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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

22 Aug 1989: Meiring, Kobus

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POM     I'm talking with Dr. Kobus Meiring on the 22nd of August. We last met on the 7th or 8th of October here in Cape Town for a beautiful lunch. Could you use that as a reference point to talk about the changes that have taken place in that period of time?

KM     Well I have no doubt that over the past two years many very interesting things have been happening not only in South Africa but especially in southern Africa. I was still with Foreign Affairs then, up to two months ago. We felt very strongly over the past two years that we must really do something to break the isolation in which we find ourselves. We simply cannot go on in this isolated situation as far as trade is concerned, as far a knowledge is concerned, as far as contact is concerned, as far as capital is concerned and we simply had to do something, I felt. Well we thought at Foreign Affairs that certainly one thing that we could do was if we could prove to the world and to the United States that we are in fact from Africa, we are of Africa, we are part of Africa, we have a place in Africa; not only a place, we have a role to play in Africa, a challenge to fulfil, and that certainly could help a little bit to break that isolation, come to the final way of breaking isolation. And we then went out of our way to try and build bridges across our borders.

     And it's fascinating how this thing worked. In fact last year alone, between Pik Botha and myself and the officials of our department, we visited more than 30 countries in Africa. Most of those visits were rather confidential and under the blanket for understandable reasons. But it is also amazing how it was a domino effect how these countries one after the other contacted us and wanted to make contact with us and so on. And usually what we did was to send officials first and later I went, and later Pik Botha went, and eventually the President went. And some of my most interesting memories of my time with Foreign Affairs and with PW Botha, were those times that I accompanied him on to Africa in his heyday, if I can put it that way.

     It is so interesting how these African states after a while began to realise that South Africa is not a new colonialist. They don't want to colonise us, the African states, but they really want to help us, to help us to help ourselves. And I have been to so many countries in Africa where they have said, look, over the past decade or two the Russians came here and filled a vacuum when European colonialists left, they helped us with weapons, outdated weapons, you can not eat an AK47. The Americans came and helped us with food but after most of the food is finished they helped us with money. Money landed in the pockets of exploiters. You (South Africa) came, not with money or food or weapons, you came with knowledge and experience and expertise. And that's really what they need. And if you go into many African states today you will see South African technologists and so on helping those countries to help themselves.

     And over the past two years, as I said, we managed to break through many of these countries. People often ask me, but didn't they tackle you on your internal policy, didn't they tackle you on apartheid? The amazing thing is that most of those people would say to me, Look, we don't agree with your internal policy but we believe that you are trying to get away from it and good luck with that but let's rather be positive and see where we can co-operate, where you can help us. And that has been the argument in so many cases and I tried to underline that because I also said to them that as far as I'm concerned we are changing otherwise I wouldn't be in government. If I didn't have hope Patrick, that was my message at White Plains. If I didn't have hope that I was a member of a team that was really sincere in its efforts to change I wouldn't be there.

POM     What specific things would you look for that created an atmosphere in which the term 'negotiated settlement' has been used. In fact we've heard that term so often in the last two weeks- somebody said if you got ten rand for every time the words 'negotiated settlement' were said you'd be a millionaire by now.

KM     OK, we're trying to work up to the situation in Namibia. We felt that peace in Angola, peace in South West Africa would hold the key to peace in the whole southern region. And that's why we just about a year and a half ago, a year and three months ago, we said at Foreign Affairs, can't we tackle the Namibian problem again? We said to ourselves the solution to Namibia lies over the border. It lies in a situation of the Cuban situation in Angola. We started talking and eventually it worked out. I attended some of those meetings ... and that was a negotiated settlement which really a year before that when we were at White Plains, Patrick, was not even thought of. I've been working very hard over the past two years on the Mozambique situation because we said that where Angola would be the key to peace, Mozambique would be the door through which you have to enter. And the position there is difficult. One the one hand it's easier because you don't really have any outside forces. In Angola you had the Cubans and to a certain extent the Americans and the Russians. In Mozambique they are internal parties fighting against each other with the Russians in the background.

     But it was so amazing, if I may say this as an aside, that one of the senior ministers, a black Mozambican minister, said to me once recently when I was there again, You cannot eat an ideology. They have been trying now for 15 years to apply a communist Marxist ideology in Mozambique and it didn't work. If you look at the poverty and the famine there it doesn't work. And for that reason they are prepared to look at South Africa and to look at negotiated settlement rightly. But then, if I can just interrupt myself again, I said over the past two or three years we have been working very hard across our borders to build bridges to make friends. The most important thing and that is the real way how we are going to break the isolation is to make friends, build bridges in South Africa itself With our black people with our coloured people. Right here. And my new job suddenly gives me that opportunity to do that.

     But if I can bring it back to your subject, negotiated settlements in Angola, in Namibia, in Mozambique, what we need is negotiated settlements right here. And I am so happy with what is happening now. I am supposed to be, Patrick, in my new job, a sort of a political - that is this job is really an administrative job. I am chairman of an executive committee and we met just now. We have coloured and black people with white people on my committee. We are seven people on that committee. We are in fact on provincial level a little bit ahead of central government in the sense that we already have the blacks there. They are not elected yet. On local level and on regional level they are there now already elected. That also happened in these two years. Last year in October for the first time we had full scale local government elections. Everybody really had a vote, not all of them used it. The percentages were in certain cases very low, in other cases it was higher. But the principal is there that on the local level everybody had the vote. Not on one list granted, but the fact is I think it was a very important measure that everybody really had the vote, could elect people and all the local bodies then could elect a man on regional councils. So I would say that your regional councils, which is a fairly new principal today, is probably the most developed broadening of democracy that you will find in South Africa. And I am very happy about that. I attended one of these councils last week in Port Elizabeth and I counted the members, there are 60 members on that council, by far the majority are non-white. Non-white. I approved yesterday the compilation of 12 new regional councils, on most of them there will be more blacks than whites. And as far as I am concerned that's the recipe for the future of South Africa. You'll have more black people in government, more non-white people in government than white people.

     So Patrick all these things are certainly very important new developments in South Africa. On a personal level PW Botha became ill at the beginning of the year. He has now been succeeded by FW de Klerk. It's a pity the birth took so long. But I'm very happy and pleased that the final cut came last week because it would certainly have had a detrimental effect on the elections if it was to be prolonged any longer. But now it is going to have a positive result as far as the National Party is concerned.

POM     One person, or not one but at least two people characterized the situation to us as being one in which the ANC recognises that it can't win a national war of liberation on the one hand and on the other hand the government recognises that reform imposed from above can't succeed either. So that creates this kind of space leading both sides, so to speak, to talk of a negotiated settlement. Do you think that was an accurate characterisation of the situation?

KM     Yes, I think they are positive signs. There are also, unfortunately, negative signs at this stage. But I am not too worried about that. There is an election coming. It is an election at this stage for whites and coloureds and Indians and not for blacks. So it is a very fertile ground for MDM politics to be successful. And it's really a pity that that is taking place because we will never ever be able to find solutions with violence. In that sense the ANC, I feel, is on the right track if they say that is so. Unfortunately, Patrick, and I again say I am out of active politics, I don't know what is happening from day to day in the inner circles, but there is a big difference sometimes in what the ANC says and what still happens. On the other hand, as far as the National Party is concerned, and the government is concerned, there is a very fresh wind blowing through the whole situation, where people begin to realise that a change of discrimination is nothing unless you can really build a totally new South Africa, you are not going to succeed. I said two years ago at White Plains already, I have no doubt that we will have to break away from the old situation. I am perfectly prepared to share the wealth and share the power as long as I can retain some form of order and stability. That is so essential and really, Patrick, I can say this because I have seen Africa and nobody can expect South Africa to just willy nilly move into a situation in which Mozambique finds itself or Angola finds itself or name it, just about every country in Africa. So what we do must be done in such away that the democracy is born, that we satisfy people, that we create opportunities, but people must then still use their own hands and their own heads to use those opportunities to get somewhere.

POM     I'll ask you this question because we asked a large number of people the question and get interested in weighing up the various responses. If I were to compare the ANC to the IRA and the IRA for the last 20 years has been able to maintain a pretty successful campaign of violence against British security forces, once a week or twice every week an incidence happens; a bombing, a military target, a policeman is shot, a soldier is shot. And the British Intelligence network, despite its world-wide reputation, has been unable to penetrate the Catholic community and get at the source of the problem. When one looks at the ANC, it seems to us on the outside that their violence is sporadic, the fact that the armed campaign is ineffectual and that when the precondition of talking is that they would renounce violence at one level it would only call on them to announce something that doesn't exist. How would you rate their campaign of violence? What effect do you think it has had on the situation. A big effect, a moderate effect or a minimum effect?

KM     It is very difficult to react to that Patrick. I get the impression if I listen to, for instance, a man like Mandela that he is a captive of his own situation because he realises that violence is not going to solve the situation. And that is the reason why he was prepared to come speak to PW Botha. And that is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most positive things that has happened in this country for a long time. Firstly that he came and secondly that he said to PW Botha, I will work with you to find peaceful solutions. That is fantastic. But I am not so sure that Mandela when he says that, is representing the cross-section of the top situation in the ANC. If it is then it is very positive and it is very hopeful and I would love to believe that. We'll have to see how things develop and that's why I am worried about and perturbed about this MDM situation at this stage. And I get the impression that the Democratic Party in this election doesn't quite know what it has to do under these circumstances. Must it stand hand in hand with the MDM or not, and this is a very intriguing situation which is developing now every day.

     But can I say this Patrick? It is difficult to answer that question. I just want to say this, that even if we scrap, even if it's possible to scrap straightaway the last remaining discriminatory laws from our statute books, it's not going to help unless we can in some way change the hearts of people, where they stay, the whites on the far right or the blacks on the far left. I had a meeting last night here. It was not a political meeting but we had a very interesting man here. He is ex KGB and I invited some prominent white people and some prominent black people and I gave them a good dinner and we asked this man to address us and there were questions for an hour. It was most, most interesting. And I realised last night that we are so near to each other when it comes to positive white people and positive black people who only want to build an orderly new South Africa that we must stand together against violent whites and violent blacks who don't really mean well with South Africa. And I would always say that in terms of what Mandela said the other day, that he is moving closer towards that moderate centre group which I put my hope on.

POM     If you had to look at the white community, just say on the eve of the first emergency in July 1985 and look on it today two weeks before a general election, what in your view would have been the most or have been the most significant changes of attitude, the most significant developments in that period of time?

KM     Well, on the one hand there is certainly a hardening and you only have to look at the fact that the Conservative Party could easily double its seats or perhaps not quite double but I expect them to go up to about 40 in this election. That certainly is one side effect of the fact that we had to apply these measures. It's so sad that it was necessary and in that sense the UDF over the past four years and the MDM is in fact playing a role in polarising the situation. We don't want to chase white people into the far right situation because that would make the solution for South Africa so much more difficult. And for that reason Patrick it would be so much better if from both sides of the spectrum, from black and white, people should rather move towards the centre instead of the extremes, to moderation instead of radicalism.

POM     If I turned the question around and applied it to the black community, what do you think has been the most significant change in attitude or development in the black community in the last four years?

KM     Well I have no doubt, and I have had some very interesting contacts with black townships in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and in East London, three weeks at least in my province, then I have no doubt that although they would not easily say it, most blacks, by far most blacks are moderate people, they want to live in peace, they want to have a job, they want to have a decent house and to a major extent they welcome an emergency situation because then they can live in peace. I've had so many stories about people being bombed, being thrown out of their house, being murdered and etc. etc, and although they don't like the idea of an emergency they like the idea of security or stability. And that is why in the black areas here in Cape Town sometime after the emergency they simply formed their own form of security. They formed their own forms of vigilance to look after their security. So as far as they are concerned, in some cases it might have led to more radicalism but by far the majority of these people say to you straightaway that we welcome this.

PAT     How does that relate to this weekend? I think you have answered this question in many of your responses to Patrick's questions, but what is the message of what happened this weekend? On the outside as well on the inside I think many of the people we spoke with in the last two and a half weeks were encouraged by the government's posturing and movement of reconciliation both within the region as well as internally. And then what comes across not only within the province but on the international screen once again is this strong security force message. Some is obviously politics, I mean what's going on in the course of the elections. It's is hard to understand how much of it is politics versus how much of it is positioning and is necessary to take for the future course of events for the next several months.

KM     Are you referring to the beaches and so on?

PAT     Yes.

KM     Let me be very practical and a little personal with you on beaches situation, the policy responsible for beaches in the first instance. We decided last week that as far as we're concerned we must ask the municipalities, the local councils, to take a very, very quiet and objective stance as far as this is concerned. If people want to make a stand, if they want to, let them do it. I mean nobody is going swim on the 19th of August in any case. It's cold water so let them come, just ignore it. That was the one point. Secondly, I made it very clear when I took over on 1st July that I, especially with my experience at Foreign Affairs, am very sensitive to any discrimination. And I cannot stand any discriminatory notice boards, for instance, at The Strand where this whole thing was, and that the local boards still have a terrible way for over 200 years of having these notice boards, beach and sea for whites only. When I was over at Foreign Affairs I one day asked for an interview with the Mayor and the Town Clerk, and I went to them and I said, Look, you cannot go on with this. I have no problem, look I don't have to tell you that it is a complex diverse society, people prefer to stick together, there is no doubt about that. And if people want to do that let them do it. But don't force it, and don't force it by law. And the response of the provinces all along the beaches was we must go out of our way to develop beaches in such away that the beach nearest to the black area is developed in such a way that they can enjoy themselves there, swim and be safe. The same with the coloureds and the same with the whites. And The Strand is a white town so there is nothing wrong with it, that if people, if the whites want to swim there, let them swim there but take away the boards. And if the odd coloured or black man comes there with his car, let him swim.

     But then what happened was it was sort of a mass demonstration, they wanted to bring a hundred buses with a lot of people to come to that beach and the police apparently felt that this could create a safety, a security problem and that was the reason why they acted as they did. Now that's their endeavour. Fortunately, nothing happened but the point is that is not natural, it's a demonstration, it was certainly aimed at either making a point with which I have no problem. But if you do something in a tense situation two weeks before an election which could lead to problems, then I think it is unnecessary. We are in a state of flux. As far as I'm concerned things must just happen, just happen normally. As far as I'm concerned, we must just take those notice boards off one night when it is raining. Nobody must even see it, it must just quietly disappear.

     If I think of the changes in this country, you ask me about the last two years Patrick, but over the last ten years it is amazing. I mean any objective person cannot but agree that so many things have been happening. But you must, OK, you must sometimes pull it a little bit. But you must be so careful not to force it at a pace where people cannot accept it. I often say as far as I'm concerned things must happen much faster. But things must happen at a pace where your people will be with you. And that's part of our problem. That even at the pace where you think it is far too slow we are losing half the electorate to the Conservative Party.

POM     I'm going to, as an adjunct, ask you about two scenarios in the forthcoming election. If the National Party is re-elected but with a small majority where the bulk of its vote has gone to the Conservative Party, what do you think will happen in terms of policy after that? And the second one is the situation, it's hypothetical, where you might have a hung parliament?

KM     Ok, as far as the first one is concerned I have no doubt that whether we get 90 or 95 or 100 seats doesn't really matter as long as FW gets a majority. He's got no option, he has to get a move on. He's been saying it. There's another thing that I must tell you, that when we elected a new leader at the beginning of the new year, Barend du Plessis got within eight votes of him, you probably know it. He was elected by the caucus with 69 to 61. And it was very clear that immediately after that election, people closed ranks behind FW. But there was a clear message in that election. The 61 members didn't really vote so much for Barend as for a message and that was a message of before, of getting on with the job. FW has no option. Well as I say, yes, 100 or 90 or 130, he's got to get on with the job. So there is no doubt about that. If it is a hung parliament, which I doubt, but if it is a hung parliament, I have no doubt that FW has said it again on Sunday night, that there is no talk about the coalition. Now if there is a hung parliament, what do you do? I have no doubt that he will not look at the Conservatives. He will have to look at the Democrats.

POM     Do you think that could bring some fragmentation in the National Party where those who are just right of the conservatives would opt to move into the Conservative Party?

KM     Yes, I suppose it is a possibility Patrick, but I can assure you there are very few of those left, very few. And the few that perhaps were left have now left, you know, are not standing again. And I don't even want to mention names, but I can think of a few who probably will not be left.

POM     Two last quick questions, I know you've got another appointment. One is - what do you see as being the essential difference between the National Party and the Democratic Party? And the other is what impact do you think sanctions has played in the unfolding political scenario here?

KM     The difference between the National Party and the Democratic Party, there are many differences but I think one of the most important differences is timing. I have many good friends in the Democratic Party as I said, even relatives, and I've often said to them, what you say, we'll probably get some of it, most of it but not if you do it the way you want to do it. We will be out, and if we are out you will not be in. It will be the far right that will be in. And that will be the end of South Africa. That's the one thing. Secondly, one of the things that we will probably not go for is simply the western style one man one vote situation. If, if I can say this, if one day we can really manage to uplift all the people, all the coloureds, all the blacks and we are trying very hard to do that, to do that is possible. It will take a long time to get there. If we do that today we will end up where Mozambique ended up and so many other African countries. I want to be positive and I want to be sincere in trying to build a new South Africa, but again then I come back to my bottom line about retention of decent standards of order and stability and so forth.

POM     Second question about sanctions.

KM     Sanctions to a certain extent are not harming us and I know the fears because I saw them confidentially, for every rand's worth that we lost trade in the States we picked it up somewhere else. And we picked it up in markets that we never thought of before. That's fantastic. But it took a lot of energy and thought and money to do it. We should have, we could have, used that energy and money to carry on with reform, carry on with upliftment of people. So if there is a lull in reform, I can it write it right under the Capitol, Capitol Hill what you call it, at their address. What is harming us Patrick, I have no doubt about that, is sanctions on capital. Our country is so diverse, so complex that we simply cannot afford ourselves to do all the upliftment that we have to do. And unless the world and especially the Americans are going to help us to do that, it's is just going to prolong the agony. The sooner we can uplift people, the blacks that I had here last night, are people like us, have no problem with it. The average South African would have no problem serving under one of these blacks last night as a minister, or as a president. But the average South African is scared of being overwhelmed, overcrowded by low class people and it's our job to uplift that low class to make it possible to build a new South Africa with it.

POM     Thank you.

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.