About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

18 Jul 1990: Bethlehem, Ronnie

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

Click here for Overview of the year

POM     I'm talking with Dr. Ronnie Bethlehem, CEO of Consolidated ...

RB     No, no, no, no, no. Wrongly described. I am the Group Economics Consultant, okay?

POM     Okay. The alacrity with which De Klerk had moved over the last year, has this surprised the business community, and why do you think he moved with such alacrity?

RB     That's a long one! I want to answer that question by referring to a transparency. Now, we'll make a photocopy of that transparency to make it easier for you. And maybe it would be easier, transparency's is going to be, is this - without all that writing on it. I wonder whether I shouldn't come and sit in between you. Is that all right?

PK     Sure.

RB     If you're going to ask me a question about the ANC and ...

POM     Yes, yes.

RB     So that will anticipate that. Basically the model, or the hypothesis, argues that the position of the National Party and the ANC converged and that we are moving to a situation of a government of national unity which will precede agreement on a new constitution. In fact, a government of national unity is more likely to be the umbrella body that will oversee the negotiations. And the main trading off will occur within the government of national unity rather than in a Constituent Assembly, which would, in South Africa's case, be most unsuited to achieving any consensus.

POM     Why do you think it would be most unsuited?

RB     Because the problem of getting the composition of the Constituent Assembly right has to do with representation in it and the balance of voting that will occur in it. And that presupposes that you've solved the problem, that is the central issue of the constitutional debate. And, so, while I think that the government, the National Party of F W de Klerk, is opposed, and I believe correctly, to the Constituent Assembly as argued or for by the ANC, they might find it necessary to actually concede the establishment of a Constituent Assembly so that there will be public debate. And so that large bodies of people will have an opportunity, and political parties, groupings will have an opportunity to publicly debate it. But if we're going to reach a consensus on a new constitution, it will be very difficult for that kind of Constituent Assembly to reach a consensus, the situation is totally different from the one that obtained in Namibia, for example. But I don't think that that should be an obstacle to achieving a consensus on a new constitution. And the critical question is, why have the National Party and the ANC who are such diametrically opposed organizations suddenly gotten into bed with one another? Why are they the emerging key participants in the government of national unity? I think to start out one needs to go back, say, to 1948, one really could go back further, and to trace the progress of both of these organisations since then to the present time.

     Take the National Party first. The National Party came to power in 1948 as the principal guardian of Afrikaner national group interest. They won the election on that basis. They were regarded by Afrikaners in South Africa as trustworthy representatives of their national or group interest. They proceeded to put into place, or to formalise, racial domination, racial segregation. The idea, really - it's interesting, actually, that they did come to the one revelation, having made lots of noises about nationalisation, when once they were elected the nationalisation issue fell away. And what you had in the first six years of National Party rule under Dr. Malan was the formalisation of apartheid as it's come to be known, the putting onto the statute book of the main ingredients of what we know today as apartheid. Malan retired in 1954 and was replaced by Dr. Strijdom, Mr. Strijdom, Hans Strijdom, the so-called Lion of the North, a northerner, a Transvaaler, a Transvaal leader of the National Party. Strijdom's policy was a policy of unapologetic white domination. He argued very eloquently that in an integrated body politic in South Africa the blacks, by virtue of their numbers, would overwhelm the whites. And, therefore, it reduced to a matter of "either you dominate me, or I dominate you, therefore, I dominate you." And that policy came to be known in South Africa as "baasskap". "Baas", it's translation in English would be "boss". The domination of the boss, white man is boss in South Africa. He tells, keeps the black man in his place. Baasskap. A word difficult to translate exactly into English but it has all that certain power of white domination, and domination out of the necessity of avoiding being dominated. Strijdom didn't live very long. He succumbed to leukaemia. Can we stop for a moment?

     Strijdom having died of leukaemia. But first he retired and then died. He was replaced by his Minister of Native Affairs, the notorious Hendrik Verwoerd. Now, Verwoerd, whatever his racism, and I don't think we need to disguise the fact that he was a racist and that he wasn't well disposed towards black people, his concern was to subjugate them. I think it would be a good idea to actually put these things on something, because the table doesn't do too well on its own. We don't need to go into an elaboration of that but the one interesting feature of Verwoerd was, being I suppose an academic, he was a professor of psychology, he realised that in the period of decolonialisation the policy of unapologetic white domination was not going to be sustained.

     One recalls that it was in 1956 that the Gold Coast became Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to become an independent country. And the first change in National Party policy becomes evident under the administration of Verwoerd because he now starts to transform apartheid into what he came to call 'separate development'. The idea was to get away from this domination of blacks by whites and to separate blacks and whites, so that whites would not dominate blacks. There's the interesting feature of the Verwoerdian policy that he doesn't permit white industry to establish itself in the reserves, the native reserves, which came to be known as the Bantustans. Industry had to establish itself on the boundaries of these reserves but couldn't go in there and the idea why it couldn't go in there was he didn't want whites to go in there and dominate the economy of the reserves and therefore dominate blacks. So, there was a strange, if you like, redeemable streak, in Verwoerd. I should also say to you that the Verwoerdian idea has its roots, obviously, deeper into Strijdom and Malan. Because way back in 1952, the National Party, I hope it's 1952, the National Party set up a commission of inquiry and a Professor Tomlinson, the Tomlinson Commission, to investigate the question of the future demographics of South Africa and its economic development and to report and to recommend. And the Tomlinson Commission came to the conclusion that South Africa had two choices, a choice of two things. Either it could become an integrated society or it could become a separated society. And it argued in favour of being a separated society and it provided a whole rationale for this. I should just say that the Tomlinson Commission had been preceded by a commission under Mr. Justice Fagan that had been established under the Smuts government in 1946 and had reported in 1947 a year before the general election which swept Smuts out of power. And the Fagan Commission had come to the diametric opposite conclusion that Tomlinson had come to. And there's a famous passage from Fagan which says that any attempt to develop South Africa under separate, to separate black and white in the economic and political development was absolute nonsense.

POM     Ronnie, do you think, because I have a number of very specific questions ...

RB     Interrupt as you wish.

POM     That I could ask you ...

RB     Please do!

POM     These questions first, and then we work our way back to this.

RB     Yes. By all means, please do, please do.

POM     Because what I'm primarily interested in today is where business stands and what are the concerns of business.

RB     Can we come to that after this? Rather, if you bring in business now, you're going to, we're going to spoil the development of the argument as to why the National Party has come to the position where it is, and that was your original question.

POM     I'm only concerned about time.

RB     I'll try and be quick. I'll try and be quick. What is our time?

POM     We have to leave about 10:30.

RB     Okay. I'm going to make sure that I get there.

PK     Thank you.

RB     But I think what I'm giving you is very important in the answer to the question that you've given me, that you put. Now based on Tomlinson, the Verwoerdian idea was that the body politic and the economy could be separated into entities of black and white. And when Verwoerd is assassinated in 1966 he's replaced by Vorster. Vorster doesn't have the ideological vision of Verwoerd. He's much more of a pragmatist, an ad hoc-ist, if you like. There's a lot of ad hockery in his responses. Because of this you get problems arising and problems being treated on their merits and being treated in a pragmatic way and this is further erosion of a position of the National Party. So that by the time you get to the end of Vorster's prime ministership, and when Vorster is blown out of office by the info scandal, the information scandal, the National Party had already begun to acknowledge that the economy cannot be saved. And then, under PW Botha, the formal acknowledgement of the wholeness of the economy is made. And this is against the background of that that you have the acceptance now of a new labour dispensation with the trade unions, blacks being permitted to organise themselves in trade unions and the permanency of blacks in the white areas, so-called, being acknowledged.

     Prior to that, under the Verwoerdian idea, through this decentralised investment policy, the influx of blacks into the so-called white areas would be at first, arrested and eventually, rolled back. And so you would achieve that way the total economic separation of black and white. And that whatever, what blacks remained in these cities, would be temporary only. And they would have to express their political needs in terms of their own homeland. But in 1979, the National Party accepted that the economy is indivisible. It continues to pursue the idea that the body politic can be separated and that the sovereignty of whites and blacks can be separated. It is about ten years later, in 1988, that finally, the National Party comes to accept that the body politic itself cannot be separated. Now, once that decision is taken, the National Party is at a critical crossroads because it now has a choice of two things only: it has the choice of going back to domination or going into the future to a democratic society. The choice between domination and democracy becomes a choice that has to be made.

     It is to the credit of F W de Klerk that he has actually chosen a democratic route and, having chosen a democratic route, completes the narrowing of the gap between the position, his position and the ANC position. Because the ANC's position has all along been a non-racial, democratic South Africa, in a unitary country. And the National Party, through a process of accepting first the unity of the economy, then the unity of the body politic and now democracy, has actually U-turned to being in a position very close to that of the ANC. What really separates now, the National Party and the ANC, are policy differences, not differences of basic principle, but policy differences, as to how a non-racial democratic South Africa should be managed.

POM     What factors do you think De Klerk weighed when he made the decision in favour of democracy rather than domination?

RB     Why did he make this, why did he make this turn? Because there was no reason for him to accept that the body politic should, could no longer be separated. There are a number of reasons why the decision was taken and we have to look outside the immediate problem to find those reasons. And those reasons are, in my opinion, firstly, that to pursue this has become too costly. It had become too costly because there was internal conflict and strife and the blacks were not prepared to accept it. And they were prepared to turn the whole of society upside down to make South Africa ungovernable, if necessary, in order to do that. And they'd achieved a good measure of success, internally. And their success internally was complemented externally by the imposition of sanctions on South Africa, and particularly the financial sanctions, which threatened South Africa with another ten years of economic stagnation. And given the demographic transformation taking place in South Africa, there's no way in which it could accept that cost.

     Now, I should just say that the poor performance of the South African economy in the 1980s is moot by countries like Australia and Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Nigeria, other countries which have a similar mineral base to South Africa and, therefore, was not entirely due to apartheid. But nevertheless, South Africa is different from Australia. We have a transforming society demographically, we have a very high rate of population increase amongst our blacks, an urbanising black population growing at over 7.5% per annum, black matriculating population growing at over 20% per annum, the economy had grown at only 1.5% per annum in the 1980s. And the realisation on the part of De Klerk that if we could not get the engine of the economy going and get job creation going that we would have such an accumulation of structural unemployment , irreversible unemployment, that by the end of the century achieving the social and political stabilisation of South Africa would not be possible. So, the cost of maintaining it, the policy of a separate body politic, had become too great.

     There are other reasons, of course, why, and positive and negative reasons why and why these changes are made. South Africa, or the National Party, came to a final position as far as the conflict in Angola was concerned. It wasn't prepared to win the battle of .... It could have won that battle if it was prepared to sacrifice 2,000-2,500 white conscripts, but it wasn't prepared to go in and lose those men to do that. Because they had effectively lost their air superiority and it had come to the realisation that it could no longer sustain an armed conflict, an arms race against even a country like Angola when Angola was backed by other people who were prepared to give it the technology that could always counter-balance South Africa's own technology. So South Africa came to accept that pursuing such conflicts was futile, and therefore, a solution also had to be found in Namibia. And in the background of all of this is a changed relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union with the Soviet Union having collapsed and not being prepared to sustain its support for bush wars. And now, this pressure of the United States and Soviet Union working together, insisting on some sort of accommodation of that, as well.

     Then there're opportunities. The positive side is that I suppose they saw that this provided a certain opportunity for South Africa and that is, with the Soviet Union and collapse in Eastern Europe changing, that this was the best time to unban the ANC and the South African Communist Party, as well and to let them be exposed to the domestic public against the background of this complete transformation of what was going on in the socialist world. As far as the ANC is concerned, it comes from 1948, having been a protest movement to being the perpetrator of an armed struggle and pursuing a policy of trying to make South Africa ungovernable, trying to generate instability in the townships in order to overthrow the government. And its policy is augmented, as we move from 1948 to 1980, by sanctions by those in South Africa and in 1980s against South Africa, sanctions imposed against the country.

     But what becomes evident to the ANC, also, is that it's not possible to succeed in a revolutionary take-over of the country. The South African government is too strong to overthrow. With the army, with the police, and we're dealing with an army and a police which is ethnically loyal to an Afrikaner government, but to overthrow the government by a revolutionary bit is impossible. So, it accepts that there, the empirical evidence, that the cost is too high. Also, the ANC realises that South Africa can't afford another ten years of stagnation, because South Africa, equally for the ANC, South Africa will not be stabilisable at the end of the decade if we have another two or three million additional unemployed piled on. And then there's the economic pressure coming on the ANC from the change in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States.

     So we've got to an interesting point, where the, for both the ANC and the National Party, critical choices have to be made. For the National Party, in this pre-new constitution phase, it is still a party that is representative of the whites. Does it remain as an all-white party, or does it become a non-racial party? It has to go into the negotiations as a representative of the whites but its long-term future must be as a non-racial party or otherwise it's out of business in terms of what it's defined for itself, for the country. The choice for the ANC is to change from being a black liberation movement to being a non-racial political party. I mean, the ANC is non-racial but it is essentially a black liberation movement and it's got to change, too.

     Now, in a sense, what is bringing the ANC and the National Party together is that time is running out, both for the National Party and for the ANC and for the economy. I've already described why the time is running out for the economy so let's just deal with the National Party and the ANC. Time is running out for the National Party because already, Mr de Klerk has lost his constituency. If there were to be an election tomorrow there's a big question mark as to whether he would win that election, whether he would win it even with the support of the Democratic Party. It's quite possible that the CP, if white anxieties were sufficiently high, and if the recession gets deeper, that they will be the winner. He's lost the opportunity, he's lost his own constituency. But he also knows that if he can deliver the right kind of constitution within a four-year time span, the whites will vote for it.

POM     So you would see it crucial for the government to have this process worked out before an election's due in 1994?

RB     Absolutely. Absolutely critical.

POM     And if it's not done by 1994?

RB     If they fail, if they fail to achieve a negotiated constitution, the future in terms of the existing parliamentary dispensation is that the Conservative Party will win. It'll become more centrist. It will shed, it will distance itself from the ultra-right. And it will win the next election. And we'll be back to a Verwoerdian-type National Party.

PK     What do you think about moving the elections? That prospect of moving the elections?

RB     I don't think there will be. I mean, if there's a failure ...

PK     If the whole thing breaks down?

RB     It's all or nothing as far as we're concerned I think. The ANC, too, has the same thing to confront, because in its own constituency the most radical people are the eight to eighteen-year olds. Fifty percent of the black population is under the age of twenty. And the shift in the black community is towards the Africanist philosophy of the PAC. If the ANC fails, non-racialism is discredited and the blacks swing to the PAC. The PAC is a lightweight compared to the ANC under present circumstances. But it's not a potential lightweight. It's a potentially very important organisation. So time is running out for both of those. And, in a sense, the ANC and the National Party need each other, because the National Party has come to realise that the ANC is the best possible negotiating partner it could have and it's only the ANC which stands any chance of stabilising the black community. And the ANC realises that the National Party is the best negotiating partner it possibly could have, it is the only party that could really carry the Afrikaner nationalist element into a reform. And so we're moving towards that government of national unity which I say will precede a new constitution. Now, let's get on with the business community!

POM     That was a terrific exposition, I must tell you that.

PK     You've answered a lot of the questions!

POM     Yes, yes. And I like the way you did it. What about business? Should business trust the ANC?

RB     Well, you know, some of us in business who've now met with the ANC so often, that I regard them, many of the individuals, as personal friends and, you know, I have no problems with them. I've problems with some of the things they continue to say. I'm thinking of a young man who was interviewed on the radio the other day and continued to talk about dismembering the conglomerates and all sorts of things, he had violent words like that. And we're very aware of the great limitations of nationalisation, for example, as a policy in achieving for a future ANC state and we're not talking about an ANC state in the immediate future, we're talking about an ANC state at some future time in an open election, but the government of national unity would obviously be not an exclusively ANC state. For an ANC, even for an ANC state, what can nationalisation actually do? Why did the National Party abandon nationalisation in 1948 when they were quite happy to whip the English businessmen community, and they could. The answer is that nationalization doesn't provide resources to the state. It's, rather, a drainage of resources from the state. And if you pursue a punitive policy with regard to the business community you're going to generate a lot of capital flight before you've got your hands on the instruments of control, exchange control, and all the rest of it. And brain drain. So that if you pursue a punitive policy you're likely to drive South Africa into a much lower growth rate, aggravate the domestic stagnation, worsen the accumulation of irreversible unemployment and make it absolutely sure that South Africa does choose the route of a sub-Saharan disaster rather than achieve what it could do, because it is a potentially very strong country, a country with a high rate of growth. And even Nelson Mandela is arguing at the moment that we do need a high rate of growth in the post-apartheid society. His arguments for post-apartheid are exactly what our arguments are for society right now. And the quicker that we can get to this government of national unity the better because then a lot of this nonsense can be abandoned.

POM     But, could you at this point in time , like in July 1990, would you say that the business community as a whole is yet prepared to trust the ANC with regards to what economic policies it would pursue if it were in government?

RB     Yes, well, I don't think so. I mean you must - did you read, have you been in the country since Monday?

PK     Yes.

RB     Did you read Ken Owen in the Monday edition of the Business Day?

PK     Ah, probably not.

POM     We have it.

RB     I just want to strongly recommend that if there's any one copy, one newspaper that you buy from South Africa, that you buy the Monday edition of Business Day. It's doing an incredible job in reflecting, if you like, business concerns and white concerns. And making a few very valid observations.

PK     Oh, we have it. We bought it. We buy it every day.

RB     Oh, you did. Good. If you read that particular one, Ken is an interesting chap. I mean, he's a bulldog. He gets onto an issue and he doesn't let it go until he's shaken the meat out of it, and he's onto Joe Slovo at the moment. And he's really attacking old Joe. Joe Slovo had written an open letter to Business Day, to the business community through the columns of Business Day and Ken has been dancing on it. And, so, you need to look over the last few weeks at the Ken Owen column, specifically relating to the Joe Slovo issue. And in the whole of this week, there have been a number on the South African business, and Chamber of Business, and Harry Schwarz in this morning's Business Day. An open letter to Joe Slovo, Harry having been at university with Joe as law students, and, you know, with Harry Schwarz now being in government and Joe Slovo having been the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe. So, they know each other. They were students together.

POM     Is it possible to get a copy of Joe Slovo's open letter?

RB     Yes. Yes.

PK     It appeared before we were here.

RB     You haven't got that?

PK     No.

RB     I'll order it. Will you remind me to do it?

PK     Yes.

RB     I find it even with my colleagues inside this company, because I have been privileged to have these contacts, I don't feel as uptight about the ANC as they do. These guys, a lot of them are very uptight about the ANC. I mean, they regard them as a bunch of wild men who haven't got a notion as to how to run the economy or what is it is to manage a business and full of hairy Marxist/Leninist notions about how to get, what should be done. And even if Joe Slovo changes in his words and now sounds more comfortable as far as the business community is concerned, you believe him? I mean, can you believe him? That he's still calling himself a South African Communist Party, what he would do if he got in? I mean, he would be pursuing social engineering policies as distasteful to the business community as the social engineering policies that Verwoerd would. And even worse, because he would be forced by this huge constituency to set aside what they need in the short run and the end result would be that business confidence would be destroyed and money would be withdrawn and people would go and the economy would decline. And, in a measure, these anxieties are justified. I'm not uptight about them, because I don't think that Joe Slovo could win control of the government without being allied with the ANC. And while there're lots of workers out there who support the South African Communist Party, the South African Communist Party needs the ANC. And therefore will, and not only because of perestroika, because of the ANC modify its policies and live by, have a commitment to a multiracial, multiparty democracy and all that. So, I don't feel too uptight about that. And I think, also, I'm very confident, personally, of the weight of logic on the side of a lot of the things that the business community is arguing about. And that weight of logic, if it was only logic which ruled, would win. And what is problematical is the deprivation of the black community, the extent of black deprivation. And in an open democratic society, the urgency to address the need of blacks. And that's why the business community, in its own interest, has to think in terms of ...

POM     I was going to come to that. But, before I do, what guarantees do you think business would be looking for from the ANC or from an ANC-dominated government before you would have flight of capital or either a very slow rate or no rate of inward investment?

RB     Well, first of all, it's not an ANC government that we're facing in the immediate future. And business tends to be very short-sighted, you know. I mean, it does intend to think things strategically but it doesn't often act with sufficient vigour in terms of its own strategic need. It addresses the bottom line in a very short and medium term. And that's all right, I mean, so what? I mean, we'll deal with that. The immediate concerns are, what kind of government will you have in the next 18 months to two years? Then, what kind of constitution will it have? And we'll worry about what kind of government is likely to emerge beyond that. Because once the ANC has been a participant in government at the level of governmental responsibility for a year or two years or even three years before the next election is held, the ANC, the way it comes across to the business community, is going to be different. The way it thinks is going to be different. The whole thing, this change is going to change the ANC very substantially. And I have a great deal of faith in the potential for the ANC to change once it achieves governmental responsibility.

POM     I've one last question today. And will it be possible, perhaps, to see you again before we leave, sometime in August? You're a fountain!

RB     All right.

POM     The one question is, do you see a dichotomy arising between where COSATU stands and the unions in general, or, at least, generally stand, and where the ANC might stand?

RB     Well, of course, the ANC and the COSATU people would deny that there is any difference between them, but, of course, there must inevitably be. Like there's a difference between the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and the trade union movement and sometimes there's conflict. And at this time I think one needs to say that the ANC has a problem with having been an exile movement. And therefore, their people come back to South Africa who have been in the ANC ivory tower, analysing the economy, going to Moscow, going to the socialist international meetings, and all sorts of things like that. And they come back somewhat out of touch with the sort of the hard conflict that COSATU/UDF have been involved in right here. Before the ANC came back, the line of radicals that came from the townships through the lower echelons up to the lower leadership level up to the higher leadership level in COSATU/UDF and the ANC were a relatively conservative, bourgeois middle class, you know, very different kind of organisation, actually, to what whites in white South Africa thought it was. The real radicals, the real difficulty, is for the rationalism of the ANC, a rationalism somewhat weakened by the fact that it is not fully in touch with the micro-issues of conflict, for the rationalism of the ANC to prevail and for the radicalism that comes up from the bottom into COSATU and UDF. And I think that UDF will probably disappear, because a lot of the people who had been the leading lights in the UDF are already presenting themselves as representatives of the ANC in South Africa. So, that means they want to change. But within the ANC, you've got to then differentiate between the Thabo Mbekis and the exiles and those people who now are in the ANC who have come in from the UDF and come in with, and who have a very high degree of sensitivity to the constituency.

PK     What do you, what are your signs on that? I mean, in Namibia, I've been telling Padraig that did happen with SWAPO, the exiles did dominate, and even in a situation where you hadn't had SWAPO the change of the internals was much stronger, theoretically.

RB     I mean, you're dealing with a very much more sophisticated situation in South Africa. And you go and talk to somebody like Cheryl Carolus, for example, who is the Western province, Western Cape organiser of the UDF and obviously a member of the ANC. She was part of Nelson Mandela's delegation that went to see the government on the 2nd of May and she's a very, very determined and radical lady. Brilliant. Brilliant person.

POM     We'll stop there.

RB     Okay.

POM     Thank you very, very much. And should we just ring you to make a new appointment?

RB     Yes.

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.