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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

08 Aug 1990: Coetzer, Piet

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POM     We're talking with Piet Coetzer on the 8th of August.

PC     As far as the constituencies are concerned, we haven't lost a single party functionary since 2nd February that I know of and I'm fairly heavily involved. We've been very active in conducting seminars, information conferences and so forth, for the party workers, I mean the active hard core leadership of the party across the country, and those are the important people to look after at this point.

POM     So do you think the right wing Conservative Party is something that is a passing phase that could be expected when times are uncertain?

PC     Not totally passing. I mean it's like the Ku Klux Klan, I mean some elements of that would be with us, like the poor, forever, but as a real force I believe they'll disappear, they will disappear. I honestly believe, and I've said it very often, I think that the right wing has gone up more in fever than in numbers. Even in my own town where we have a Conservative Party Town Council, there are members in that Council, Conservative Party members, who are starting to say, "Maybe we should accept the inevitable, it's time for us to start looking at the future and prepare for that." That sort of thing. That's one of the reasons why you have to move as quickly as possible, the sooner you can get a perception in place that the change and the new dispensation are inevitable, that the only choice is whether it is going to be orderly.

POM     When you talk to your constituents, what are their fears? What are their concerns at this point?

PC     It's changed, and it changes dramatically. I mean, at one point in time, I mean last year at this time, the biggest concern was that they would have a black neighbour.

PK     A black what?

PC     A black neighbour. The joke was going around at that stage, I mean, the most feared words for a white South African at the moment are, "Hello, boss, I'm your new neighbour." But that has disappeared. I mean I'm talking about my party people, they have accepted that the Group Areas Act is going. They are more worried now about the violence and the escalation of the violence. There is a fear that that might spill over into the white areas but they have accepted the inevitability that the face of Africa is going to change.

POM     But have they accepted the fact that black majority rule may be the rule of the future?

PC     Oh, sure, but with real protection for minorities, protection against the tyranny of majority rule.

POM     What, in their minds, would that mean?

PC     I don't think it's clear yet, I don't think it's clear in people's minds. I mean, the way I know, as a politician, people, a broad spectrum, they work on perceptions, they work on trust, on gut feeling, and things like that, not on the real facts and formulas and so on. That's why we pay taxes, that's why we'll put you in parliament, it's your job to worry about that.

PK     But what do they want protected? What do they as individuals or people in your constituency want protected?

PC     There again I don't know, I don't know. I don't think that that is really defined in people's minds.

PK     They don't know what they are afraid of losing?

PC     They are not quite sure of what they are afraid of losing, a way of life, standards, that sort of thing. They just don't want to be threatened. They want to go, they want to send their kids to the shops on a Saturday morning and not be afraid that they will mugged or that sort of thing and they're those perceptions that you find in New York City, not only in South Africa.

PK     The Zulu women that came to see you yesterday; in the last couple of days, has there been an increase in people calling you and wanting to know what is going on or is there sort of an acceptance that this is the way of life in this area?

PC     No, no, I haven't had more calls than usual but then, I live in my constituency, I try to move around quite a bit, I do a hell of a lot of letters. I mean I sign letters, I sign on average about 1500 letters per week.

PK     But do people say, "What the hell is going on out there?"

PC     Absolutely. Absolutely, yes. Like, for instance, this afternoon at the Rugby Club, people would ask, "What the hell is happening, what's happening in Kwathema. Do you guys have it under control?"  They don't want details, they just want an assurance that we are in control, that there is some light at the end of tunnel.

POM     But is there any, again, talking about perceptions, is there any light? Do they have a prior conception that South Africa may go the way of the rest of Africa and that what you're seeing now with the violence is merely a precursor of things to come?

PC     Not at this point in time, until they're my hostages, at this point in time, not. Where there is a real perception, and that's an interesting fact and I'm only really thinking about it now since you asked the question, I think about my experience this afternoon at the Rugby Club and a remark that somebody has made, now this was a CP member of the club, but we're friendly in a civilised sort of way, he said to me about the violence in the black areas, we just shouldn't interfere now, let them fight their own battles.

PK     Let them kill each other?

PC     They do the job for us. That kind of approach. OK, I mean, that's from a particular individual from a particular background. But in a funny way, the violence in the black community has brought a bigger feeling of security among white people for the simple reason that they realise - I mean it's not just an 'us/them' situation, that there's not a black mass out there. I mean, there are balancing powers.

POM     They're not going to turn on us, they turn on each other, too?

PC     Yes, you know, that kind of thing. I'm trying to put it in words, it's something that is very, very recent but it's just as if - I'm talking about the white election. Let me just say, Kwathema falls inside the physical boundaries of my constituency, so I always treated Kwathema as part of my constituency, that's why that black woman came to me, came to my office. They couldn't vote for me, but I have responsibility, I represent them in parliament as well so I treat them like all other constituents. But as far as the white community in my constituency are concerned, it's almost as if people are a little bit more relaxed. There's almost a feeling like they're so busy fighting among themselves that we are out of the firing line, you know, kind of perception.

POM     How about concerns about standards of living, the economy?

PC     That's one of the real concerns. There's the standard of living, the standard of education, that kind of thing.  That's a real concern.

POM     Is there concern about the association of the ANC with the SACP?

PC     Yes, yes that is something that crops up from time to time in conversation with people who refer to it. There are some concerns there.

POM     But does your party share those concerns?

PC     Yes, we share that concern. I can't speak for the members of the Cabinet, of the government.  I personally can't see the ANC - the ANC is not a fully-integrated political organisation the way I see it. It's an alliance of various organisations. I can't see that alliance surviving the process to the end. Once you can sit around that negotiating table and you start negotiating about economic models and so forth, there are going to be some tremendous pressures on that alliance. I foresee a centrist, moderate alliance developing as the process proceeds, maybe to some extent a la the DTA in Namibia where the National Party would be one of the parties in that alliance. And there would be elements of the present ANC in that alliance, people from the Democratic Party, the Coloured Labour Party of Allan Hendrickse is breaking up. That's something that I predicted in 1984 when I wrote Allan Hendrickse's biography. I was campaign manager for the Labour Party, I helped to put them together, I helped to create their structures in that I was a political consultant at the time. It was an anti-government thing. 'Boer se moer' politics, it was called, which is a fairly rude expression.]  I don't know how to translate that into English but it was an anti-government thing that created the Labour Party. But you had a conservative and a left wing element in there and that's in the process of breaking up. There's a total realignment that still must take place in the South African body politic.

POM     Do you see economic models, economic structures, as playing an important, even a pivotal, role in the negotiations?

PC     Yes, I think so.  It will play a role, politics and economics are as inseparable as Siamese twins. You won't even separate them in the hospital. I mean it's just not possible to separate the two, so, yes it will play a pivotal role. A total free market economy is an unachievable dream in South Africa in the short and medium term. There is no way that we can escape some socialist elements in our economy. There's no way that we can escape some form of affirmative action.

POM     Do you think the National Party at the table will be looking for guarantees with regard to economic structures?

PC     No, not guarantees. Guarantees? Well I don't know, guarantees is a myth. There's no such thing as guarantees.

POM     Protections.

PC     Protections, yes.  Checks and balances, that sort of thing. But again, when you talk about economy, Britain does not have a written constitution but the constitutional model hasn't changed for how long? But Britain has moved from being a purely capitalist country to a very intensive socialist country back to a totally private enterprise country again. The economic policy operates to some extent independently from what the constitutional model is. A Democratic president and a Republican president in the US handle the economy totally differently, I mean the change from Carter to Reagan.

POM     What kinds of protections, then, would you think the National Party would look for?

PC     Well the sort of protections that one would look for would be indirect in the sense that you cannot have nationalisation or expropriation without proper remuneration or

POM     Compensation.

PC     Compensation for it. Those kind of things. Because you can never say that there cannot be any expropriation, because sometimes for purely physical planning reasons you have to expropriate property, to build a new national road or something. So that is that sort of protection.

POM     When you look at, say, the ANC and Mandela, say Mandela in particular as a person

PC     ... that moment and dies of a heart attack or something, it would not change that much. So, what happens inside the ANC is less dependent on an individual leader than it might be in a white community or the western style of leadership. The ANC's biggest problem is going to be to mould the ANC into an integrated political organisation that can go out there and mobilise people. There are too many constituencies operating under that umbrella at the moment for it to formulate coherent policies.

POM     So you see fragmentation?

PC     I see fragmentation. See, the ANC haven't really started, they haven't started formulating a constitutional model. They haven't started formulating an economic policy or a social policy or an educational policy. They haven't started formulating detailed policies and that is going to be a great disadvantage for they need to put a lot pressure on in the negotiating process and I, personally, can't see the ANC as we know it today surviving it.

POM     Do you see division between the ANC and COSATU?

PC     You see COSATU itself might split. I mean to the best of my knowledge Cyril Ramaphosa is not a member of the South African Communist Party. His number-two man, Chris Dhlamini who comes from Kwathema, was just elected to the Executive of the South African Communist Party. So there are divisions, divisions even inside COSATU. You see, again, the central target which was the government and the apartheid regime has disappeared. So that consolidating factor has disappeared and the dynamics have just started. Exactly how it is going play out, I don't think that's possible to predict.

POM     What about the PAC?

PC     The PAC is a bigger factor, I think, than most of us anticipated. The PAC seems to be a growing influence. Again, there you are talking about a bit of an alliance because the PAC, AZAPO, Black Consciousness, have all basically the same philosophical roots but are separate identifiable units inside the loose Pan African as a grouping.

POM     Can you get successful negotiations if the PAC stays outside of the process?

PC     I don't think so. They will have to be involved at some stage. And there are elements that are willing to participate. The biggest problem of the PAC at the moment is lack of strong leadership, there's not strong integrated leadership, which goes back for many years.  They've been almost castrated by in-fighting which up in Africa led to murders and that sort of thing.  They've gone through a lot of internal turmoil over the last almost two decades which ripped it apart. And the PAC's biggest problem, at this point in time, is that they don't have the Mandelas and the Sisulus and people like that.

POM     Where do you place the youth in all of this? This is like a generation who are uneducated, unemployed, unemployable, perhaps who are used to only one thing, protest, who have learned only one thing, confrontation.

PC     Well, let me just ask you, when one judges these people, where is the angry youth of the US of the Vietnam years? They're responsible citizens today sitting in responsible positions. I was an active rebel at university, I had long hair, I was totally anti-establishment. Now, I'm so very establishment.

POM     But this would be the generation that were the vanguard of the struggle. They see themselves as having been the vanguard of the struggle.

PC     Oh, sure.

POM     And they view the matter of them becoming responsible citizens because there will be no jobs for them. They may think that Mandela has sold out.

PC     There need not be no jobs for them. It depends upon what will happen to the economy. There might be, and hopefully there will be, some opportunities.  If you look just at what is happening in Africa, there are lots of opportunities opening up. So, I don't think they have to be a totally lost generation.

POM     You don't see them as a potentially volatile factor?

PC     At this point in time, yes, they are a volatile factor. But when people get married, they fall in love, they get married, they have kids, they get other responsibilities and things, that's the same in all societies, the mentality tends to change as well.

POM     Let me relate it to a question that is the same but a little different. If you had majority rule tomorrow what difference would it make in the life of the average family in a township or in a squatters' camp?

PC     If we can't turn economy around?

POM     What difference would it make in five years?

PC     Again, it depends upon what happens to the economy.

POM     Well, the economy has been on the slide for all of the eighties.

PC     You cannot eat political rights, you cannot build a house with political rights, you cannot build a road with political rights. Political rights do nothing and a political structure per se does nothing to your quality of life. Our biggest challenge as far as to turn the economy around, to build a sound economy, yes, that's only possible if you at the same time create a stable political environment, it goes hand and hand. The critical thing is the economy. If we can't change the economy around no political deal will survive, anyway. I don't know if you know of Professor Ronnie Bethlehem? I don't know how long you are going to be here?

POM     Ronnie Bethlehem? We've talked to him.

PC     When you spoke to him, did he give you his projections if sanctions do not disappear, what it would do in terms of job opportunities and that sort thing? Now, that's the other critical thing about 2nd February.  If the timing was later - we've reached an extra-critical stage in terms of getting a hold on the economy and turning it around. If that scene and the whole sanctions scene does not change, it is going to develop in terms of this stage a momentum of its own where it won't be possible to stop it.

POM     Two last quick questions. One, what are the obstacles that De Klerk potentially faces with his constituency, with the white constituency, as he moves the process forward?

PC     Right wing violence is the biggest threat, and it is a real problem, not in terms of numbers.  The Irish Republican Army, you would know, with a thousand

POM     250 activists taking on an army of 30,000. Your assessment of Mandela since he has been released from prison? What has he done right? What has he done wrong?

PC     Well one can go into a long checklist of what he has done right and what he's done wrong. I think on the international scene he has done worse than he's done internally. Embracing Yassar Arafat and people like that. On that score, I don't think he did maybe that well. I think he did better than one could have hoped internally for a man who has been out of circulation so long. Looking at his age, looking at the complexity of the problems facing us, I think he has done extremely well.

POM     And last, because we have been trying to find this out, but with very limited success, what is the difference between a member of the South African Communist Party and a member of the ANC?

PC     At this point in time, I don't think there is a difference. I think that's the wrong distinction to try and draw. I think you must say, what is the difference between a member of the South African Communist Party and a member of the UDF? They're both members of the ANC. The ANC is an alliance. That's the key. It's an alliance of parties. The chairman of the ANC on the East Rand is actually anti-communist, but he comes from the UDF stock, the civics, so-called civic organisations. There are some very real differences between him and the guys from the associate SACP arm. He just used me as a reference in a job application and I gave him a good reference. But you see I think that's a wrong distinction to draw because the ANC is the umbrella thing, and inside that operate COSATU, SACP, UDF, and the so-called civic organisations, and so forth.

POM     Thank you very much.

PK     ...in the townships, from people at home, who are in the States, who are watching network television.  It's not necessarily a fear factor, people are saying, X, Y, and Z is happening, this is what we're seeing.

POM     Light coverage.

PK     You watch it here and it is so - this morning, for example, there was more coverage of the Iraq war and the United States involvement in Iraq than there was about what's happening in this sense, here in this scene.

PC     Do you know the theory of the propaganda of violence?

PK     No, tell me about it. OK, I probably do.

PC     The point is, at this point in time, I don't think if you want things to calm down in the townships, it's a good idea to have too much coverage of it. I mean, then it develops a life of its own.

PK     Because the media becomes part of the event and a player.

POM     A transformer.

PK     Uh-huh. We always say that about things that happen at home as well. But there seems to be, it almost seems to be to the other extreme, where if you are concerned about it, not me but people who are, you'd have to get your leaders telling you that it's all right, or you don't see them talking to each other. You get Vlok and Mandela coming out with a brief statement. It's kind of like a mystery.

PC     I don't think more than 2% of the black population have TVs.

PK     No, I'm talking about whites. Black or white. You don't have any thought about this? This doesn't strike you?

PC     No I haven't really thought about it that much. All I can say is at this point in time, if you want to keep emotions calm you must not bullshit people. They must not learn like mushrooms.  But, at the same time, if you want to keep the emotions fairly calm, one must not over-emphasise here or bring the violence too much into people's lounges.

PK     I think I began to notice it last week when I was watching television for the morning after how they dealt with the August 6th meeting, the Pretoria Minute.

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.