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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
09 Apr 1996: Meer, Fatima
POM Professor, the last time I talked to you was before the elections took place in April 1994. If you had to give your assessment of what's changed in South Africa prior to 1994 and what's changed in the last two years what specifically would you point to as being the major points of comparison and contrast?
FM The major point I would say is the new sense of self that you see projected in the black communities particularly among the African people. That sense was not there before. African people do not any longer feel a sense of inferiority, they have conquered that almost miraculously overnight. We also find that white people generally are far more subdued and they have done away with their previous arrogance of being white and therefore on top of things. I think that's the major change. It's sort of a psychological change.
POM What I will do is I will read to you a number of statements and then you just give me your reaction to them as briefly as possible, it might be the quickest way to cover a lot of ground. It's two years after the change over to the government of national unity which is really the ANC-dominated government of national unity and yet the five major conglomerates still control over 80% of the capitalisation on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
FM Yes the ANC has not come up with any new kind of economic dispensation. Right until very recently they took over the establishment people to head their finance ministries. Even now the new man that they have put at the head of finance is quite conservative and is not going to rock the boat at all. So from that point of view one would have expected nothing to have happened economically. What they have really been trying to pursue is a black presence in the governmental structures.
POM The poor are as poor as they ever were whether you pick 1994, 1992, 1990 or 1996. There has been no significant redistribution in the distribution of income.
FM That is quite correct. The only difference you might say is that whereas in the past under apartheid the poor felt that their conditions would never improve, the poor today still hold on to the hope that now with their own government in position their situation will change.
POM The rich are as rich as they ever were.
FM The rich are as rich as they ever were except, of course, that you now have quite an observable strata of blacks who are also rich.
POM Well they are part of the new black entrepreneurial and business elite.
FM Mainly. You see the Afrikaners when they came into power they drew in a whole lot of Afrikaners into the civil service or into government positions and most of your blacks who now make up the upper rung of our society are also in the civil service or in government.
POM Unemployment is going up rather than down.
FM Unemployment is going up rather than down.
POM Isn't this the key, the yardstick by which any new government must be judged?
FM Well you see we continue to say that two years is too little and one must bear in mind that this new government came into power with a tremendous handicap. They have had to cope with this enormous backlog. They have been busy developing new policies and I think their main initial trust has been to eliminate apartheid in all institutions and in all structures of the country and they are proceeding with this fairly well, fairly adequately. Where they have made gains they have been in the health sphere and in the education sphere, not in that they have increased the educational standards of the people or improved the health condition of the people, because that is still too soon to happen, but at least they have begun to lay the structures which will expand, extend education to the blacks far more extensively than before and health facilities are now being available on a far more extended basis to black communities particularly in the rural areas.
POM Corporate profits are soaring but they are not being translated into jobs. What are they being translated into? Larger dividends for stockholders or firms ploughing back?
FM You see this government has not - there was an expectation that this government would come in with a socialist programme. It has not done so. As the government of national unity it is working within the parameters of the old economic order. Private enterprise has been left fairly untouched so obviously you're not going to find any changes there.
POM Do you expect that to change in the short to medium term future?
FM Private enterprise?
POM Or the role of private enterprise in the economy.
FM Private enterprise has to become more responsive. I would say that private enterprise has begun to become marginally more responsive ever since 1976 so even with the old regime there was this sort of trend. Unfortunately I cannot see any new kind of pressure on private enterprise to be more responsive apart from the pressure to be observably co-operating with affirmative action and taking in more blacks into management.
POM The foreign confidence in South Africa despite all that is said really extends as far the state of Mandela's health.
FM Do you think so? We get the impression that it's improving. We're getting a lot more trade coming in. Tourism is improving.
POM I mean the speculation against the rand in the wake of Trevor Manuel's appointment as Finance Minister.
FM It didn't make any difference to the value of the rand when Mr Mandela stepped out of the hospital with a clean bill of health. It made no difference. I don't really know whether the continuing low value of the rand is in fact connected with the fact that we now have Trevor Manuel as the Finance Minister. It's really much too soon to be able to conjecture on that point. I really do not think it's got anything to do with the fact that Trevor Manuel is there because it started dropping even before that.
POM How about the housing situation? The record has been dismal.
FM The housing situation hasn't improved at all. I think the people in charge of housing, people who made promises of more houses in a short period of time I think that they generally have fallen flat on their faces. There has not been the kind of delivery that we had expected.
POM Again, how much time does the government have before there will be a measurable backlash against the inability to deliver.
FM Well let's put it this way. It took the black people, I would say the Nationalist government came into power in 1949, it wasn't until 1960 that you really had a backlash so it took, what? Nine years. And it was not for another, 1960 to 1976, it gives you another 16 years before there was really a concerted pressure against the government. So our people seem to be rather patient. They will probably give them more time than most people anticipate.
POM How about the corruption? Again, the public perception of corruption seems to be that there is more corruption than ever. There was that famous, now infamous, IDASA poll that was conducted some months ago that indicated that a majority of respondents believed that the present government was more corrupt than the previous government.
FM Oh I haven't seen that poll so I cannot comment on it. I don't think that is a perception of people that I see around myself. The Nationalist government had become exceedingly corrupt. I don't think it is possible for this government to match anything near that corruption. So even if IDASA came up with the finding that people think that this government is more corrupt than the other I wouldn't accept that finding.
POM Do you think that creeping corruption is a problem or that it's something that must be very closely watched?
FM There is not a sense of corruption. I think that it takes time for legislators to become corrupt. I am not saying that they are less vulnerable to corruption, the present government, but at the moment we don't have a sense of a corrupt government.
POM The Makgoba affair. What does it say about the state of race relations?
FM You mean the Professor at Wits? Well what it said was that the liberal white establishment was not quite ready to accept black colleagues. That's what it said.
POM But if he had in fact made real representations on his CV should that not be sufficient reason for him to step down?
FM It was such a confused affair. The allegations of incorrect representations, they were not really on very serious points in any case. Professor Makgoba who happens to be a graduate of the University of Natal has a very high standing among the professors at this university generally. He is regarded as a man of tremendous academic competence. So I think needling him in the way that they did that was wrong and I think that is generally recognised to have been wrong. Then, of course, he came up with dirt against the others and the whole debacle there was very unsavoury. It oughtn't to have happened.
POM But do you think a Commission of Enquiry should not proceed so it can be clearly established one way or the other?
FM I think that has already, they have already.
POM But it was full of phrases like him agreeing that there were phrases in his CV that lent themselves to misunderstanding. That means nothing, it doesn't clear the air.
FM I agree it's nothing but you must understand that ours is very much a situation of reconciliation. We don't want to exacerbate conflict. If there is a conflict the general tendency in government and in institutions is to try and allay that conflict rather than exacerbate the conflict.
POM What in your view accounts for the acrimony that seems to exist between the ANC and what would be called white liberals?
FM Is there an acrimony?
POM Well there appears to be.
FM I think what has really happened is this, that the white liberals were our main white allies throughout the freedom struggle but when it came to structuring the new government and it being a government of national unity, the whites that stepped into government were whites who were formerly in parliament already. In other words they were people who had come to terms with apartheid or who were themselves the perpetrators of apartheid with the result that your liberals were left out and there is a feeling of grievance on the part of white liberals.
POM That they have been left out of the process?
FM Yes they ought to have been there, they deserve to be there and today now instead of them being there, and they fought against the Nats, they fought for democracy, they find that the Nats are still very much in the saddle.
POM The turnout in the local elections last year, even though the ANC say they were a phenomenal success, that the reports in the media of there being voter apathy were proved incorrect, when one looks at the figures one finds that just 38% of eligible voters actually voted and since this was the first occasion on which black people actually had the opportunity to vote for black people rather than for black parties, 38% can hardly be called a ringing endorsement of the democratic process.
FM Well I suppose they came out in great numbers when it came to electing the new government and perhaps there was not the same interest in electing your local government. That is all I can say, if your figure of 38% is correct.
POM What do you expect in KwaZulu/Natal in May?
FM I wouldn't expect anything more than that. I wouldn't expect the KwaZulu elections to be any more, any higher in percentage than the other elections.
POM Will they be free and fair in terms of parties having access to all areas or will they be severely constrained by the no-go policies that appear to be in operation by both parties?
FM That will influence the elections no doubt. Look, you haven't got those no-go areas in the other parts of the country and you have said that the election turnout was only 38% so you will get the same sort of situation here as well. If there's a lethargy about local elections, and I would think that it sweeps right through the country no-go area or not no-go area, we cannot in KwaZulu/Natal turn round if we get 38% and say, "Oh we would have had higher polls but for the no-go areas."
POM Would it surprise you if - recent surveys, I'm sure you've had access to more of them than I have, but the ones that I've had access to indicate a severe alienation in KwaZulu/Natal not only with the central government but an even greater alienation with the provincial government and that this alienation extends to supporters of both the ANC and the IFP.
FM I have not had access to the surveys that you are talking about so I must plead myself ignorant on this issue. Let's put it this way, what I would say is this, that the romance with the new government, the honeymoon is over, people are not as excited as they were when the new government was first established.
POM What does that say for the development of sustainable democracy in the country?
FM I don't think democracy is going to suffer. I think that the only form of government that this country knows and the only form of government that people in this country want is democratic. So I don't think that the form of government is going to change. I don't see any great tyrant on the horizon who is going to swing this country into some kind of a one-party tyranny. I don't see that at all.
POM But you can easily move to the point of having a one-party, well it is for all intents and purposes a one-party state as distinct from a one-party tyranny.
FM Well you see, would you say India is less democratic because it has continued with a few brief interruptions to have the one party in government? I wouldn't say so, maybe you would. You might have the ANC continuing to be in government for the next election.
POM What about structures of provincial and local government?
FM You mean the civil service? Well there too you will find that the white composition of that civil service is already on the decline. It's on the decline throughout the country in all structures of government.
POM There is almost an inevitable clash coming up between the trade unions and the government on issues whether it's on privatisation or on wage structures.
FM I don't think there is an inevitable clash that is coming on. I think that the trade union movement has been seen and has been defined as an ally of the government and right now I don't see a shift in that position. There may be criticisms but on the whole the trade union is very supportive of the government.
POM You don't see at any point the inevitability of a dissolution of the ANC alliance?
FM Well I don't know. Oh, that alliance? Yes, but even if there is there is probably already a dissolution of that alliance. But, look, in America you didn't have a clash between labour and government, nor do you have a clash between labour and government in Britain or any significant clash between labour and government in any part of Europe or in India. So I don't see an inevitability of a clash. There may be differences, there will be negotiations. That will be inevitable.
POM But you have this movement towards open markets, towards the end of protectionism, towards opening the country up to imports from lower, not just cost-producing, but lower wage producing countries where the issue of wages of sweat labour, in countries like Malaysia versus relatively high wage structures here relative to the level of development are becoming an issue.
FM Are our wage structures any lower than that of Malaysia?
POM The wage structures are much higher.
FM I mean are the Malaysian wage structures lower than ours?
POM The level of wages, yes.
FM I don't think so. I think you will have to look into that very carefully. We have been putting up these factories in the so-called rural areas and the homelands and so on, we've been operating on pretty low wage structures ourselves. Ultimately it is a question of whether there is sufficient employment or not but unfortunately, or for the government fortunately, the unemployed are not organised so in a sense those who are in employment they are already a privileged sector of the working class and they will be able to continue to protect their positions. But it is when the unemployed rise in protest ...
(The rest of this interview was unintelligible.)