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Ms. Amina Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General – “Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture” at the University of Cape Town: “Decade of Action for the SDGs: so what?”

14 October 2020 – (As delievered) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor, Dear friends,

It is a pleasure to join you. We gather virtually – but my memories of previous visits to UCT are so vivid that they will carry me through today’s event.

Let me start by recognizing the special relationship between the United Nations and South Africa.

The Organization stood with South Africans in the fight against apartheid – and celebrated your triumph and passage to democracy.

Across the decades, UN agencies have worked hand-in-hand with South Africans across many areas of common concern and aspiration.

Today, those close ties span the international agenda – from diplomacy and peacekeeping to sustainable development and the fight against climate change.

If you will allow me a short personal reflection, I, too, have felt the special pull of South Africa across the years.

The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and of so many other brave anti-apartheid figures, and the daily oppression of the South African majority, were constant concerns in my household as I grew up. This injustice became a formative influence on how I think about my identity, my politics, my career and my hopes for social change.

Imagine, then, how moved I was to have the honour of delivering the Mandela Lecture three years ago in Capetown. During that visit I also visited Robben Island. Gazing at those stark cells, I marveled at the fortitude of those who were held there – and was newly inspired at the thought that a dark prison was no match for the light of a just cause.

I feel a sense of continuity today, as I speak to you just three months after UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered this year’s Mandela Lecture, which focused on the diverse inequalities that plague our world.

At this time when inequalities remain widespread and a pandemic touches us all, I very much welcome this opportunity to speak with you as we try to unite as a single human family in overcoming these challenges.

I want to offer my condolences for the thousands of lives that have been lost in South Africa to the Covid-19 pandemic. I also express my solidarity with you at a time when so many livelihoods have also been lost, and when we have seen an alarming rise in gender-based violence.

But let me also express my admiration for the way in which South Africa and other African countries have responded. Most countries on the continent acted swiftly to deploy health workers, enforce lockdowns, put on masks and take the other measures we know are effective. And the results are encouraging – and nowhere near what had been feared months ago.

But we also know that the impacts continue to unfold.

As President Ramaphosa stressed in his address to the General Assembly last month via video link, “The pandemic will inevitably set back our developmental aspirations. The resources we have had to redirect to fighting the pandemic has set back our efforts to provide housing, health care, water and sanitation and education to our people.”

Moreover, societies around the world are also reckoning with climate disruption, rising geopolitical tensions, persistent poverty and an alarming surge in hatred and discrimination.

However, even in the bleakest of moments, there can be hope – and opportunity.

The crisis has opened the eyes of the world to inequalities and other injustices.

And so it has also opened a door towards a future in which we do things differently, in ways that benefit all people.

That means we can use the recovery from the pandemic as a springboard to change course, re-engineer our economies, and create a more prosperous, equitable and sustainable world.

Indeed, any recovery that fails to address the roots and causes of our present vulnerabilities will only condemn us to more acute crises in the future.

That makes this the perfect time to talk about the Sustainable Development Goals.

You will note the title of my talk: “Decade of Action: so what?”

I’ll tell you “so what”!

So the 17 Goals are our blueprint for building a better world?

Yes, they were agreed by all Member States of the United Nations five years ago after a large and inclusive four-year consultation process, and they are designed to address the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals and guide our transition to truly sustainable development.

So the goals can help to lead us out of the pandemic?

Yes, they address the very fragilities and shortcomings that COVID-19 has exposed.

So, Governments are engaging?

I can hear you thinking, “we’ve heard that before”.

But yes, South Africa, a key player in the process that articulated these global targets and objectives, has embraced the Goals at home.

The Government is aligning its development plans behind them. Businesses and civil society have mobilized. The global framework and the local realities have met and merged, and are moving ahead with purpose.

Last year, the Government shared its progress with the United Nations – a forum that we call the Voluntary National Review and is a way for countries to compare notes, exchange best practices and warn against pitfalls.

South Africa reported important gains on clean water, electricity, sanitation, education and health. It was particularly notable that social protection has expanded sixfold in recent years.

But the review also showed the persistence of high levels of inequalities, and continuing violence against women — a challenge that has only worsened in recent months.

The United Nations will continue to support your efforts in all these areas.

So is it realistic to think we can succeed?

Well, it’s true that in South Africa and around the world, even before the pandemic, we were not moving quickly enough.

That is why, in January of this year, we embarked on a Decade of Action to deliver the goals by the agreed deadline of 2030.

And let me stress: Not only is transformation possible, it is happening right now, as we speak.

By harnessing the power of digital platforms and modernized financial regulations, countries are expanding social protection systems at a scale not seen before.

By providing services to reduce women’s care workloads, countries are creating space to realize women’s potential.

By phasing out expenses that no longer make sense, like fossil fuel subsidies, countries are paving the way to renewable energy future will millions of green jobs.

South Africa, for example, invested $20 billion in renewable energy over the last eight years.

The Decade of Action is our chance to build on these gains and expand our partnerships.

So, now I hope you’re wondering, not “so what”, but “so what can we do?”

I’ll tell you.

UCT’s Vision 2030, and your commitment to address the challenges of the SDGs through your teaching, learning and research, are great steps in the right direction.

Indeed, the invaluable role of universities led us to create, 10 years ago, the United Nations Academic Impact. This initiative brings together 1500 institutions of higher education and research in an effort to advance intellectual social responsibility – and I invite you to join.

Our work for the SDGs is also benefitting from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, in which more than 1,200 universities share scientific knowledge to advance the SDGs. Their data and dashboards track country progress, giving us a closer look, in real time, at challenges across the continent.

Looking ahead, the Decade of Action will keep a very strong focus on poverty and inequality. For the first time in decades, as a result of the pandemic, poverty is on the rise. Some 130 million people risk being pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of this year.

The pandemic has also been a preview of the upheaval expected from climate change. We are calling for the recovery to advance a green transition and to avoid bailouts of polluting industries. How the world recovers from COVID-19 is a “make-or-break moment” for climate action, biodiversity and the health of our planet.

And if there is one step that will advance all our goals, it is gender equality.

Gender equality begins with each one of us, in our own lives, every day.

Women’s rights movements have made remarkable achievements in recent decades. But as we mark the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration, the struggle faces a major pushback. And violence against women and girls remains widespread everywhere in the world.

I know this violence has touched UCT in the most wrenching way. I mentioned at the outset of my remarks some previous visits to UCT. Last year, I visited to express my sorrow and to sign the condolence book for Nene, following her horrific murder. Since then, femicides and gender-based violence have continued at an alarming rate. The United Nations is determined to end such violence and enable all women to live lives of safety, opportunity, dignity and participation in decision-making. This is one of the biggest and most essential battles of our times.

We are so proud that Siya Kolisi, a son of the Cape and captain of the South Africa national rugby team, is working with us as a Global Advocate for the Spotlight Initiative — our partnership with the European Union to end violence against women and girls.

To many, his leadership skills, athleticism and strength on the field make him the most alpha of men, in the most alpha of sports. But he also does the dishes and laundry at home. He cleans the bathrooms and dresses his kids before school.

With his wife Rachel, Siya models a respectful and gender-equal household for his millions of fans to see across social media. He uses his voice and platforms to speak up and show a new model of masculinity that involves the active engagement of men to end gender-based violence.

So, now let me ask you: are you standing up for women’s equal rights? Are you doing everything you can to end violence against women and girls?

Because we need you to do just that. We need all men to stand with women and girls so we may transform our world and relegate violence against women and girls to the pages of history.

That is the only way we will create lives of dignity and opportunity for all.

Dear friends,

As we press ahead, we should remember that the SDGs are an integrated framework, reinforcing each other. Progress on one can generate progress on others.

But they also rest on certain key pillars.

One is effective institutions of governance rooted in transparency and anti-corruption.

A second is financing.

And a third is partnerships ranging far beyond Governments to encompass businesses, entrepreneurs, civil society, foundations, academic institutions, research institutions.

If we are to raise our ambition, inspire a massive movement, localize and socialize the SDGs, there is yet another indispensable ingredient: you.

We need your power as consumers, as voters and as leaders in your communities.

As the United Nations marks its 75th anniversary this year, we have used the occasion not for celebration but for conversation.

I am pleased to note that South Africans are among those who have made their voices heard as part of this process.

What has emerged from our dialogues and surveys is a portrait of a world both fearful and hopeful.

Amidst the current crisis, the immediate priority of most respondents everywhere is improved access to basic services: healthcare, safe water and sanitation.

Next is greater international solidarity today with people in need, and action tomorrow in the face of the climate crisis and the ongoing destruction of the natural environment.

People want greater respect for human rights and action against corruption.

They say the COVID-19 crisis has made international cooperation even more Urgent – and they look to the United Nations to live up to its founding ideals.

In South Africa, the priorities emerging from the Survey for COVID recovery were access to healthcare, addressing inequalities and support to those hardest hits. The long-term priorities were increased employment (by some distance), access to education and healthcare. Over 92% taking the survey in SA said global cooperation is essential to tackling the challenges we face, with over half saying they felt it was even more important since the pandemic.

I take those voices to heart.

I take your hopes as my instructions.

We have 10 years to go until the agreed deadline of 2030.

The United Nations is ready!

Are you: now let’s talk about ‘so what?”!

Thank you.