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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

09 Aug 1990: Dommisse, Ebbe

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POM     We're talking with Ebbe Dommisse, is it?

ED     Dommisse.

POM     Mr Dommisse, last February 2nd would appear to be a watershed in South African history. Given that De Klerk was perceived to be a conservative pragmatist and that few people thought he would initiate fundamental change, one, were you surprised by the scope of his actions? And, two, what do you think motivated him to move so broadly and so quickly?

ED     Well, if one looks back at that, what in fact he did - I recently wrote a book, with a co-author about the leadership struggle within the Nationalist Party. We did a lot of research on this and in fact, if one looks back at De Klerk's previous speeches, they seem to be a part of it. There's a constant line which goes up, I would say, at least three or four he was expressing in his February speech. So he was proclaiming that line, I think we did find it strange in the February 2nd speech So the crucial things, of course, were really the unbanning of the ANC and the Communist Party. And it was pretty clear that this had to be done together because to unban the ANC but not the Communist Party would have been impossible, I think, for the ANC would have come back with the Communist Party still being prohibited. I think mostly that the major factor that moved De Klerk to move very quickly was Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe played a formidable role in government thinking, that communism was in fact a dying ideology, that it could not restrain a modern democracy and the collapse of the Eastern Europe was one that showed that communism was not to be feared as much as before in South Africa. And even though the Russian support for the ANC and the Communist Party here, with arms and so on, could not be upheld so the threat of communism has receded. And that gave him, I think, that really pushed him over the edge. That he thought, 'Well, communism is not such a threat as we thought at all.' Obviously, the fear of the total onslaught and global domination of the communists, that's going quite clearly, we have to rethink that and talk primarily to the black nationalists and the ANC are the oldest and probably the strongest black movement that one could have predicted.

POM     So you see it really as a decision reached on very pragmatic grounds?

ED     No. no, no. Also idealistic. I think a strain of Afrikanerism, of freedom, of being the first freedom fighters in Africa, having fought the biggest empire of its time, that's also very strong, And it's been going on for years, that Afrikaners thought that you cannot have freedom without giving freedom to others, you cannot dominate others and not be in their

POM     Well, in one sense, the Afrikaner nation was built on certain myths and how did De Klerk's actions fit in?

ED     What are the myths?

POM     Well, the Voortrekkers, the Afrikaners being a separate nation, this land being their land, and the whole manner in which history has been taught.

ED     Well, I think one could say there are a lot of those. Firstly, Afrikaners do not just see themselves as a nation. They see themselves as volk, which is very different. A volk can be partisan and quite clearly ever since Union in 1910 the Afrikaner had to share this country, not the least with the English, And as things developed, they very clearly saw that the coloureds were part of the country, Indians, and of course the big one was the black partisan issue. The whole Afrikaner dream was that blacks should have separate nations, that they could get their own independent and viable countries. That was the old homeland concept. That hasn't worked and given the level of crime a bit after that. They had put 1979 as the big date in the whole black stream which goes to their own homeland. The intellectuals among the Afrikaners started to think that there was no possibility of separate nations and that in fact we were probably becoming one nation, at least incorporating the urban blacks. And then if the homelands are Bophuthatswana is probably the most acceptable of them, but Bophuthatswana is not clean.

POM     What assumptions do you think De Klerk made about the capacity of the ANC to deliver at the time he made his announcement?

ED     On the capacity of the ANC to deliver? That's difficult. Well, I think his thinking was motivated by the realities that whatever capacity the ANC had to deliver was not so relevant as its capacity to destroy every movement. If the ANC was not allowed free political movement inside the country, it would quite clearly mobilise international opinion against South Africa, It wanted to have world sanctions, world isolation, world sabotage and terrorism. In spite of the security forces being very able to contain that, this pattern of violence, of no proper negotiations, of unrest, of dissatisfied black proletariat, that would just go on and on and on, I think that was the main motivation. That he realised the ANC had the capacity to prolong the agony.

POM     Is there a grand design that De Klerk has, a grand plan and a strategy for getting there? Or is this just an open-ended process that's leading to God knows what?

ED     I don't think so, I think quite clearly the National Party has its own plans, where it wants to get. I think they'll strive for very fundamental things, They'll strive for a parliamentary democracy, multiparty system, independent judiciary, freedom of the press, Bill of Rights, checks and balances within the political process, at least a substantial say in government.

POM     But would, say, power sharing [error] be an arrangement they're looking for?

ED     Yes. Not a hand-over to a black majority government which also from the outside world, I think, is not acceptable. The way things are going now, Africa is going back in the minds of the world, you know, as a rather hopeless, bottomless pit and in South Africa as being the one country on this continent able to sustain a modern economy. A radical, socialist, union, black majority government would not be seen by the National Party as the answer to the problems of the country. It would probably be one of the worst case scenarios.

POM     So, in your mind, you have no doubt that the government haven't conceded on the issue of majority rule?

ED     Well, it depends on how the majority rule is conceived. Majority rule that includes whites, that's not black majority rule.

POM     OK, so you distinguish between black majority rule and majority rule?

ED     I do.

POM     And majority rule that is acceptable would be a majority rule where there would be substantial sharing of executive power by whites?

ED     And safeguard the minorities. The majority of the country must have a say in the government but there, it could not be that simple, Westminster system of a majoritarian government.

POM     Could you give me an example of how you would see this process exercised?

ED     I think the mood now is that the negotiation process should start fairly quickly. Maybe by the end of this year, early next year, And drawing in all parties, Both parties are not drawing in, that's complications because some of them have the capacity to wreck everything, They need PAC, maybe the Conservative Party. In some way they could really place severe stumbling blocks in the way of moving forward. Anyway, if it goes well, and a new Constitution is worked out that would be laid before a referendum. The crucial one being the white referendum. It's very clear that if De Klerk doesn't get majority white support, he's going nowhere,

POM     So, two things, One, you don't see any interim government between now and a new government.

ED     I think that would be a wise move.

POM     To have an interim government?

ED     Yes, After a new constitution has been decided on I think that would be wise. I personally think that's probably the best that can be done. If you draw people from the existing government, and there are very able people in this government, if they could, some of the major portfolios could be held by these people, and we include some ANC, maybe Inkatha, maybe PAC, although I doubt that. If you could draw them into an interim government which could build confidence, which could show that it is capable of running the country, of running a modern industrialised state, that would be crucial, I think, to build that confidence, Not only internally but that would also help external confidence in this country, And such an interim government could, of course,, become something like a permanent institution, however difficult it may be. It is going to be a difficult, long, tedious, troublesome process with violence breaking out every now and then. It's not going to be easy.

POM     So you see no concession by the government on the question of a Constituent Assembly?

ED     Oh, I think that's quite impossible. That would really be impossible at this stage.

POM     How would that be, how would that come about?

ED     Obviously by an election. Now, as soon as the government says there's going to be a general election of all the people in this country it concedes the handing over of power. There's no way that this government in its right mind could do that.

POM     But it's a more tricky question if that government has to go back, if there is a referendum, that the white electorate are again treated as special. I mean, what if you had a referendum where the majority of Indians, coloureds and blacks want to go along with the new constitutional dispensation but the white community says no?

ED     Yes, then we are in a complete mess. Because if the white community does not give De Klerk a 50% or more majority, there is no way that he cannot immediately wipe out the election and go to the polls. And a motion of no-confidence like that would force him to immediately wipe out a white election. And if he loses in a referendum, there is almost no way in which he could win such an election and then the Conservative Party would take over and then we'll see the biggest mess that this country has ever seen.

POM     What is the seriousness of the threat from the Conservative Party?

ED     It's very serious. The latest survey shows that the right-wing now has something like 37% of the white vote, And it wants, that's very strong for right-wing reaction in any country, but the figures in this country have been very serious if you take into account that Malan won the 1948 election with 41% of the vote. The Conservative Party is a major danger for the future of this country,

POM     So. does this mean that the pace of change cannot be too quick? A common thing that we've heard in our interviews so far has been that De Klerk has neglected to take his constituency along with him, that the grassroots hasn't been brought along.

ED     Oh I don't agree with that, I think De Klerk's strategy is very clear. He's got a five-year term of office, he's got to move very quickly in the beginning, obviously, he has to avoid having another white election. That can only be done through a referendum, which would give him time to implement a new constitution, to have a kind of a change over to a new system, And if he gets a very big, if he gets a substantial majority in a referendum, he can move on, And that would not necessitate a new white election. If he does that, we have seen the last white election in South Africa. He's also been hampered, of course, by the weak state of the economy. I do feel there is one major problem and that is that the National Party's ability to communicate is not very strong at the moment, to communicate with the people and, of course, one must not underestimate the power of the right-wing propaganda. There are two major prongs. The one is that everything is being handed over to the blacks and the other is that the whites are impoverished. Race and the economy, those are two potent factors.

POM     If an election were held today, do you believe that the Conservative Party would carry the day in terms of getting a majority of the seats in parliament?

ED     I think the National Party must have its work cut out to get a majority now like never since 1948.

POM     So, am I correct in saying that you would envisage some form of a constitutional framework drawn up within the next couple of years, that that would be put to a referendum of blacks, whites, coloureds, and Indians?

ED     Well, at least it will be put to the whites. It will be for the other groups to decide for themselves, If ANC accedes to a new constitution and Inkatha does, there's been a strong suggestion among blacks that if the real leaders take part in negotiations, that's what they want. So, it's a moot point whether blacks would veto a referendum, If they do, it would still make no difference to the vital issue of the white referendum, That has to be won, There is no way that De Klerk can get around that. If he starts smart constitutional moves and so on without the white majority, you will have civil war.

POM     So, you would take not only the threat of the Conservative Party very seriously but also the threat of violence, of organised violence from the right-wing?

ED     Sure.

POM     And is there any possibility that echelons of the police or the defence forces would move in that direction, too?

ED     Oh, yes.

POM     Higher, middle, or lower, or all levels?

ED     In the, I think in the defence force, lower levels. In the police force, rather higher levels.

POM     Now, in terms of your newspaper. What kind of white fears and anxieties come back from your readers?

ED     Well, the main thing is that of going the way of Africa. The economy will deteriorate, that standards will go down, that there'll be a black grab for power and they'll implement all these stupid kinds of African socialism and semi-communism, etc., and that whites won't be safe. Quite legitimate fears.

POM     And in terms of the paper's editorial policy, it's support of De Klerk?

ED     And the reform.

POM     And the reform. But has it spelled out what it thinks the reform is, that it's not about black majority rule, that it's about the sharing of power between blacks and whites?

ED     Yes. I think so.

POM     In the sense?

ED     I think it is -

POM     It is?

ED     Yes, we're not in favour of a simple black majority rule. We don't see any future in that. This is a mixed country and the government has to reflect that.

POM     Let me ask you, when you talk about the sharing of power, would you talk about it in terms of, say, the way in which the American system is structured? Three different branches that can play off each other, or would you see it more in terms of the whites exercising direct power, to the sharing of executive power?

ED     I would say that there should be whites in the top echelons of government.

POM     That would be put in portfolios?

ED     Yes.

POM     Yes.

ED     Right. And then the devolution of power from that, That there should be, on the local level there should be a strong say in the community in local matters that affect them. At the provincial level I think that the federal system would be applicable to South Africa. There would be state rights or provincial rights or whatever you wanted to call it.

POM     You'd have state assemblies and provincial assemblies?

ED     Yes, well, there were provincial assemblies before. It was a major mistake that they were abolished, They didn't have four or five technocrats or bureaucrats, they formed the provincial system.  And that was a demeaning of democracy.

PK     When you say "sharing of power" with whites in government, what does that mean? The ANC is non-racial, multiracial. Do you mean something more than that?

ED     Oh, no, I really mean a coalition government. But that's, you know, the strongest party should probably be represented in that period of transition. And that's the only way that one could build confidence.

POM     But you would talk about this phase of transition that will in some way become institutionalised with the passage of time?

ED     Yes. If it works. I believe in going with something that works, I think that's a very strong Afrikaner tradition. Afrikaners are a practical people who must tell you what works,

POM     When you look at the obstacles there, or stumbling blocks, in the path of De Klerk in trying to manage his constituency, what do you identify as the main things he has to watch out for? What are the flashpoints?

ED     Oh the right-wing resurgence, I think that's the major one. Well, he has to, he has to get them along but that means that the economy has to become stronger, that he has to show success after success in the process that he's building on. And that was why the Pretoria meeting was, I think, one of the most important and crucial steps so far. He showed success there, and the ANC abandoned in effect the armed struggle and so on. The flashpoints, weak economy, right-wing resistance, contain the violence in the country. It's very difficult for me now -

POM     Is that level of violence associated with, say in white minds, with the unbanning of the ANC and the SACP? That when they look over the last six months, they see these two organisations were unbanned and the level of violence has gone up?

ED     Yes, well I suppose in such unsophisticated right-wing minds that's the way they reason, you unban the lot and violence became worse. I think the more sophisticated people do not think like that. They would probably put much more blame on the socio-economic situation and a lot, of course, has also been caused by that stupid war-cry of 'Liberation before Education' and the recruiting and so on. That becomes in some ways uncontrollable by the parents and I think that was one of the biggest mistakes the ANC has made, to allow that cry to go out. That was really a cry of despair but it caused havoc in the school system, something awful.

POM     Do you think that, just finally on right-wing violence, do you think that substantial numbers of whites would support paramilitary activity?

ED     In the Afrikaner tradition, there's been a very strong strain, that one does not rise against a legitimate government. I do not think that threats of Terre'Blanche and so on can go very far. And I think also, I do not like Treurnicht at all, but he still, after all, he's a man of the cloth and he has the authority to stop that kind of thinking and so far he's ambivalent, but signs are, I should say, that he's not very in favour of that kind of activity although he's associated with the AWB and they have a lot of talk, hot air and all that. But paramilitary activity against a legitimate government would not gain majority support among Afrikaners. It would be a distinct minority.

POM     So that as long as the government can maintain itself as the legitimate government, there are very few reasons to believe that the right-wing violence would start engendering any kind of significant support?

ED     No, I do not think that it would cause a general uprising or revolt that would really turn over into civil war as long as there's a legitimate government. If De Klerk loses a referendum, then we'll have a new scenario.

POM     Looking at Mandela, what do you think are the main obstacles, stumbling blocks, flashpoints that lie in his path as he tries to manage his own constituency through the process?

ED     Well, his alliance with the Communist Party is already causing severe strain.

POM     Severe strain within the black community?

ED     Right, and within the ANC, I think. The suspicion that the communists have a double agenda has not gone away and it's very strong, I think Slovo is within an old-time tradition in the Communist Party and he has dropped all of the old clichés of the communists, dictatorship of the proletariat and all that. I think he's constantly saying that the mistake is not socialism but the way it was applied. That's what we said about the British. The mistake is not Westminster democracy but the people didn't apply it for a multicultural, multiethnic society. I think Mandela's problem is the communists. Although they have very old and historical ties probably some break will have to be made. There can be no democracy in a country which has communists in top positions, that's one. The other is his inability to contain whatever is happening on the ground, the radicalised youth, the comrades, and the uprisings in the townships and so on. Mandela so far cannot exercise real power over that. I think he has a bit of a challenge there. And then thirdly I think the ethnic differences, the Inkatha movement within the Natal, the youth.

POM     Some people have said to us that whites associate the violence as happening in Natal and then Sebokeng and now in Port Elizabeth as always involving the ANC and interpret it in terms of the ANC trying to get rid of opposition to them in the black community. And that what they fear is that the ANC wants a one-party state.

ED     Oh, I think there's a very strong suggestion that the ANC wants to be, as we would put it, the only bull in the kraal. And I think there's a lot of intimidation going on, it's quite clear, in this part of the world, The ANC is trying to settle itself as the major actor on the scene, I have no doubts about that.

POM     The economy, I would assume that the primary fear of whites is the state of the economy and the maintenance of living standard. How big a role do you think economic structures will play in negotiations, i.e. will there be constraints put on the types of economic structures that can be employed, nationalisation or transfer of property, or anti-monopoly legislation and things like that?

ED     Yes , that is going to take a lot of talking in negotiations. I think it's a problem of land reforms. That will be a major issue because quite clearly, it's only my opinion, and with a diminishing number of white farmers, that is something that cannot hold. The function of the agricultural unions, that they can hold onto all the land, the land of whites, it's simply not practical or realistic. The number of white farmers has gone down to something like 30,000 by now. And, of course, you cannot have more and more land in the hands of less and less people. There has to be some redistribution of land. The problem of nationalisation which has proved to be a failure, I sense that that will be something that the National Party couldn't agree to. The National Party is always accused of being a really the big party in favour of nationalisation. They didn't nationalise, they started institutions like the Airways, ISCOR and SASOL and so on because nobody else wanted to do that.

POM     These are like semi-state bodies are they?

ED     Yes, The parastatals, A lot of them were started by the government and huge amounts of money were needed for that, And really, only the government was able to do that and just for the advantage of South Africa. And now the government, I heard the government is not so strong on privatisation. I mean, they're now talking maybe of commercialisation. Airways, for instance, that was founded by the government, it wasn't nationalised.

POM     What is your understanding of the level of expectations in the black community?

ED     It's too high.

POM     I mean, if tomorrow there was a majority rule government and power sharing, what difference would it make now or at any time in the next five or six years in the life of the average person in a township or squatter camp?

ED     Oh, they're going to assume they're moving into nice houses, proper education, and nice jobs, and so on. That's a very strong strain in black communities, unrealistic.

POM     I mean, in reality, what would happen?

ED     They wouldn't be able to get proper jobs. The squatter problems are going to get worse. No government can meet all these demands. There is a problem of education, of hospitalisation and healthcare, and of housing. No government can meet these needs very quickly, impossible.

POM     Does this not set the stage for radicalisation? Does it not set the stage for the PAC being able to say, "We told you so, we told you that the ANC were selling out? They got their nice jobs in the government and nothing has changed on the ground."

ED     Oh, yes.

POM     Would you see the PAC as being potentially a great threat in the medium to longer run?

ED     I think the PAC leadership is not impressive, to say the least. And if they get a real charismatic, strong leader, they certainly could become a threat, because right now, the leadership of the PAC does not compare with that of the ANC.

POM     Do you see the PAC participating in the negotiations, or do you think that they'll just stay outside?

ED     Well, some strains of the Black Consciousness Movement might, like AZAPO, and that would be a major blow for the PAC.

POM     How about the CP? Will it sit things out or will it find that if they do so they're in danger of marginalising themselves?

ED     I think they are realising that danger. I think there is a very strong debate within the CP whether they should take part or not. Quite clearly, if they do not take part, and some of them, well, they're talking to Professor Boschoff and he's saying that they should negotiate their white homeland.

POM     They should?

ED     Yes, now he's saying that, And he's right, of course, because if you do not put that card on the table, clearly he's saying they'll negotiate after they have taken power and all that, But then, they have very little concrete that they can negotiate if they don't put their cards on the table right now.

POM     I don't think there's anybody, but does anybody really take seriously this idea of a white homeland state?

ED     Oh, yes! I think the right wing does because if there is a white homeland and it could relieve their fears, the right-wing sure that's a proposition. If they want to move to the north west, it's a popular place. People want to go there and they can sustain a country there whether it's independent or semi-independent. why not? Their needs are met. They haven't been written off. The only trouble is for maybe fifteen or twenty years or so nobody has really gone to these places which they have identified, like the Orange River, and so on. They don't seem to believe they could go and live there themselves. I mean that is their only problem. But theoretically it can help the process and I think they can do it.

POM     The violence in Natal, one, what's your interpretation of what it's about? Two, whether it has reached a point of being almost uncontrollable? Three, again, what message does it send to the white community? And four, can meaningful negotiations on a future constitutional dispensation take place if the level of violence in Natal continues at its current level?

ED     The violence in Natal is, I think, a very intricate affair It's not only a power struggle. I think there are old tribal antagonisms and rivalries and so on. And there area lot of plain, ordinary criminals in there. I think there are other reasons why it's going on. It's very difficult to contain it. It would help a lot if the leadership from the warring factions, which is primarily ANC-Inkatha, if they can come to an agreement, there's tremendous pressure on them to do that. I think it can be contained in a better way. I think the root of the problem is probably socio-economic and political, And if there arises agreement between basically Mandela and Buthelezi or their lieutenants, that they should really contain it, and that that would help a lot. And then the role of the armed forces and the police, which probably could also become more positive. And if the violence continues that is going to affect negotiations and it would not be helpful, It would weaken the position of Buthelezi more than that of the ANC. The accusations are very strong against Inkatha and the KwaZulu police itself, and he has to show that he really wants to end it, Mandela, too. Mandela. there's a suggestion that Mandela fears for his own authority and so on, losing that. And - what's the latter part of your question?

POM     And the message it sends to, again, the white community?

ED     Yes, that's very negative. Especially Natal. I think some of the loss of the support in Natal for the National Party, it's really not an  Afrikaner party any more. He got a lot of support in Umlazi election from Democratic Party, some people jumped right over from the Democratic Party, over the National Party to the CP. That is what I was told by people who were involved. You know, the real fear that reflects over the country, you would find that kind of violence, uncontrollable mass behaviour, and so on, very negative.

POM     At what point does the process of change, the process toward constitutional change, become irreversible? Or does the government always maintain control of the entire process?

ED     Well, I think the government will try to. It could become uncontrollable in any way. When would it become irreversible? I think once a new constitution has been adopted via referendum and a new government takes place. Then I cannot see how we can go back to a pure white government. Even a coup by the armed forces could put this country in such a terrible state that it's inconceivable that that could last more than maybe a few years.

ED     A white take-over against ?

POM     Oh, yes. Just two last things. One, your assessment of Mandela since his release from prison in terms of whether he lives up to your expectations, exceeded them, disappoints them. And your assessment of De Klerk.

ED     Well, Mandela is now, I think he's showing more confidence and assuming more of the role of a strong leader, which one thought he should be. His strengths concerning the IRA or concerning his embrace of Gaddaffi and his praise for Castro, these are not real role models for a successful western state and I think he's changed a lot. I think the world as he sees it today, after being 27 years in prison, has changed more than he thought. I think he was taken aback at the very strong reaction to his calls for nationalisation and so on and he's thinking again. I think the overseas tour which he had was much too long. I think he was misled in the United States by the hero-worship in the sense that that kind of popular feeling which arose in the States could not be transferred to political action, I think he made a mistake there. But the Europeans who are much more involved over a much longer period and do not have the kind of transitory attention to South Africa which one tends to find in the States, I think they really concentrated his mind.

     The latest move, in which the ANC suspended the armed struggle, that took courage. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that. I think it showed that he Is feeling more sure of himself. I that he is an authority, he's getting good advice from some of the realists in the upper echelons of the ANC. He has a very good working relationship with De Klerk, I think they have a lot of regard for each other and that's very important.

     If at this stage there should be an assassination or something like that of either of these two, I think that's the biggest headache for this country and probably for the world, that that could be devastating. De Klerk has really surprised one with the sure-footedness and the ability and the agility which he showed since becoming State President. He moved very well through the very difficult era of transition from the PW Botha reign and he has put a much more relaxed face on the government and he's stopped some of the old-time ceremonies that weren't really suitable for this country. He seems to be pretty sure of himself. He has the complete backing of the Cabinet for what he's doing, which he got very, very quickly, quicker than most other South African prime ministers or state presidents had before. I think he's doing very well. He has to move fast. He has to get things in shape within maybe three years, he realises that. And he also realises the importance of the economy more so than his predecessor or other predecessors and the way the Reserve Bank is going on with rather strict monetary policies. And even now that, in spite of all the troubles that it causes, that is the correct way to do it

POM     At this time next year, at what point in the process will it be?

ED     At this time next year?

POM     What do you expect to happen, how do you expect the agenda both to be advanced?

ED     Well, I think if it goes well, of course, by this time next year they would be around the negotiation table - hopefully with virtually all the major parties there. And by this time next year, if more positive things come about like, say, an end to the sports boycott and cultural boycott, lifting of some sanctions, some signs that foreign investment is taking place again, that's a really hopeful scenario. That's what I would like to see.

POM     OK. Thank you very much.

ED     All right.

POM     For your time.

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.