I have never addressed an audience of whom I had so little knowledge. I tend to overprepare my speeches, anticipating the sea of minds I am peering into.
This night in Durban, in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province, was no exception. I knew the gathering had been loosely assembled under the banner of the Young Presidents' Organisation, but that could cover a multitude of individuals, ages and races. Winston Churchill famously addressed a thronging Durban populace from the steps of the city hall; I did so at Marco's pasta and pizza restaurant. For a moment, my heart sank when I entered: packed to the rafters, the audience appeared to be a mixture of business round table, rugby club and works outing, plus wives. I have made unsuccessful forays into such functions before. The participants tend to be bored by politicians, slightly drunk and impatient for the stand-up comic to round off the evening with a string of sexual and lavatorial jokes.
What would these Durbanites make of a leftish, recently evicted British cabinet minister who had come to talk to them about their country, their continent and the world after 11 September?
The answer, I am relieved to say, was a lot more than I feared. South Africa, with its history of conflict, dignified and intelligent transition, and capable nation-building (not to mention the quality of its media), turns out to be unparochial and seriously interested in politics. And, thank goodness, not slow to laugh, either.
Many of the questions from my audience at Marco's reflected views I have encountered in other parts of the world: support for America; relief that al-Qaeda has been seen off (for now); anxiety about the lawlessness that inhabits the world; and concern that we are responding to the symptoms, rather than the causes of disorder. True, one man referred to a certain Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder who, apparently, was wondering whether it was right for Tony Blair to run around like President Bush's puppet.
The Prime Minister would have been proud of my response - honest. Another man, a wealthy Muslim trader, said that 11 September was not a good thing in any way, but didn't I think that it had made the world sit up and take notice of things it had previously ignored? My feeling was that this question was suggesting that America had it coming for its past indifference, but I may be wrong. Later, I learnt that Durban has its own Bin Laden centre, directly funded by the man himself, which has only recently airbrushed his name from view.
Throughout the evening, most of the issues raised were about Africa. Didn't Britain have a colonial responsibility for what had gone wrong? Wasn't Robert Mugabe a direct product of our failed legacy? Were we serious about the new plan for Africa's development? Wasn't that, in any case, a lot of rhetorical hot air?
All very good questions. My knowledge of Africa goes back to the early 1970s, when, on completing my A-levels, I shied away from Oxford's embrace and rerouted via northern Tanzania. I was inspired by the socialistic vision of Tanzania's founding president, Julius Nyerere: his was a caring philosophy which ensured that his nation was built on sound values if not sound economics.
Then the oil shocks of the 1970s rocked Africa, commodity prices plunged, and the continent wrestled with a huge debt overhang in the 1980s and beyond. Cynicism and corruption became hallmarks of its leaders, financial institutions failed, governance collapsed. Violent conflicts and genocidal behaviour have disfigured the continent since. No wonder African development urgently needs a new paradigm in order to recover.
My argument in Durban was that Africans have to lead Africa out of poverty. To those who say that Africa is hopeless, we say Africa matters, as the Prime Minister did earlier this month. But nobody can do Africa's work for it. Without proper governance and functioning institutions, the rule of law and a free press, no amount of overseas aid will succeed in lifting Africa. Put the basics in place, and the rest of the world needs to do its job through mutually agreed goals and strategies, not ex cathedra conditions and policies dreamt up in the IMF and World Bank and imposed on unwilling recipients. If Africa does not want to be marginalised by globalisation, it must endorse the terms of globalisation and realise that international investor confidence is governed by one set of rules, not altruism directed at one particular continent.
There is another principle that needs to be respected in Africa's new plan, which, in my view, will be hard for many in Africa to embrace. It is the principle of peer review, of African countries benchmarking each other's progress and coming down on those leaders who transgress the terms of Africa's new plan. This will go against the grain of African solidarity. As a black Durban businessman observed to me after our meal, African countries have wanted to stand together when the rest of the world has seemed uninterested in them. They are going to be reluctant to criticise each other now.
Mugabe seems to prove this. On this issue, I feel a certain sympathy for the position of South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki. It is not easy to implore your neighbour to hold free and fair elections and then, in the next breath, condemn him as if he had already failed to do so. The trouble is that, by whispering in Mugabe's ear and hoping that things will turn out right on the night, Mbeki has played to a negative image of himself. He just keeps looking like no Mandela. And he isn't.
The contrast is sharpest on that issue which weighed heavy on my mind during my whole visit to South Africa: HIV/Aids. South Africa has been engulfed not just by the crisis of so many people dying from Aids (the conservative estimate is that seven million South Africans are currently infected) and by the crisis of inadequate action against this epidemic, but a further crisis of honesty about the whole subject.
Before reaching Cape Town, and then Durban, a mutual friend had invited me to dinner with Edwin Cameron, an appeal court judge widely recognised for his intellect and integrity, who is infected by the virus and has chosen to campaign publicly and volubly on the issue.
"The crisis of truth-telling about Aids exacerbates the other crises, since unless we tell the truth about Aids, we cannot act on it," Cameron says.
He has Mbeki in his sights because the president's original lack of sympathy and public questioning of both the causal link between HIV and Aids, and the effectiveness of anti-Aids drugs, resulted in confusion and paralysis in the nation's management of the epidemic. People were taking to the streets "carrying their placards", Mbeki said in a speech in October 2001, "demanding that we must perforce adopt strange opinions to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from their self-inflicted disease".
With self-proclaimed prejudice of that kind, it is little wonder the government has been slow to move since. It is estimated that, within the next ten years, the cumulative number of Aids deaths in South Africa will grow to between five and seven million. The greatest increase in mortality rates will be among impoverished heterosexual people in their twenties and thirties living in townships and rural areas, who are largely unaware of the virus and how it is carried, or what they should do to avoid transmitting it. You could call it genocide by sloth.
In Cape Town, I was in the room to hear Mandela, understated and self-deprecating as ever, call the nation to arms to fight the onward march of Aids. He focused, in particular, on the urgent need for effective communication among young people about how to avoid infection. I went later to visit a Y-Centre in a township outside Cape Town, one of a nationwide network opened by the pioneering loveLife campaign. LoveLife uses broadcast and other popular media to spread the word among young people about the behavioural changes needed to save young lives. Never has so much effort been expended by so few to get so many others to talk about sex.
Mandela made his public intervention on the occasion of a human rights award to two Johannesburg doctors for their cutting-edge research into mother-to-child transmission. Mandela's warning made the headlines: this is an explosive issue because of the government's resistance to the use of anti-retroviral medicine to reduce mother-to-child transmission, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of children.
I came to understand why emotions are running high about this. At my table in Marco's was Terry Rosenberg; the day following my speech, I went with him to visit the Gozololo Centre for Needy Children, which he personally funds. Here, Miriam, a 60-year-old social and community worker, is the self-appointed godparent to 1,300 Aids orphans. She has rescued them from under verandahs and bridges, found them foster homes, scrounged clothing, and provides pre-school and after-school shelter in a large Portakabin erected on the site of a former municipal garbage dump. Some children are recovering from the trauma of being raped by HIV-positive men who persuaded themselves that penetrating a virgin would cleanse them of their infection.
No wonder Mandela talks of the need for behavioural and policy changes in South Africa as "a real war". He says that the government is thinking seriously about its policies, but South Africa is some way off coming to terms with the scale of this national disaster.
When I was describing the loveLife programme to my friends at Marco's, it was not hard to imagine what was going on in their parental and grandparental minds. This virus is no respecter of age, class or race. The subject concluded my Durban evening - a snapshot of South Africa, not hysterical, but sober, emotional and honest.
The author is MP for Hartlepool