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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
30 Jan 1992: Van der Merwe, Koos
POM Koos, you could run through again your analysis of the situation. You were talking about the by-election coming up, the difference between a protest vote and a vote for a policy, the manner in which Treurnicht is able to ride the wave, but that determination in a theoretical sense there's no clear policy formulation.
KVM Let me start by saying that in our country there is a definite phenomenon of what we call a protest vote where people don't want to support a particular party any longer and instead of abstaining he then votes for any other party in order to register his protest. The very best example of this is that in the year 1981 with that general election, the HNP polled 194,000 votes. At the time the HNP made the error of thinking that those were votes in favour of their policy and their leadership but we felt that it was a protest vote and in 1989 once the Conservative Party was established and had been in the game for about eight years or so establishing itself as a party with some form of charisma, a charismatic leader and a policy and being represented in dozens of municipalities and in parliament, when voting took place in 1989 the HNP, which had 194,000 votes in 1981, came out with 5,500 votes. It came out naked. It lost more than 97% of its vote because they were protest votes.
Now in view of that the question now is, what quality are the votes that the CP is getting? People are flocking to us at the moment, voting for us. We won comfortably in numerous by-elections. We did spectacularly well in Umlazi, in Maitland and especially in Virginia and now on the 19th of next month in Potchefstroom. Predictions are that we will not only win Potchefstroom, capturing it from the government, but with a big majority up to 2,000. The question now is what is the true value of those votes? Are they people who are voting for the Conservative Party because they understand and accept our policy or are they protest votes? There is a feeling that due to the uncertainty and the confusion that exists at the moment generally in South Africa that a large number of those votes are in fact protest votes. People are fed up with the violence, they are fed up with putting on the TV at night to hear that another 10 or 20 or 30 people have been massacred, sick and tired of the violence, sick and tired of the crime rate and so forth. And especially the very bad state of the economy. They have a feeling of frustration and they have to have a go at somebody so they go against the government. Many of them haven't got the faintest clue what the CP really stands for, but they vote for us.
Now with that in mind the CP is riding that wave, on the crest of that wave. Dr Treurnicht very effectively rides that wave and he, at this stage, articulates only, or 95% only, the basic philosophy of the Conservative Party sketching the right to self determination, talking around that very subject, quoting examples that the right to self determination is an inalienable right which is afforded to every nation in the world, that it is written in the United Nations Charter, that it is practised world-wide, that the USSR is breaking up, that to put people together isn't working. We are with the modern trend once we ask for self determination and that it is the only thing that can work. And with that he is riding the wave and he is getting more and more success and I even think that we now have a chance of winning not only a general election, that I think we should, but even a referendum.
The thing that is not addressed effectively at the moment is the concretisation of the policy of self determination in South Africa, meaning that we are a minority ethnic group, although we regard ourselves as a fully fledged nation, the Afrikaner nation, the difficulty is how do you concretise self determination when you live in an omelette type of situation, when you live in a human integrated South Africa like we are where there are millions of people? How do you get your people out of that and concretise the state for your own people? That is a thorny issue. There are other thorny issues such as, is it racism or not? What is the Afrikaner, what is it not? But at this stage these thorny issues are avoided. We talk about the philosophy, the basic structure of self determination only. I think what will happen is the moment of truth for the Conservative Party will then arrive once we do become the government of South Africa, or once we are forced into a negotiation process where we now have to table our concretisation. That is the moment of truth for the Conservative Party.
POM Some would say that you don't have a policy, that what you have is an objective, but you don't have a policy because a policy is something you have to obtain your objective.
KVM That's exactly what I'm saying.
POM So it's part of the reason why the party is staying out of negotiations because it doesn't know how to formulate a policy, suggest a policy that might accommodate its objectives?
KVM Yes, you are using other words to portray the same meaning that I've tried to say. You say we have a particular objective but we don't have a policy. That is some criticism against us. I agree fully with that, with the criticism. What I've been saying is that Dr Treurnicht articulates the fundamental philosophy, in other words the objective of self determination.
POM What I'm saying is that until you are able to put a policy around that ...
KVM The concretisation.
POM Yes, you can't negotiate it because you don't know what you're negotiating.
KVM You're absolutely right. But that's the point.
POM So therefore you refuse to negotiate.
KVM I agree with you, because it is exactly what I'm saying now. Of course, you can't quote me publicly on this. I'm talking from the inner circles of the party. But this is exactly the voice that I've been raising for the last two years which has brought me in great disdain in the party, discredited in the party. But it is exactly what I'm saying. I say, surely nobody in the world could fault our objective, namely that we want to govern ourselves, but please spell out how are we going to do it? What you call a policy. And I can't get the party to do that. And people say at the moment, some people who are clever, say the real reason why we don't want to negotiate is because we don't have a policy, a concretisation. It may be a valid criticism but what I want to do is make the party understand this because they don't understand it. Treurnicht is a philosopher. He doesn't understand concretisation, policy, the subject that we are discussing. He doesn't understand there's that vacuum. So the others who are more of practical mind must try to get them to that point. What they would say is, yes we know the problem, but we'll find a way, no problem, we'll appoint commissions and so on and it'll be OK, no problem. They don't understand it, or maybe I don't and you don't understand it. But the point is that the objective and the policy was the point that I was trying to make to you.
POM What do you see the party's relationship to more militant elements on the right being?
KVM I see that there is a new phase in violence. It appears as if the more amateur cowboys and crooks type of violence is over and that we are moving into a phase of more sophisticated violence. These half a dozen gentlemen who were arrested now were the beginning of a more sophisticated sabotage terrorism, call it what you want, freedom fighter type of phase. What worries me is that with the education and the technological advancement that white people in this country possess, it will be very, very easy for one person to become a sophisticated saboteur and destroy the country. If you think of the possibility of destroying communications, computers, of shooting down one or two aeroplanes at Jan Smuts Airport from the road, for people who know modern warfare and modern sabotage possibilities, a person could grind this country to a standstill. One only. You don't need a hundred thousand. And that is the thing that worries me a little, that you could get that.
POM Do you see it as a threat as sufficient to derail this entire process?
KVM Oh yes, yes. The way we perceive, even I, the government's intentions is as follows. There will be a five-tier new system, one will be the President. They agree he will be black. Second phase is the Cabinet. They agree it will be controlled by blacks. Three will be parliament. It will be overwhelmingly black. Four is the regions and South Africa will be divided into regions or components, federal states. They will all be controlled by blacks and then you get down to municipalities. The municipalities all, or most of them, will have to amalgamate and there will be more blacks and they will get control of the municipalities. So what we are facing here is a total sellout.
So the point that I wanted to emphasise as I was going through is where the Nats are offering us a black President, a black Cabinet, a black parliament, black regions and black municipalities. So what I'm saying is, the Nats are offering the white man, the Afrikaner in particular, a rotten deal. They are offering us two things. They are offering us black domination, or black government over us. They are offering us poverty, third world standards and so forth. And against that we are in rebellion to put it in strong terms. We don't want that. We do want a just and equitable deal for the white people, particularly for the Afrikaner people. That's what we want. We want a deal free of apartheid, free of the so-called injustices of the past. We're a modern and dynamic party. We want to establish something for the Afrikaner people, but the question is how are we to do that?
And that is what the debate is on at the moment. People are writing off the National Party. They are looking for something new and it may be that Afrikaner intellectuals may now rise and come forth and produce something which is effective and which will appeal, not only to the Afrikaner mind, but also to other people who will see that our model is just and equitable. In other words what some people are trying to come up with now is what you call the policy, the concretisation and that may hold a solution but the National Party is offering us a rotten deal. People see that and that may escalate into the violence that I told you about where you may get an individual who possesses these potentials to commit acts of sabotage, like I've described to you.
POM So how do you see the evolution of the future? Do you see a referendum being held this year?
KVM I see that we will win Potchefstroom with a vast majority. I will see the CP becoming very strong and very strong and very strong. More and more de Klerk will not believe that. He will go ahead. He will strike a deal. He will put into motion a strategy, bringing the All Blacks here, rugby All Blacks, trying to appease the people, come in with a massive information campaign for the election. But I just have a feeling he's going to lose it. Now once he loses that election he's finished. There's no such thing for a politician to put your life on something and then say I go back to the drawing board. He will be finished. If he loses the referendum, which I'm sure will take place in the second part of this year, he will then be forced into a white election. He won't be able to withstand that. We will probably win that and once we're in power we're back to the point that I've described to you, the concretisation, the policy problem. The other possible scenario is that there will be an election and de Klerk will win it. Then - the referendum, he will win the referendum.
POM There's no way he can win the by-election?
KVM The by-election is finished. He's lost it. It's finished. The other possibility is that he might win the referendum. If he does win the referendum then it means we don't have any moral right to look at him through the barrels of rifles. That's a problem. And he will then introduce the new South Africa. What will then be a great regret is the fact that we were not there to make the hardship less hard. If there at any time is an opening, an entry point into the negotiation process where intellectual right wingers could move in people with a constituency and convince them on the possibility of a federation, the first demand is an independent Afrikaner state, but the alternative is a federation which has two very important requirements as far as we are concerned and the first is, we want to be in on the demarcation of the various component states so that, to put it bluntly, we can make sure that in two or three of the ten or twelve we could be in control. Firstly if that happens it's good news and secondly there must be a very large devolution of power from the central government to the regions. Much like your states. Then it would be a better deal for the whites. So the lacking element in all this is that we, Afrikaner intellectuals, politicians, should at some stage be in the processes, not necessarily at CODESA, to try to lessen the hard effects of a black government eventually.
POM Because if you're not then your entire strategy is predicated on your own inaction. All the cards have to fall a certain way that you'll be able to influence the way those processes.
KVM Yes. We've isolated ourselves. We're outside it. We simply are not there. Default. They take judgement against us by default.
POM Do you see any way out of that dilemma? Do you see any way in which before a referendum that the party can reconsider its position and accept the fact that because self-determination is on the agenda it's something that can be negotiated?
KVM All right, I think after Potchefstroom, if we make a good win in Potchefstroom, I think my leader could come out with a slightly changed attitude now that his hand is tremendously strengthened. He could then possibly lay down rules in terms whereof he is prepared to negotiate. He will probably say that there must be an unconditional admission of the right to self-determination which will not be the big problem. But he will then lay down other rules such as that the structure of CODESA is unfair, and he has a case there. But then, at least I think, there could be movement roughly, very infinitely roughly, about talks about talks maybe with the government and so forth. There could be some sort of a movement after Potchefstroom.
POM One of the reasons why you make such a good interview is that you actually speculate and aren't afraid to say what you think. Most people shy away from doing that. I remember in 1989 at a conference you were on about how well the CP would do in the general election. As far as you were concerned you were confident.
KVM I was confident.
POM Suddenly de Klerk pulled a fast one, he just had a better strategy.
KVM OK yes, in 1989 we were confident there would be a hung parliament. You remember? I said at the time I don't think we will win but I think us and the DP together will enforce a hung parliament. We got 39 seats instead of, we thought, over 60. We didn't do badly in terms of percentage because we polled about 32% of the vote but what did happen is they kicked out, they were very, very clever and they had a good strategy, they kicked out PW Botha and they brought in a new, dynamic, young leader with a conservative image and reputation. And the Nats who were already with us, but not very enthusiastic really with us, abstained and the Nats on the way to us voted Nat again for the last time. So we lost there.
POM I suppose what I'm saying is that de Klerk can still formulate a campaign message.
KVM Bring another rabbit from the hat.
POM A very simple one, which would be it's this or it's chaos. In fact that you are not an alternative. The alternative is civil war all over the country.
KVM Isolation, sanctions all over, no sport, etc.
POM I mean everyone will vote in this referendum. It won't be a ..
KVM We have looked at that. I have, in the beginning as I told you, I have until the beginning of this month thought that if he does all that he would still win a referendum. Now I think it's going to be hard for him to win it. The people, as I said, the protest votes are too much against.
POM But he hasn't raised the spectre of, if you don't vote this way the alternative is ...?
KVM I'm sure they will come up with a R20 million propaganda. What they will do is, I've said this in the past, not today, but they will make the two alternatives very crystal clear. You vote for this or we go back to violence, poverty, isolation, no sport, no rugby, no this. They will do that. But despite that, even at the moment things are getting much better than in the past on the issue of sport, international isolation and so forth and it doesn't work. It doesn't work at all. It didn't work in Virginia. It doesn't work in Potchefstroom. It is as if the electorate is immune to that. Once the South African voter divorces a political party it's gone, it doesn't go back to that woman any more not even for adultery. It doesn't even commit adultery. You're too old to know what that word means. Go and look it up in the dictionary.
POM I suppose my point would be that he wouldn't state the message that way. He would state the alternative as civil war, the country would be destroyed. So people's fear of that may outrun their distaste for what in fact they would have to swallow. Whereas what you're offering them is just, you're saying we have the right to self-determination.
KVM I concede that.
POM So their message is more powerful. I mean it would be more powerful if it were effectively ...
KVM The people are already living in poverty and with violence and all that, but I'm not discounting the possibility that he could win but what I'm saying is I'm getting the feeling that we will now possibly win. The no vote will possibly win. Whether he can turn that around I don't know. He can use the state media for it, he can use millions of rand of propaganda, he can get Bush here, he can get O'Malley here and other big people, but whether that will work is now a question mark. A few months ago I had the feeling he'll still make it, do a hat-trick or something. I don't think that now. I don't think he'll make it.
POM So you're either more pessimistic about the future or optimistic about the future depending upon how to read your - it doesn't still get away from your central dilemma.
KVM Unless we could move into the negotiation processes, influence that and help the other whites there to obtain a better deal for the whites in general or the Afrikaner in particular. That is the lacking element that is a pathetic thing, namely that the whites are not there to improve a possible future, possible bleak future. How far are we from finishing?
POM That's enough. There are enough confident predictions there to last a good six months.