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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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: Tholole, Joseph

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POM     Having been away for a year in a very different environment like Cambridge, which is even a different environment for the United States, and coming back to Soweto, what impressions do you have now that you didn't have a year ago when you left?

JT     The only difference that I notice is that people are debating the question of a negotiated settlement. Almost everywhere you go people are arguing about it.

POM     Arguing about a negotiated settlement?

JT     Yes. That might be the National Party, it might be the UDF, it might be AZAPO, but that is what people are talking about. That is on the surface but underneath nothing has changed, I am sure of that. I came back here, the day I came back I was stopped at the airport for two hours while they went through my books and my stuff and just as I was entering the township I came across a police roadblock and I knew that I was back home, nothing had changed.

POM     People aren't talking about the same thing when they talk about a negotiated settlement. It means one thing to you and another thing to the NP. What do you think, to Africans, does a negotiated settlement mean?

JT     A negotiated settlement to Africans would mean we sit around, we draft a new constitution for the country. At that level I don't think there is much debate that that is going to happen ultimately. But at this point we are not convinced that the NP is interested in genuine negotiations. They have produced their five-year plan which doesn't define any way from what PW Botha was saying when he created the National Council last year. There isn't any difference between what the Nationalists are saying today and what they were saying a year ago. They have become louder, more aggressive in their propaganda about it but it isn't any different.

POM     Do you think that De Klerk being State President will bring about policies that are in any way different from PW Botha's?

JT     Not substantially. I am saying that when the first indication of where PW was going came with the five-year plan, and I say the five-year plan is a rehash of the National Council that the government created last year. Last year they created an organisation, they made a law which allowed for the creation of a National Council. This National Council had to draw up a new constitution for the country. Initially they said that it would have an open agenda and they are not going to impose an agenda on this Council. But then as debate on that National Council was going on they indicated that they don't want a constitution where there will be domination of one group by another and that's exactly what De Klerk is saying at this point. They also said they didn't want to see domination by the majority and it's exactly what De Klerk is saying right now.

     What they did at the National Council is they created representatives on the National Council. They said the black local authorities that were elected in October last year, these would come together to form an electoral college and they would elect nine representatives of urban blacks in this National Council. Besides these they said the self-governing homelands would also have representation on this National Council. The Provincial Administrations, Transvaal, Cape, Free State, Natal, would also have representation on this council. The three Houses in parliament would also have representation on this council and there would be some members of the present Cabinet who would also be members of this council. Now already this council was being structured on institutions that were created by the Nationalists.

     What I suspect might happen at this point is they might amend the National Council law to allow for broader participation but the arguments that they have been using that there will be no domination of one group by another, there will be no domination by the majority. These are the same arguments that they used when they created the National Council.

     Their attempts to get the National Council off the ground failed because the people were relying on people like Gatsha Buthelezi, and people from Lebowa and other homelands refused to participate. I think one of the conditions Gatsha Buthelezi set was that Nelson Mandela must be released. Now the government has been looking at ways of getting that council off the ground and functioning and I think they have been wooing Gatsha Buthelezi. At the moment they have working committees with Inkatha, the NP and Inkatha working committees to look at obstacles to negotiations and they published their first report recently where they said they believe the major obstacle to negotiation is the violence. It's just a trick of getting this thing working ultimately.

POM     Is there an element of co-optation at work here? That if the government can be seen to have held working parties with people such as Buthelezi it appears to be doing something?

JT     That's exactly what it is.

POM     Moderates' or whatever.

JT     That's the name of the game now. They want to co-opt their own people to talk to. They have been very loud in saying that they will not negotiate with the ANC while it still believes in violence, it will not negotiate with any organisation like the PAC or BCM that believes in violence. All indications are that they just want a home goal settlement with the liberation movements.

POM     Three questions: I do a lot of work in Northern Ireland, it's my field of expertise. There the problem has been that you have one million Protestants and half a million Catholics so that in parliamentary terms one group, the one million Protestants, always has power because they simply outvote Catholics two to one, and that the only form of democracy that could work, people say, would be power sharing where there would be Catholics in executive positions in the government itself, part of the ruling entity. Has there ever been any consideration here to concepts of power sharing which says if a majority is always a majority then it does in fact dominate over whoever is the minority?

JT     That analogy is very interesting but you should understand that here farmers came in and they took our land, they took everything. In the end they have been a very tiny minority that has wielded military power, economic power, political power, everything. Now if you start talking of power sharing at this point and saying, OK we need a more flexible approach, you are saying we should condone the things they have been doing all these years. What the liberation movements are saying is if we have one man one vote and we guarantee individual rights and we eliminate the concept of black and white, become a South African nation, nothing could be more just than that.

     Now whites have got this very strange fear that if there is such a society they will suffer. I don't know how they arrive at that, or they probably believe that there will be revenge against them. Self guilt, that's what it is. But you look at the documents of every liberation organisation in this country whether it's ANC or PAC or BCM, UDF, National Forum, the whole lot, all of them say we are going to create a non-racial democracy where individual rights will be protected. As I say, I don't know the situation in Ireland and I don't know how you got to have religion as a demarcating concept, I don't know.

POM     That's OK, that's the way I was expecting you to respond. If you look at the beginning of the emergency and take the period from the beginning of the emergency up today and then take it today and speculate over the next five years, what do you think have been the main changes that have taken place in black politics, African politics, during that four/five year period and in what direction are those politics going and in what direction do you think white politics have gone since the beginning of the emergency up to this election? And where do you think they're going after this election?

JT     Let's start with white politics first, I think it's much easier to do. One of PW Botha's major achievements, and there are very few people who credit him with it, is that he was able to weld white South Africans into one nation. Before PW Botha all the Afrikaners voted NP and the English speaking people voted United Party. The NP was an Afrikaner nationalist party. But he was able to bring both English and Afrikaans speaking together and he did this by shifting the position of the NP from the right and shifting it slightly to the left. It was a tremendous achievement for him.

     If you look at your Conservative Party and all the other parties to the right of the government you will find that they don't have support. They are a very tiny group that doesn't mean much. The same thing goes for the parties to the left, white parties to the left of the government. At the elections we are going to have exactly the same situation that they will remain just marginal parties.

POM     The Conservative Party won't go beyond a reasonable level of expectations?

JT     No, I don't think they will do any better than they have done up to this point, nor will the Democratic Party do better than it has done before. The DP may just be wiped off.

POM     For a moment let us assume that the CP did reasonably well, that is there wasn't a hung parliament but they won a considerable number of seats so that to the NP they would appear to be some kind of threat. Do you think that would have an impact? It's two questions: if the CP remains a marginal party what impact do you think that will have on government policies? And, two, if the CP does well what impact do you think that will have on the NP?

JT     I am not convinced that the CP will do any better than it has done.

POM     But I'm saying 'assuming'.

JT     If it does. I think the Nationalists have become much braver in their rhetoric where they are in fact dismissing the threat from the right. I think FW de Klerk has indicated that he doesn't think that they are in any danger. So the NP will still continue with its reform programme and ignore the CP even if it does very well.

     PW Botha's major weakness was that he was always looking over his shoulder worrying about what the CP might do to the NP, but I think they are now comfortable, they are sure that they have the support of the majority of whites. Even if the CP does well it won't affect their policies, they will continue in their so-called reform process. The pressures to reform come as a result of sanctions, of the isolation of the country, and that is why we are getting this loud rhetoric.

POM     Do you think sanctions have had a severe impact, (i) on the economy and (ii) on the government?

JT     Yes I think they have, definitely have. The few reforms we have seen are a result of pressure from outside. At the moment the Nationalists are debating their own policies because their major concern is that the country is being isolated, capital is fleeing the country, technology is fleeing the country and the economy is headed for ruin. They have said it in so many speeches, since the election campaign they have been saying we've got to look after our economy and the only way we can do it is by showing the external world that we are serious about reform.

POM     Short term loan, $3 billion worth of short term loans are due to be renegotiated next March. Do you think foreign bankers, particularly the Swiss, will lay down conditions before those debts are rolled over?

JT     I think what the bankers will be looking at is can they benefit from this, they won't be looking at South African politics essentially. They will be looking at the pressures that are put on them by their other customers around the world.

POM     Do you think the government will have no problem getting those loans renewed or do you think that in fact demands are going to be made from the outside?

JT     There are going to be demands made I think.

POM     There are going to be demands made. Do you think the government will have to meet those demands?

JT     I don't think they will meet all of them. They will probably be indicating this is what we are trying to do, they will probably release Nelson Mandela.

PAT     Why do you think the bankers are going to be so interested in social demands in SA as opposed to the repayment of their loans in their economic interests?

JT     I think they look at the economic interests essentially. That's what I believe. But they will also be worried about pressures from their other customers. I think a campaign has already been started by various organisations to try and pressurise the banks to put the social issues on the table. De Klerk is going to say to them, I've released Nelson Mandela and I intend negotiating with whoever is keen on a peaceful settlement, and this is the reform package he's going to sell to the bankers and they are probably going to say, OK, there is some movement so therefore let us roll it over.

POM     In terms of changes that you've noticed since you came back, you were saying that the release of Nelson Mandela is only a matter of time, that everyone believes that at this stage. That wouldn't have been the case a year ago would it?

JT     It's been a long process of releasing him I think. The government started first by being very firm that he must first renounce violence and that was their song every time the question of Mandela was raised. But after he had gone into hospital with TB I think that's where the changes started in their language. They started saying if he continues co-operating the way he is co-operating; there was a marked change in the language. It was pretty obvious that they were in fact preparing him for release but they are trying to find a mechanism they could use to release him. The language change, they said if he continues co-operating the way he is co-operating. The next thing is that after his release from hospital instead of taking him back to prison they put him in this luxury house. That's another step nearer release. And then of course came the famous tea party. All these indicate that they are intent on releasing him. One of the major obstacles to the National Council getting off the ground was the release of Nelson Mandela. I think they are probably going to release him.

POM     Can we go back to the second part of that question. Looking at African politics from the start of the emergency to the present and then looking at the present to the next five years, say, what have been the major changes in direction?

JT     1984, I am still convinced the 1984 uprising was spontaneous, there was no organisational planning behind it and it just spread like wildfire. But the UDF which was formed shortly before the September 1984 uprisings came in at the right time and they took advantage of what was happening and UDF activists were all over the place. Where there was an uprising they would be there helping, lawyers, helping with doctors, etc. So the UDF shot itself into the newspapers at the time.

     Since then the state of emergency crippled the black political organisations because all the main activists were detained, were restricted. So that in fact took the fight out of the black political organisations. But now these people are being released and the momentum is starting to build again. Between now and the elections we are probably going to see a lot of activity. It might not go to the pitch it reached in 1984-86 but there are indications that it is on the increase. I think I read in the paper today, the government was saying, I think it was Vlok, that in the last two weeks there have been 235 incidents of 'unrest', that's what they call it. So there is this escalation. Children in the Western Cape are not going to school, class boycotts, etc., so it's a whole build up against the government.

POM     One or two people said to us that there are two factors, or two acknowledgements. One, a recognition by the government that reform from above is never going to work, that every time they try to reform something it merely serves as a springboard for another demand. But on the other hand the ANC realise that a revolution won't run, that there's not going to be a mass uprising resulting in a guerrilla war that topples the government. Do you think they are accurate reflections?

JT     We haven't had any reform from above. That we haven't had. Whatever changes have taken place have been forced by the people. Look at the pass laws, look at the Group Areas Act, look at whatever changes they make. Group Areas Act, what's happened there is people just defied the GAA and would go and live in places like Hillbrow, etc., and in the end the government had to concede that there is nothing it can do about it now. That is why they started talking in terms of 'grey' areas. These things happened because people forced them to take those positions.

     Now on the side of the ANC, I don't think anybody has ever suggested that there's going to be a massive uprising that will topple the government, but all the liberation movements have been looking at combinations of pressure that are going to get the government to negotiate. Now one of the pressures that are being used is the armed struggle and it is very demoralising to white South Africans. Every time there is a bomb blast somewhere, every time some people get killed or whatever, it demoralises white South Africans. This plus things like sanctions, etc., these are a whole combination of pressures that are being put on the government.

POM     So from your point of view the armed struggle is really still an integral part of the liberation movement, that it is having a pretty severe effect on whites?

JT     It is definitely. There is no doubt about it. If you look at the armed struggle at this point it's at a late stage. I date it from 1976 when we had the 1976 riots, kids fleeing the country and it's only then that the ANC and the PAC were revived essentially. It is only now that these kids are coming back as armed guerrillas and they have been coming in very small numbers but what they have done up to this point is really put some fright into white South Africans. The whole debate and ferment that is taking place in white politics today is partly due to what has happened, talk to the ANC, talk to the PAC so that we can find a solution to our problems.

POM     Do you think there's a generational thing at work in the white community, that younger whites are more prone to realise that they don't want the present situation to last throughout their lives?

JT     I wouldn't call it a generational thing. The English speaking campuses in the country, Wits, Cape Town, Rhodes, have always been liberal, have always produced all the radicals in the white community. That goes from the time they were created so it's not a new phenomenon. It is these same kids again, the same universities who are now being very vocal, fighting conscription, etc. But we've always had this phenomenon. I don't know what happens to them once they move into society after they leave university, then they get swallowed up in conservative politics. So I don't see much change taking place from that end.

     But what is happening today is whites have come to accept that there must be some form of power sharing if there is going to be peace, if there is going to be prosperity. Now they just can't get themselves to take the final plunge. The Nationalists believe that they can control it by using repression and giving titbits. The DP believes it can manage other formulas to share power without endangering white society. In fact they recently said that they don't believe in one man one vote. The CP will cling to the old myths, that if you separate the races you will have solved all the problems. But there is anxious debate in white society and that is why PW Botha was able to move the NP slightly to the left of where it was before.

POM     Just again going back to African politics. What do you see now as being the major strengths of the movement, the various movements, and the various weaknesses? Again, some people that we've talked to have said that there has been a resurgence of Black Consciousness.

JT     I think their strength is that there is now easier communication between the banned organisations, ANC, PAC, BCM and people inside the country. People are able to travel much more easily, they are able to discuss the problems much more easily unlike in the past when there was a huge gap between what the ANC was doing outside and what people were doing here, between what the PAC was doing outside and what people were doing here. There are now closer ties I think and that's a strength.

     But at another level the various liberation movements inside the country have not found a way of responding to repression from the government. We still go the same route as the earlier organisations. PAC and ANC were banned in 1960, BCM was banned in 1977, the UDF is restricted now. Every time after the government wields it's power organisations are smashed and then we've got to start from scratch again. We are not like the Communist Party, for instance, that established itself and continued to function even when the leadership was taken away. We haven't reached that stage yet. We've got organisational weaknesses I think, structural weaknesses in the way we are running organisations.

POM     In terms of your own personal hopes and dreams, do you think within your lifetime, within five years, where do you put the if you're looking at the transition process?

JT     That is a bit too optimistic I think.

POM     Twenty years would be too long.

JT     Ten to twenty years I would say, but it's going to be bloodier before it gets better.

POM     So the armed struggle component of it is an important component?

JT     I think it is.

POM     Is it a necessary component?

JT     That's difficult, because people were forced to take up arms. It wasn't because they loved killing. But as I say, we're going to see lots of it.

POM     Like the IRA have always taken it that armed struggle is an essential component of what they're trying to do. The only thing the British understand is somebody who deals from force. Is there a feeling here that the only thing the state understands is somebody who can respond to their actions with force too?

JT     As I say, you talk to the ANC, you talk to the PAC and they will tell you, We had to respond this way because the government wasn't moving. But we have had a combination of pressures. If you look at the history of the reforms that have taken place in this country, after the 1960 Sharpeville shootings we had capital fleeing the country and SA kicked out of the Commonwealth. At that time there was again lots of ferment within white society. Verwoerd did two things. One, he increased repression, he banned the organisations, he passed the 90-day detention laws, a whole lot of tough laws were passed at that time. But at the same time he came up with this idea of independent homelands and he thought he could solve the problems by giving independence to the Transkeis and the Vendas, whatever. So that was what happened at that particular time. But they were forced into that position by the reaction of the international community to the shootings at Sharpeville. I don't know whether the international community actually bought this theory of independent homelands or not but after while capital was flowing back and everything was back to normal. In 1976 we had the same phenomena after the shootings of June 16. Again we had capital fleeing the country and the economy got into a very terrible state, because the international community was reacting to events that had taken place inside the country and the government again came with a set of reforms. We were allowed to buy our own homes, we were given back SA citizenship, it was a whole package of reforms. The labour laws, if you remember, were changed around that time.

     So as I say it was a whole a combination of factors that actually got the government moving. At this point they are being forced by the isolation and the defeats they suffered in South West Africa/Namibia. They are just trying to buy time but as soon as these pressures are increased and the price of apartheid is increased, at one point they will say, OK, let us talk. That is a possibility.

POM     Where does the labour movement rank in all of this?

JT     At the moment it's very high amongst the organisations fighting for liberation.

POM     Like in a way it's the only organisation that's not under any restrictions of one kind or another.

JT     They are under restrictions but they have been defying the restrictions. If you listened to Adriaan Vlok, that's the Minister of Law & Order, he said his police are investigating the possibility that COSATU has broken its restriction orders by participating in these demonstrations, defiance campaign, and taking part in other contexts.

POM     You were just saying that the Law & Order minister is going to investigate COSATU?

JT     COSATU was restricted early last year with other organisations and the terms of their restriction are that they can participate in bona fide labour matters but they should not engage in any political activity. Now this is what he is talking about.

POM     If you were to, I won't say have to choose, if you looked at the political developments and particularly the developments abroad and within SA and on the other hand economic developments both abroad in terms of sanctions and domestically in terms of how the economy is doing, which kind of pressure do you think is exerting the greater difference, or where have you felt the greater difference?

JT     I think the key one at this point is economic pressure. The SA economy is in a complete mess. We just keep getting hints from the government that this is as a result of sanctions. If you read very carefully between the lines as they are making their election speeches they are telling the white community that we need to do something in order to fight the sanctions campaign, we need to show the international community that we are serious about change. So that it is the economic pressure that they are feeling.

     Now the interesting thing, the Americans have the toughest set of sanctions, economic sanctions. No other country has as tough a package as the Americans. But already SA is feeling the effects of that even limited package of sanctions.

PAT     At one point there was concern among some that sanctions were able to affect the trade union movement, loss of jobs and loss of ability or organise and mobilise trade unionists.

JT     If you will let me just quote a paper prepared by a research organisation. They say here, Businesses came to prove that disinvestment causes unemployment. Adriaan Botha of the Associated Chamber of Commerce claimed that 8000 10,000 mainly black jobs had been lost because of the withdrawal of US companies in 1988. He later amended the dates saying it happened in the previous five years. Unemployment is not caused by disinvestment, it is rather caused by the general downturn in the SA economy which in turn prompted disinvestment. So he's trying to show the logic of it all; ... as well as by increasing mechanisation. Multi-nationals themselves are often the first to mechanise. General Motors withdrawal was part of a world-wide decision in which eleven US plants employing 29,000 workers were simultaneously closed. A total of 181,634 jobs were lost in the SA economy between 1981 and 1985 and this figure excludes the independent Bantustans, agriculture, domestic service. Compared to this and the increase in the number of work seekers of some 200,000 the extent of disinvestment created unemployment is tiny.

     But again, on this whole question of the effects of sanctions he says, In a confidential report written after a delegation visited Europe, the US and Israel, the Associated Chamber of Commerce called for the government to encourage the process of political change so as to avoid further sanctions. So the effects are already being felt.

PAT     The question though is not simply sanctions but the general state of the economy. What impact does it have on the organisational fabric of the trade union movement? Is the trade union movement stronger, weaker, struggling as, what you were saying earlier, being the organisational entity that is a front to everyone else, what effect have the economic sanctions had on them?

JT     In fact the ... of the trade union movement are very new. You can date it to 1979. That is when trade unions were legalised. Since then, the trade unions have been growing tremendously and not only because of work related problems but because it's been able to go into problems outside the workplace and that is one of the reasons why the trade union movement has been growing so fast. It's hardly touched its potential. NACTU claims about 750,000 members, COSATU about a million and something members. It's a tiny drop compared to the number of workers, potential members, so the unions have been growing pretty fast. It hasn't shown any effect on them.

PAT     Are the trade unions specifically aligned, are they their own liberation political movement?

JT     That's a difficult question. COSATU has adopted the Freedom Charter and because it has adopted the Freedom Charter everybody associates it with the ANC and UDF. So in that way you could say that there is that link. NACTU, very many of the trade unions that formed NACTU were either BCM trade unions or Africanist trade unions, but they all merged together in NACTU but NACTU didn't want to take a specific political position so they normally say that they allow everybody whatever his political position but they are more inclined to BC and Africanist positions.

POM     Thank you very much.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.