This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
09 Aug 1989: Motlana, Ntatho
POM Talking to Dr. Motlana on the 9th of August. Doctor, taking the start of the emergency and today, what are the major changes that have taken place in South Africa for the better and for the worst during that period?
NM I wouldn't say there have been any fundamental changes. There are those political commentators who are very fond of pointing an accusing finger at the Mass Democratic Movement, at the United Democratic Front and some of our organisations and say that towards the middle of May there was this feeling abroad that things were about to change and change fundamentally, that blacks were about to take power and that the state of emergency showed the strength of the South African system; how, by the way when the state of emergency was declared in June 1986, this is the second one really, they were out in Dakar and came back to South Africa towards the end of June to find an incredible situation. It was eerie the way the streets had been cleaned off, the youngsters you saw hanging out in the shops and so on, and then the commentators were saying that we have been brought down to earth with a bang where we had fought, we were about to seize political power and that the government had shown how powerful and how very much in control it always has been. Now my response to that has always been we were never under an illusion that blacks are about to take power. We interpreted what had been happening, what was still happening at that time as the continuing pressure that we exert on the system, continue to exert on the system to change and that the system is actually under siege. Although it may not be about to change fundamentally immediately, it will change. But there's no question that the white minority is still in control.
POM Has there been any shift in the psychology of the white state? I mean have they moved from a point where they have been saying blacks will never share in power to the point where they're saying we have to find an arrangement whereby they can share in power?
DR I think the one area of fundamental change, even if it's just a shift in perceptions and so on, is in the National Party. There is no question that the National Party is in complete disarray. They don't know where they are going and I speak as one who is mad, not only with the propagandists in the party, I have met with F W de Klerk himself and listened to him debating across a panel discussion ... but we sat at the table with De Klerk and Treurnicht(?).The National Party simply does not know where it is going. The Conservative Party claims of course that it is the logical heir to the National Party, it is the repository of all those hairy schemes that the National Party espoused in 1948. But I think if we blacks refuse to acknowledge, accept that there's been any change, but as far as the National Party's concerned, as far as perceptions are concerned, I think we must admit that they don't know where they are going. They're fishing around for a policy, the they're fishing around for solutions and they don't know what to do.
POM Two follow up questions, one, how do you think the elections will turn out? And two, will De Klerk make a difference himself, not being PW Botha?
DM One of the things I cannot understand is how one speech that contained absolutely nothing by one F W de Klerk will turn out. He seems to have set South African whites, enlightened whites in Africa alight. Very many political activists who were soexcited about De Klerk's first speech, I mean we saw nothing in I, I don't think De Klerk will make any difference. It seems to me that the commentators were saying that the Conservative Party is making tremendous gains, and I speak as one who has been in evening company of one Connie Mulder at a private dinner arranged by a mutual friend about six months before he died, who told me that in this election,and this was long beforethe swing to the Conservative Party became apparent, that in this election the Conservative Party will win enough votes to ensure that in the next election five years down from now they will take over power. In fact there are those who are thinking that even in this election, there'll be such a war to share it that the National Party MPs will see this massive swing towards the Conservative Party that they will defect and join the Conservatives and that in fact two three years from now we may see a Conservative Prime Minister in power, or President in power. Now I think I accept the interpretation that has been placed on this election by many commentators that although the National Party may be returned with a small majority, the winner is going to be the Conservative Party.
seemed to have set South
white, enlightened white,
Conservative party became apparent, that in this election the Conservative party will win enough votes to ensure that the next election five years down from now will take over power. In fact there are those who are thinking that even in this election, they'll be such a war to share it that the National party MPs will see this massive swing towards the conservative that they will defect and join the conservatives. And that in fact two three years from now we may see a conservative prime minister in power, or president in power, Now I think I accept the interpretation that has been placed on this election by many commentators that although the National party may be returned with a small majority the winner is going to be the Conservative party,
POM So do you think the National Party, if it does win, will be always looking over its shoulder at the Conservative Party and making its policies - not embarking on any radical policies for fear of more defections to the Conservative Party?
NM Exactly, that is how I interpret it.
POM How then do you interpret this for the black community? Let's make the assumption that the National Party has been re-elected but with a severely cut majority, what impact would this have on black politics?
NM The young comrades would welcome a Conservative Party win because they believe it will deepen the crisis and that in deepening the crisis both internally and externally it will hasten the day of reckoning, Maybe so. But those of us who are old enough to remember 1948 and how we interpreted the win by the National Party as being exactly what we hope a win by the Conservative Party will do, namely to deepen the crisis to increase foreign pressure on South Africa and so on, it didn't happen. It allowed the National Party to stay in power for 40 years, for them to do some very hairy schemes and the blacks have suffered, I wouldn't like to see a repeat of that kind of process. And in fact I took it up with the Dr. Treurnicht the day we met and in a corridor of some hotel or somewhere, and I said to him, What makes you think that after 40 years your party, and you're a Cabinet Minister in that party, failed to bring about any fundamental change with these bloody hare-brained schemes, what makes you think that you will succeed? And Treurnicht said that the policies didn't fail, both policies are still very good and accepted by the majority of the white electorate, which of course is true.
What failed was the will of the ruling party to carry through these policies and will carry through these policies. Now I can imagine that the Conservative Party could conceivably come to power with those same policies that Dr. Verwoerd passed in 1948, stay in power, clearly it will not be 40 years but 15 - 20 years, again that is too long for some of us. And therefore I would not really like to see the Conservative Party win and come to power with those kinds of schemes, try them again and fail after 15 - 20 years. I would like to see some other party that would negotiate. For instance, if the idea of a hung parliament were in fact to come about where the Democratic Party would then become the kingmakers, we might in fact see some much more fundamental change.
POM Would you see a split in the National Party? In other words the National Party aligning themselves with the Conservative Party and like the 'leftwing' of the National Party joining the Democrats?
NM I don't see that happening. I cannot conceive of the National Party MPs joining the Democratic Party. There was talk of the New Nats a few years back and I was fortunate to attend some conferences, particularly one arranged by Professor John Barrett, whom I'm sure you know, I met with the so called New Nats who spoke a language that really surprised me. I mean those young men of the Democratic Party, or PFP (Progressive Federal Party) of that time, and there was a hope you'll recall I'm sure that when Van Zyl Slabbert and Boraine broke away and resigned from parliament that you'd be able to take away some 48, the number was given then, from the National Party, Those young men, I don't want to mention names here, they're well known to all of us, I think they learned their lesson. And that lesson is that white South Africa is not about to change. White South Africa is as racist, as fascist if you like, as it ever has been and will vote for parties of the right and not so much for parties the left. Thus I can't see any defections from the National Party, to the PFP, no.
POM To the Democrats?
NM The Democrats, no.
POM If you had to look at the overall state of black politics and again using the emergency as a starting point, in what ways has it improved and in what ways has it become less effective? What are the major conflicts within it?
NM Well, the one aspect in black politics that often bothers me is the re-emergence of Black Consciousness especially among the young, And I interpret this as a reaction against what many young blacks perceive, and I mean they tell me about this, those who talk to me, perceive it to be a shift inside the country of black leadership to non-Africans. I think one must admit that in some areas, in law for instance, in such organisations as we named and so on, there is a tendency to marginalise blacks.
POM The leadership is exercised by whites.
NM And Asians and coloureds are often spokespeople for black South Africans, particularly overseas, are people who don't live out there in the townships. During the time of the pass laws it could be said these are people who didn't even carry passes. And when you go to, as I did once, to court in Benoni where one of my nephews, a Motlana boy, was one of the detainees and there were about 250 to 300 black boys, African, who had been detained and they were all appearing in courts, various courts in Benoni and all the legal representatives were non-African. It does something to you and to people, especially the young who say there's something wrong here. And so at that level I think we need to bring Africans into the mainstream of that leadership. I don't know why it should happen that they should be on the periphery of that leadership.
POM Has the Black Consciousness movement gained ground in the last four or five years?
NM Well I think it has gained ground among the youth, There is no question about it, it has gained ground among the youth and it causes us problems because there is no unity; black unity is the thing. What I have noticed on the other hand overseas, is how the leadership of the African National Congress, the African National Congress, is so accommodating of the other movements overseas. I listened to Tambo at the conference in Bermuda make his presentation, it was beautiful. The ANC has not claimed to be the authentic, the only representative in terms of the voice of the African people. No they accept that there are other people, in fact they mention the PAC by name. And the AAI conference which I attended in Lusaka in January 1989 where Oliver Tambo made a major speech, again you know you are so generous, and we know the PAC overseas is a broken up body really and it would only exist because the United Nations gives them a grant, half to the PAC I'm told and half to the ANC. But inside here clashes have almost amounted to open warfare and so I mean I haven't looked at the scene since 1959 when Sobukwe broke away with his PAC and listened to those debates. I can only say that is part of the problem. And when even we've failed to achieve complete freedom and movement when, COSATU and ... were supposed to form one huge black trading federation, a move there had been in a sense masterminded, promoted, by Peter Shaw Keme(??) who at the very last moment refused to go in and remained outside the federation. And I took up the issue with him, I asked him directly.
POM Peter Shaw?
NM Keme. you don't know him?
NM He is one of the major trade union leaders in South Africa. He is secretary of the CNETU(?), and I took it up with him and I said, Look what the hell, you were in the leading ranks of this movement in the formation of COSATU. Why did you break off? And again he said, quite clearly quite openly, he backed off because of the absence of black leadership in COSATU. Black meant African leadership. And I interpret this as leading to this kind of internal conflict.
But having said all that there is no question about the effectiveness, the major power that has been exercised by the UDF. Also the formation of the UDF since my organisation, the Soweto Civic Association, was a major affiliate of the UDF. August 1985 when we met in Cape Town to start that movement was really something. Most exciting. It reminded me of my first political conference Bloemfontein in December 1949 when I begin with the Youth League. And you know the movement, and I don't want to say this in case Vlok hears this, but although the movement have been restrictive, we can't have public meetings there's no question that the UDF and its affiliates are alive and well and given half a chance they'll start marching again. Whether that marching can achieve its objective of forcing this government to come to the negotiation table and negotiate a new constitution, about that I'm not sure.
POM You'd mentioned in 1987?
POM 1987 we met in your office in Soweto.
NM Oh, we did?
POM Saturday afternoon. You had talked about power exercised in Soweto or in other townships by the comrades in a way that they were the ones who were calling the tune in the streets in Soweto, in the community to a large extent. Is that as true today as it was then?
NM I think the effect of the state of emergency has been to destroy those structures, the people's structures that they put in place, the street committees for instance, the branches of the Residents' Civic Associations. Those have been destroyed in the sense that they cannot meet openly, But I don't want to, you going to write about this, I don't want to tell the state that those structures are still intact, but of course they are still there. The people meet in each other's homes, they still talk, they're not as effective as they have been, for instance, in controlling crime. I'm sure you've heard that the crime rate in a place like Soweto is unbelievable, and the police are doing nothing about it, One of the reasons why we set up street committees when we did was in fact to protect the populace from common criminals, from right wing elements, we cannot do it now because the government has claimed a state of emergency, police patrols, not to protect the people but to harass the political activists.
PAT Tell us about what's going on in Soweto with the resolutions of the tenants' issues and the public utilities and all of the issues that have surrounded the ownership of property and how are you involved in that? I mean I get confused by what I read in the paper and there some association is relative to the role of the Johannesburg City Council and what's going on there.
NM You know of course that the Soweto Civic Association has been involved since 1978 really over the question of housing, rents, affordable rents, the state of the townships and under my presidency, I'm no longer president I'm the honorary president now, which means I've been kicked upstairs, the president, president emeritus. You know they consult me. The president now is a fellow called Isaac Mohasee(?) and I'd like this to be known, I'm often quoted, even this week, as the president. I'm not, I'm the honorary president which means I don't chair meetings, I don't do that, But all the problems really started under my presidency from 1977 really. So finally a boycott was called June 1986. We didn't call it although elements within our executive called it. We tried, it is illegal to call for a rent boycott, you go to jail. So we tried to get away from having to call rent boycott, of able to getting away. And many of us have not paid rent since June of 1986, have not paid for electricity, I owe about R18,000 for electricity only, R18,000. The rent is about R15,000 which I owe for my home, my two homes and the surgery. Now we have been negotiating with the state, with the government, we've always said we will not speak to the Soweto Council, we don't organise them, don't acknowledge their control over Soweto. But when the government placed restrictions on the UDF and on the Soweto Civic Association to the extent that we cannot speak as leaders of the community now under those restrictions, a party was formed under the leadership or Reverend Frank Chikane and the SACC called the Soweto People's Delegation who would not have the problems of who to talk to. They'd talk to anybody, I mean if we had handled that we would have not been able to go to the Council Chambers and so forth but they did. And they are talking to everybody, the government, the provisional counsellors, the black councillor called John Mavuso(?) who is said to be in charge of community affairs, whatever that means. Now, on record? I do believe it is on record.
POM No it's off the record.
NM But this mayor of Soweto, I am told that he and his deputies were in fact members of the street committees somewhere. This is a very well known fact. And so he is very sensitive to what people tell him about the rents and so on, And he's not as impossible the other guys used to be and in fact was quite willing to write off the rent arrears which is what the big province of Soweto, the huge areas are now 18,000, 18,000 and we live very happily. The standard of living has gone up, Soweto has spent all their money for rent on lovely groceries at the supermarket. The furnishing shops are reporting wonderful trading results and they pay for their TVs now. You can't image how much they are saving themselves, they are eating that money. Nobody knows what to do about it. The debt is mounting, and the government is forced to subsidise the consumption of electricity and so on and so on.
We've been talking, you asked about other utilities, we've been talking to the man from ESCOM, an English speaking South African, who heads this huge Electricity Supply Commission, who wants to set up a public utility for the supply of electricity for the distribution which is Soweto. I think about we're very excited because the control had been in the hands of councillors and only semi-literates offer themselves for election to these bodies as you know and so they don't understand what is happening. And if we could set up an independent public utility, a trading company with shareholders from Soweto and so on, who'd supply, monitor electricity, water and so on, all services generally, even cleaning, cleansing of the area which has been subcontracted to private people now. And Soweto is filthy because our people have not been taught about dumping. You've not been to Bermuda, I've never seen such a clean place in my life, it's cleaner than Tokyo. Clean Bermuda. And I asked my taxi driver man, Hey, how do you maintain this place? That place is 70% black. People think blacks litter, how do you manage? He says, Boy if you drop a piece of paper in the streets of Bermuda the fine is $3,000. What? Well we need to do something about that. I mean if you provide enough people anywhere to carry filth away there is not everybody to litter. That is what I hope, that we will do something about that in Soweto, The position is unclear. Cyril Ramaphosa, Frank Chikane and Ellen Kuzwayo are the leaders of this Soweto's People's Delegation who are talking to the council. They all have been through the Civic Association except for Ramaphosa who is not a Sowetan really, I don't know where he comes from, but I mean Frank and Kuzwayo, Mrs Kuzwayo, were in my committee and they are handling this. Hopefully the result - I don't know how.
POM What about the state of the economy. A couple of people that we've talked to have said that the government's short term debt of three billion dollars in fact is due for rescheduling for next March and that unless the international community, particularly the Swiss, see at least the release of Mandela, that they won't refinance the loans. Does this play any part in what's going on at all?
NM Well it is in the sense that we have these three priests who are doing a sterling job and two months ago when they were in Washington - I just missed them I got there after they'd been and I was at this party hosted by Senator Boren(?) with Kennedy and Kassenbaum(?); you know them all? They had just seen Tutu, Boesak, Chikane. Chikane was in the hospital at .... I was saying to them the Achilles heel of the economy is foreign capital. There's a meeting as you know right now in Canberra, Australia where again we have representatives from South Africa who are saying that maybe the thing to focus on is the debt problem. I don't know what's going to happen. Canada, I was in the other one, two years ago the conference of foreign ministers met in Ottawa and a few of us, myself included, attended that conference where black South Africans again pressed for increased sanctions. We had Randall Robinson presenting a report from his movement and I remember going out from this conference to tour a beautiful island of Vancouver near the city of Victoria and we saw a mountain, a yellow mountain and somebody said, You see that yellow mountain? Sulphur. If you come here in three months times that mountain of sulphur will not be there. It will all be in South Africa because the major importer of that kind of sulphur. I don't know what kind of sulphur because sulphur is a by-product of the operations in ... will be in South Africa. So although Canada was saying that Joe Clark is strong with economic sanctions against South Africa, the exports from Canada to South Africa have almost quadrupled in that period and so we've got this hypocrisy, double dealing, double faced where I don't know what is happening.
POM In your view have sanctions worked? Have they had any effect, brought pressure on the government?
NM Of course sanctions have put tremendous pressure on this government. There is no question about it. The State President himself regularly says this is in public speeches. We're under pressure, the economy cannot perform, we cannot employ, we're exhorting the country but have become a net exporter of capital where we need capital inflow to set up new factories and so on. But South Africa will not be seen to be bowing to this external pressure. That is the problem. We must show that whatever changes we introduce in this country are as a result of our own view of how we should go about our affairs. Not because there is pressure on us. But there is no question about it. This country is suffering. Unemployment. I mean I'm involved in economics, as you know I've become a minor capitalist as you may have heard, that's why my popularity is not as high as it used to be because I'm beginning to say to the young comrades, "For God's sake man, we've been begging for arms from the outside world for so long I'm sick and tired of having to go to Stockholm and Stuttgart and New York and Washington as I've done for simply so many times to be asking for money. I'm saying to the young blacks that we need to develop our own economy. I love it when I see I'm being followed. You know about my chairmanship of Get Ahead? And I love it when I see the informal sector getting off as it is doing. Now not very many of our young people like that.
PAT Why don't they like that?
NM Well there's this love affair with socialism.
PAT Do they understand that?
NM Of course, they think socialism means control of the means of production as Marx said but having come from the meeting in Washington one begins to understand a little about totalitarianism of the right or of the left, I speak about that every time, I'll be speaking about that tomorrow morning in Pretoria and saying to our young people, Christ, even Gorbachev, thank God for one Gorbachev, even Dan(?) who is a little confused now, but even Dan has contributed to changing the mindset of a lot of people about the economic ...?
POM Last question, you talked about the effect that the closure of schools had on black education. Has that situation improved or what is the state of black primary and secondary education in Soweto?
NM Still very unsatisfactory. Still very unsatisfactory. We, of course, of the Soweto Civic Association can look back with some pride at the fact that when the schools were all closed in 1985 we called a meeting in Soweto in August of 1985 and said to the people, We need to get our children back to school. We formed the Soweto Parents' Education Crisis Committee which led in December of that same year to the formation of the National Education Crisis Committee which met again in March 1986 and we got the children back to school. They are back in school, but in many schools there is very little education. The children are as rebellious as ever, they beat up their teachers, they are undisciplined and the drop out rate, the failure rate of matric is unbearable, unacceptable. We need to be looking at this now, to inspire and involve parents in these things. It's very unsatisfactory. I spoke at a graduation ceremony in Cape Town on 6th December, 988 and I focused on those and I proposed together with Professor John Mecana(?) with whom I work at the Institute for Community Education, on some proposals about how to get the community really more involved because unless the children begin to see that their parents, their political leaders are involved in their education, in its control, in its financing, I don't think we're going to solve the education problem in this country. It is very unsatisfactory.
POM Thank you.