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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
16 Apr 1996: Meiring, Kobus
POM. You were just saying, Mr Meiring, going back to White Plains in 1987?
KM. That's, Padraig, where I first met you. I was then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the national government of South Africa. My minister was then Pik Botha. He called me towards the middle of - and I'm not sure whether that was 1988 or 1987, I think it was either 1987 or 1988.
KM. Was it? Yes I think that's right. And Pik said to me that Professor Sethi of the University of New York was arranging this conference on South Africa in the post-apartheid era. Very interesting that he arranged this in 1987. OK, you were there, I was there, many people from all over the world came, many South Africans were there. In any case when this invitation came to the South African government to send somebody, Pik Botha took this to Cabinet and they said, OK your Deputy Minister can go but, they said, do remember one thing and that is that we have a fixed rule and that is that a member of the Executive does not appear on the same stage as the ANC. You remember those days?
POM. I sure do.
KM. OK. Professor Sethi said, no, that will not happen, so Meiring will go. That was arranged. A couple of months later there appeared in the local papers the preliminary agenda of what was going to happen there and there was my photo and next to it was the photo of a certain Mr Thabo Mbeki who was also to appear. So there was a bit of a problem. Pik Botha said to me, "Well, I'm very sorry under those circumstances you can't go." He took it to Cabinet and Cabinet said under no circumstances can Meiring go because Thabo Mbeki will be there. The department informed Professor Sethi, Professor Sethi said, "No, but look there must be somebody from the South African government. Under those circumstances I am going to cancel the invitation to Mr Thabo Mbeki", which he duly did. So my friend Thabo Mbeki was scrapped from the agenda for White Plains.
. Then, Padraig, you may vaguely remember that the first evening of that conference was addressed by Mr. Solarsh, a member of the United States Congress, and he has always been a sanction-driver against South Africa. He was very sharp that evening. I remember my wife and I sitting at the same table at dinner that evening. The next morning the breakfast was addressed by Zach de Beer but there was a big row because it then became known that certain other South Africans were not granted passports and did not turn up. They were Professor Fatima Meer and another man called Mr Cyril Ramaphosa. So all of a sudden on that first morning there was a big debate on whether this whole thing should continue under the circumstances. The argument was that we are now talking about a South Africa in the post-apartheid era and here we have a situation where some of the most important players in the future South Africa are not allowed to be here and one after the other speaker was adamant, "Let's cancel this whole thing and go home", and I must say I was standing right at the back, my wife and I, and we just heard about this commotion that was going on and we looked in and this was the story. So somebody said, "But look there is a representative of the South African government here, why can't he come and explain what's happening?"
. So, Padraig, I was new in my job, here I was called on to tell the whole conference the reason why Cyril Ramaphosa is not there. As I walked to that podium I thought, well I really don't know what to say, I think the only thing is to be honest and frank and I said, "Listen I am the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Foreign Affairs does not issue passports. I find it very sad that this happened but please I am not responsible for this. But, we are all here now, I came 10,000 miles and so did all the other South Africans who are here, we are all here, please can't we make the best of it and let's continue." And fortunately that was agreed to. But I'm telling you this little anecdote to say to you that in the meantime Thabo Mbeki and I, and Cyril Ramaphosa and I, have become quite good friends and every time that Thabo sees me he says, "But you're the bugger who kept me from White Plains." Now wasn't that amazing? But so much water has gone under the bridge.
POM. That's less than ten years ago, less than ten years.
KM. Yes that is less than ten years ago, it's nine years ago. And if anybody at that stage said that three years later, barely three years later, because this was in October 1987, in fact two and a half years later, F W de Klerk would get up and announce the unbanning of the ANC and of the Communist Party, in fact announcing the scrapping of apartheid, announcing a new South Africa, I don't think anybody would have believed that. Some of us might have vaguely hoped for this. And that is two and a half years later, but if anybody would have thought that six and a half years later President Mandela would be the President of South Africa, that was just amazing. That's part of the political miracle in this country that we all talk about. I was very lucky to have experienced it and to have been part of it, in a very, very small part I must immediately say.
POM. When you were Administrator here and when you look at today, even though this is still a National Party controlled province, what do you see as the biggest change for blacks and for whites and how you experience it on a day to day basis?
KM. Padraig, I always thought that in my five years as Administrator of the Cape Province, that was from 1989 to 1994, so it was eight months before the famous speech, and it ended coinciding with the new government taking control. I must say I really went out of my way in those years to try and build a new understanding between the races but the one thing that was outstanding for me was that I was, I realised especially towards the end of my term, that you were in fact a lame duck government, you couldn't do anything because the other side just said, "Let's wait until the new dispensation." While in the new dispensation, although the NP is in this province still in control, I can see the value of a government of in our case now not national unity but regional unity and I think we have achieved many things in the province that would not have been possible under the old dispensation and that would not have been possible if we did not have a government of regional unity.
POM. So for all the disputes about demarcation of boundaries and the holding of local elections, the NP and the ANC really work together very tightly?
KM. Absolutely. I am very positive. Look, you certainly have your ups and downs and to be totally frank at the moment we are having a bit of a down and you can understand that because there is a local election coming in a month and a half. So perhaps the co-operation at this very moment is not what it should be, although yesterday afternoon we had a long session on the RDP under the chairmanship of Chris Nissen. That committee, it's a Cabinet Committee, it consists of three ANCs, three NPs, he is the chairman. We debated certain points of procedure but apart from that, and that was done in a very friendly atmosphere, we are doing extremely well. Tomorrow morning we have a special Cabinet meeting to decide on the province's point of view as far as the Olympics are concerned. There is absolutely no question of any differences between us and the ANC but if this was a 100% NP government you couldn't have done it because you would never then have brought the other party in.
. So if I can summarise, for me the biggest advantage of the new dispensation is the fact that it forced negotiation on us and that is working brilliantly. I don't have to tell you that you needn't always believe what the press says. They will naturally take the sensation out of any story and blow it up. I would say on a scale of nought to ten on how we co-operate within the province between the parties, I would say it is 90% really. So that for me is the biggest difference between what's happening now and what happened five years ago.
POM. If you can tell me one thing, and this is because of my lack of technical knowledge of how the budget works, that is do you get an allocation from the central government and then within that allocation do you have to make your priorities and your own allocations? What happens in the case if you exceed your budget, what happens if you don't spend it all? Just how does that process work in terms of the devolution of money?
KM. OK, now you enter a subject that we can talk about all day, but let me try and give it to you as briefly as possible. We sincerely believe that the solution for South Africa is in a more strongly structured federal system, also financially. That would then mean that central government will give each province a certain allocation of X million and that you then, within that allocation, have to do your job. For that reason central government appointed a year ago under the chairmanship of Murphy Morobe a committee called the Financial & Fiscal Commission. They sat down for the past year and decided how best to divide the resources of South Africa between the provinces. They said, well, at least one thing we have to do and that is we have to try to get to equity. In a country like South Africa where you have the haves and the have-nots, the developed, the under-developed sides, you have to eventually get to a point where government spends an equal amount on you and on me and on the man living in Khayelitsha.
. Now to achieve equity is very difficult. They then went and made certain calculations and they said the Western Cape, probably as a result of its history, it is a long existing province, it has a high infrastructure and so on, a good infrastructure, their per capita expenditure at the moment is way above the average while a province like the Northern Province, the old Northern Transvaal, Eastern Cape, as a result of the fact that they were far away and so on, their per capita spending is way below the average. So they said we've got to try within the next five years to try to get to equity.
. At the moment that is what we're heading for. At the moment it works a little differently. Education nationally would get a certain figure, for argument's sake thirty billion. National government would say we've got to spend thirty billion on education. Education would then form a Function Committee with representatives from each province with the central department and they would divide that cake and the Western Cape would then get three billion for education. The same thing would happen with health, the same thing would happen with roads, agriculture, nature conservation, etc., etc., and then eventually I, as Minister of Finance, would then have to put together all these segments and then say this is now our budget. But this is to be phased out. This system is to be phased out.
POM. You at the province won't have any control over - like education itself is done centrally, health is done centrally, roads are done centrally?
KM. Quite so.
POM. So what do you get? Is there a residual that you get to allocate the way you want to?
KM. No, you are perfectly correct and that was our argument, that we are totally dependent for demarcated sections of the budget for certain departments. So what I've been doing over the past two years was really not much more than administrating that money that was channelled down to us. But in the new dispensation, in terms of this FFC report, it will work differently. Central government will say you don't get three billion for this, two billion for that and so on, they will just say you get ten billion and then it will be up to us to divide that, to make our own priorities and to decide how best to spend that money. Now we welcome that because we see that as a step towards greater autonomy and call it bigger federalism, so we welcome that. We have certain arguments against it, we say the time is too little, the time is too short.
POM. The time in terms of?
KM. Of getting to equity. Because of the fact that we are way above the medium we are the province that is going to be affected most. In fact at the moment our share of the total budget for the provinces amounts to 11.5%, it will probably come down to about 8% which is going to be very difficult for us although the point is we will just have to grow slower than the other provinces. But just to get back to another point, at the moment and for the foreseeable future we will be dependent, provinces generally will be dependent to central government for 95%-96% of its total budget. Now the reason for that, contrary to how it works in certain other federal countries, every cent that I pay in income tax goes directly to the central fiscus, every cent that a company pays in income tax, in company tax, any cent that is paid in VAT, every cent paid by the mines, everything goes to a central fiscus and they then apportion it to the provinces. My only source of income for the province is from certain smaller things like motor vehicle licences, payment for services at hospitals.
POM. Where do gambling casinos fit in?
KM. You ask about gambling, that was one of my hopes that gambling would be the goose that lays the golden egg for the provinces, but the longer we think of it and the nearer it comes to putting it into practice we realise it's not going to be such a wonderful nest egg. The money involved is relatively small and there is another problem, the constitution, interim constitution and probably the final one too, says that the casinos are a Schedule 6, new constitution Schedule 5 function, so the income should come to the province. But there is a qualification.
POM. The income should come to the province? OK.
KM. But there is a qualification. It says, but VAT is still payable to central government. Now our problem is, and everybody realises that, that if you tax a casino with company tax, normal company tax, if you tax it with VAT which everybody will also pay, then there's very little scope for the province to additionally tax that casino otherwise you are going to kill it. So we have been not fighting but arguing with central government that the VAT on casinos should in fact come to the provinces. Now there is still uncertainty on that. If we can achieve that that will certainly help us.
POM. How about tourism? Do you have any - ?
KM. Tourism is a wild card in the pack. Tourism in the Western Cape has the potential of the sky. I read the other day that Spain has a tourist figure of 40 million per annum. Now Spain's population is much less than South Africa's, it's a much smaller country. Naturally it is well situated right in the middle of Europe. Our tourist figure is only 750,000 for South Africa. It's negligible.
KM. Per annum.
POM. That's 750,000 - ?
KM. People touring South Africa, compared to 40 million in Spain. In the Western Cape alone we believe that we have a fantastic potential for tourism. The boycotts are gone, the sanctions are gone, people are now welcome to come to South Africa, they are interested, they want to see what's happening here. We have a problem as your arm represents, that we have too much violence. Fortunately in the Western Cape it is much less but we have our cases although you have it probably all over the world, but if we can stamp that out the Western Cape can really become a tourist paradise. But then we will have to go out of our way to make it possible for these people to come and for that reason at the moment there are thirty hotels on the drawing board in the Cape alone. If we can get the Olympics that will give a wonderful boost to tourism in the Western Cape.
. You have your small problems. I am involved with Table Mountain, that's part of my responsibility under Nature Conservation. The company that runs the cableway wants to upgrade it. They need the permission of the Cape Town City Council; they gave it. They need the permission of the Western Cape government; we gave it under certain conditions. They also need the permission of the National Monuments Council and the National Monuments Council said, OK in principle you can do it but you cannot start before you do this and this and this and this. Now that as far as I am concerned is the wrong procedure. If you want to get the world to come and see South Africa you cannot expect a tourist to stand at the lower Cable Station and wait for seven hours.
POM. I've stood there so I know what you're saying.
KM. So for that reason, I mean I am responsible for Nature Conservation, but I'm a realist and I hope to be a balanced person and I want to balance development and conservation and I'm a little sick and tired of being bullied by ultra-conservationists into a certain direction. In any case I'm a little bit off the point I think. You asked me about the budget.
POM. Yes, would you have any capacity to impose a local tax on tourists?
KM. The new constitution allows a province to impose its own taxes.
POM. It does?
KM. It also allows a province to borrow money but although the constitution says that it still requires legislation from parliament and up to this point parliament has not acceded to that request so at the moment we are not quite there. You are quite right, it is certainly a way to increase the finances of the province if you could say every person who comes into the Cape will have to pay ten rand at the airport, just as an example. Everybody who stays in a Cape hotel must pay one rand per night or something, I'm just thinking aloud. We're not there yet. I jokingly say that it is so nice to live in the Cape, people would probably not mind paying an extra one percent on their income tax, although if you say that to any person he will probably get a heart attack or something. We are not in a position to borrow money at the moment.
POM. Could you impose, under the way the new constitution is developing, could you impose an income tax?
KM. We would be able to put a surcharge on income tax, a surcharge on VAT for instance. Whether we would ever do that is questionable because you don't want to chase people away. We want rather to get more industrialists to come to Cape Town to create more employment and things like that, so you've got to be very careful before you do that sort of thing. The other question is then if you are short on your budget how do you make it up? I was short, our financial year ends end of March, I can tell you by the middle of February we were heading for a deficit of a billion just on the Cape budget and we were desperately worried about that, and that was the figure that I warned a year ago that we would be heading for so it was not a case of malfunction. I think it showed that we applied financial discipline, we knew exactly where we were standing. But then as a result of the fact that we are dependent to the tune of 96% on central government you cannot borrow yet, you cannot impose taxes yet, so the only solution was to really go back to national government and convince them that they under-funded us.
. Now I think that what happened in the past month or two shows to me how good this government of national unity is working. Here comes a province which is governed by the National Party, or controlled by the National Party, it's got to come to the fiscus of a national government controlled by the ANC with its hat in its hand and saying, look you must help us, we are 500 million short on education, we are 400 million short on health, we have no way of making up that balance. They could have said, "That's your picnic, you will just have to start the new year with a deficit of a billion and the next year with a deficit of - eventually you will be bankrupt." But we managed to convince Treasury that we really did our best but under the circumstances we just simply couldn't make it, and eventually after many, many debates, friendly debates I must say, they gave us the money and we finished our financial year with a nil balance. But it is not a healthy situation to have to go back to central government every year to beg.
POM. Cap in hand.
KM. Yes. So from next year this Financial and Fiscal Commission, if their recommendations are put into practice, we will know by the beginning of the year that your budget is X amount and you have got to cope with that.
POM. That's beginning next financial year?
KM. It will probably only start in 1998. But now can I give you an anecdote that is absolutely fresh from the oven and that is the problem with education in the Western Cape. As a result of history our teacher/pupil ratio in the Cape is much more positive, lower than the average for the country. This FFC when they looked at education said we have to work towards a ratio of one teacher to 35 high school children and one teacher to 40 primary school children eventually, hopefully by the end of the century. Our position is about 1:23 and 1:25, so you can imagine to get to 1:35, 1:40, you have got to get rid of a number of teachers and we then already for the past nine months warned that we will have to get rid of 6000 teachers as soon as possible to help us to get to that ratio. Now how do you get rid of 6000 teachers? You can either re-deploy them but it is no use redeploying them within your province because then they are still in your books, still part of your budget. You have got to re-deploy them to other provinces where the situation is much worse. But now the practical problem is 50% of our teachers in the Western Cape are married women. Can you then, my daughter is in that position, can you say to that teacher pick up your goods and go to Butterworth in the Eastern Cape and go and teach there? It is not practical and there is a further problem that up to now if a teacher applies to teach at school A and he gets the job, there's really a contract between that teacher and the Education Department to teach at that school and the department cannot then take you by the scruff of your neck and put you a thousand miles from here. So we have been saying we will naturally try that, but to be practical we will probably have to retrench 6000 teachers.
POM. There's no way that you can re-deploy within say - let's just say an advantaged area where the pupil ratio is quite low to say Khayelitsha where you might have one to - ?
KM. That is possible, but as I explained to you both the teacher in Khayelitsha and the teacher in Bellville, both of them are paid from my budget so if you're taking from A to B within the same province he's still part of your budget and that's not going to solve your financial problem. And I must also say that the position in the black schools in the Western Cape is not that out of the ratio that requires urgent type of attention. There is a further problem. It is a complex country as you now know after ten years, it is a question of whether that black school in Khayelitsha would in fact want a white teacher from Bellville to come and teach there.
. But that is not the real problem. My problem is the financial problem. We then said we will have to get rid of 6000 teachers, the teachers' unions debated this, eventually they agreed to this under certain circumstances, they said they must be retained until the end of the year. The latest is that Mr Mandela said over the weekend again, "There is no such thing as retrenchment of teachers, they will have to be redeployed", and that really creates a problem. Can you really expect that teacher from town A in the Western Cape to pack his goods and go and teach in another province? So that is one of our big immediate problems.
. Another longer term problem is how do you downgrade standards? How do you downgrade standards? We have the best ratio, as I told you, but that ratio has a direct impact on standards and I can tell you now that last year was in fact the first time in the history of South Africa where every matric pupil wrote the same exam, and the Western Cape's results were by far the best in the country and we were very grateful for that, but I said to our people, "Please don't boast about it, it is a direct result of our privileged position." Now the question is in a country in transformation how do you downgrade or right-size personnel which has a direct effect on standards? Now that is a subject that I would like to talk to you again in a year's time to see how that develops.
POM. Six months.
KM. Six months.
POM. OK, thank you as always.