make for national unity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The history of the Jewish people across the world is one of achievement and resilience.

It is a story of a people who have refused to succumb to discrimination and persecution.

Like many people who have suffered because of prejudice, the fortitude of the Jewish people has been forged in the hardest of times, and has been at the heart of efforts to build successful communities.

In South Africa, the Jewish community has played a significant part in building our country in various fields.

These include business, labour, science, literature, culture, community work and politics.

We all know that many within the Jewish community have played a prominent role in the struggle for democracy and freedom in our country.

Though part of the privileged white minority, many Jewish people dedicated their lives to the advancement of the rights of the oppressed majority.

Among the significant names in this legion of stalwarts are Rusty Bernstein, Helen Suzman, Solly Sachs, Norman Levy, Sydney Shall, Sonia Bunting, Ben Turok and many others.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we approached the 15th year of our democracy, we undertook a comprehensive evaluation of the progress we had made as a country.

We took a critical look at how our policies and programmes had improved the lives of our people.
While we reaffirmed our basic policy direction, we recognised that there were severe shortcomings in implementation.

We therefore decided that the new administration should have a strong performance monitoring and evaluation capacity.

We also recognised that if we were ever to escape the social and economic legacy of our past, we would need to take a more systematic approach to long-term planning.

We have to move with greater urgency and application to further improve the lives of our people, particularly those who still languish in poverty.

We have made significant changes in government to speed up change.

We have made key appointments in the criminal justice system to intensify our efforts to prevent and combat crime.

We are undertaking an overhaul of the system to ensure better coordination and cooperation among the different components.

We are also improving efficiency, training and resourcing of the police in particular.

Crime affects all South Africans, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

It contributes to a sense of insecurity across all sectors of society.

It also has a damaging economic impact, undermining investor confidence and increasing the cost of doing business.

Government is committed to work with all South Africans to step up the fight against crime.
Only by working together will we be able to make a difference.

We appreciate the wonderful work you are doing to take forward the fight against crime. We hope your experience will be extended to other communities and areas, as working together; we can make our communities safer.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our constitution enjoins us to protect the rights of each and every citizen.

It guarantees religious freedom and freedom of association.

We must jealously guard these freedoms, enabling all the people in the country to celebrate and embrace their own traditions, culture and identity.

We must remain on guard against any manifestations of anti-Semitism and other intolerances.
An assault on the dignity of any person is an assault on the dignity of us all. There is no place in South Africa for racism, tribalism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia. Let us all unite against these tendencies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we are to overcome the social and political challenges we face we need to pay particular attention to education, which we have made a central priority for the next five years.

Areas that need improvement include the quality of schooling, vocational training, tertiary studies and funding.

An important area to address is access of disadvantaged students to higher education institutions.

This country has a massive skills shortage, as a result of decades of neglect and deliberate under-investment.

This problem is exacerbated by the emigration of skilled people.
We must work to reverse this trend.

Already many South Africans are coming home, bringing with them their skills and experience of the international working environment.

The message we want to send to people who have left the country to live and work abroad is that South Africa will always remain their home, and will always welcome whatever contribution they can make to building this nation.

Ladies and gentlemen, a central objective of our economic policy is to create decent jobs.

This task has become even more important as we face the impact of the global recession.

We are encouraged by the commitment of our social partners - business, community and labour, to work together to mitigate the impact on our economy and on jobs.

The measures that we have agreed upon will only find fertile ground if all sections of society are involved in their implementation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

South Africa is an integral part of the global community.

Our fortunes are linked to those of our neighbours and even to parts of the world that are further away.

Our engagement in the international arena is guided by an unwavering commitment to the promotion of human rights, democracy, justice and adherence to international law.
It is also guided by a commitment to international peace and to multilateral mechanisms for the resolution of conflict.

The ongoing conflict in the Middle East, specifically between Israelis and Palestinians, has long been a matter of concern to us.

The South African government supports all international efforts to find lasting peace and security in the Middle East.

This includes the implementation of various UN Security Council Resolutions.

We unequivocally condemn all forms of violence from whatever quarter, particularly where civilians are targeted.

We support the position of the United Nations and the Middle East Quartet that the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that ends the occupation that began in 1967.

It is a solution which fulfils the aspirations of both parties for independent homelands through two States for two peoples, Israel and an independent, adjoining, and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

US President Obama's efforts in the pursuit of these objectives should be supported. We believe that finding solution in the Middle East is more possible now than in any other time.

We will continue to offer whatever assistance we can towards the resolution of this matter, including sharing our experience in ending apartheid through negotiation.

In this respect, we would like to work together with the South African Jewish community.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last year the Jewish community urged us to lead "a government of compassion" after winning the general elections.

We have gone out to interact with communities across the country and to engage with different sectors.

We are doing so in order to better to understand the difficulties that people face, to hear their views on how their lives can be improved, and to forge a partnership for a better South Africa.
That is why we are here tonight - to understand, to listen and to strengthen this meaningful partnership.

Working together we can build a compassionate, listening and responsive government.

I wish you all the best with your conference.

I thank you!