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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
22 Mar 1996: Desai, Barney
POM Mr Desai, it's been some time since we've last spoken, I think it was at Kempton Park in 1993. Perhaps you could give me a brief summary of how effective you think the constitution and the governance arrangements that were made at Kempton Park, how effective they have been in practice over the last two years from, I should say, a PAC perspective?
BD Well we had an uphill battle at Kempton Park in putting forward our view as to how the state should be constituted. We did not succeed in getting across that view. For example on local government we said that the provisions for local government amounted to gerrymandering in the sense that the whites in the north would not be reduced to their true numbers and that the blacks were not favoured in the northern provinces but were favoured in the southern provinces so that a black African, the vote that they had would be - let me give you an example. In George, for example, the vote of 7,000 black Africans was equivalent to 19,000 coloured Africans because of this gerrymandering. We obviously, I have spoken to you previously about this, we were against enforced power sharing, we said it wouldn't work. We were against entrenching the present civil service in their jobs because our proposition was that these people were trained and were employed to run an apartheid state which is the antithesis of what we stand for and therefore the bureaucracy, if it is entrenched by the constitution in the sense that they can't lose their jobs, was an impediment to the democratisation process. There were a number of other issues like the property clause. We felt that the property clause had to specifically state in the constitution that whilst we accept private property that acceptance must take into account the skewed ownership in this country and must make provision for redistribution of land. We felt merely to say that land can be taken from its present owners for public purposes, we felt that that wasn't sufficient because public purposes in the west are generally construed as building of roads, dams, etc., not redistribution. Now a number of these issues, of course, have surfaced. There is no agreement on property as yet. They are stuck with local government as it presently stands but have promised to change it by 1999.
POM The enforced power sharing.
BD The enforced power sharing won't go overnight in 1999, that's according to Mr Mandela. So in a word I don't want to say, look we were right in the things that we said at Kempton Park.
POM To a degree you have been vindicated.
BD We have been vindicated. However the basis for democracy is being laid now. One should not in this whole process merely adopt the attitude of carping. There's a lot to be done in this country and we must accept that we have made progress, not the kind of progress that we would have liked to have seen but some progress has been made. The ANC themselves say that, well, they are in office but they are not in power. So the nitty-gritty of breaking down the economic interests that controlled the destiny of this country still has to be tackled and will have to be tackled in the future.
POM So does the real revolution, in a sense, begin after 1999?
BD If you talk about revolution in terms of the economic displacement of one group and empowerment of another group then I would say that can only now take place after 1999 because the present constitution does not permit it.
POM Do you see the new constitution that's emerging, at least what we've seen of it to date, do you see that as a refinement of the interim constitution or as a document that even though lying within the 34 parameters that were laid down in the interim constitution is still a radically different document?
BD It's not radically different. It's a refinement of the interim constitution and I think it's too early for me to make any judgement on the document itself because there are a number of crucial issues outstanding; whether we are going to be federal or we're going to be a mish-mash of two systems, how we are going to rationalise the civil service. Those issues still have to be dealt with whether we have a provincial house of government, whether provinces make their input, these matters have not yet been settled. There does seem to be some retraction from one issue in particular, in the Bill of Rights which the ANC and the NP don't wish to have inserted in the new constitution and that is the necessity of curbing freedom of expression. The old constitution says 'necessary', the word necessary is now being left out. Now 'necessary' means you've got to put forward a very strong case to interfere with the Bill of Rights affecting freedom of expression and if you take that out then it becomes a matter of less stringent guidelines and the limitation then nullifies the freedom that you say you have in the Bill of Rights.
POM The other right I noted that in the past the liberation movements put a high degree of emphasis on was administrative justice which now seems to be down-played as perhaps resulting in unnecessary bureaucratic structures to ensure it's enforcement, yet it was administrative injustice that in large measure underpinned apartheid. Black Sash for one have come out very, very strongly against the lack of emphasis or the tendency to water it down to an negligible level. Where is the PAC?
BD I would put it this way, the laws under which the previous regime ruled were bad. The administrative machinery was even worse and therefore any attempts now while we are presently still landed with a million odd civil servants, the same people who administered the laws in the past, the transparency cannot and should not be sacrificed at this juncture in our history. It may be that later on we would say that now we're passing about too much paper but at this moment to clear the stables, so to say, we must have transparency and nothing must interfere with it. But there is a tendency, I would agree with you, for the present rulers to think of this as cumbersome. One hopes that they are not in the majority. One hopes that the mass basis of the ANC will ensure that those rights that we have won are not whittled away.
POM When you say 'our current rulers', do you mean the ANC since they have such an overwhelming majority in the government?
BD Yes the ANC. The ANC is the dominant partner in the government of national unity and it very often gets its way despite objections from the NP from time to time, but basically it's been doing very much what it feels it can do without creating a big ruckus. Whether it's going slow now because of the enforced coalition or whether there is a realisation amongst the bureaucrats of the ANC that perhaps we are becoming too transparent is difficult to say at this moment in time, but you are right, transparency is an important issue.
POM If you were to give, as the country approaches the second anniversary of its first free elections, if you were to rate the government's performance over that period on a scale of one out of ten where one was very unsatisfactory and ten was very satisfactory, in what range would you place it about?
POM Where do you think it has been most successful and where do you think it has been least successful?
BD Well the government itself and its leaders are very proud of the fact that they have made medical services available free of charge to pregnant women. That's a good thing. We used to have a very high mortality rate in this country, infant mortality rate, and this is sure to bring down the mortality rate. I dare say many children are now at school who were previously not at school but unfortunately there is a plus and minus on the education side. Not sufficient schools are being built, not sufficient scientific teachers are being trained and we still have almost a million children not at school.
POM Yet you have teachers being retrenched all over the place?
BD I said scientific teachers, but of course there is another contradiction there, how we can retrench teachers at this stage when there is consensus amongst us that education, education, education is vital for us. How we can cut back on that, on teachers, I can't understand. Maybe it's because we haven't enough school buildings. Maybe it's because we've been pussy-footing around with the Model C where you have lovely buildings and very few pupils as opposed to awful buildings and masses of pupils in the black schools. Then there's the question of housing. Now housing, the performance of the Ministry of Housing has been dismal. They promised a million houses by 1999. They have produced 30,000 houses over a period of just under two years. If you calculate that, the target will only be obtained somewhere in the mid 21st century. Now that's not good enough. Now 50% of the people are unemployed. Very early on they ruled out rented housing but this is the ideal situation where rented housing must come into play because people can't afford to build houses, can't afford even with a subsidy to build anything but a slum. And then the price of land is enormous. So their housing performance has been poor, much more can be done there. The job situation, which I have alluded to previously, is an unacceptable 40% - 50%. It's getting worse and now with the blowing hot and cold over privatisation we find that privatisation is going to lose jobs not create them. We have been losing jobs on the mines, we have been losing jobs in the engineering industry. If we want to create jobs it seems a very doubtful option to go for privatisation on a huge scale because the first thing that a private company does, it rationalises its labour force and it cuts and it cuts. I don't know whether we can afford that kind of situation now.
POM The same thing will happen with more liberal trade policies with the lowering of tariffs.
BD The textile industry faces great dangers. The clothing industry faces great dangers. The clothing industry employs about 18,000 people. I can see those jobs disappearing, going up in smoke and Cape Town is traditionally one of the major clothing manufacturing cities. We might well see that go. Then there seems to be an overall, speaking generally, there seems to be a terrible blockage in delivery. This year we have ten billion rolled over. It's different if you say, look let me go borrow money to build houses but when you've got the money here, you're rolling it over and you're not delivering on your election promises, you're not creating jobs. With the ten billion we could have gone into extensive public building programmes, private building programmes, extensively, but somehow or another the RDP has just not delivered and if it doesn't deliver this year then I fear that problems will get worse, instability will ensue and already you have people marching in the streets.
POM Now let me relate all of that, what you have given there is a sharp and accurate critique of the government which one would think that an opposition party could turn into political gain and yet the view of almost all commentators is that the PAC for all practical purposes has collapsed as a political force in the country and is peripheral to the political process. One, would you agree with the conventional wisdom, particularly in the wake of the local government elections, about the PAC? And two, if so, what's happened? There's a difference between being a small opposition party and being so marginal as to be negligible.
BD Well if you take into account, I'm thinking now particularly of the elections and the organisational machinery, the PAC were suffering from a grave disadvantage money-wise. We also had problems of contesting these elections where we would like to have done so and because of lack of funds we couldn't, whereas the African National Congress had a high profile and lots of money. This is not to say that perhaps in the minds of people they saw the ANC, because of its organisation and its capacity to spend and the personnel that it had, as a winner. Sometimes you have situations where despite the correctness of the politics of a smaller group they don't feature in the stakes because they don't have the capacity to get it over. That's one thing that happened to the PAC. I think the people felt that the ANC had a superior organisation and could win the elections so they voted for them. Mind you, there were quite a lot of question-marks about the results but we accepted it on the basis that this was a major historical move forward and to carp over malpractices at the polls wouldn't be correct. I view politics as something that has its own dynamics. Years ago the Greens in Europe were a fringe group. Over ten years they have built up and they became quite formidable. I think that the situation here, that is the socio-economic conditions of people here, are such that if they get no relief then they will turn elsewhere and they might well turn to the PAC in large numbers. But bear in mind that what I've said about the election process against the background of all that money being put into this campaign and the demonising of the PAC, St James' massacre, Kingwilliamstown and so on, that didn't help at all.
POM But this is 18 months after. They may have been issues in the past.
BD Yes but the trials were just recently.
POM But if you as a political analyst, a major figure in your political party, and you have to sit down after an election and look at and try to analyse why the party didn't just do poorly but for all practical purposes got decimated and to come up with the conclusion that, well, the opposition had a lot more money, our policies are right but they had the money, seems rather a facile excuse.
BD No, I'm not making an excuse.
POM There was disaffection out there, there was the lack of delivery out there.
BD We have organisational problems. We have leadership problems. I'm not making excuses. The whole country knows that.
POM What are the organisational and leadership problems that would result in such a calamitous performance?
BD Patrick I'd rather not discuss that.
POM Nothing will be published until the year 2000 so we will all be - in Ireland they would say 'dead and gone and with O'Leary in the grave'.
BD I would just broadly put it down that our quality of leadership is poor. Secondly, I think for many people the two liberation movements stand for the same things. I think we didn't sufficiently calculate on that. In the broad sweep of things they stand for the same things. Well the ANC had the edge and the personnel and they had the support of the press.
POM They say they didn't have the support of the press. In fact the first thing they did after the election was excoriate the press for the manner in which the ANC had been treated before the elections.
BD Well if they want a communist press that praises the incumbents on a regular basis as if it's routine, then they have reason to object to some of the press coverage but by and large the press were giving them a good run, by and large.
POM I'm going to come back to the PAC, but they use the argument, in fact enunciated by President Mandela himself on occasion, that the media is white-controlled and out to show, as it were, that blacks aren't up to doing the job therefore this constant criticism of the government, this constant emphasis on corruption, the constant pointing out of what's going wrong, with not giving due regard to the enormous strides towards democratisation the country has made through the efforts of the majority party in the last two years and that the media are in a sense the enemy. Would you agree with any part of that analysis?
BD I would partly agree with the ANC that it could have perhaps more constructive and sympathetic a media, but then on the other hand ...
POM Sympathetic to?
BD To the government. On the other hand one can't close one's eyes, can one, to opening the newspapers every day and see cases of blatant corruption taking place in this country shortly after a new administration has taken over. Now that is one of the most disquieting, saddening features of this particular time that we are entering now. People are stealing from children's sandwiches, from school feeding money, people are stealing trees, cycads, people are defrauding their different departments, ghost schools are being run where salaries are collected. Thousands of civil servants are getting pay for nothing because they haven't found a place to put them in and generally the moral fibre seems to have taken a knock. We seem to be aping the corrupt rules of the past. They were just as corrupt.
POM When IDASA came out with its poll which indicated that a majority of the people, and that would have to include a majority of blacks, perceived that the present government was more corrupt than the previous government, did that surprise you?
BD No it did not surprise me because from almost day one we have been bombarded with cases of corruption and it's just something that people then came to the conclusion that this is really happening on a massive scale. I dare say that perhaps in the past a lot of these things did not come out. Now with the era of transparency we do find that people are made accountable and so more of this is coming out now. Perceptions is not a scientific thing.
POM Sure, but is it a function of transparency that the more open, again, the more open things are the greater the likelihood the media are going to report on corruption since now there are no constraints against them from doing so, which, again, is one of the hallmarks of a free, open and democratic society. This doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. You're saying that it does exist on a large scale, on a disturbing scale.
BD Yes very disturbing, very disturbing. What doesn't help the situation at all is when somebody is caught with their hands in the till, and I'm making no judgement now, there's a court case, let that court case proceed, but in the case of some of these characters the government was far too quick off the mark to exonerate them. They even appoint a one-woman commission to say that so-and-so was innocent.
POM So do you find it a defensive posture on the part of the ANC with regard to allegations of corruption. Basically they have said these are a result of media allegations, period, as distinct from saying yes we have a real problem here?
BD My point is that if there is corruption it's a criminal act, let the courts decide. It's not for you and me to make a judgement on allegations. Let the court decide. The fact of the matter is that in many cases the evidence was so clear that no leader had the right to intervene and replace the due process of law by their own opinions. You take for instance the Zuma case, Sarafina, her portfolio committee met, in the portfolio committee not one person got up and spoke on her behalf. Patricia proposed a reference to the Public Protector. The DP wanted her to be suspended but the ANC people kept quiet. The next day they passed a unanimous vote of confidence in the Assembly in her. Now that is super-defensive action and it's quite unjustified and now they've got custard all over their face because Zuma says well something went wrong somewhere and OK let's have this investigated.
POM You lived in England for how many years? 29 years?
POM 27 years. Now at least until recently under the English system if a minister was found with - the minister would have the resignation in before the allegation had even hit the news stand. There would be no question but that the minister would resign.
BD Patrick you know the case of Profumo, you know he resigned as a Cabinet minister because he lied to the House of Commons on a question not related to theft or anything like that but to Christine Keeler. Now that man then went into the wilderness. Recently he died, he never went back into public office. He worked in the East End of London. Some of the standards in the House of Commons are pretty high and I suppose I am used to that kind of standard.
POM You had Lord Carrington who resigned when he didn't see that the Argentinean ships were moving in the wrong direction. He said "I take responsibility, I resign."
BD Unfortunately here we have only one case of anybody taking responsibility and resigning, that's Abie Williams of the NP, but at least he did the right thing, he resigned. However, as I say, when you take the mix or the perception that this government is more corrupt than the previous one that perception must also be based on ministers going to the aid of colleagues where in fact it's the duty of the courts to investigate serious allegations. So coming back to the original question, I'm not surprised at all that people have this perception and if this goes on long enough they will find alternatives, they will create alternatives to the present government.
POM Let's get to that in a bit, the question I want to ask you is what alternative is there?
BD At the moment, I would say at the moment the ANC looks pretty secure but I would be less sure about what could happen if we don't attend to the social problems that we have at the moment. They are becoming very desperate. One doesn't know what that kind of situation can throw up.
POM Do you think in that kind of situation you are more likely to see a split in the ANC into whether or not COSATU - one scenario is they might form a workers' party, and you would have the pragmatists and the populists or whatever way you want to go? These are put forth as possible scenarios much more so than the scenario of people turning to the PAC, and again, why is that?
BD Well there are quite a few Africanists in the ANC. When you talk about a split it may or may not happen. There are tensions, but if that split occurs then it will occur on certain political issues that they disagree about. It could come between COSATU and the ANC on the question of privatisation, jobs. It's not inconceivable that the PAC might find itself part of that movement that one should bring about changes even if that movement is substantially ex-ANC dominated. We tried to get together in the Patriotic Front. There is always room for unity.
POM But your problem is that you are dying not growing, I mean in an atmosphere in which you should be flourishing or beginning to flourish.
BD It's too early, it's too early to make any definitive pronouncements on this issue.
POM What do you look to?
BD Eighteen months, two years, is not long for a government to be in power and with the magic of Mandela you've got a winner there. We don't have the equivalent of a Mandela in our ranks and that's a grave weakness.
POM Some people would say, Mr Desai, that you've got nobody in your ranks that has any kind of national prominence, that can articulate a case on behalf of the PAC, that has the visibility, that has any kind of charisma, that is listened to, that can build a constituency even if it's a constituency around personality, that you're just withering on the vine. I suppose that's my concern. It's not that you're not 'catching up to the ANC' it's that you're simply disappearing. I have seen some polls recently that were conducted in KwaZulu/Natal which indicated that for all intents and purposes you will get no vote, not a small vote. No vote. What have the political analysts in the party - are there political analysts in the party who are capable of addressing these questions, the fundamental reorganisation, that something fundamental must happen or else?
BD They are meeting next month, they are having a consultative meeting to make an assessment of where they are going to, what situation is on the ground. So I wouldn't want to pre-judge it, I think you ought to wait and see.
POM What would you like to see happen? Sorry, I'm asking you in this sense, what would you recommend? You're saying, "I've been around this party, I've been around this organisation, this movement from its inception and I, with the wisdom I have accumulated over the years and my analysis and participation in politics both abroad and at home, believe that if the PAC is to survive and grow and thrive and represent the people it must do the following." What must it do?
BD That's a tall order, I can't say.
POM Of course you can't. The difference is between saying you can't and you won't. Maybe more people in the PAC should be talking out? Maybe they should be saying exactly what's on their minds rather than saying we don't want to talk about it.
BD I said to you that they are going to talk about it, they are going to talk about it, they might possibly get somebody else to lead them.
POM Mr Makwetu has to go, right?
BD Well this is what people say.
POM OK. Are you saying it? I'll note for the tape that he's saying it with a smile on his face. Smiles don't translate into words so you're safe. What about the man who led the parade yesterday, Philip Khosana?
BD Philip is still attached with the United Nations Children's Fund I think in Botswana and his contract doesn't expire for another couple of years.
POM But he has said that he is ready to come back to South Africa?
BD He has indicated that he is prepared to come back and when he comes back to play an important role in the leadership of the party.
POM But the UN would release him from his contract, contracts being what they are these days.
BD I think it's something tied up with his pension and all that. He's been there for some time and he has indicated he will come back.
POM What about the young people you are losing like Maxwell? Cause for concern?
BD It's always a cause for concern if we lose anybody. I think that whatever realignment there is, that the PAC is involved in, I think they should get together for example with AZAPO. There is a small grouping but a grouping of sound intellectuals.
POM But sound intellectuals don't fill empty stomachs.
BD With experience and with commitment. No I'm talking about building up the party or building up another group. But you know seriously speaking the way I see things at the moment I see the ANC winning the election, albeit with a reduced majority but being the government for another five years after 1999.
PAT Can I just ask a question related to this, whether it's about winning or losing, obviously I think I would agree with you on winning, but it's the PAC being able to increase it's support base and this last election in November showed, we were in the Eastern Cape, and there is a tremendous amount of just stay at home even already a year and a half later people ...
BD They switched off.
PAT Yes. There were all kinds of stories about how Contralesa kept them home or people didn't know, they came out and they couldn't find their names, they were in the wrong polling station, but people just didn't show up at least our experience in the Transkei, and cannot the PAC tap into, doesn't it need to tap into that alienated, switched-off person?
BD Yes but if I'm right and the PAC is considered a loser then the perception of the voter doesn't augur very well for the PAC. I'm afraid that at the moment the view is that the PAC is probably no match for the ANC. I don't know, given our situation, what can happen between now and 1999. But if I had a bet I would bet that they would win that election as well. They would win that election with a reduced majority. Maybe another grouping would emerge between now and then that could offer opposition to the ANC and differentiate from the ANC on policy matters. At the moment I don't see any such alignment taking place and I don't know whether it will take place by 1999. But politics is not static, it develops and as I say if I had a bet that would be my bet.
POM Letting the PAC off the hook for a minute, do you think the ANC ...?
BD I suppose I could add this, I suppose the PAC's misfortune is because of my ill health.
POM They need more lines like that. That's what they call the perfect thirty second bite. But seriously, do you think the ANC understands democracy or that it confuses majoritarianism with democracy?
BD What are you talking about? What question do you have in mind?
POM The particular question would be, say in Britain the majority party for the most part rules, the party that wins the most votes, yet the system is built, of democracy, on the principle that the majority rule is temporary and that there is a likelihood of the majority changing its mind over time, which the majority over the centuries has consistently shown that it does. When one looks at the composition of politics here it would appear that one party, the ANC unless it breaks up, is going to be the majority party for a very long time to come. Therefore one of the ingredients of democracy, i.e. the reasonable possibility of a change in the party that governs, isn't there so that you stand in danger of becoming a one-party democracy rather than a multi-party pluralistic democracy. But rather than creating room for minority parties to have real influence on policy making the ANC seems to be emphasising more and more that the majority is a majority, the majority is the ruling party and that's the way it is.
BD Yes, but I don't think you can carp over that, I mean the majority party situation. This is a democracy. They are entitled to say, "You've given us a mandate we will act accordingly." As long as they are backed up by the polls that should be sufficient for us. I think that the whole structure of this country and the different ethnic groups in this country has it's own built-in check on whether a party can take this country straight down a one-party authoritarian state. I think that's highly unlikely and I furthermore think that South Africa's western backers wouldn't like the idea.
POM How about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission? My understanding is the PAC opposes it in its present form on the grounds that ...?
BD On the grounds that, look, I introduced the resolution. This was a final resolution of the interim constitution, final session when this amnesty thing was brought to the fore. They knew what they were doing and we objected to it on the basis that it's letting off people scot free. Confess, tell the truth and as the Chilean President said "turn the page". Now I think the crimes that have been committed in this country are too heinous to allow people to get away with that kind of thing. They would be emasculating the de-nazification process that must take place in this country. People who have committed crimes, and I am speaking now as a lawyer, must face the due process of law. Evidence must be produced and they must stand trial. That's simply our position. I think the Truth Commission is going to find enormous difficulty and it's going to create enormous dissatisfaction amongst people who were the victims who really feel their rights are being curtailed. In fact there is talk about going to the Constitutional Court on whether the Reconciliation Commission in fact does not interfere with basic rights of the rule of law and due process. The Biko family for example, they are not prepared to accept the Truth Commission. The Mxenge family, Griffiths, not prepared to accept it. They want a trial. They say trial, if they are found guilty sentence them, if they are sentenced and the President wants to give amnesty let him do so. If he wants to pardon them let him do so but this process must go through the courts of law.
POM Finally, and this involved due process too, what if General Malan and the other generals are found innocent, what message will that send to the black community?
BD It's a difficult one, that's a difficult one. I would hope that they are mature and sophisticated enough to accept that due process of law having taken place and that the man is acquitted must be accepted as part of the system under which they live. I might be wrong.
POM Would that be the PAC view?
BD We will have to accept the verdict of the courts. You can't say arrest these guys, try them and if you find them not guilty we're not going to accept the verdict.
POM What would the people say?
BD People will be persuaded to accept the verdict, otherwise the system breaks down.
POM Do you think black people, the mass of black people would accept that this was a fair verdict or that it was really one more verdict of what was essentially an apartheid court system?
BD You're asking me to speculate now on this question. I don't think it's a good exercise. But speaking on the logic of the whole thing, you as a party say put these guys on trial but please find them guilty. Well that's nonsense.
POM OK. Thank you. Thank you very much. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.