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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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

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POM     The question I had posed to you Mr Theron was, could you tell me a little bit about the rise of the black middle class and what that means for the future of SA?

JHT     Obviously to start off with I can only talk about the Cape Province, the situation might be different in the Transvaal. Even within the Cape Province there are different things that we have historically. In the Western Cape the permanence of black people was only accepted round about 1986 and therefore the creation of a middle class in the Western Cape obviously has been a bit behind the rest of the country.

     In general I think it's obvious that there is an increasing number of blacks getting involved in the business world, in the economy, getting more sophisticated. You obviously have a large percentage of blacks, especially in the Western Cape, that to a large extent are still traditional in the sense that they've only really recently, or relatively recently, moved from the tribal areas, rural areas, to the urban. Personally I think that one of the problems that we're dealing with as far as the relationship and negotiations with blacks and other groups concerned is exactly the problem that we have, we're talking to each other from different development levels and that's making it difficult.

     I am personally more involved in the provision of housing infrastructure. Even in that sense we've found that we, to a large extent, have to sell the whole concept of home ownership first before we started two, two and a half years ago, a massive drive trying to sell the housing stock of the state to individuals and there we found that to start off with we had to get people used to the concept of home ownership and only then things start taking off.

     In certain things I think it's essential for the development of black people in general, might even be to a certain extent a prerequisite for sensible negotiations. On the other hand as people develop I think their aspirations grow probably faster than development and obviously that is a problem as well.

     I think one of the major achievements of the past two to three years was the establishment of black local authorities, getting people used to third tier government. We had huge successes in the sense that despite the unrest of 1985/86 we last year had succeeded in getting about 92 local authorities elected, they were elected, the councillor elected, or councillors elected for 92 local authorities in the Cape Province. As a matter of fact there are only two remaining that we couldn't get representatives elected in the municipal elections.

POM     These would be black councils as separate from white or coloured councils?

JHT     Yes.

POM     What would be the turnout of voters for that?

JHT     Well traditionally we've always had a low turnout for municipal elections. It varies. We had a percentage poll in the Western Cape and some places in the Northern Cape where it's as high as 72%. I could probably get you the average figures but it was much higher than we expected. I think the average was probably 40% 50% which was, I think, very good for the first election. And I think we are slowly succeeding in getting people used to the various structures within which they have to work. We do have problems especially where you have large numbers of basically traditional people where they still want to do things their way, they tend to be a bit autocratic. So to keep the reins on them, talk to them, use a lot of patience.

     But slowly I think we're getting there. We have obviously had problems in getting officials for these local authorities. There again I think we've succeeded to a large measure in filling the vacancies of the officials with the local authorities, black local authorities because they were non-existent before.

POM     If you look at the last four or five years in particular, what do you think have been the most significant developments within the black community itself?

JHT     Look, we as a province have only been involved with black development and black local authorities since October 1986. Before that we had a system that really didn't work very well and that was the old Development Boards. Each of the regions had a Development Board and the old Community Councils really didn't have much of a say except for an advisory role that they played. Then in October 1986 the whole function was transferred to province. I think the most significant achievement was that we succeeded in getting the functions of the local authority to the local authorities, get authority fixed with the local authorities, black local authorities so that they could take decisions for themselves and not white people taking decisions for them.

     Then I think we succeeded as far as the physical development is concerned, we are obviously hindered by a shortage of money as a result of boycotts, international isolation, as far as violence is concerned. We have, however, succeeded in the Cape Province in spending from state funds something to the tune of R640 million over the past well since October 1986, in providing infrastructure and housing to the blacks. But obviously the backlog is tremendous. We're looking at a need for infrastructure and basic community facilities alone in the Cape Province at today's money value of something like R2000 million. I don't think it's necessary to tell you that it is very, very difficult for SA to raise that kind of money from ourselves unless we can get back into the international money market.

POM     In that sense do you think that the economic sanctions have had an impact on the economy?

JHT     For sure. For the last four years SA had to conduct it's financial business without international bankers, just to mention one thing. I mean in 1985 and 1986 our short term loans were called in.

POM     They're due to be reviewed again in March 1990?

JHT     Yes. So basically if we could get access to international funds and reasonable interest rates then obviously the solution of the shortage of infrastructure would be easier to solve. I've often said that I think the so-called housing problem, the solution to the housing problem is a financial solution.

     Now I don't know how well you are informed about the recently established Regional Services Councils? They were created, one of the major purposes of the RSCs was to find new sources of income to make available to the under-developed areas. In certain areas they worked quite well. Some of them have only just got off the ground. In the Western Cape since last year we've made from them to the tune of some R40 million in black development alone.

POM     Do these Regional Councils have a taxing function?

JHT     Well not exactly a taxing function. They get in money from the selling of bulk services to the local authorities and then each business has to pay a levy on something like that. A person in the Western Cape it's something like 25% on their salary bill and so on, 1% I think on their turnover. That is basically from the levies and from selling the bulk services.

POM     Bulk services?

JHT     Water, electricity to local authorities. And the voting power of local authorities on the RSC is determined by the amount of money that they spend buying these services. So that is an additional source.

     But you do get an existing other development. In the past year or 18 months we've had more interest by the private sector providing services and houses for black people than ever before. In Port Elizabeth, for instance, I'd love to show you two areas. In one of the areas there are a couple of houses worth R300,000 to R400,000 built for cash. There's no difference between those areas and a middle class white area. I think at an increasing rate you're finding this sort of development all over. I can show you even here in the Western Cape where one developer has just completed about 70 houses and they've all been sold within a couple of months. So to an increasing extent the private sector is getting involved. The fact is the market is there and the people are buying. There is an increasing affordability in the black communities.

     You do have an unemployment problem, it's not always easy to determine because I think the official figures are usually under-estimated. The other interesting thing in the black areas is the extent of the informal sector. A very interesting example is a greengrocer in PE, a hawker who hawks vegetables, he came to see an architect friend of mine a couple of months ago and said he wanted a house designed for him. She said, Alright but it will cost you, if you want it done by us it will cost you R300 000. And the next day he came back with a suitcase with R150,000 in it from hawking vegetables.

POM     Now is most of the informal sector untaxed?

JHT     Virtually all of it. There's no way that you can ...

POM     What are the estimates of the total amount of business services it provides?

JHT     I wouldn't like to take a guess. Personally I believe it's a tremendous percentage of the trade that's going on. Formal trading in the black areas is only now starting to come off the ground. I've been discussing with somebody this morning a development in the new town, new city in PE, a commercial development over the next 20 years of about R600 million. So even there the private sector, the financiers are getting interested in establishing formal businesses in the areas.

     But again it's perhaps a growing process. A guy would probably start off in the totally informal sector, he would grow to a semi-formal sector and then move on into something else.

     I had a very interesting talk with a black gentleman who is a business consultant in PE the other day. His attitude is that blacks have discovered kombi taxis as a way of income, very, very lucrative for them. His job is convincing them that there are other avenues to pursue in a more formal way than they are doing at present.

     In the last two, three, four years, three years that I've been involved, there's been a tremendous increase in black people getting involved in some kind of business or other and getting established in a western sort of way in an urbanisation process.

POM     Let me apply this to skill levels. Some people hold that the future growth in SA can only come about with a growth in skilled labour particularly since so much of the Afrikaner population belongs to the bureaucracy of the state, and that this increase in skills can only come from the surplus population, the black population. Do you think that as the economy needs something to drive the engine of growth that the necessity of better education for blacks becomes a priority?

JHT     It's again a question of which was first, the chicken and the egg. Certainly, yes, I believe we should accelerate the training and education as far as possible. Then at the same time you have to get the economy moving to accommodate those people. There's probably nothing more fatal than training people and there's nothing for them to do. So that's a very fine balance. If we can achieve the economic growth, and again the isolation from the international world makes that difficult to achieve a good growth rate to accommodate the increasing ...

POM     So you would say that the isolation of SA internationally both in capital markets and in commercial markets is the primary obstacle to black economic growth?

JHT     No doubt it is. I don't think there's a single state department that has increased its spending more than the Department of Education for black people over the past four years. The thing that worries people is the fact that we're producing more and more educated people and where do they go, where do they find jobs?

POM     I suppose that's the question I'm getting around to in an odd way. In Northern Ireland, for example, it wasn't until in the early sixties you had the emergence of an educated Catholic community who had gone to college for whom there was no employment, they would be discriminated against or kicked out, that began to make demands on the system and the system had to respond. Do you see a similar type of situation arising here, that as blacks receive more education, have higher aspirations and the economy or the society isn't able to fill them, that this creates, adds fuel to the fire?

JHT     I think that's possible. I don't think we've reached that yet. That's why I think it's essential that we find ways to stimulate the economic growth, create job opportunities. At the same time the present informal trading within the black areas can to a large extent serve as a reservoir for the educated people to take that informal trading and create something more formal out of it. We've ample examples of black people who've really done extremely well in formal business in their own communities, not only in their own communities but over the whole spectrum. I certainly think that is a danger. I believe that as more people get educated obviously their ambitions and aspirations will grow.

POM     This is like a vicious circle. On the one hand the economy needs stimulation from outside and capital particularly. On the other hand if you educate your young black population there's nothing to give them jobs but they can't get jobs until the capital is there. So in terms of reform or change what do you think the agenda should be?

JHT     Well, again, this is a personal observation. I believe that we're not going to get the economy, we're not going to achieve the economic growth that should be achieved until we've found at least some political answers or at least get together and talk about it and show the outside world that we're willing to change, that we're willing to reform. I think that's essential. On that point I think it's equally essential for the outside world to then accept that change is taking place and at least give us a chance and open a couple of doors at least.

POM     What do you think are the three major obstacles facing the black community in their attempts to join the economic mainstream?

JHT     I think one of the major things is the amount of intimidation. You couldn't believe the intimidation that moderate blacks have had to face over the past couple of years in this country, people wanting to pay their rents and they're necklaced because they are seen to be working in the system, usually a small minority of people. That's one thing. I think another thing is I think the black people are beginning to realise that the government is serious in wanting to negotiate, really wanting to share power. To that extent I think there is an increasing opportunity, a chance, to get negotiations going. And third possibly is the difference in development levels.

POM     Difference in development itself?

JHT     That I don't believe should be a major stumbling block. I believe there are enough reasonable and intelligent people amongst the black leader corps, leadership corps, who are willing to talk.

POM     Do you think, this is more general, that one draw a socio-economic distinction in SA between people who are anti-apartheid but are not pro the Mass Democratic Movement?

JHT     I think most people, most blacks in any event and probably the majority of whites, feel that apartheid, discriminatory apartheid should go. I personally believe that by far the majority of black people, and I've been dealing with black people now for the last three years, I think there's a tremendous amount of goodwill amongst black people. I believe by far the majority of black people are moderate. I think the so-called MDM is, again, a very small minority amongst blacks, coloureds and Indians. One doesn't really know why other people decide the black people should be involved in the MDM because they are already on their way constitutionally, being accepted in the system. So I don't know whether that answers your question?

POM     Just a final one. Since you've been dealing with the black community in the last three years where have the most significant gains been?

JHT     Gains for the black community? Probably in getting authority over their own local government affairs and the increased rate of physical development.

POM     That's physical infrastructure, houses, roads?

JHT     Housing, roads, water. But again as I said there's such a tremendous backlog in the provision of these.

POM     Well I don't really have anything more to say. Is there anything I should have asked you that I haven't asked you?

JHT     Well I don't know, you came down on me so quickly I didn't know what you were wanting. I really didn't have an idea.

POM     Just to recapitulate on it, it's what you see as the role of emerging black middle class in further empowering the black community. Do you think that it can be the engine of change in itself so that it leads the process rather than being a segment of the black population that reacts to it? Who drives? Is it COSATU on the one side or the emerging black middle class on the other hand?

JHT     My own conviction is that a radical movement such as COSATU is by far the most voluble, they're the people that you hear, but I think the emerging black middle class, given the black models that haven't even achieved any middle class, are by far the majority and they are really the people. I think to a certain extent in the last two years there has been more resistance from the moderate black communities to be intimidated by the more radical movements.

POM     OK, we'll leave it there.

JHT     I would just say this, I've never been more optimistic about possible negotiations than I am at present. Two, three years ago I don't think it would have been possible or I would have been very, very pessimistic.

POM     What do you think brought about such a radical change in the situation?

JHT     It's difficult to say. Perhaps the fact that people now feel that they're not being treated as decisions are not being taken for them but that decisions are being taken with them. I think that's probably the major thing that has brought this about. You still have in the black towns, you still have factions that are not accepting the authority of the local authorities, for sure. I think it's getting less and less.

POM     So the majority of people by and large in townships would accept the authority of the Town Councils?

JHT     Yes.

POM     OK. Thank you. Sorry for keeping you delayed.

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.