This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
10 Nov 1994: Wessels, Leon
POM. Let me start first with your own assessment of how this government of national unity has done during the first six months of it being in office.
LW. Well given the circumstances I think they have really done quite well. Many of them have not been in government, they are inexperienced, they're dealing with big, big, big issues. They have to change their direction, they have to re-prioritise, so by and large I think they have done, in the circumstances, pretty well.
POM. If you had to rate the performance of the government on a scale of one to ten where one is very unsatisfactory and ten is very satisfactory, what range would it lie in?
LW. I don't like the figures, seven would be too high but six would be too low, six point five.
POM. Six point five. When I was talking to Derek Keys two years ago he very bluntly said that the best this economy could do would be to increase employment by 1% a year between now and the year 2000. I saw him two weeks ago and he said the very same thing. Now when one looks at the RDP or the massive development schemes that people are talking about, just where does one (a) generate the resources and (b) generate the jobs because if you can't provide the jobs how will people pay for their housing?
LW. Well I think it's a vicious cycle. The whole issue of job creation has to do with the economy, it has to do with stability, it has to do with external investment as well as internal investment, it has to do with productivity. I think what one must have is a vision of where you are taking this nation to and you need a proper accord between labour, capital and the government to do that, to really instil that vision in the people. Now we still do not have that, but I believe that the economy will take longer to settle than we outside of the economy people, so to speak, were prepared to predict, say prior to the 27th April or prior to the negotiations. So this economy is not going to be kick started.
POM. Will this represent a problem in terms of people's expectations?
LW. Absolutely. There's no question about that. The soft underbelly of stability and the function of the constitution must be the improvement of quality of life of people and I think it has now dawned upon people that we should expect less from the economy, but be all prepared to work harder and give more for the economy. People still think of this economy as your economy and we are not part of the economy, which is completely wrong.
POM. Do you think that that has anything to do with the kind of culture of dependency that was built up under apartheid where blacks were told what to do, when to do it, their lives were regulated and that's cemented by a kind of cultural entitlement?
LW. That may be the correct approach but I would look at it differently. I would argue that South Africans have been thinking about politics for decades and not about economics. People were more concerned about the politics of the day and were taking a very simplistic view of the economy. Now that to my mind certainly has changed now that we at least have a legitimate government, legitimate process in motion. People are now focusing on - I was in New York at the weekend and people were all focused on the economy, give us our country back, less taxation and they were arguing in terms of - what amazed me was how the economic debate keeps on coming back and back all the time in the United States and in this country in all the previous years all they had to do was liberation and civil liberties and the preservation of the Afrikaners and whatnot and right at the bottom end was the economy. So there's an education process that has to take place right across the political spectrum as far as the economy is concerned.
POM. You have these rent boycotts and electricity boycotts, so for many Africans the first result, the first impact on their lives of their government being in power is that they are being asked to pay for services that they have been taking for granted for years for which they haven't had to pay.
LW. You have to change the thinking pattern of the people with regard to services. You have to change the thinking pattern with regard to expectations and all that is not going to be easy.
POM. For the last two weeks I've been running around the country and have talked to a number of the Premiers and members of the NECs in different regions and when I mention the phrase RDP most people looked at me blankly. They didn't associate it with anything, even when I would say, "Programme for Reconstruction and Development", they would say, "Oh yes", but didn't know much what it was about. You had ministers in different departments who had different interpretations of the same document and in general an unfamiliarity with it and not only that but no feeling that they were attached to it, that it was their programme, not our programme. I was wondering why has the government been so slow to market the RDP in the way it marketed the elections through the Electoral Commission, voter education and the rest?
LW. Well I do not know why they did not and do not market it in that way exactly, but I do know that the RDP has certainly become a household name and one has to be very, very careful at this juncture that the concept of the RDP does not become cheap because everybody has heard of the RDP one way or the other. They may not be familiar with the substance of the RDP but if the RDP does not deliver that could reach very, very critical stages and I am very concerned about that. Because second tier government, because local government is not functioning well at the moment the delivery systems have to come through those tiers of government and it's not happening and I think the level of frustration may become pretty high.
POM. You find again the regional Premiers saying that powers are not being devolved to them in a sufficiency that would allow them to perform their jobs and there is a resentment of the centre holding on to the power, not just dealing it out in dribs and drabs. Is that a legitimate complaint?
LW. Well not from what I've heard. I've heard that they've been ineffective in marshalling the resources they have. But I do have a lot of sympathy with the Premiers in this regard because they, I believe, are very important building blocks in this whole process of upliftment and of further developing the economy no matter what the facts may be, but if that is their perception it is not working to anybody's gain and simply has to be rectified.
POM. When I came back here, I subscribe to two news clipping services so I get stuff every week, I ran through it and was struck by the incredible level of crime, the Sunday Times last week says a serious crime is committed every 17 seconds, by a horrific level of violence, by part of the MK in more or less rebellion, SDUs still roaming the townships and operating more like thugs than protective of their communities, and the President saying that the SAP has declared war on the ANC, continuing simmering war in KwaZulu/Natal, unions making huge wage demands, random strikes. It looked as though the country was, I won't say going to pieces, but was kind of sliding, the social fabric in a sense collapsing.
LW. One takes note of all these negative tendencies but the exciting thing about all this is that those are real problems, fighting crime, getting better education, integrating the army and MK, etc. That has nothing to do with apartheid or the illegitimacy of the government. So in a way one has a legitimate government now dealing with these problems. It is not strange for countries to have a problem with violence and crime, but you now have a concerted effort, there may not be complete harmony between the communities and the South African Police right now, however there is not a legitimate reason why there should not be cooperation between the police and the communities like the difficulties one did experience when people were saying the police force were functioning and working for an illegitimate government, so to speak.
POM. Do you think there is a sufficient level of political stability in the country that would warrant a foreign investor investing his money here?
LW. Well that is the question investors ask, why should we invest in your country? And the question they pose, is this a short term investment or is it a long term investment? Who is driving who? Is Mandela driving the nation or is the nation driving Mandela?
POM. If I were a businessman and I asked you those questions?
LW. Absolutely, no, I do know that but I do know that - I believe there is money to be made on the short term but I believe that one should take a longer term view on these matters as well. If you want to have a stake in the African market for your products and your investment I believe this is the place where you should make that kind of investment. I do believe there is sufficient political stability to warrant an investment in this country.
POM. A question on the elections last April. I had the privilege of being on an observing team and I remember the first day one of the most moving sights of my life. We had gone to the polling station at six o'clock to make sure everything was there and everything was in order and came round this corner to a small schoolhouse and there was a line of people stretching for two miles, the sun was just coming up. An incredible backdrop, the patience, the sombreness with which everything was carried out. Yet, everyone has made noises about cheating, that there were large scale irregularities and even the Electoral Commission said maybe about 70% of the vote was tabulated, that the rest simply got lost or wasn't counted. And you had a result that was like a miracle result and everyone got something. Buthelezi got KwaZulu/Natal, the National Party got the Western Cape and its vote in government, the ANC got their majority, and it looked too good to be true. Many people have suggested to me that it was in fact a kind of brokered result, that in the end the IEC was unable to count all the votes, was unable not only to count but to account for them, and that what was necessary to produce was a government that would be regarded as being legitimate and produce stability rather than a completely free and fair election that could leave havoc in its wake in terms of civil war in KwaZulu/Natal and violence on the Reef. What's your own opinion of how that whole process worked and turned out?
LW. Well I think that the whole election process was a manifestation of a desire of the people of South Africa that we should end the conflict and through participation in the election process everybody felt that they were part of this whole process and felt the importance of being an individual involved in it. But one should not forget that we do come from a very polarised past and that the divisions are not only pretty deep as far as the politics of South Africa are concerned but it's also divisions that have to do about the economy, the society, the walls that we have built around one another. And I think in that process of deprivation the people have lost sight of the importance of the quality of life and have become pretty reckless and it is a matter that cannot be solved overnight. So to revive that spirit of belonging which you had during the election process and everybody coming out, working harder, combating crime, participating in the combating of crime, is pretty difficult. The only thing that should not happen is that we should not forget what could have happened had this process been derailed and I think all of us that were involved in that process do realise how precious the moments of April 1994 have been and will not only cherish them but will also keep on aspiring and working to make that a permanent situation.
POM. I suppose my question in a way would be, everyone knew what the alternatives to not producing a stable, legitimate government would be. The IEC by its own account was in a shambles, votes unaccounted for, counting was going badly, that at some point it became necessary to say we must get out with a result that is acceptable to everybody, it may not reflect exactly how people voted, may be off by some points here and some points there, but everyone comes out of it with something and is perceived as a winner; we'll get the stability we require in order to be a functioning government. Was there a thought like that around where the question of stability and legitimacy became more important than the question of whether the election was free and fair in a technical sense?
LW. I think during that process people and political groupings more or less had established what their power base was and were prepared to settle for that instead of drawing out the agony of it. The agony, I would say, of this drawn out process was more in the minds of those that worked with it than really the question of stability. I think stability was at stake, deeply at stake when we were negotiating and people were suggesting that the election date be postponed. I think that would have been pretty serious but it was more a question of bringing the counting process to finalisation according to what people had more or less estimated their support base to be than stability compared to what we felt the importance of stability was when people were suggesting the postponing of the election date.
POM. That would have had far greater consequences at that point.
LW. Right, yes.
POM. One thing I hear and see and people talk about and the media hype about over and over again is this whole question of the gravy train. Was particularly the ANC politically very naïve to come into office, assume office, and then to accept the findings of a commission which admittedly had been held before they came to office but which gave them all large salaries, huge salaries in comparison to what they had been earning in the past and unbelievable salaries according to what the person was earning at the grassroots and they spent good political capital almost by the first moment from doing that, even though there was a revision the damage was done. There's one editorial here, The Sowetan said, "The salaries ministers and MPs are paying themselves are extremely high when seen against what ordinary people are earning and is one of the reasons for the current wave of industrial unrest."
LW. Well let's divorce the political salaries from the industrial unrest at the moment. One should not forget that there were representatives of trade union backgrounds serving on that commission and granted that people are receiving much more than what they had received, but holding political office in a way also requires adjustments in lifestyle and expenditure. People suddenly find they have to maintain two houses, it's difficult to cope without a car and suddenly they find that, some of them certainly, what they are being paid now does not compare favourably with what they earned or could earn in the private sector and that, I believe, is the why many politicians, members of parliament, justify the present salary scales. So given the background where they come from ...
POM. They are saying, well, this is a high salary but I could not be a politician and go and work in the private sector and earn more.
LW. Absolutely. I know two ANC politicians, very outspoken ANC politicians about all issues relating to the previous regime and the previous political set up. The one, in private saying, "Well you must realise I actually have now to maintain three homes." The one is where he originally comes from, his political base is the PWV region and he has to maintain a house in some way in Cape Town and that actually requires that he needs transport in Cape Town as well as in the Transvaal. All these little things add up and I know another politician who left the services of the ANC and actually came to parliament via the private sector and has taken a tremendous blow in salary income. And I have no reason to doubt any of the two of them in this regard. However, given the position they came from, people involved in trade unions now want to earn the same, but that I do not believe is the main source of industrial controversy and unrest. I think there is a general expectation that workers are now entitled to a better pay package than they had been prior to the election, not understanding completely the way a private company may function. A private company has to function on the profits they make and therefore people do not, I believe, fully comprehend that. That could be part of it.
POM. Wasn't it argued that this whole question of getting skilled blacks into both the private sector and the public sector was that since the private sector can pay more, the more ambitious and the more skilled will tend towards the private sector leaving the public sector with what is left over rather than having the cream of the crop?
LW. Well in that sense I think the salaries paid to skilled black managers and workers are and will be inflated for a long time because the demand is so great. People will want them in their service and will simply have to pay for the opportunity of having such persons in their employ. That may all add up to unnatural inflation and possibly also the fact that our productivity and our salary scales are not completely in tandem with one another.
POM. Affirmative action will obviously be a big issue. It's a big issue in the States and kind of rubs people raw there as it did 20 years ago. It rubs people raw in Northern Ireland between Catholic and Protestant and here it looms as a large issue. Everyone in the public sector, again, is entrenched in their jobs so that the only way you can bring black people in is through - how can you restructure a civil service since the only way you allow new entrants is through the attrition rate in the service? How can you get blacks to significant levels?
LW. Well I think that the biggest frustration in the civil service at the moment is the lack of communication. It's not the fact that blacks will have to enter the public service and also have to offer their services to the public at large, but is the lack of communication. I'm talking from a white perspective between the Commission for Administration and the Ministry for Administration people are holding jobs, white civil servants are holding jobs on a temporary scale, they do not know what their futures will be. So if you can find the black personnel I do not believe their entry in itself will cause that major frustration because people understand they will have to be guided and will have to be assisted but it is the uncertainly exactly what is going to happen and will skilled and trained civil servants be properly utilised. That is the frustrating part of it all right now.
POM. But the civil service as it now stands could if it so wished hinder the implementation of government programmes?
LW. Hinder the programmes in terms of affirmative action or in terms of delivering services?
POM. Delivering services.
LW. I think one should not underestimate the goodwill that exists in the civil service and the willingness of the civil servants to participate and really be involved in rendering a good service but they need to be informed, they need to be spoken to, they need to be communicated with.
POM. The business community, what would its reading be on the RDP, on the government of national unity? Has it been playing its part? I found this quote from Chris Liebenberg the current Minister of Finance who said at a luncheon recently, "I feel like a scrum half who cannot get the ball out of the scrum because my loose forwards are not there to support me." How would you interpret that?
LW. Well I do not know the context he used it in but I think that the private sector cannot really afford not to be seen to be identifying with the RDP and could really not be seen not to be identifying with the government of national unity in respect of what the government of national unity stands for and then the reconciliation, uniting the South African public at large and the nation. But the way I've read and understood previous statements along those lines of Chris Liebenberg have been that he found that outsiders looking at South Africa were more impressed by the miracle of April 1994 than the South African business community themselves and he also said that he found outsiders to be more optimistic of our chances to succeed than the South African business community and therefore when one talks of investment one is not only thinking of external investment, one is also thinking of internal investment. And in that respect I personally believe that the South African business community are making the right noises expressing the correct sentiments but are not involved enough in these two matters that we have mentioned, namely the RDP and the government of national unity.
. Let me just make a nasty remark, and I cannot generalise but I certainly can think of individuals in the business community but that does not only go for the business community, it will go for parliament, it will go for the church, it will go for the academics of this country, it will go for the Afrikaner community, the English speaking community, but we're talking now of the business community, that's why I am mentioning them. But there are a number of individuals in the business community that fail to see the challenges and by nature of their environment have a very sceptical approach to politics and politicians and matters such as that and many of them being white with European backgrounds do not really identify with the plight of not only the poor but of the objectives of the RDP in the sense that the RDP is the only opportunity that we have to really be deeply involved in the development and upliftment of the poorer sections of our community.
POM. Let me go back then to the RDP for a minute. To me it seems every year, for the last four or five years I've been asking blacks what are their levels of expectations and they went from being very, very high to still remaining high even at the beginning of this year, so you have this gap between what the government can deliver and what the expectation was that they would deliver. Tied to that you have what I call the culture of entitlement, people have got used to getting services for nothing and now balk at having to pay for those services effectively, bringing their standard of living down, taking away their disposable income. You have coupled with those two a kind of a cultural dependency, people wait for things to be done for them without generating, they mustn't make themselves responsible for their lives and they can't blame everything on apartheid and wait for somebody to "fix it". How do you sell the RDP to people that makes it understandable to them in a simple way so that they say, this is terrific, I want to be part of making this happen, rather than seeing it as a government programme, that it's theirs not ours?
LW. Well the only way you sell it to the public is you need charismatic leadership to explain the art of democracy is persuasion and you have to keep on talking, explaining, talking and explaining to this nation, something that has not happened over decades so if they do not respond like the literate western nations and supporters do where people have access to newspapers, the majority of people have access to newspapers, radio stations and television. That is simply the only way but you have to define clear objectives and explain them to the people and in that respect we are found wanting. You should not only tell them once in a blue moon that they have to pay for their rents and for their services. You should not only by way of a single press statement explain to them what affirmative action means in terms of employment in the public service. It is an on-on-ongoing process and one should not get tired of doing that.
POM. Is this hindered by the fact that a list system was used which in a sense makes an MP, that the person you want to satisfy is not the constituent, it's the party because your place on the list will depend upon how highly the party rates you, not how highly the constituents out there rate you?
LW. Well we do not have the perfect system because we have many things at stake. We had stability at stake, we had to reach compromises and the list system is not the ideal system to deal with this but had we not gone for the list system right now we still would not have had the election and that I believe was too ghastly to contemplate. But by and large I do get the impression that even under this system MPs are prepared to work hard, are learning the trade of parliament and parliamentary and political tricks, so to speak, quite well and quite fast. But it has not been utilised to its full potential and they have not been utilised to their full potential. One must remember we first came to parliament only a couple of days after the election and since then we've all had tremendous difficulties just to settle down and find offices and understand the structures. I mean I come from a lawyer's background, and I had problems understanding what parliament was all about when I first came here. Can you imagine, many of the first time parliamentarians who had never been in any parliament before, have been educated in parliaments and politics of the streets. That does not bother me. What does bother me is the fact that one is looking already at another election, local government elections, and politicians are inclined to overstate their case when they are campaigning, so people will not be explaining the difficulties, they will keep on raising the expectations as they go into next year's elections and that is a bigger danger than their inability to fully explain the difficulties we are experiencing at the moment and explain the commitments that people have in paying their rents and taxes and so forth.
POM. I don't know whether I asked you, but do you think local government elections will take place in October?
LW. No you have not asked me, but I think they will take place.
POM. A fairly significant sentiment outside among regional premiers is that they won't be ready. They haven't even begun the administration of it, they haven't even begun to compile voters' lists, to demarcate constituencies.
LW. Well I've been partly involved with others in this game before. That's what people said in 1993 about the election of 1994 and I think had we not opted for that sort of pressure cooker approach we would have had great difficulties. Depending on how well interim local government structures will function within the next six months or so one will be able to determine whether the need and the desire for elections are so genuine as had been the wish and the desire for elections this year. So I would say the first six months of next year, maybe the first quarter of next year will be of paramount importance to determine whether elections can take place or whether they should take place.
POM. Now will they take place in a context of regional governments devolving powers to them or will they have set powers that are written in the constitution and there is no question of devolution?
LW. I think by and large they will have their powers mapped out. I'm not really familiar with interactions between the Department of Provincial Government and the Premiers with regard to local government but I think they will have their powers mapped out in the sense that people will know what they are voting for when they are voting for local government elections.
POM. Just four last questions. One is a simple one. Is Mandela the glue that holds this whole thing together?
LW. Well that is a question, let me just see whether I understand it, the question. Is Mandela driving the nation or is the nation driving Mandela? Is that really what your question is?
POM. I suppose, yes.
LW. Well I think Mandela personifies this spirit and I do believe Mandela is a very, very important role player and he certainly holds the government of national unity together in the sense that he is the symbol of a new united nation. But the spirit amongst the majority of South Africans goes beyond Mandela, so maybe the nation is not driving Mandela but certainly Mandela is not driving the nation in the sense that he is a sole voice standing and calling out for tolerance and greater nationhood and nation building and things like that.
POM. If he were to die suddenly would that pose a major crisis for the government? Or, this is speculation, will you have a situation of Ramaphosa and Mbeki, or is Mbeki really sewn up? At this point he's the heir apparent.
LW. Just leave aside the personalities. There is obviously nobody with the stature of Mandela and in that respect he will be difficult if not impossible to replace. Now the chemistry that brought us together is a chemistry that goes beyond Mandela. Now it's difficult to predict and I'm not facing your question head on, but I believe that there has to be a political realignment in this country because just as much as the old politics of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary groupings was an unnatural one, but was very much a real one, I believe that the politics we have at this moment are to a certain extent also unreal and I have said will not last the next decade, see the next decade through. People say, why so long or so short for that matter? It's just an arbitrary time frame. Ten years is not a well considered time scale, but the next decade, because there are many people that are not together that actually should be together and the issues are not clear who should be where but I am convinced that it's an unnatural alignment that we have at the moment.
POM. Last thing, the Truth Commission. How far reaching do you think its powers should be? Who will come under its frame of reference and should people who are found to be implicated in crimes, particularly commissioned by the state, have to stand down from public office?
LW. Let me interrupt you before you ask the full question. I can always afterwards say I didn't understand your question or I didn't grant you to pose the question completely. I have a very simple approach to this which is actually in my view quite a sad story. It's sad in the sense that I really do believe that South Africans have not come to grips with the past yet. Because they have not done so they do not completely appreciate the miracle. That's why Liebenberg has this difficulty with his loose forwards and the outside and inside investment. There are many unanswered questions and it is for public opinion to decide whether a man's discretion was a good discretion or a bad discretion. We were waging war against one another, we were killing and maiming one another. It has been said that soldiers without compassion do not win wars. Now all these atrocities from all sides have to be, as far as I'm concerned, have to be understood and we will simply have to see whose judgement can be relied on and on whose judgement one can depend to build the future. It is as simple as that. And that is not a very popular statement I am making. I have not made this statement as forcefully in public as I have made it here but I have expressed views along these lines. I've written a book which I hope will be published eight to ten days from now, which is not a strong, strong story, but there is a paragraph or two on this matter where I simply say that we have to find the answers, who killed some people.
POM. What's the title of the book?
LW. It's written in Afrikaans. It's called 'The End of an Era - Liberation of Afrikaners'.
POM. I'll get it translated.
LW. I hope I could have it translated sometime. I would dearly love to. It's a novelty for me to write. Politicians don't write much but I thought, well I had the opportunity and I had to wrestle with some of the issues and ghosts of the past and I simply just had to get it out of my system and this is what I did.
POM. There is the related question, and that is of intelligence records which surfaced both in Czechoslovakia and East Germany where they allowed everyone access to all the personal files the government had kept on individuals, names the people who had informed on them and very often it was a husband who was spying on his wife, children on their parents, and rather than being a measure of conciliation it became a measure of deeper division.
LW. It depends on how one manages this. I am a great believer of talking, explaining, but you cannot allow these things to have taken place and pass on unnoticed as if they never happened. And I certainly don't have a vindictive spirit about this but I have all the reason to believe that I was spied on and it irritates the hell out of me and I haven't gone through anything comparable to what many, many members of the ANC have gone through. If we want to be this shining democracy at the southern tip of Africa we have to realise we are all caught in this transparency trap right now and we have to deal with it, we have to explain. I think one should not underestimate the spirit of forgiveness, for understanding and the joy and the pleasure of having these new-found relationships with one another. And that is what we have to talk about. There are, of course, the tragic events of the Johan Heynses of this world that are quite sad, I mean they are terribly sad, but I think the events surrounding Johan Heyns are not the spirit of the South African nation. Therefore I think we just have to go through them.
POM. What I hear you saying is that if one is to forgive one must know what one is forgiving.
POM. OK. I won't bother you for another six months.
LW. No, it's always interesting.
POM. I'll have the transcript sent to you. I hope it always comes to you.
LW. It does.