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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
23 Aug 1990: Zille, Helen
POM We're talking to Helen Zille on the 23rd of August in Cape Town again. Helen, to pick up from where we were last week, Jenny said that you had done quite a bit of work on right-wing reactions. Is that right?
HZ Yes, I did in 1986. I did a lot of research on the far right.
POM Would you like to share what some of your findings were then, and how you see the situation as being either an extrapolation of that today or as being different from it?
HZ I think the situation has changed quite fundamentally, although the basics remain the same. In 1986, I think many people tended to dismiss the far right as a bunch of crazies who wouldn't make any major impact on South African politics. They would wither on the vine. Today, as they were then, they are a highly divided constituency in South African politics. It is a myth to think of the far right as a cohesive grouping. There are some sixty organisations on the far right, plus a whole lot of militant organisations, overtly militant, each are trying to out-militarise the other. Many of the organisations have fundamentally different constitutional proposals. Where the far right are unified is in their belief that Afrikaner South Africans, or specifically, white Afrikaners, constitute a specific nation, that any nation is entitled to a territory of their own, and self-determination, which is own government. Which gives them the common belief in partition as the solution for South Africa's problems. And they also believe in the common principle of the right of a nation, or "volk", of people to resist domination and to resist by force and military means if that eventuality arises. So, those are the beliefs that unite the right. But otherwise, they're extremely divided and split into some tiny groups and much bigger groups, as well.
POM How intensely are these beliefs held?
HZ Intensely, intensely.
POM So, there is no doubt in your mind that if the present process of transition continues, that, according to your research, there should be a militant reaction, an armed reaction, at some point from elements of the right wing?
HZ You see, Padraig, there are different views on that. Some South Africans, and good analysts, would argue that the right has withered on the vine in Zimbabwe and in Namibia, although they made very horrific sounding noises before the eventuality. When the reality came to pass, they adapted and adjusted. Now, we've seen that in specific areas in South Africa, as well. Where at the beginning for example, if black people moved into an area, there was strong resistance and after a small period, people adjusted to it and, in fact, often in a much more realistic way than they have in many Western countries of the world. So, that argument would go, that, in fact, while people are very frightened now and while they feel this strongly now, ultimately because of the economic realities, because of their material comforts, and because of all sorts other eventualities, they will adjust to the new reality.
There are others who argue, It's not as simple as that. They say that in no other country have whites really believed, and not just in terms of rationalisation, but fundamentally believe that they constitute a separate nation and that the constitution of that nation is part of God's design. That, in fact, in all other Southern African countries, whites always knew that they had somewhere else to go, and, indeed, a lot of them did come to South Africa, the far right, which didn't help our problems. I mean, far right English-speaking people seem far less attuned to political reality in some strange way than the far right Afrikaans-speaking people. I mean, a lot of the far right from Rhodesia, for example.
So, the fact is, that the far right in South Africa don't see themselves as part of international patrimony or culture. They see South Africa as their only home. They see themselves as having nowhere else to go and they see themselves, if they are reduced to a minority without rights in South Africa, as being a culture and a people that cannot survive. So, the whole survival issue is at stake. Very much tied in with culture and language and all the other things that constitute the idea of a people being a people.
POM Did you find that it cut across age groups?
HZ Yes, I did find that it cut across age groups, yes.
POM So, there would be no significant difference between the level of support for it among young people as against older people?
HZ Yes, particularly militant young right-wingers, who are prepared to throw all into the freedom struggle and are prepared to use military means. But, equally, if you go to a congress, for example a CP congress, I think your average age would be older rather than younger. But the young militants and the really, really strong militants tend to be younger although the numbers are less. But because of all those factors, there is ...
PK Are they like high school age, like in their teens?
HZ Sort of university, early twenties. That sort of age. Now, I don't think that is going to be a major factor in South Africa. I don't think it is going to be a minimal factor. I think the right recognises that they cannot rely on the militant resistance of lots of white South Africans. I have a figure, one of the people quoted me a figure on which they were working. I think they said 6%, or 1%, I mean, something very tiny. But they said that they believed that was enough to totally disrupt the future society and that was all they were aiming at if they weren't given the right to their own territory.
POM Well, for example, the IRA have no more than 250 what they would call "active service operatives", it only takes a very small amount, actually, to do it.
HZ Yes. Well, they've calculated it would take 500 in South Africa. And they've also looked at the key strategic positions that they want to put people in, to make sure that ...
POM And in your research that you've done, and in talking to other people who have done research, has there been any indication of collaboration, or potential collaboration, between lower elements in the police force in particular and security forces in general, and the right?
HZ I didn't find any smoking gun evidence. Most of the stories that right-wingers would tell me when I interviewed them were largely anecdotal. But they're related to such incidents as very warm receptions at police stations and policemen saying, 'We're with you', that kind of thing, but there was no evidence to me of active collaboration. No evidence. I mean, there might well have been. Most certainly, when General Constand Viljoen was head of the Defence Force, for example, there was a strong sense amongst right-wingers that they had the right person in the right job who would defend their interests when the chips were down. He was retired early under circumstances which still have not been fully explained. So, that there is strong sympathy for the far right amongst the lower ranks of the police force and that there particularly was at that time, I think it is definitely a factor.
But, look, my evidence suggested, because there were people who were boasting at great length about the support that they had amongst the police, and if people were prepared to give all sorts of details and strategies, I would imagine that if there was a concerted effort to co-opt or collaborate with the police in undermining reform, that that would have been hinted at at some point. My feeling is that it is a network of individual policemen acting on their own or maybe acting together which definitely has an impact on the development of things, who act in the course of their duties in ways which would reflect their right-wing convictions.
POM So, how would you assess the, and let me make two distinctions, how would you assess the threat of the right-wing, including that of the Conservative Party, and then how would you assess it constitutionally and unconstitutionally?
HZ Well, constitutionally, it depends how negotiations are structured, what's on the agenda, and who participates. If, for example, you get a situation in which the right, potentially through the Conservative Party, agreed to come to the negotiation table, and if there is broad agreement that they should be there and if there's all agreement that they should be there and if the agenda includes an item that says, we will talk about a separate homeland, a separate Bantustan, to invert the term, a separate territory for whites who really feel that they can't be part of a non-racial and democratic South Africa. If that's on the agenda, and if the Conservative Party or any organs of the right participate on that basis and can come to some agreement amongst themselves as to which piece of territory they want and it is negotiated, then constitutionally, you could potentially find a solution to the problem.
Now there are so many "ifs" and unanswered questions in that sequence that I've outlined there that I would argue that it's very unlikely that it would develop in that way. First of all, it's very unlikely, under what one can see currently, under the current coalition forces, that the CP would come to the negotiating table because they would not get a mandate from the broad spectrum of the right to do so. If a mechanism could even be agreed for negotiation one could start asking that question, but most certainly if there were a Constituent Assembly they wouldn't do it because they certainly wouldn't have any kind of representative force at such a gathering to be able to push a point of view in any way at all.
POM Well, if it were a Constituent Assembly, do you think the National Party would do better than the Conservative Party?
HZ No, but I think both of them wouldn't garner more than 10% of the vote overall. Or, maybe together, 20% of the vote. I think that if it came to a Constituent Assembly it would be a massive climb down for the government and I think many, many whites would shift to the Conservative Party. But I don't think that would needlessly worry the ANC particularly, because they would have a probably - whites together and the National Party, I mean, you could get a situation where one would have, let's say, a 70/30 divide, roughly speaking. Now, a Constituent Assembly goes together with the idea of proportional representation. And votes in terms, in proportion to your support there. That's why it's opposed so fundamentally because negotiation as, for example, the National Party would see it, is about power. And if you are going to negotiate about power, then you can't be asked to sacrifice power before you start negotiating. And so, that's why they would argue that it's unacceptable. The ANC would say, look, we're not negotiating about power, power must be returned to the people. What we're negotiating is how that power should be institutionalised and constitutionalised and we're prepared to discuss that. OK. But we're not prepared on a totally unequal basis, in terms of representative strength, to discuss how power should be distributed.
POM Do you see the government holding firm on the issue of the Constituent Assembly?
HZ I think it critically depends on the international community. You know, I've never thought the international community had a very major influence in South Africa, but they have on several issues. I'll go into some of the others if you'd like me to, and the one critical issue at the moment is the mechanism for negotiation. South Africa, or the National Party government, is critically concerned about normalising the situation in South Africa to the extent that it wants to get the economy on the road again, to the extent that South Africa is going to become part of Africa, and to the extent that South Africa will become a part of the international community of nations.
In a sense, de Klerk, I think, has had tremendous courage in ditching what was civil religion in South Africa to a very large extent, and beginning the process of transformation. And we are right at the very beginning of what's going to be a tremendously rocky road. And I think rightly he's achieved some international acclaim for doing what he has.
Equally, the ANC's major leverage in the past has not been its military strength, has not even been the extent of its organised constituencies in South Africa because it has not been a strong organised constituency, it's been a strong symbolic support, and a strong support base. But its major leverage has been the extent to which it has gained international acceptance, international credibility as the spokespeople for South Africa. And so, they'd be fundamentally weakened if they were to lose that leverage.
So, basically, you have, I think, the international community, ironically, more influential now in the path South Africa follows then it has been for a very long time, except shortly before the developments that we've seen materialising recently. If the international community, especially, and when I talk about the international community I mean the big western powers and the Soviet Union, if they say, look, negotiations are about power, you can't expect people to abandon power before they begin negotiations, we know who the major actors are in South Africa, get on with it. Then it's going to be very, very difficult for the liberation movements to stall and to hold off and say we're not budging until we have a Constituent Assembly. On the other hand, if those powers say a Constituent Assembly is the mechanism then I'm almost convinced the government wouldn't easily back down because it would know that it would totally erode its power base if it did so, totally erode its power base. And it would know that, in fact, it would certainly not have any leverage in representing its constituency, other Nats, so they wouldn't easily step down, we'd have a hell of a mess. But it would be much more difficult for them to hold on against it. But I can't see them at present, under present circumstances, supporting a Constituent Assembly. Although when I recently interviewed the National Party supporters, they said we can't give any details but there's more flexibility in that area than seems to be case.
POM Oddly, we picked up the same thing with the ANC. That in the end, the Constituent Assembly wasn't a condition ...
HZ Wasn't non-negotiable.
POM Wasn't non-negotiable.
PK In effect, it was off the table, already.
HZ Well, was it like it was off the table already?
POM Almost. Yes, we'll be getting into that.
HZ Not with the grass-roots, because the grass-roots, and this is the ANC's problem and this is the government's problem, that what you're getting is a total disjuncture between what's happening up there and between what's happening down here. And while at the top level you're having the situation where I think there's genuine understanding and genuine respect between the key actors, most notably Mandela and de Klerk. On the bottom, you have people trained in people's war on the one hand and total onslaught on the other hand. And if the absence of the kind of human contact that you're getting at the top level, and there's a complete absence of that, and in the presence of the kind of stereotype and legacy of apartheid, it's unbelievably difficult to ask both constituencies to put the past behind. So, I don't know how, you see, what the ANC could do, for example, but it would mean also a matter for them to say, OK, we know who represents the whites, we've always seen that white parliamentary elections have thrown up so-called white leaders and have been a reflection of the will of the white constituency because they participated in those elections and because they regarded them as legitimate expressions of their will. But black people have never had such an election, so who represents the black constituency is going to be the issue that we look at.
POM Then, there'd be a second problem: how do you weight representation? I mean, would a small AZAPO have the same representation at the negotiating table as the ANC?
HZ Well, you see that would be ...
POM How are decisions reached?
HZ The major issues are the mechanism, the weighting of constituencies, how decisions are reached, whether by consensus or by vote and what the agenda is going to be, what is going to be negotiated. Those are critical, critical issues. And they haven't by any means been resolved. The government used to have this position, they used to say, we all know who the major actors are, they must all have the same number of representatives, and we'll get on with it. The ANC says, forget it. We believe that in a one-person, one-vote situation we would definitely have the majority and we don't believe that we should be reduced to the same size as, for example, a small organisation like the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action, who is going to send the same number of delegates as we would.
PK Do you think that's really the issue? Or do you think that the ANC wants to play what it has played out in the international theatre, of being the sole and exclusive representative of the black people?
HZ You see, that's an interesting question. When anyone ever makes a test for anything, one must ask who is saying it and what's their blatant interest in saying it. I think there's no doubt that the ANC, as any other political organisation, would argue a case for arrangement, structural arrangements, that would be in their best interests to pursue their policy direction, obviously. For example, one doesn't have to ask why the ANC wants one-person, one-vote without any form of proportional representation because they know in that kind of situation they will probably have unfettered power, you see. So, I mean, I'm not saying that they've got a Machiavellian intent here, but what I'm saying is that one can obviously understand why people argue for positions that will put them in the best position vis-à-vis the whole power equation. So you identify what small groups are fighting for proportional representation and you can understand why other constituencies are looking at different mechanisms. It all comes from their position of, how do we maximize our negotiating leverage?
POM So, to an extent, both the National Party and the ANC have a vested interest for turning the process into one that involves both of them, not to the exclusion of others, but which involves both of them predominantly.
HZ Yes. You see, I think the model that they would both like but know it is unfeasible is if the National Party could move it on to the ANC. That would be disastrous for a number of reasons, it would totally alienate the ANC's constituencies at this stage if it was done at this stage. It's good that Mandela is appearing as a statesman, that he is, and that he's negotiating and measuring up to de Klerk in every way. But it's also critical that he keep some kind of distance, calculated distance, from de Klerk, in terms of his own constituency because the distance of that constituency has been asked to travel as far as the distance that white South Africans have been asked to travel. It would also be disastrous in that no post-apartheid government is going to be able to deliver on expectations. And that was the point that I made before. Many political constituencies need only to sit and wait in the wings and wait for the failed expectations and mobilise a constituency, which is going to be a devastating process. Mandela and de Klerk have to ensure that those potential constituencies are part of the new deal, at least in having agreed to the constitution. Otherwise, they are not bound by its terms. Otherwise, they're completely free to mobilise again. And it's not as if they might be small now, but they have potentially big constituencies in what's inevitably going to be a time of great disappointment and great alienation. Equally, if conservative whites are marginalised, and they might well marginalise themselves, as may other more radical black constituencies. They have absolutely no allegiance to what goes down and will have one commitment to just destroying it. Inkatha remains a critical constituency. I mean, you can see what's happening now.
POM Let's talk about that for a moment. From your vantage point here, what is the interpretation in the Cape, among the people you've talked to, about what's happening with the violence in Transvaal?
HZ There are different views. I hate to make a definitive judgement. I think it's a combination of factors. I think one can look at the legacy of the whole hostel system, the whole fact that the hostel system has to a large extent entrenched tribalism, etc., etc., etc. So, one can look at structural factors related to apartheid, yes, that's been a part. I think one can look at the fact that Inkatha and its Zulu membership are trying to ensure that they're not marginalised from the process, yes, I think that's a part. I think the struggle over resources does play a part, as many sociologists are saying at present. I think the police, individual policemen, rather than a concerted organised campaign probably have taken sides on the ground, yes. But I don't think it's a matter of a concerted campaign because I don't think blacks are able to be manipulated that easily, they're not fools. There might be individual policemen, but I don't think the police have a concerted effort of manipulating blacks to do their dirty work for them. But individual policemen may well take sides on the ground, I have no doubt. So, I think all those factors do play a role.
But the question that one has to ask is, if all those factors combine to play a role, why does that role split on ethnic lines? Why, for example, do Xhosa and Zulu "haves" get involved in disputes with Xhosa and Zulus "have nots" if it's only the question of resources? The question remains, why does our fault line always run on ethnicity often bolstered by race? And that gets you right back to the fundamental question of what are the fault lines that constitute South African society? Marxists would strongly argue it's a class base, reinforced by race. Other people would say, you've got to look at the questions much more fundamentally. I think ethnicity is a factor in South Africa. It's a complete unmentionable because of the history of apartheid.
POM Do you think it's like one of these issues that, let me give you, maybe, by way of an example, in the mid-1970s in Boston, schools were integrated by forced bussing and if you were against bussing, the implication was that you were a racist.
POM That you were racist. So a proper debate on the issue never really took place because of the censure that was involved. You know, people didn't want to be branded. The same kind of censure has happened here in, say, liberal academic circles?
HZ I think you must look much more fundamentally at Marxist academe. I think that Marxism may be a swear word internationally at the moment, but I think one mustn't underestimate the extent to which materialist analysis has dominated the sociological discourse in South Africa and the analytical discourse, particularly amongst the whole school of revisionist thinkers. And that has really affected probably about fifteen years of people constantly coming to university. Well, the analysis is that it's a class dialectic. Class struggle is the mode of history. The fault line of a society lies along class divisions and everything else is probably still for manipulation by one particular class in order to entrench its hegemony. So, that basic analysis, and I'm crudifying it a little bit. [So, to mention "ethnicity" was to unlock a kind of analysis that would say, OK, white Nationalist Party leaders who are in the middle class would manipulate white workers to ensure the hegemony of ... went around in circles.] But no one could ever explain why white middle class Nationalists, for example, didn't see better strength in holding their class power by coalitions with middle class blacks, middle class English-speakers etc., etc., etc. So, the debate tends to go around in circle. Now what shook the foundations of that debate is, for example, ethnic conflict in the Soviet Union.
POM The ethnic conflict in?
HZ In the Soviet Union, which has really pulled the rug out from under that debate. I mean, here you had a society that was applying Marxism/Leninism, you had a society which was unfolding according to the laws of materialism, dialectic materialism, and suddenly you have ethnic conflict. Where does it come from? How do you explain it? I have a suspicion that Marxism has never fundamentally grappled with the phenomenon of nationalism and it's never fundamentally grappled with the phenomenon of ethnicity. And although it's still a complete swear word to talk about in left circles, ethnicity in South Africa, I think we'll begin to face it as a reality. It is a reality in South Africa. Now, it's been a total tragedy that apartheid tried to use it as a divide-and-rule mechanism to ensure domination and to entrench an acutely unjust system. It has rightly been described as a crime against humanity in every way. But the ultimate irony is that in moving to a post-apartheid society we have to recognise ethnicity and find a way of making a place for it that is not discriminatory and it's not used for domination. And it's a huge question. I don't know how we are going to do it. We are going to have to do it when we get back to the cultures here, and have political equality for individuals, with the ability for groups to find some kind of cultural expression in ways that are satisfactory to them. I don't know how we are going to do it but it's going to have to be addressed in a constitution.
POM Did you find that what happened last week kind of has forced some people to reconsider their opinions about ethnicity in a situation?
HZ Yes, well, I think a lot of comments of people, I think if you look at newspaper reporters who've openly identified with the ANC as well as the ANC spokesmen, etc., contribute it all to Gatsha Buthelezi's attempts to securing his place at the negotiating table and to try and show that his supporters run riot in order to ensure that he can't be marginalised. I think there is an element of that, there probably is an element to that. I mean, I haven't interviewed Buthelezi and I haven't interviewed his supporters but, I spoke with Van Zyl Slabbert about this, and he said, look, he knows that Buthelezi has not given the order to his supporters go out and do X. He knows he hasn't. Or, he says he's absolutely sure he hasn't. But what he says is likely is that Buthelezi stands up makes a speech saying, 'You have the right to defend yourself', and, of course, then "defence" becomes "attack", and it progresses like that. I do think that ethnicity is a part of it, but I do also think that there is a legacy of political intolerance in Africa, there is no tradition or culture of the right to political competition. It never existed in South Africa amongst whites and blacks. It's been a non-racial phenomenon, the lack of tolerance for political competition. And that's the legacy of Africa in many ways. I mean, Bophuthatswana is the shining exemption from that, and there're some others as well.
PK But on the other hand, you have a party that represents about 85% of the people.
HZ They can afford to be very tolerant in that context. But in South Africa it's the most critical thing that we have to learn. That other people have the right to organise politically, they have the right to organise politically around fundamentally different positions from the ones you're organising around, and they have the right to organise in the same political space. I think I said this to you before, because people tend to demarcate their spaces. So the DP can go and organise in the white constituency but they dare not go and organise in the black constituency. Because that seems to be somebody else's turf.
POM If you look at obstacles that lie in the path of Mandela and de Klerk as they each try to guide their constituencies through this process, which ones would you lay at Mandela's doorstep and which ones would you lay at de Klerk's?
HZ Right. Well, they both have the massive problem that you've identified, which is common to both of them, it's probably the greatest common denominator between them: the problem of how to take their constituencies into an agreed constitutional dispensation, as we say in South Africa, which is a peculiarly South African word. De Klerk has to find a way of convincing the majority of white South Africans that the fate that the National Party has always held up as a national suicide and loss of identity and survival, is, in fact, the only alternative, not only morally but practically and politically, and that it's feasible. Now, how does he do that? He's obviously trying at the moment by trying to develop a process in which people at the local level will be able to negotiate their own arrangements, which will be essentially untouched by national negotiations. And he's obviously seen that as a mechanism to enable whites to see that there are existing powers to determine something of their future at the local level. That's going to be fundamentally opposed, I would imagine, by the ANC, but nevertheless, that's clearly the path that de Klerk is going. The greatest asset that he's got in that process is the sudden acceptance South Africa has internationally again, which is a huge thing for whites. I mean, they hate being the pox of the world. I think he has got to appeal as well to the sense of morality which ironically and completely paradoxically is strong in white South Africa, particularly amongst Afrikaners. I mean, Afrikaners like to believe that they are doing the right and the moral thing. And that's what is critically important to them, that their spiritual leaders and their churches were saying that apartheid is OK, biblically. So, now he's got to basically say, he's got to appeal to their morality and he's got to show that things can work. And so, of course, the worst possible scenario for de Klerk is the kind of thing that's happening now where, when he loosened up the situation, the violence breaks out as it is doing now. Where sanctions are lifted, and in some cases probably intensified, and whites increasingly turn around and say it got us nowhere and look where it landed us. So, that it's the worse kind of scenario for him. And I would imagine that those are the biggest obstacles, that if the country disintegrates into violence and people start looking back at the good old apartheid days as the days of law and order, may be a problem for him. And if the international community doesn't budge on a whole lot of things, and if the economic downturn continues, disaster looms.
His biggest asset is Mandela. Mandela has transformed white opinion in many way because the worst thing that could have happened was if he had been released and been a letdown. He was released and lived up to the statesman's status with which he'd been viewed by blacks for many years, by the international community for many years, but not by whites. Suddenly, this man who had been billed up as terrorist, who was the absolute devil to white South Africans, emerged and behaved like he is behaving and has the presence of the kind of man that we see on television every night. That's the greatest asset for the idea of de Klerk being able to do a deal with the ANC, because I haven't met one white who hasn't been impressed by Mandela, seriously impressed, and they come from a wide range of political constituencies. Equally with Walter Sisulu. And equally with Thabo Mbeki. So, that is de Klerk's biggest asset and if, for example, working together, de Klerk, Mandela and other black leaders can bring the violence to an end, one could see the violence actually turning the other way and becoming an asset to the extent that it could be controlled and to the extent that it could be resolved.
POM Do you think Mandela should meet with Buthelezi?
HZ I think so. I mean, I understand his political problems. His problems are that his supporters in Natal so hate Buthelezi, and especially young comrades, and so much believe that this is a political ploy by Buthelezi to be at centre stage politically, that there would be total outrage in that constituency. But I think what's needed now above all, and I can't stress it enough, is to underscore the right to political competition. Much of the conflict in Natal has its roots in many things but certainly part of it has been this lack of respect for political competition and wiping out your political opponents if they showed any kind of strength.
POM Mandela, last question, the obstacles that he faces?
HZ Equally, his major obstacle is taking his constituency with him. In that sense, I think he will because of his stature, because of his status, and because of the long depth of history of the ANC as the major liberation organisation, he will take the majority with him. His major obstacle is delivering. The worst job, as I said to you before in our last interview, is going to be, you have to be the President of post-apartheid South Africa, the first President. He doesn't want that job under any circumstances. Because you've got to keep the economy going and you've got to deliver to your constituency. Now, that's going to be absolutely impossible in terms of what they expect. I mean, to say to people, we can't build you a house, you're going to have to build your squatters' shack and we'll try and help you upgrade it over time, is what's going to have to be said, because there's just no alternative. But it's going to be almost impossible to say it and retain support. So, Mandela's biggest problem is delivering.
POM Ok, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much.
HZ I don't know if that's of any use to you.