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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
27 Sep 1995: Meiring, Kobus
POM Mr Meiring, the last time we talked was when you were Administrator of the Cape and now you are the Minister for Finance in the Western Cape government. What changes have you seen taking place over the period of time from the election to the present day?
KM I think the most important change that I noticed was really a change in attitude. I often said recently in speeches and so on that if I think back a year and a half from now we were heading for the election, more or less when we last saw each other and there was a lot of uncertainty in South Africa, people didn't know what was going to happen, they were scared. It was interesting how many people, especially of the first world side, the developed side, emptied the shops, buying enough stocks to see them through the so-called bloody revolution that was coming. And in fact the world media came to South Africa to witness this bloody revolution that was going to take place. Fortunately it didn't happen. With the election people were standing in queues for six hours, really it was amazing, wanting to make their cross. People of all races, of all denominations, they stood in that queue in a good spirit and nothing happened, nothing came of the revolution. The new parliament met, the new provincial legislature came together and all of a sudden around the Cabinet table in Pretoria sat old enemies and here in our building in Cape Town six members of the National Party and four members of the ANC formed a new Cabinet under the Premier. That's why I say the biggest change for me is in attitude internally. It is amazing how people who were foes previously managed to get together and talk and communicate with each other which was impossible five years ago. That really was amazing. Of course the attitude of the outside world changed completely, that was a very welcome development. If I think of the way that the world looked at us previously, we were the polecat of the world.
POM I remember meeting you first in 1987 at a conference in New York when you were treated like a pariah.
KM Absolutely. That was at White Plains in 1987, it was a difficult year that. It was shortly after P W Botha's Rubicon speech. I was then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. I was trying my best to convince people outside South Africa, and inside South Africa, that we are changing, that we are heading for change. I think I have said it to you before, Padraig, but I feel quite sorry for P W Botha. He after all was the architect of a new dispensation, he wanted to do something but he didn't have the guts to take it right through. He brought the coloureds and the Indians to parliament but I don't think he had the guts to bring the black people. So it had to be a new man to do that. But I'm glad that you remind me of 1987. If I think what happened in these eight years it is quite amazing.
To get back to the outside world, they are really flocking to South Africa in the form of trade missions, businessmen looking at South Africa, tourism is picking up. You have problems with hotel bookings - I'm very happy to hear that, not that I don't grant you a good bed, but we really need that; especially in the Western Cape tourism is our salvation. We haven't got the mines, the minerals, we've got good agriculture, we've got a good balanced economy, but the one thing that we have that nobody else has is our nature, our natural beauty and nothing can beat that for tourism. So that is another change that we are witnessing all the time. A third change is in our economy I suppose. Our Stock Exchange is growing all the time, it's doing very well. Property prices in the Western Cape are on the increase really for the last three, four years. It really started in 1990 after Mr de Klerk's famous speech. And so I can carry on mentioning to you a number of things but, of course, there are also disadvantages. One of them is perhaps a very philosophical one and that is that although we are probably the newest democracy in the world I'm not always sure that there are enough democrats in this country.
POM Can I talk a little about that in terms of the dispute that's going on with regard to the demarcation of boundaries?
KM It's not really that. Can I give you a little background? When I first came to public office in 1972 I was elected, democratically, although only by the whites; let's face that. You were elected in a democratic election and the message was quite clear that you are now elected for five years, you do the job. After five years we will judge you, if you do well enough you can be re-elected. But you didn't have to go back all the time to your people to consult with them, to report back. You did the job. That pendulum has swung completely to the other side. Today I am afraid in government members are elected but it's not left to them. They have to consult all the time and as far as I am concerned the situation twenty years ago was perhaps wrong and too much was left to the elected person but now the pendulum has swung too far and that consultation that has to take place all the time is not the way I see democracy and the result is that nothing gets done, or not enough gets done. I hope that we will get back to a normal situation somewhere in between.
Can I give you the example of the RDP? I think the RDP is a very good thing, a principle we subscribe to 100%. We have accepted it here in the province as part of our policy. The ANC used it for their election platform, it was an excellent policy to follow. It was an excellent way of catching votes because you can go to any man and promise him an improved standard of living. It's wonderful. But now you have to fulfil that. Now you have to deliver the goods and if you have to consult so much and report back so much you can't do anything. So the result of all this is that in my five years as Administrator of this province we built a lot of houses, we did a lot of infrastructure, certainly not enough, but in the year and half since the election very few houses have been built because of all the red tape, all the bureaucracy, all the consultation and that is something that worries us. That is certainly a disadvantage that we have to try and fix up.
The violence is far too high still. You've now been to KwaZulu, that is the one province that really worries us immensely and the irony is that they are all Zulus that are fighting each other. I don't have to tell you after all your visits to South Africa how complex this country is but it's the amazing thing about KwaZulu/Natal that it's mostly Zulus fighting amongst each other for political reasons, and that really is a worrying situation.
To come back to the Western Cape, I believe we have a very stable situation here, fortunately very little violence. Our unemployment figure is too high at 17% but it's the lowest in the country by far. Our population growth is of the lowest in the country which is a good thing. Our economic growth is of the highest in the country. I think it is the highest at the moment, far higher than the average. That's on the plus side again. On the minus side again is the fact that government has decided that through the appointment of the FFC, that is the Financial & Fiscal Commission, which was appointed a year ago, they wanted to as soon as possible achieve an equitable situation in South Africa. At the moment per capita spending in the Western Cape is about R2000 per annum per capita. The average for the country is about R1500, so some provinces are even less than that. And this commission came out with its report a couple of weeks ago and they recommended to government that within five years they have to try and equate this figure.
POM That's the Financial ...?
KM Financial & Fiscal Commission. I can give you a copy of their report if you want.
POM Good, I'd like that.
KM Now they said that the way to achieve that would be to take your total population of about 40 million, divide it or separate the rural proportion of that population in each province, load it with 25%, plus a number of other factors, and then redistribute. It is a form of redistribution of wealth in South Africa. Now I have nothing against the principle, we will have to do it. I have explained to you before our biggest problem is the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The question is, how do you narrow that gap? Do you narrow it upwards, downwards or do you meet somewhere in between? They opted for, naturally, the third one to meet somewhere in between. This thing is going to be extremely detrimental for the Western Cape. At that commission it was eventually decided to try and do this within five years. The provinces who are going to get the most said, no, let's do it in three years. On the commission itself there was an argument that it should be done over seven years. Eventually they compromised on five years. We say we can't do it within ten years. How do you manage standards down? Do you know what I try to explain? How do you down manage standards? Let me give you an example; in the Western Cape you have three academic hospitals, famous hospitals where the first heart transplant took place, you have a number of big regional hospitals, provincial hospitals, day hospitals, clinics and so on. In the Northern Transvaal it is just the other extreme, you probably have three or four in the whole province, provincial hospitals and further clinics and so on, no academic hospitals. You can imagine that your per capita expenditure in the Western Cape on health is far higher than in the Northern Transvaal. Now how do you equate that? You can't pull down an academic hospital and transport it to the Northern Transvaal. I think you must just try and peg this one and lift the others. But if you equate the per capita expenditure you will have to close down an academic hospital and that certainly is not in the interests of the country. That is just an example.
There is another interesting equation that I make. The population of this country is more or less 40 million, as I said. Countrywide 75% of that is black, 25% is coloured and white. In the Western Cape it is totally different. Here we have 80% white and coloured, 20% black. If you analyse our figures here and try to determine what percentage of the population of the Western Cape is, it could be regarded as developed, as first world, taking into consideration literacy, employment, where they live, how they live, brick houses. It's anybody's guess but my calculation says that 60% of the people in the Western Cape could be termed developed. In a province like Northern Cape I don't think you get to 20%. Gauteng could probably also be near to 60%. Although they have a big percentage of black people, those black people are urbanised and many of them are in fact developed, etc., etc.
My problem is, can you really equate per capita spending in a province where 20% is developed with a province where 60% is developed. And that is one of my present tasks to try and convince the FFC that although I agree with them in principle that you have to equate, you cannot do it over too short a period. If you take away money today from the Western Cape and you give it to the Northern Transvaal I don't think they would be able to really spend it logically. 85% of expenditure on education is on salaries, so if you cut down on that you have to cut on people. I said it the other day that to balance our books in the Western Cape we will have to retrench straight away 5000 teachers and 5000 doctors and nurses. Now immediately you will create a big unemployment and immediately you are going to create a big downsize on those two facilities.
POM This is why you get an allocation from the central government with regard to your budget, right? You don't have power to levy taxes?
KM The point is the total budget that I have to administer is eight billion rand. Of that 7.5 billion comes from central government as a grant. The same applies to all provinces. The only little income that we have is from motor vehicle licences, hospital fees, horse racing, etc. It's written into the interim constitution that we can in fact levy certain taxes, that we can apply for loans, etc., but that special law has now been passed through parliament so at the moment my hands are tied behind my back. I can't do it. I have the initial problem that in the past, as Administrator, I also took responsibility for finances and this is not a new thing, we could never balance our books because our province as such was just more developed. But it was the old government as far as I am concerned, a friendly government, and they helped us. If we could prove at the end of the year that we are running short they helped us. Or alternatively, after two years or so it was regarded as unwarranted expenditure but not fraudulent or whatever and a law was passed and the books were balanced. Now it's a slightly different situation and we are still feeling our way with central government. We have to try and convince them that it is not a case of over-expenditure but a case of under-funding. It eventually comes to the same but there is a difference in how you express it. So that's the problem that we find ourselves in. We are looking at new ways of finding additional income, like gambling and casinos and so on and you may have read that one of these days we will have forty casinos in South Africa. Up to now we only had sixteen I think, seventeen, like the situation in the old TBVC homelands. We will get that but the amount of money that you will get from that is negligible compared to our needs really.
POM I think when I came here on this occasion I read a statement that the Secretary said that the Western Cape was bankrupt to the tune of 11.2 billion rand.
KM Yes, 11.2. No, that's right. Last week I arranged that we had a special session to talk about our financial situation. The half year is now passed of the present financial year and we had this special session to talk about the situation. I used the opportunity to tell colleagues in the legislature exactly where we stand but I also did it on purpose so that the press could pick it up and the central government could pick it up. It's amazing if you write a letter to the Minister of Finance explaining our predicament it's one thing, if you have a session here where the press tells the world that the Western Cape is bankrupt then it has a little more influence. I will be in Pretoria on Friday to take this further. We are not the only province, Gauteng has the same problems, and that helps us to a certain extent that our over-expenditure or under-funding is certainly not the result of bad administration, there must be other reasons for that. That's what I've been trying to explain to you.
POM So in the eighteen months since the Provincial Legislature has come into existence and central government has come into existence, has the standard of services in the Western Cape by and large fallen because there is simply less money available?
KM I would think that as far as health is concerned there has been a slight decrease in the standards. It's an amazing situation, it's probably a world trend that in the Western Cape as in the rest of South Africa many private hospitals have sprung up and people with medical aid schemes today mostly go to these hospitals which are much more expensive but where the service is excellent and where you have privacy and that sort of thing. The result is that provincial hospitals and even the academic hospitals are more and more becoming the hospitals for the poorer people, people who can't really pay. So in those hospitals you will probably see a slight decrease of standards. What you will probably notice, Padraig, is that we have done away with apartheid. That's wonderful. I'm the first one to applaud that. But I think what we will probably find, and what we are already beginning to find, is that racial apartheid will be replaced by economic apartheid, and that is not new to the world. It is amazing that the whole world screamed about racial apartheid while that same world is applying economic apartheid, but I think more and more we will experience that, a person who can pay, can pay for his services and pay for his recreation and so on.
POM So, could you talk a little bit about maybe the constitution and the ongoing dispute between whether one should have a highly centralised form of government or a federal government and the extent of devolution of powers and put that into the context of the dispute going on here with regard to the demarcation of boundaries for the metropolitan Cape area?
KM Let me immediately just give you a little background on the problem that we had in the Western Cape. I was still Administrator a year and a half ago, a bit more than that, when I appointed a so-called Demarcation Board under a certain Professor Cloete from Stellenbosch. An excellent chap, and their job was to demarcate the 95 towns in the Western Cape as well as the metropolitan area. The metropolitan area is a very difficult area because you have at least 12 municipalities, in the old terms 50 management committees, a number of black councils and so on. To put all that together was really very difficult. Eventually they came up with a recommendation that the Cape Town metropolitan area must be divided into six sub-structures. That would take more or less two and a half to three million people into consideration. The rest of the population of the Western Cape, a million live in the 95 towns and to demarcate that was no problem whatsoever. They then came with six sub-structures. When we looked at that earlier this year we said to ourselves, but they have not really taken into consideration the financial aspects of their recommendation, and we looked at this and we said that cannot work because looking again at the per capital expenditure in those sub-structures it varied from something like R700 per capita to about R2000. I'm really talking in general terms because it's not my portfolio now. And we said, but that is just not viable. So we looked at it and eventually we said we think it can work much better if we do it in four or five regions. That naturally was not acceptable to the ANC, they said, you are doing this for political reasons. I can really vouch for it that we did it for economic and financial reasons. Eventually central government assistance was called in.
POM So your four or five structures would have had a more equal distribution of per capita expenditure?
KM Yes. Eventually a compromise was struck. That compromise was really recommended by Mr Valli Moosa, the Deputy Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and eventually we said, fine, let's accept that compromise. And then they could not sell that compromise to the grassroots level. That picks up where I earlier said with all the consultation, if it was us and the senior members said we accept this, the rest would just accept it, but not with the ANC. So when we couldn't get that through, I'm cutting it very short, eventually that led to this court case because as a result of the fact that that compromise was not accepted, Mr Mandela issued certain proclamations taking away certain powers from us, from one of my colleagues and then we went to the Constitutional Court saying that we believe this is not in terms of the interim constitution. That was a very interesting situation because the Constitutional Court many people thought was loaded with political people but fortunately the Constitutional Court really proved that they are very excellent judicial people and last week they came out with their verdict and it's a very technical thing but it certainly meant that the interim constitution is above the powers of even the President, which we thought was really not so much a victory for us or for the Western Cape but a victory for South Africa, that we are a judicial state, a 'regs staat' as we say. Now parliament will have to get together again to see how they can solve this problem.
To come back to the broader principle, we believe very strongly that as in the case of the United States, of Switzerland, of Germany, of Australia, of Canada, a federal system is the only solution for South Africa and that you give more and more autonomy to the provinces. And to a certain extent we have embarked on that road. We have many more powers now than I had as Administrator. Absolutely. There is no doubt about that. But not enough yet. It is, I suppose, easier in a well developed first world type of country to have a federal system and a lot of autonomy for states. In a combination first world/third world it's much more difficult and certainly we are experiencing the growth pains. The interesting thing today is that although the two provinces which are not ANC controlled, namely the Western Cape and KwaZulu/Natal, are the biggest exponents of federalism it is amazing how the other provinces are slowly but surely also becoming more, perhaps not federalists but provincialists. If you analyse the situation and you think of men like Sexwale and Phosa and Lekota and Molefe, just to mention four, they are excellent people. They could probably have opted for central Cabinet if they wanted to but I think they believed in their provinces and now they have been Premiers for a year and a half and I think they like the power that they have. I can tell you that over the last month some of them, no names, have said to us, said to our Premier, we are watching you, carry on, we like it although we can't say it. So that's an interesting development. The point is just you've got to delegate powers. You cannot in a big country like South Africa have centralised powers. You cannot decide in Pretoria on rezoning in Stellenbosch. You cannot in Pretoria decide on where a school must be situated in Khayelitsha. So I am all for delegation of powers. I really think that principle is a healthy principle. It does complicate your financial control and for that reason a central Minister of Finance is naturally very strict. That was the problem of the old TBVC countries that those people just did what they wanted and there are a number of skeletons in those cupboards still to be taken out there. So financial control in a decentralised situation is a problem, I grant you that, but it is not something that cannot be overcome.
POM Why don't we leave it there for today? I'd like to come back and see you again before I go back to the States in December on other questions. I've got another appointment right now unfortunately.