This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
10 May 1995: Mbeki, Govan
POM. Mr Mbeki let me maybe start and ask you, what impact, what changes has the ANC coming into being the dominant partner in government had on your life? Did you expect this to happen in your lifetime?
GM. We expected this to happen but we had no idea of a date when it would happen. We were confident it would happen. From our study of history we have seen tyrants come and have seen them fall. There was no reason why we should have been so pessimistic as to think that the apartheid system in South Africa would be there for ever. And if we had believed so then there would have been no point in our being involved in the struggle for liberation. But others had come before us, had been involved in wars of liberation. In the area from which I come, that is the Eastern Cape, that struggle was conducted over a period of a century against the British forces. That struggle was led by generations which were not as fortunate as we were. They were illiterate and yet they fought. They knew that they had to fight against those who sought to take over their land. They probably didn't have as wide and as broad a vision as we have had. They had of course not even had the experience or the chance to gain from the experience of others in other parts of the world and yet they maintained a struggle of resistance against powerful forces for a period as long as a century, a whole century. So when our time came there was no reason for us to feel despondent to the extent of thinking that apartheid was going to be there for a long time. But as I say, we had no idea of a date when the thing would change.
POM. Was it necessary to believe that because that's what kept you alive in jail?
GM. Well it did keep us alive in jail because we were guided like old navigators. Go into the history of the Greeks, the history of the Romans, long before the compass was discovered they were sailing the oceans, they were guided by stars in the sky, they knew that star was south. If you went west you kept your eyes on the stars to the west, and they navigated the oceans that way. But in our times what was the guiding star? The guiding star was the policies which had been adopted especially by the African National Congress, and that guiding star was summed up in the Freedom Charter which was adopted in 1955 by the people of South Africa. Some people, historians, journalists and others think that the Freedom Charter was a document which was drawn up by the ANC. The Freedom Charter wasn't drawn up by the ANC. The Freedom Charter was drawn up by the people of South Africa. We had what was called the Congress Alliance which consisted of the ANC, of the South African Indian Congress, of the Coloured People's Congress and of the Congress of Democrats. Now all these congresses represented the various national groups in this country and before the Freedom Charter was drafted these congresses confronted the country to seek the views of the people. What is it that you would like to see South Africa do? What is your vision of South Africa for all the people of South Africa? And to get that information they went round the country and sought the views of the people wherever they found them, whether on the farms, in the Bantustans, or in what later came to be known as the Bantustans, that is people in the rural areas, and what was known as native reserves and then amongst the people in the urban areas.
POM. Do you not think the policies pursued today, particularly the economic policies are a far, far cry from what was in the Freedom Charter?
GM. And then there was then a summation of all the views from all the sectors of the population, what would you like South Africa to be like? And then all that we did in 1995 was to put together the aspirations of the people which they had articulated themselves and so there came the Freedom Charter. It is this which became the guiding star for the leadership, for the people of the country and especially for those of us who were in jails. So that's the position. And then guided by this document we were able to inspire ourselves, we were able to say to ourselves, what should we do to organise against the Nationalist Party. For instance, in the event of the armed struggle being brought to an end what are we to do? We are not laying down arms and they are not going to lay down arms. All of us have fought and fought for a very long period of time, but at some stage we knew that all was coming to an end. But in our situation there was the likelihood that at the end of that struggle no side would say, "We are victorious", no side would say, we would adopt the same line that the united forces against nazism and would end up saying, when the Nazi leaders said, "All right let's sit down and talk", the united forces said, "Unconditional surrender". Now we knew that our struggle was not going to end up that way and if it was not going to end up that way what then do we do? And all these plans, these strategies were developed consciously in debates and discussions amongst us, amongst ourselves, both within the walls of jail and outside by those of the leaders of people but then was called to the Congress Alliance outside jail or in exile. And so we ended up saying let's sit down and talk, which is what happened.
POM. Was that a consensus decision or were there still a number of prisoners or people on the outside who wanted keep on with the armed struggle?
GM. There were those, especially among the younger people, even amongst the older people, who felt that the armed struggle should continue, but we knew that it was an emotional response to a situation that had been there for so long. And then as a result those of us who said, "No, let's sit down and talk", that view prevailed and brought about the situation that we find today in the country.
POM. If you had to just look at the armed struggle, that's the MK, how effective do you think they were compared to other guerrilla organisations in other countries that had liberation movements?
GM. I think we were effective. We have had situations, for instance, like in the east, Malaysia and so on, where the liberation forces were defeated, probably elsewhere in the world. I wouldn't say our situation was unique but there was this to our situation that it became not a struggle of the African National Congress, it became a struggle of the people. The people became involved. Methods of resistance were adopted over a long, long period of time. To give you an instance, we say to our people, resist whenever you are in touch with the white man. That is the white man who at one time adopted what was called segregation, at another time by leaders like Jan Smuts was called trusteeship of the Bantu, of the African, where they believed that as a matter of right the whites were to act as the trustees of the future of the Africans. As Smuts sums it up in his speeches, he says, "This is a child race and we who are mature have to lead and guide that child race", as they are trustees. But who is to determine when that child race has grown, has reached maturity? Who is to determine that? It is those who claim to be the trustee who will decide when the ward is ready to assume responsibility for it's affairs. Therefore, it became a never-ending thing, that is for the trustees to continue to act as determinants of the period of when the child race would have grown of age.
. And then there followed the other which was an extreme case. Apartheid. That which was given the word apartheid. [Apartheid which would ...] 1929, thirties, early thirties, there's a depression and in order to solve that situation, the depression, it is suggested that South Africa should go off the gold standard and at the time Hertzog who was the head of the government, he was the Prime Minister, he wasn't happy about going off the gold standard. Jan Smuts was pushing that, but on the other hand Hertzog was pushing his policies which were given precise decision in his speech at Smithfield, which was Hertzog's constituency where he gave what he called the 'native policy'. And what did that native policy say? Hertzog said the same things that the Nationalist Party later said, that these people must be kept apart. The future of the African was spelt out by Hertzog really. His native policies. And then to go through the whole complex of legislation by Hertzog during the 1920s.
. And so I say then there came 1933, Hitler gets into power and adopts as his policy national socialism, the Nazis. But about the same time Hertzog finds a compromise to work with Jan Smuts in order to carry out his policies, native policies, and Jan Smuts agrees. And then D F Malan, who was a member of Hertzog's Nationalist Party decided, no, Hertzog is now watering down the idea of nationalism as they understood it. He breaks away from Hertzog to form what he called a purified Nationalist Party. This is 1933 and Hitler comes into power in 1933 and D F Malan adopts the Hitlerite policies. The entire leadership of the Nationalist Party led by D F Malan becomes the government of this country in 1948 and they call that the stamp of apartheid for separateness and they then adopt policies to suit apartheid and those policies are adopted, developed and articulated by people most of whom studied in Nazi Germany. Now, I needn't go into that history.
. So that we have this situation that the Nationalist Party became harsh in implementing policies which in fact had come before them under segregation or trusteeship and so on. So that was the position. If the products of Nazi philosophy who became the leaders of the Nationalist Party government, who had even before 1948 adopted anti-Semitic policies, if they adopted those policies against the Jews who were white, how much worse was to be the position against the Africans or blacks? So that's the position.
POM. Has any member of parliament here or any senator or any minister ever come up to you and said, "I am really sorry for what my people did to you?"
GM. No. They haven't done so. F W de Klerk did say at one time, "Yes, we did something wrong." But I don't remember the Nationalist Party accepting the fact that they were wrong and were sorry for what they did in as much as some of the German leaders today deny that there was a holocaust. I don't know who they think was responsible for this.
POM. Can there be any real reconciliation until they do in fact?
GM. That's what we say. We say they must come up open and accept the responsibility. That's why we called for a Truth Commission so that there is so much that they did against us, there are so many people who disappeared into thin air as if they never existed. We must find out who is responsible for that. We are not saying so, we are not calling for retribution but the very knowledge of knowing that it is so-and-so who did this, who killed this man this way. In my own family three disappeared into thin air and we would like to find out how did they meet their end and who was responsible for that.
POM. Over what period of time was that?
GM. In the eighties, in the eighties.
POM. Three of your sons?
GM. Three, three. Now you know a person is keeping a few goats, if one disappears he will not rest until he can find the spot where it died. Those whose people disappeared like that won't rest until they know what happened to them. If Goniwe and his three comrades leave the township to go to the airport at Port Elizabeth and then there is no trace thereafter of what happened to them, no not Goniwe, the other three, Godolozi, Galela, they just disappeared like that. Even the vehicle in which they travelled from the township to the airport just disappeared like that. We must know, their relatives would like to know are these men still alive or not and if they are not alive, what happened and where were their remains buried? Similarly, Goniwe's people would like to know who was responsible for the brutal manner in which those people were killed.
POM. Now would you make a distinction between a bomb that's planted in say a civilian centre that explodes and maybe kills nine or ten people and injures a hundred or so, would you differentiate that act, say done by the ANC, from an act committed by the government where it gives officers commands, gives them a list of people to say more or less eliminate these people, and security forces do so?
GM. There is this difference, the ANC kills people but the ANC makes no secret of it. They say we blew up this place in the course of a war but the ANC did not kill individuals in order to end the struggle. But the Nationalist Party government is not fighting a war according to the rules of warfare, it isn't. Catch this one here, kill them. In some cases the truth has come out of how such people were killed. Now I say if a war is fought according to the rules of warfare that's a different thing from a war that is fought along the lines which the Nationalist Party government adopted.
POM. How far do you think the Truth Commission should go? Let's say I'm a policeman and I admit to killing somebody and I say I did it on the orders of my superior who in turn says, "I did it on the order of my superior", and that superior says, "I did it on the order of the Minister for Defence", should it go to that level or should there be some cut off point?
GM. First we must get those who were responsible for certain acts to say, "I did it." And then why did you do it? "I acted according to instructions of my superiors." Who were his superiors? Some Chief of the army or whatever, but in the final analysis it was the government that was responsible, the Nationalist Party. There is no need to get further than that, to know that it was a matter of policy that these things should be done the way they were done.
POM. So if there was an acknowledgement by the government that it and past governments, previous National Party governments, as a matter of policy engaged in criminal activities against black people, that would be sufficient without having to name everybody who was individually involved?
GM. That's sufficient, we don't want more than that because we are not calling for retribution. But the fact that the responsibility is pinned down on them. History, and the name of that government will have been tarnished for all time so that for future generations in this country the lesson would have gone that we should never again follow the footsteps of Verwoerd, of D F Malan and others, and do such things to people. You see today the followers of Hitler, some of them committed suicide and others were hanged after the Nuremberg trials. That satisfied the needs of the government of the day who constituted the united forces but the important lesson is that the name of nazism, and even if you call it by another name, but the actions of such who led the Nazis, who led the Fascists in Italy and so on, that idea becomes banned by society. That's the important thing.
POM. Do you feel any bitterness towards the National Party in general? You've lost three sons, you've spent the better part of your mature years in jail.
GM. We have to resist that. It was a rational effort. All of us felt bad. The treatment we received at their hands in jail was bad, whereas the treatment they gave to our people, men, women, children, the aged, the disabled, those things were very bad, but what would have been the result of our encouraging people to feel bitter about such things? What it would have resulted into would be that people who didn't say, "When I get a chance I'll give it to them." Like two young comrades on Robben Island who lived in single cells were not allowed to talk to each other, who were allowed out on exercise twice a day, thirty minutes in the morning, thirty minutes in the afternoon, and even that we couldn't be certain of the fact that we got thirty minutes because we had no watches. It was them who had the watches to determine that. The thirty minutes could have ended in twenty minutes, could have ended in twenty five minutes. Now one day we go out and it's cold, Robben Island can be cold, Robben Island and the Atlantic Ocean can be cold during the winter months, so almost every one of us went out to exercise rather than jog around or walk fast around, took a corner, a cosy corner, to get as much sunshine as possible. One young comrade said, "When I get out of jail I will never tolerate again to see a canary kept in a cage." He knew it, he had been in a cage in the cells there sitting and sleeping on a mat, on a coir mat. And then another says, "Why bother about birds, why bother about canaries? When freedom comes I am going to remain here on Robben Island because I want John Balthazar Vorster to taste the things, the medicine he gave to us." We all prick our ears and we say, "But comrade, why did you come here?" He answers, "All right, I came here because of the pass laws. I was opposed to pass laws, because our people were denied the right to land, because our people were given Bantu education and all that Bantu education is good for, hardly different from the pogroms during the days in Russia." And then we said to this comrade, "If you remain here in order to give to John Balthazar Vorster the same medicine he gave to you, when will the things for which you went to jail be corrected?" He had no answer to that. And so we gave him the answer, saying, "No, get out of jail, don't worry about John Balthazar Vorster, he's after all an individual. You must correct the whole situation, turn everything around, that will be the greater punishment you give to the Vorsters of this world when everything they stood for is turned around." And so that was that. That's why I say then it was a rational effort that made us not to harp at retribution but rather at correcting things and in the process educating the whites themselves because they were a sick society. It was a disease they had, a disease of planning every day how to destroy the other side, not because the other side was doing any wrong but that they were of a different colour to themselves. So that was that.
POM. So when you look at the interim constitution that is in effect now and you have a Constituent Assembly that is drawing up the final constitution, do you think many things should be changed in the interim constitution or that by and large it's OK, it just needs refinement here and there?
GM. To cover a situation, it was a temporary arrangement to tide us over a short period of time. The final thing has yet to be prepared, drafted, after more careful thought than was given to the drawing up of the interim constitution. When the final constitution comes it will bear some marks of the interim constitution but the interim constitution is not the final thing.
POM. What things in it do you think must be either eliminated or what things must be added?
GM. We don't know when the final document comes, but the very fact that so much attention, so many committees have been set up to consider various aspects of the life of the society of this country would mean, and these committees go out to search for views from outside parliament, at least we expect that it will be a good constitution but that good constitution is not for all time. The constitution will be subject to changes from time to time by amendments or dropping out of this or the other thing. But we are hopeful that by and large the final product will be a document that will last, will be intended for long periods of time before there are any drastic changes.
POM. Were you surprised when President Mandela said that human lives are more important than the constitution?
GM. Human lives are important. That is the practical approach. But for people to think that they are going to use the constitution in order to abuse democracy, to find an excuse to abuse democracy, that's when the contest comes. Is it the constitution, is it human life that is more important than the other? And I don't think an attempt should be made to compare the two, both are important. But we are not going to allow criminals to make use of the constitution in order to commit other crimes and by saving human life. I sometimes wonder when I hear people, even in parliament here, talk of constitution, constitution, and when there are people who are using the same constitution to have others caned, I think the comparison is not correct, both are important, but no-one has a right to destroy human life.
POM. I read a report the other day that said that there were more members of the South African defence forces deployed in fighting crime than there were in the old SADF in Angola even at its peak. Do you think it's a good thing to have an army carry out police work or that the two functions should be absolutely separated?
GM. How can you? The police are there to protect people and the army is there to protect people. If at some stage the police are not enough to carry out their job, why should we allow ourselves to be bound by that to say, "Oh no, his function is so-and-so, his function is so-and-so", if the two of them, complementing each other to protect man, why should it not be done?
POM. If it took a declaration of a state of emergency to really bring down the crime level, which now I think is the highest in the world in just about every category, particularly violent crime, do you think that that would be justified?
GM. The use of the two forces?
POM. No if the President declared a state of emergency and said, "I'm declaring this state of emergency because the level of crime has got so high that we have to take special measures for a period of time to bring it down because it's beginning to corrode the very fabric of our society."
GM. If it has to be used, if it has to be used then it must be used and there's no avoiding that. I hear the bell ringing.