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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
04 Nov 1996: Dommisse, Ebbe
POM. Mr Dommisse, perhaps I will start with just one general question. Since we last talked, and even in our conversation preliminary to this interview, you exhibited a degree of pessimism that I haven't seen you exhibit before, not only pessimism but a disillusionment of the kind that I have not seen you exhibit before.
ED. Well I would agree with that, yes. Would you like me to say something more about that?
ED. I think there are quite a number of reasons for it. When we went into this transformation one of the assumptions was that we shouldn't go the way of Africa and after 2½ years there are very disturbing signs that we are in fact going the way of Africa. Economically the government after a long period of uncertainty at last accepted a macro-economic policy which I thought was fairly good and the right way to go but very soon also it became clear that their ability to deliver on this was just as bad as on the RDP which was scrapped more or less, although it was said it was taken into other departments and so on. I think there were quite a few things that happened. One was the sudden resignation of Chris Liebenberg as Minister of Finance and replaced by a bit of a clown like Trevor Manuel who makes no impression at all in the financial world, as being shown by among others the decline of the rand. Also the tendency of the ANC to act really like the only party in a one-party dominant system as we have. The Truth Commission was another factor in the sense that we thought from the beginning it should not be a witch-hunt. We were from the outset rather more in favour of a general amnesty for all parties. That didn't happen and now we sit with a Truth Commission which is dragging out and dragging out one atrocity after the other and I don't think it makes a very good impression on the outside world that the country doesn't seem to be able to get its act together and move forward in a very determined, and I am afraid it should be a very quick, way. There should be no hesitation in the modern world. Countries that fall behind, fall behind further because of the accelerating pace of change and that's happening with us.
POM. You mentioned one factor in your considerations and that was the tendency of the ANC to behave more in the fashion of a party that was in fact in control of a one-party state and maybe I should ask you some questions around that. One is that the constitution provides for a democratic system of governance, a democratic multi-party system of governance. What would your understanding be of what that means?
ED. Well I would say the idea of power sharing or the consociational model of a grand elite of party leaders coming together over specific issues is, theoretically anyway, most desirable for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-language kind of state that South Africa is, the ideas that Leipart and so on put forward about how a country like this should be governed. In fact we have a typical Westminster system of democracy where the majority takes all. It's as simple as that and I am not in favour of it. I don't think it can work, it's not working at the moment, you find the ANC riding roughshod over all objections, for instance in the latest bills in parliament, the abortion bill and the school bill, they do as they like and there is no stopping them. The only way is to go to the Constitutional Court but I think they work within the constitution so far, they are not working unconstitutionally but they give the impression that the opposition does not really matter to them. And in fact we have not got a very good opposition.
POM. What would you call the present system? Would you call it an effective multi-party system or a multi-party system in name only but not in practice and certainly not a multi-party system in the sense of there being the possibility of an alternative government emerging from among the opposition parties?
ED. I think that's exactly it. I think it's a multi-party system but as far as I can see there is no probability of a change of government within quite a long time. Under the former government it was really a party that ethnically dominated the others and this is happening again. The last election was more or less an ethnic census and blacks voting for the ANC and whites and coloureds voting for the National Party, some Zulus voting for Inkatha and a few odds and ends of no real significance. If you look at the picture now I would say not much has changed. The opinion polls show some loss of confidence in all the parties maybe with the Democratic Party gaining something but otherwise all of them are losing support, not to a large degree but the capability of the ANC to muster support at the next election basically on ethnic lines which means a 90% plus black vote is almost impossible to overcome.
POM. This specifically would be African?
ED. Yes, black vote, with the exception of Inkatha which will gather more or less half of the Zulu vote like in the beginning.
POM. How about the National Party? It has this vision of itself being transmogrified as it were into a multi-racial party that will attract political support from across the broad political spectrum and in that way will become a real force again in South African politics. Do you think that's wishful thinking and that what you're going to see, if anything, is just as the ANC vote becomes more African as time goes by you're going to see the rump of the white parties getting white votes plus a few professional blacks perhaps but by and large whites will continue to vote for the NP and the DP and they've a limited potential for growth?
ED. A few things that the ANC does, it's really plays right into the cards of that kind of thinking, affirmative action being the most obvious because affirmative action means advancement of blacks at the cost of whites. So the white electorate will not to any large degree vote for the ANC. I think it will be single figure percentages, or as far as I can see. I think that the NP, the vision of it attracting vast numbers of black votes is simply wishful thinking. It was in that interview with The Weekly Mail & Guardian Roelf Meyer expressed this kind of hope and the writer said, and I think it was very apt, how "A De Klerk led NP will be more attractive to blacks than a Mandela led ANC is beyond me." It's beyond me too, I can't see it.
POM. If effective opposition is not going to emerge from the existing political configurations what do you think of the talk which says that a split in the ANC is inevitable, that there are too many in this broad cathedral, there are too many churches and that there must be an inevitable parting of the ways. Again, do you think that this is more wishful thinking on the part of people, that in fact liberation movements tend not to break up, that even if there are a lot of disagreements, a lot of disagreements while you hold all the power is very different from allowing those disagreements to get in the way of you losing that power?
ED. Well Mandela said when we asked him about this, how do you explain this alliance with the Communist Party because communism is more or less a dead ideology and in the past tense and so on? He said, "Well you must understand that in the second world war the allies fought with the Russians and after the world war, after the common enemy had been defeated there was a parting of the ways in a natural way and so on." You think to yourself, "Well I guess apartheid has been defeated, when do we see the parting of the ways here now between the communists and the ANC?" and there's no parting of the ways as far as I can see. The communists are sticking to the ANC like a leech and they won't move quickly. It's obvious that the major cleavage would be on economic policy because for the communists to accept the macro-economic policy is heresy if you're a proper communist, but the Minister of Trade & Industry is a card-carrying communist and he's carrying out the policy to the best of his ability. It's very strange, that's all that I can say. I think too that the cement binding this liberation movement, romanticism, is very strong. I do not think there will be a quick split. I do think that when Mandela goes things should accelerate. Mandela is the broad binding force keeping them all together, although he's slipping.
POM. What would you point to when you say that?
ED. Well he speaks nonsense at times. His funny defence of Zuma, Minister of Health, in the Sarafina scandal. He said this weekend that the police force are corrupt and a minute later he says that they have arrested all the police suspects. That simply doesn't make sense. It sounds like a rambling old man which he has become in a way. You look at other examples. He plays a huge, and a very important, symbolic role but as far as governing the country is concerned there is nothing going on. He passes everything on to Thabo Mbeki who is overworked and he should by now be a nervous wreck almost.
POM. So you are not very optimistic about either political realignments resulting in an effective multi-party democracy or in the existing configurations resulting in an effective multi-party system?
ED. No I'm not. I think if you look at the leaders, I think the most effective opposition leader is Tony Leon but he represents more or less a tiny minority of the white electorate. He doesn't have broad support over the colour line. De Klerk, I think he's lost his credibility in South Africa. As a reformer he carried out the reform and normally the reformer leaves. He stayed. The big problem being that there is no clear successor, that's the big problem as far as the NP is concerned. Buthelezi is a very strange man and sometimes effective in opposition but it's very - I cannot really understand why he stays in government. If you look at the scandals around, if you look at the constant clashes between ANC and Inkatha, why does he stay in government? I can't understand it, it makes no sense. We're already building up to the 1999 election. There should be, for a proper multi-party system there should be more of a distinction between Inkatha and the ANC than there is now and he should try to consolidate his power base, but he stays in government. Otherwise what is there? The Freedom Front of General Viljoen, that's just silly the idea of a volkstaat. Anybody who believes that the ANC will give Viljoen a volkstaat is, I think, ready for the madhouse. I don't believe it at all. They will never do it. So, that's the opposition and there's no clear indication of forming alliances, of becoming a more effective opposition at least with a common stand on certain issues, very little indication of that. As far as the ANC is concerned divide and rule is the name of the game and they are doing it very effectively.
POM. When you say divide and rule, who are 'they'?
ED. Well they're playing off Viljoen against De Klerk and against maybe the DP at times and Inkatha to a lesser degree but also some emotional response to black brothers and all that.
POM. So then in the absence of a culture of democracy and given the present situation with regard to the comparative strengths of the political parties, can you really expect the inculcation of democratic norms in other elements of civil society or does civil society itself become the primary agent towards ensuring the checks and balances that are needed to provide some form of opposition?
ED. I think civil society, well let's put it the other way round, firstly I think the country is being carried along mainly by the private sector. The government is fairly irrelevant in the success that South Africa still has. Civil society could be much stronger and better organised to ensure a democracy. There are checks and balances like the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and Appeal Court, etc., and a free press, which I think is very, very important, but the ANC if it became bloody minded I suppose would crack down on, for instance, press freedom. Civil society might not be strong enough also because of the tendency of the ANC to politicise all fields of civil society like education, like culture, the arts, like sports and that's very disturbing to me. It was also a major mistake of the former NP government to politicise fields of human existence that should maybe mainly be left out of politics. Sports for instance. What do politicians do there? A member of parliament is chairman of the National Sports Council. Why? The East bloc countries interfered in all that, culture, sport, civil society. I don't like it.
POM. Do you think the ANC is beginning to behave more autocratically in government, that since the departure of the NP it has both become more comfortable with the use of power and more adept at using it to get its own way?
ED. It's definitely become more autocratic. I don't think it's more adept. They suffer from the illusion that they can go it alone, that they can do everything by themselves, which is a major mistake. There is also too much emphasis on the notion of big government while I think world-wide the tendency in successful countries is less government. Less is more. They don't realise that in South Africa. They are for big government, for big intervention, for playing a big role in society. They are not down-sizing the civil service. They are not staying out of business as they should, etc., etc.
POM. One argument made to me has been that at this point in the country's development that what it needs is a strong dominant party in power that it then has the capacity to carry out the transformational changes that are necessary, that if you had a more competitive party system then politics would be election driven and each party would be out looking for the marginal advantage that would put it a point or two up in the polls without due regard to what was necessary or even desirable for the country.
ED. I would say it appears to me as if politics are election driven anyway as the ANC is performing in a way that it wants to consolidate its election support. If you look at affirmative action, which is really just another form of social engineering, they are very strong on that. If the interests of the country came first with an effective civil service surely they would not carry on as they are doing already with replacing competent whites with incompetent blacks. That's not serving the interests of the country. The bills I mentioned in parliament which they are putting through in a very autocratic manner I don't think are serving the interests of the country. Say the macro-economic policy, for it to be successful they need to get maximum support for it but if they really want to serve the interests of the country then they must crack down on the trade unions and on the communist dissidents. COSATU came out openly against the policy. There are big rumblings in the Communist Party about the policy. No I don't think, I'm not in favour of a one-party dominant system anyway. One-party states tend to get worse and worse. I think it's the same here.
POM. So your conclusion would be that for all practical purposes after 2½ years South Africa is a de facto one-party dominant state?
ED. Oh yes, sure.
POM. And that the only constraints on that are the constitution and the Constitutional Court?
ED. Yes. So what one fears is they will start to pack the Constitutional Court, which I suppose is well known in the United States for instance.
POM. Do you think that in elections in 1999 that the ANC share of the vote will increase or stay about the same or that they will make an all out effort to try to get more than two thirds?
ED. Oh I think they want more than that, they want more than two thirds for sure to go it their own way. Whether they get it will depend a lot on what happens to Mandela. Mandela, one gathers, will step down as party leader towards the end of the next year and then he may step down as President to give Mbeki a chance to get acclimatised. There seems to be some idea of the ANC doing that, or Mandela doing that. The Mandela factor in South African politics is very, very strong. We never attack him personally, we only attack his statements and so on because he towers over South African politics. With him gone, he's madly in love now too, that's another thing, with him gone I think the circumstances will change significantly. Thabo Mbeki simply does not have the charisma of Mandela. Mandela plays up to it of course, the symbolic role that he plays and so on. Mbeki is incapable of doing that so that will change a lot. It also depends on what happens to the other parties, what they look like. I'm very hesitant about forecasting anything towards 1999. The African pattern seems to be that the liberation movement would get stronger. It's difficult to say because we are not winning the economic battle. If you look at the unemployment, the increase of the population and so on I think we're actually losing. So it depends. The ANC has shown a capability of not delivering, that's for sure and that might count against them with a big stayaway vote and things like that.
POM. Why do you think that is? It's not that they're incapable of diagnosing their problem. Why does there appear to be this continuing inability to deliver?
ED. Firstly bad administration. Secondly I think Clem Sunter said the other day per square meter we have more conferences than any other country in the world. We discuss every damn thing and we don't do (anything). It's very disturbing. It's true too what he says. The whole method of governing of the ANC, that we have to go back to the people and discuss it and have conferences and so on, that simply doesn't work in the modern world. You have to act, you have to really show that you are moving. The ANC is not doing that. The ANC is really a very old fashioned party in that sense.
POM. So to bring up the next set of questions. Taking recognition of the fact that the constitution says that the governance shall be by effective multi-party system, what should the government be doing to encourage the development of an effective multi-party system or do you think that's just too much to ask of a party in power to start to look out for the interests of other parties?
ED. It sure is in Africa. The African pattern is that most countries move towards at least a one-party dominant or a single party system. We're constantly being told, even by Nationalists, that to criticise the ANC is counter-productive because black supporters of the ANC think that the ANC is trying to undo what the NP got wrong and by criticising them you are hindering them. I simply don't think the ANC wants strong opposition.
POM. But if they were, what kinds of things should they be doing to encourage a more effective opposition recognising that in the long run the development of the country will be tied into the effectiveness of its democracy and if they are interested in long run development then ...?
ED. I think one thing that is very clear, the whites are leaving the country, among them Afrikaners. The other night I spoke to people who said they don't have a single friend, white friend, who is not thinking of leaving the country. I think it's suicidal to get rid of the people with the know-how and the ability to make South Africa a modern competitive country. The affirmative action as it is applied by this government is suicidal. I think they should add much more importance to and stress effective government. This is a very ineffective government to say the least. I'm told that the tax collection system is more or less falling apart, which doesn't surprise me. The transformation as a whole was much too quick, there was no holding action of trying to retain as much expertise as possible, which was the downfall of many other African countries. It's going the wrong way. It's simply too much to expect the ANC to encourage a strong opposition. I don't think they will do it.
POM. Now the constitution also provides that there shall be public funding of political parties, that is, it sounds slightly contradictory to me, 'both proportionate and equitable'.
ED. Does the constitution say that?
POM. It's the language it uses, the actual words. Do you support the ideal of there being some form of public support, financial support for political parties?
ED. You mean voluntary?
POM. No this would be a kind of an allocation by the state to political parties on the basis of some formula that could be used for, say, (i) would be that it would be for parliamentary purposes to extend their capacity for constituency outreach. I know they received some money for that already.
ED. For research.
POM. Or, $2000 or R2000 a month or something per party member, or per MP, but generally giving them some more funds for being able to carry out research, for being able to be a more informed voice in parliament. (ii) would be to give money that would be used on a day-to-day operational basis to keep the party in existence and allow it to build the base and the financial base that it needs to stay in business. (iii) might be just support of political parties at some level at election time so that each party has a more equitable chance of getting its message out to the electorate. What's your general feeling (i) about the use of public funds to fund political parties, and (ii) what kind should it take and (iii) should it be related to other factors as well?
ED. I am in favour of money being given to parties to support their system. The MPs get to parliament, at least one or more members of a party should have a secretary to answer the phone and to do typing and all that. I am in favour of that. MPs need to have research done. You know the Germans have these foundations to help political parties, that's an excellent idea because they are funded by the central government, not by the parties. I think that's fine and should be encouraged. I think, like I've told the people from the European Union, whenever you deal with politicians, have strings attached because I am afraid our politicians too have shown a remarkable capacity to steal from the public and from NGOs in a big way. So there should be a proper check on money. I understand even up to now, I don't know how many months afterwards, no programme has been given to the Japanese government on how their contribution should be spread. There should be a budget for a politician and they should be held accountable for the money given to them because you should not trust them. I don't trust them anyway. All right at election time I think some formula, if you really want a proper multi-party system, a formula should be devised to help the opposition more than the government. I don't see much chance of it happening but that's what it should be like.
POM. And how about the use of public media? Should that be made available in equal blocks to all the major parties?
ED. Well if you look at the African Christian Democratic Party, how many members, two? And being split down the middle, how much time should they get?
POM. One would distinguish between, I assume they would find a way of distinguishing between a party that may receive 1% of the vote and a party that would receive 15%.
ED. I think, for instance, in the last election TV time was given to them. Yes, I don't have any objection to that. What we do as a paper we would not agree to being told what percentage to give to what party. We try to cover elections in a fair and equitable manner and in fact we've been recommended for our coverage of elections, but that's voluntary. I think there should be no pressure from the state or from government to a free press to do what they think is fit. I think that's not called for, it would possibly be unconstitutional.
POM. Just to back up and summarise a little. On a scale of one to ten where ten is very important and one is not very important, where would you put the development of a strong multi-party democracy as a priority?
ED. On a scale of one to ten?
POM. Given the other problems that the country faces.
ED. I would rate economic development as the most important because that ties in with a multi-party democracy. Normally multi-party democracies flourish where you have a very strong economy, a free market economy. Yes, I would put it fairly high, about seven or so.
POM. And on a scale of one to ten where ten would represent that you already have a vibrant multi-party system and one would represent that you have at best a whimpering voice of opposition here and there, where would you place the current state of affairs?
ED. Not more than five.
POM. And in regard to the use of public funds in some way to strengthen political parties and make them more effective as voices of opposition, again on a scale of one to ten how important?
ED. About six.
POM. How about disclosure? Should political parties be required to disclose sources of their funds? Should there be limitations on the amount that individuals or corporations can give? Should foreign individuals and/or foreign governments be allowed to contribute once the disclosure is made or should there be a ban altogether on certain kinds of funding, particularly foreign funding?
ED. I would be in favour of foreign funding being disclosed. On priority funding from within the country I suppose that would cause big problems for, say, the companies concerned. The clever ones play the field, they give to all the parties.
POM. You're saying that if you were to contribute to the NP but not the ANC and that was disclosed then your chances of doing business with the state, where the state is the biggest business in the country, would be severely damaged?
ED. I should think so, yes. I think it's a very tricky field. That's something where I thought - the NP took the stance that they would not disclose the name of donors because, sure, for a big company that has to do business with the state that could be embarrassing if they did not contribute to the ANC either. For private individuals to give to parties it's tricky too. I would not stand on it but I would add a rider to it that if circumstances arise which are suspicious there might be reason to put pressure on a party to disclose donors. There is this provision in the constitution about privacy, that privacy must be respected, and it's very important. I would put that to the Public Protector to decide whether there should be disclosure or not. Then the Public Protector of course must not be appointed by the majority party as happened here.
POM. You talked about someone who said that there are more conferences per square metre than any other country in the world and everything is consulted and debated and written about to death and yet nothing happens, but do you think enough attention is being focused on this particular issue, that the country is not developing or does not appear to be developing a pluralistic multi-party system, that it's a question that must be examined to see what government and other institutions can do to make opposition parties more effective and their voices more fully heard? Or do you think it's just one more side bar?
ED. I think much more can be done. Even the way the SA parliament is now established, the way it consists of this huge bloody chamber. One walks to the podium and speaks and there is no real cut and thrust of debate as you had in the old Volksraad or as you have in the British House of Commons and so on. That is one thing which I thought was wrong about the SA parliament and also, you know the whole mentality of that, that you should not criticise the ANC too much because they are trying to put right what the Nats did wrong and so on. I think that whole mentality is a major obstacle for a multi-party democracy apart from the pattern of ethnic voting, and that should be put right because surely any government is just the servant of the people. That's all. They all think the people are their servants but that's not the way it should be.
POM. Some have mentioned to me that the NP leaving the government of national unity at this point was perhaps a mistake because the only way they can show themselves to be in opposition is to criticise the government and criticising the ANC is seen as being equivalent to criticising blacks. It's like saying, "See we told you you couldn't do it and you can't do it." So that rather than creating a basis for more harmonious politics it's creating a basis for more polarised politics?
ED. Yes. OK. I think there are lots of answers to that one, the first one being that of course that's true, that leaving the government caused that kind of perception but also at that time when the NP left the ANC tactic was to quite ignore the Nats contribution to the solving of problems. They would claim that they did it firstly. They give the Nats no recognition of any kind and the Nats were losing support. They gained more support after leaving so that was a political consideration. Secondly, the ANC was lethally opposed to any kind of power sharing in the new constitution and I think there are quite sophisticated ways that you could share power, that you could draw in people from other parties into the system of government and make a more harmonious party political system. But we have a simple Westminster form of majoritarian government so the reasoning of the ANC was quite unacceptable. I couldn't believe it for one minute. If they were amenable to sophisticated ways of power sharing like a State Council of elder statesmen or whatever, a Privy Council like they have in Britain or something like that, and also the necessity in the constitution of drawing in the opposition over very crucial matters like foreign affairs, like defence, like the budget, finance and so on, well it's not difficult to do that if you really do want equitable participation of opposition parties. They were dead against it. It was winner takes all. So the reasoning, I think, that they are using that the Nats caused trouble for more harmonious politics, the mistake was basically that of the ANC.
POM. So 2½ years in, are you more optimistic about the future than you were 2½ years ago, less optimistic or are things more or less confirming what you thought would happen all along and you learn to live with it and that's the way to go?
ED. I'm less optimistic. I think the capability of the ANC to govern is much less than I thought it would be. They are not as sophisticated as I thought they should be. We are facing severe, very, very severe economic problems. I don't think they have the capability or the will to solve these problems. At first I think we'll have a difficult transitional period of about may ten years, I think we're in for about a quarter of a century of a very, very difficult time.
POM. We'll end on that note, which one can only improve on in the future. Somebody has said to me, I just want to hear your opinion on this, when the Nats went to negotiate with the ANC they said, "Listen these guys are a piece of meat, we can get them around a table and tie them up in knots and generally hammer out a deal that's to our own liking." As a result of that they didn't think things through clearly, i.e. amnesty would be one good example, and that when it came to negotiations that the ANC were in fact far more sophisticated than the NP had thought and had a good strong strategic sense and in many respects ran circles around them so that in the end the NP ended up with a deal under which they got a lot less than they could have gotten if they had taken the opposition more seriously at the time. Would you agree with that?
ED. I would agree with a lot of that. I went to F W de Klerk in January 1990, just before February 2nd and I went to him shortly after his speech and I said to him, "Well I think you had to do what you did and we will support that but I suppose from now on you'll let the NP negotiate and you will govern the country." And he said, "Oh no, the ministers will have line functions and decisions will have to be carried out and so on." So he more or less killed off his negotiating personnel. Viljoen went, Barend du Plessis went, Stoffel van der Merwe went. Eventually we had a very junior minister in Roelf Meyer being the chief negotiator which was a major mistake. We had excellent negotiators on our side who went through the Namibian experience who were never used. The ANC used excellent barristers and advocates and legal people, which he didn't use. I think they underestimated the ANC to their own regret today. The amnesty is an obvious example and the power sharing and all that, the constitution. They left their allies in the lurch. At one stage during CODESA the NP had about nine parties lined up with them and they lost them all, including the most important, Inkatha. So they got what they deserved.
POM. OK, thank you.
ED. Useless bloody lot if you ask me. You should never underestimate the opposition. It's the first rule of politics.
POM. It's something that Ramaphosa understood very well. Entice them into underestimating us.
ED. And the way the country is going now, very difficult.
POM. Would Ramaphosa have been a better choice of successor to Mandela?
ED. Difficult to say. Mbeki is quite competent but he surrounds himself with very strange people, like Essop Pahad who thinks all journalists are spies.
POM. I've heard that.
ED. No, it's difficult to be optimistic. We have this African scenario facing us that Africa is virtually incapable of governing itself, that they are not part of the 20th century. Kissinger was here the other day, he said he has never anywhere on earth been asked about Africa. Nobody asks him. So we have that scenario and we have to be three times better than any African country. We are far from the world markets, we have a few things that we can sell and in a way we are strategically situated, not in a big way but somehow. And we could have a tremendous tourist trade but then we need to combat crime, we need to fix unemployment and these things all go together and we're not doing that very well.