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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

26 Aug 1990: Van Zyl Slabbert, Frederik

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POM     We're talking with van Zyl Slabbert on the 26th of August. Van Zyl, to go back to something you brought up just briefly during your address, De Klerk's speech of February the 2nd. Did what he had to say take you by surprise and what do you think motivated him to move so broadly and sweepingly at the same time?

FS     Well, I was fortunate enough to have an interview in which I asked him those two questions. Well, to come back to my own position, no, I wasn't all that surprised. I was surprised at the scope and the pace of the change more than the substance of it, because I had been arguing quite a long time, if you remember that conference in Bonn, I actually had a bit of a debate there with some South Africans about what and who he was going to unban and release. So, I expected some of that. I didn't think it would be to only one goal without preparing his own constituency. He didn't really prepare them adequately for the consequences of what he did so that led to quite a lot of confusion. Why did he do it? Well, he himself says that he did it because of a fundamental, moral conviction. And I accept that, I think he's serious about that. But he also said that he would have been stupid not to have taken the gap presented to him by the collapse of Eastern Europe. So, it was a combination of moral conviction and a sort of strategic expediency, and I think the strategic expediency must be seen in the broader context, and that is that the international community, as well as the vast majority of people inside the country, who are beginning to articulate a formula for change, unban and release this man for negotiating. And anybody in his position had to either take that formula seriously or actively undermine it. But Botha actively undermined that formula. He was not going to unban or release this man for negotiating. And De Klerk took a review and said, well, he'd better take the risk.

POM     Do you think that De Klerk has conceded on the issue of majority rule?

FS     Oh, yes. I think he's conceded on the principle of majority rule. I have no doubt about it. But, I mean, I say, when you say, 'majority rule', I don't mean by that that he's conceded on the principle of simple majoritarianism, the majority of people, the majority can have the vote, and the vote can be reflected in a system of proportional representation, it can be reflected in a upper and lower house, in a federation. I mean, all those are things that are still open. But not in the sense of having a simplistic majority imposing its will on anybody else. That, he has not conceded on.

POM     Has he conceded in the context of the National Party, say, for example, not being able to exercise any further executive power in such a government?

FS     Yes, he's conceded on that. But Gerrit Viljoen has already said that. Viljoen said it would be or we might as well get used to the fact that the Nationalist Party will not have exclusive control over the political system. Very simple.

POM     Keeping that in mind, on the one hand, and then on the other, taking De Klerk's repeated promise to take any preferred new dispensation back to the white electorate. Is that a promise he can keep, or that he must keep?

FS     I can conceive of certain circumstances where he can keep it and win. That depends to what extent he makes progress with normalization. Now what I mean by that, that's what I tried to say this afternoon, if De Klerk can show in 18 months or two years' time that all blacks are playing at , that you can travel freely on a South African passport, that sanctions have lifted, that there's a renewed interest on the part of international investors, that there's aid coming into the country, that you can demonstrate that black and white can govern on an interim basis, he could even take the risk of having an all-white election and pulling it off. If he can't, then you have to find a way of circumventing it. Now if he tries to circumvent that by some form of a national plebiscite or, if not, a constituent assembly, although I doubt whether that's on, then you will see a great deal of volatility on the right and even escalation of violence. But I still don't believe you'll have a coup.

POM     You mentioned during your speech that one shouldn't get bogged down on a debate about the constituent assembly. That's one scenario of the way forward, the other two being, I think, at least that we've heard being, are a broadened negotiation table and a third option of where you'd have an interim government which would pull blacks into the present government and some kind of an assembly for a new constitution. Which do you think is the more likely way forward?

FS     I think that you will inevitably find some form of interim arrangements. You see, what he needs and what Mandela needs and others is to demonstrate that there's joint responsibility and management of the constitution. Now that's an interim arrangement. When Mandela says there's an informal coalition there already, you begin to sense what he's talking about. Now, I would say that, in my discussions with the ANC, they even make provision for the Conservative Party being part of such an interim arrangement. Now, certainly Pallo Jordan has said it in so many words. But I think one must draw a clear distinction between interim arrangements of that kind and final constitutional developments. And I think you're going to find an interim arrangement which will ask for a mandate to go for a final arrangement. That would be my anticipation.

POM     So, over what time period do you envisage this process?

FS     Well, the interim arrangement can happen quite quickly. You know, they can get violence under control. If you can get joint responsibility for what I call the security system, you could see joint responsibility for managing constituents in which you locked in ANC, Inkatha, homeland governments, even trade unions, and say, OK, these are the problems we have to face as we move through the system addressing problems of the economy, of labour, of education, and so on. And in that process, beginning to tackle some of the infrastructural problems that they plainly want to do something about. Now, if they manage to do that, then I can see the question of a final constitutional arrangement losing its sense of urgency because people now want to know what's going to happen. This uncertainly is something that drives the need for finality on the constitution. My own view is that it's premature to think that we can solve the constitutional issue unless you've demonstrated to white and black that this show can be managed. Because there's a fear of collapse of standards, collapse of just ordinary order that's beginning to develop.

POM     How about the threat of the right wing? I'm making a differentiation between the Conservative Party on the one hand and the more militant right wing on the other.

FS     Right. I think it's very important to draw the distinction between, say, the Conservative Party and its current support and the militant/ideological aspect of the right wing part of the party. The militants are there, but fundamentally I think irreconcilable, but a minority and a very volatile minority. I mean, they can do a lot of damage. Then you get what I call ideological right wingers, their homeland is for the people who want a slice of earth. And then I draw a distinction between greedy partition and sacrificial partition. Increasingly the debate seems to be shifting toward sacrificial partition, even within the Conservative Party. But the bulk of support of the right wing are neither militant nor partitionist. They are uncertain, anxious, scared whites. And you can only address those fears and anxieties if you can demonstrate that the process of conciliation is actually not as threatening as they anticipate. So, it brings you back to the old argument, that unless Mandela and De Klerk and all who come into accepting change responsibly can show that it's not going to lead to some kind of physical extinction, that kind of fear is going to be there.

POM     What are these white fears and anxieties and how do you differentiate between those that have a basis in fact and those that are imaginary?

FS     Well, I think that one idea is to simply accept that these fears will shift as circumstances shift. You know, you can look at Namibia, you can look at Zimbabwe. At the outset, it was, "Never in a thousand years will we share swimming pools". And eventually, that goes. That's not the big thing. Eventually, the basic fear is fear of physical survival. And again, can I actually survive, can I do my job, can I pay my bond, can I carry on living more or less the way I lived, or better? Unless I accept that we'll sacrifice educational standards, yes, I accept we'll sacrifice exclusive access to public amenities and all those things. They shift and shift and shift. But the manner in which they shift is vertical. If it's simply going to be blacks rushing in there and abusing and destroying and so on, then, of course, it's going to drive those fears much deeper. And they become real, because, I mean, there's nothing that makes a fear more real than when somebody comes and defecates on your front lawn, for example. So, I think, again, it comes back to the person, can he manage without those fears?

POM     Do you think the events of the last two weeks, the horrific violence in the Transvaal, has fuelled those fears?

FS     Oh, certainly. I mean, you have this paradox that the more blacks kill each other, the more frightened whites become, you see. And they don't actually kill whites, they kill each other. They say, "Look at those people there!" But I feel that would be a fear that would be relatively easy to enforce, because eventually you can show that it's not whites that are being killed. But when it turns around, and it's an escalation of whites killing blacks, or blacks beginning to move and kill whites, then I think you will move into a very, very volatile situation. There's no reason why the conventional idea of a bloodbath or unrestrained violence might not well be there I suppose.

POM     Looking at the government, say, representing that the white community would be ill-prepared to sacrifice quite a bit or a lot of economic power in order to retain economic power. That they're willing to concede political democratisation while holding onto economic power.

FS     I think the government is desperate just to get the economy going. I mean, I think this is one of the important reasons why it has moved. Not the only one, but an important one in why it's moved. De Klerk has done his sums and he said irrespective of whether you have white domination or not, there are basic infrastructural issues that are going to develop in this country that will face any government and the only way you are going to do it and have a relative degree of stability is to meet those issues by getting the economy going. So, the fact that they've all settled for negotiation, or at least the ANC has settled with De Klerk, means that the immediate threat to whites of economic growth and development is not serious. I mean, you'll have the cushion effect, that the way you will find it will be pro-whites. Whites who are rescued on the veldt, it's going to be a very rough time. You're beginning to see it now.

POM     Will economic structures per se play an important role in the negotiations?

FS     No.

POM     Well, two thoughts. If government guarantees regarding free enterprise -

FS     Oh, I think that they've got all of this. There is not any argument of whether we have a free enterprise economy or not. They've conceded on that one. The question is, what's the role of trade unions going to be? And I think this is unresolved. I mean, the trade unions haven't decided for themselves whether they're inside the system or outside the system. By that I mean the system of negotiation and joint responsibility. What is quite likely is that if you have a convergence or consolidation at the centre and that new broadened government has to meet social spending needs and an independent trade union stays out and carries on with inflationary wage demands, a hostile relationship will develop between government and trade unions. And you'll find that they will battle as much as trade unions battled in Zimbabwe and in Namibia.

POM     If you had majority rule tomorrow morning, what difference would it make in the life of the average person who lives in a township or squatter camp? Or what difference would it make in five or six years?

FS     Immediately, very little difference. It might fan expectations. Given the kind of, the current structure of organisation, the current resources that have been made available to people, it may lead to a certain degree of, to a certain fundamental degree of social and economic dislocation. Because as always happens with that kind of rapid transition, and you did say 'tomorrow morning', the demands will outstrip the performance. And when that happens, those who have power have a choice of either just allowing anarchy to reign supreme or to clamp down. And the moment they clamp down, you simply reinforce the previous position of the poor, the unemployed, the houseless, and so on. If majority rule can stabilise itself in terms of, say, you suggested over six years, in terms of economic policy, social policy, that would lead to a certain degree of stability and creation of confidence in economic development, well, you can into those demands. But those are biggest. Rapid transition always is inflationary, is always leads to a flight of capital, and leads to increasing uncertainty. All rapid transition. And I don't know of anywhere where that did not happen.

POM     If you're looking at five or six or ten years, what can people expect?

FS     Well, I think if you go through a process of normalisation, if you go through a process of joint responsibility, shifting, moving away, stabilising, yes, then I can see

POM     I suppose what I'm getting at is that from people we've talked to there's the suggestion of there being a lot of volatility within the black community itself, particularly among the youth. A generation of people who are uneducated, unemployed, perhaps unemployable, and who are used to cultural protest and confrontation, and now they're being told, yes, the struggle is over, but they're just like the essentially explosive element in the whole thing. People in the ANC or PAC tell us that they're slowly, or not so slowly, beginning to draw members in from this age category.

FS     Yes, I think so. I think one of the difficulties that one's got is that 42% of your black population is under the age of 15 years old. They're unemployed, they're unskilled, they are politically unchannelled. And if a new kind of broadened, non-racial government doesn't develop policies to meet the kind of obvious needs that they're going to articulate, like housing, education, jobs, that kind of thing, they could be some part of or become the targets of demagogic populist politics that required our ... The question is really, what would be the status and the power of such political organisations under the new situation. I mean, I'm not saying that we will substitute white domination for non-racial domination, if you know what I mean. But I certainly can see a situation in which a new, non-racial government would try and get a democratic constitution in place that would not allow democracy to be used to undo democracy.

POM     I can see that.

FS     I mean, that wouldn't be the first thing. So, I don't succumb to the sensation of rejecting the anxiety and anger of the youth into some kind of anarchic outcome. It's not necessarily so; they like to be challenged. What did the youth do in Zimbabwe? What did the youth do in Namibia? What did the youth do in Africa? They get thumped. Not that I'm saying they should get thumped. I'm just saying that it's another facile assumption that because there are, say, four million angry black youth in the urban areas, therefore any government will have to collapse if they don't look after them very immediately. I mean, we'd have to find a way of meeting those needs in any case. Even if the youth take over, they've got to meet those needs.

POM     To go back to the negotiating table, do you think that the Conservative Party and the PAC will eventually come into the process, or that they will stay out of it?

FS     Yes. The Conservative Party will come in. The PAC is shifting already, they'll come in. But that doesn't mean that elements within the Conservative Party and the PAC will stay out. Yes. The more militant elements will hang out there and say, no, they're not prepared to accept them. The Conservative Party finds itself in a bind. To the extent that it plays electoral politics, it can delude the electorate about what it will do once it's in power. To the extent that the possibility of a white election recedes, and it recedes by the day, they have to decide whether they're going to negotiate or not. And when you start playing negotiation politics, you have to decide what are you going to negotiate for? And I know many Conservative Party people who say, look, we can't get 87% of the country. Some of them will even say we can't get the two Boer republics together. Others would say, look, I just want to have my little bit of patch, like Carl Boschoff. But as Koos van der Merwe says to me, he's not going to settle for a plot. That's the debate. But they'll come in and bargain. PAC, I think, too and they've already hinted that they'll come in. But there are certain elements in PAC politics which excludes the possibility of negotiating. A sort of populist demand that the land must come back to the people, whites have no role to play in the reconstruction and the running. So if they don't shift from that line, Ben Alexander's view of the economy becomes the dominant one, that you can nationalise without compensation.

POM     We heard that, too, last night from Moses

FS     Moses Mayekiso?

POM     Yes. He gives a sliding scale, that the longer you owned the land, the less compensation you'll get. If you go over 30 years, you'll get no compensation.

PK     Like five years, you might get something, but

FS     Yes. Fun and games economics, that.

POM     Yes. If you look at the, taking Mandela and De Klerk as the two major actors here, if you look at Mandela, what are the major obstacles that he faces within his own community as he tries to guide it, or guide the process forward?

FS     Two-fold. Organisational unreadiness to bargain due to the long period of exile politics. They're not ready. They simply haven't mobilised their resources, they haven't got any kind of organisational coherence. I hope they'll address this problem at the conference at the end of the year in which case it might be possible for them to become more effective, lines of communication, the kind that you're sure that would get through and get the guy and so forth. The second one is revolutionary expectations; the style or the paradigm of change that has been drummed into the vast majority of youth and youthful supporters is one of revolutionary expectations. So that immediately shortens the time-span of satisfying wants and demands, at least in the head. So, now he has to say to them, from now on, it's going to be more difficult, we've been through the whole debate around suspending the armed struggle and Chris Hani's problems that he has to deal with, indicates that Hani has got to calm down his constituency and he's got to prepare them for bargaining. Those are the two major problems.

POM     Does Hani play a constructive role in this?

FS     Hani?

POM     Yes.

FS     I think so. I mean Hani obviously has a tough, tough job, because he's got to keep the militants in line, prevent them from being siphoned off to competitors and at the same time accept the constraints of the Minutes that have been bargained and negotiated.

POM     How about De Klerk? What obstacles does he face within his constituency as he tries to move forward?

FS     De Klerk's major obstacle has been in a new constituency. That's his major obstacle. I mean, he's destroyed his conventional one. He has a well-organized representative base, MPs, Cabinet, civil service. But he doesn't know who's supporting him out there. He's beginning to find himself looking with new eyes at extra-parliamentary constituencies and pulling them into the process as well.

POM     If I could go back to your remark about how he comes up smelling like roses. That's interesting, because many black people we've talked to would just extol his virtues with enthusiasm.

FS     Yes, in fact, when I came here, when I say it some of the guys here don't like that, you see. I mean, they haven't exactly done anything about it. That's why there's a sort of feeling about it. So what are they doing? They're fighting amongst themselves, you can't get any clear line of communication.

POM     To look at the violence, first in Natal and then the violence which has spread. One, do you think that if it continues, if it were to continue at that kind of level or even a lower level but substantial, that real negotiations can take place?

FS     No, you can't. I can't see negotiations taking place as long as you have that kind of arbitrary, local violence. You see, the violence that has taken place is unlike the violence we had in the 1980s. The violence in the 1980s was more state versus opponents kind of violence. The state of emergency, the bannings, locking people up, that kind of dirty tricks violence. The violence you have now, well, there may be an element of dirty tricks, there may be an element of provocation from the state but it's basically inter-black violence, it's basically violence that revolves around the problem of constituency space. You know, where do I fit into this whole thing and why don't you allow me, and so on. That would have to resolve itself precisely because if negotiation is the mode of transition, you must be able to mediate that kind of violence at the local level. You can't say, we can kill each other here but have nice friendly negotiations at the top. If you can't, in other words, mediate the relationship between the ANC and Inkatha on the ground, i.e., through negotiation, then it's futile to think that you're going to solve them by just coming out with Minutes. That's what I was really saying this afternoon, you can have your Minute, but it's only reflected there.

POM     There seems to me there's some kind of a dichotomy here in the sense that, on the one hand, you have one line of argument that it is the police, elements of the police, in conjunction with elements in COSATU, with the approval of elements in Pretoria, that are orchestrating this whole thing and that the blame lies with Inkatha as a stooge of Pretoria. Perhaps a dozen ANC people we've talked to all say down the line it's far more complicated.

FS     I think it's more complicated.

POM     There are elements of ethnicity. And the government has been saying, and in fact may be partially right, that there are differences them. Do you think there are ethnic differences?

FS     Yes, I think that once people adopt an either/or issue, there may be cases where there is collusion and demonstrable collusion, and that has to be exposed. But there are obviously cases where ethnicity plays some kind of a role. And before we reach a stage where we argue that in each case where violence occurs, there must be a common agreement that it should be stopped and that you investigate it rather than adopt a position to try to investigate. This will just continue and I would say that's only going to interfere and sabotage the security system. You're not going to solve this as long as you continuously harp on the fact that the other side is involved in the violence. You set up whether you agree violence is inimical to the process of negotiation; yes, if so, then wherever it occurs, let's look at it, a new phase, collusion must be shown, then if there is the will to do that. [But if you actually do have a situation, where in Natal, because Zulus with their roots and planning and they sort of lie on their ethnic and they are not willing to do it, and they are prepared to do something further, well then you can't do it.] But equally, you know, let's take the ANC position. You can't complain about the AWB walking around with guns on their hips if you sneak your guns in in the middle of the night. I mean, that is the same thing. You do the same thing, it's only the one is doing it openly and the other one is doing it in secret. So, they have to make up their minds. If they don't, then you're going to have violence that will be part of the whole process.

POM     Two things; one, when Mandela was in the States he was asked about the violence in Natal and frequently his answer was that it's the government's job, the government can stop it. Is that a simplistic kind of way of looking at the problem?

FS     Yes, I think it is.

POM     Do you think he should meet with Buthelezi?

FS     Yes, I think so, but I don't think Mandela should meet Buthelezi as a kind of stick. In other words, the danger that lies therein is that they meet and nothing happens. Even if they come out with a great demonstration of solidarity and the violence continues, you've done it. You've played that card. The Buthelezi/Mandela meeting has been a culmination of a process lower down the ranks that assumes the oppressed. You know, that is so, when it makes obvious sense that that meeting, as it were, consolidates the gains that have become apparent through this process. But if you just do it to hope for magic, you'll come away with egg on your face because once you've met and nothing happens, there's no point in meeting again. You know, that's the dilemma.

POM     One thing struck me about, again, the violence in the last two weeks, was the element of ferocity that was there. It's really different. What accounts for that?

FS     Fear.

POM     What's the basis for it?

FS     Security. I mean, those Zulus in those hostels and the people who are sent in there are told, you are going to be killed in that new situation. You will have no role. You will be finished. Yes, it's that kind of propaganda. And, of course, there's counter-mobilisation as well. These Zulus don't spare anybody that is around, that kind of thing at that level. I don't think it differs, I mean there's the scale of it that's different from before, but the political mobilisation behind it is not all that different here. You know that there's a situation now, you can exploit prejudices and fears that whip people into a state of frenzy in which they will do the most extraordinary things.

POM     Again, one thing we found in reference to Buthelezi, everybody in Inkatha, King Goodwill, the King himself was an expression of the problem in terms of you have Zulus and you have the ANC which is a Xhosa-dominated organisation, and that they're out to wipe us out. Do you have any empathy with that point of view, or is it just as false as the other point of view, that the police, it's the police and Inkatha and elements of the state in collusion?

FS     What was the first view?

POM     There does seem to be in the ANC leadership, they are more exclusively Xhosa, they only have, I think, one Zulu who's in the Executive.

FS     Look, if you elevate the question of ethnicity into a criterion for determining the degree of non-racialism, then obviously that's it. But, I mean, it's one of those catch-22 situations. If you have, say, 50% of them Zulus, then the argument would go the other way. Look at them! They're just a broad Zulu organisation, that kind of a thing. So, the ANC puts itself on a non-racial ticket, Jacob Zuma is their highest-ranking Zulu in the organisation. Now, I think you can say that demonstrates the fact that they are not, or you can say Jacob is simply a token Zulu there to show that it's not the case. So you say, what about the Shangaan and the northern Zulus and the southern Zulus, and the fact that there's an un-representation of Indians? So, there must be a cabal, these bloody Indians by themselves will do anything. You see, you'll get into that kind of thing. I don't know. I think that, by and large, yes, in the Eastern Cape there's a strong organised ANC group, but I think you'll find pockets of ANC support, not pockets but fairly substantial support, here which is non-Xhosa, and I don't think one should make that the issue. I mean, I don't think one should, that's a normative threat, but if people who said to hell with that, we are going to make that the issue, that just reflects the degree to which ethnicity plays a role.

POM     Looking at Mandela, what would be your assessment of him? Has he met your expectations, where has he been better than you expected and where has he disappointed you?

FS     Look, I think for somebody who's been inside for 27 years, who's been out of touch with developments in the sense of actually experiencing them and wanting to hear them, Mandela's done a remarkable job. He's done a remarkable job under extreme circumstances. He came out with an infrastructural support of the ANC internationally just about collapsing. Eastern Europe as been wrecked. He seeks his sugar daddies, goes off to the United States dressed in ticker-taping green in front of 40,000 people, he says the most outrageous things and they love him for it. It started with Maggie, says she's an enemy of apartheid and has been stumbling about there with third-degree burns because they worked so hard to keep her in the corner. So, I think he's put up a remarkable performance. But I would say his external performance is much better than his internal performance. And that's partly his fault, and partly not. The part of it that is his fault is that he tends to avoid taking tough positions on issues. With regard to the violence, the armed struggle, and so on, he's got to say that's the way I'm going to go. The Communist Party, I don't know how you see this alliance, it's stormy. And so, I tend to come down on the plus side rather than on the negative side as far as Mandela's concerned. I think for somebody who's only a few months been outside the prison, it's an amazing performance.

POM     De Klerk?

FS     Very good. He's done positively, he's done extraordinary things, things that have demanded a great deal of courage. He's remained cool under pressure. Yes, I think given his background, his history, the party that he's leading, it's quite extraordinary, what he's done. It's a quantum leap in terms of where they were in the past.

POM     Two last quick ones. This alliance between the SACP and the ANC. What is the definition of a South African communist? And to that end, how would you differentiate between a member of the ANC and a member of the SACP?

FS     Well, I would say it is not black and given that up until the 1980s anybody who's a member of the ANC is likely to be a member of the SACP. In other words, the SACP was the major recruiting mechanism for those who legally were not black to get into the ANC, but it also subjected them to a great deal of party control. So that's an obvious sort of visible thing. But, secondly, I would say that now the difference is becoming very difficult to articulate. I mean, they've given up command economy, they've given up vanguard role, they've given up all those things that distinguishes them and all that sort of stuff. The dialectic they're using doesn't put them at such a difference to the left wing of the Democratic Party. Capitalism with a social mitt and all that kind of stuff. So, I think the differences between the ANC and the SACP now are becoming more historical than substantial.

POM     Tell me, is the process irreversible? When does it become irreversible?

FS     Well, that's a critical issue. I think it's irreversible in the sense it cannot go back to where it was. But that's what's really interesting. The point, is it irreversible in terms of the major players? Certainly for De Klerk, it's irreversible, there's nothing to go back to. What he had when he started off is no longer there. So, he has to make something new out of this and he's put a lot of risk into it. Mandela is moving to the stage where he must play an irreversible role. He's already suspended the armed struggle. Now, irreversibility does not mean that you have finally reached the goal. Irreversibility means that you are now having to accept greater responsibility for moving towards a final goal and that place is getting much closer.

POM     Irreversible to the point of where the government loses control of the process, where it no longer - ?

FS     Well, where government loses exclusive control over the process. That's going to become irreversible.

POM     OK. You're done! Done! Thanks. See you in six months.

FS     Good luck with this. I'd like to see it.

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.