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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
30 Apr 1996: Coetsee, Kobie
KC. Well it was in July 1989 that I delivered the major speech at the Federal Congress of the National Party and that's where I then referred to the fact that the world is embracing the view that there are, apart from nations, also groups within a nation that consider themselves entitled to certain rights which hitherto have not been recognised as rights that could be enforced at law. I also pointed out at the time that the Law Commission brought out the report that there is no such thing as a group right in law but in politics there was a development world-wide to recognise the group interest and that it's always been accepted in law that minorities should be protected in its minutest form, being the individual form. But apart from that in the political world as far back as 1989 it was already clear that the United Nations and some of the countries who had opted for a collective political environment had been recognising that such a collective political environment could only succeed if they still continued to recognise the characteristics, linguistic, religious, the traits of smaller collective groups even within nations, and the United Nations have adopted a declaration to that effect. As a matter of fact I think it was in 1992 that it was the Year of Minorities in the United Nations. At the time, in July 1989, I said I am looking forward to the day that Mr de Klerk would be leading South Africa at the United Nations at this conference for minority and group rights.
. I'm just giving it to you, it was then for a long time National Party policy to have it in the Bill of Rights, to have it as such very clearly stipulated. For negotiation purposes this started then to be reflected in a separate manner, separate versions were developed. Or rather separate articles were used to say the same, such as, for instance, linguistic and religious rights, educational rights and the culmination of this all would then recognise the collective rights of people, or rather the collective interest of many individuals being the same, became in politics a collective position. The question was whether this would also be reflected in law so that groups could enforce this.
. The interesting thing which I have pointed out ever since I became involved in trying to find this settlement in South Africa and my attitude all the time was that we will have to address the fears of people and Mr Mandela would have to make it his main business too to address the fears of people. But how do you address fears of people just by uttering words? You have to offer them something else. But in pursuance of this concept we came across a development in the United States of which you should be aware, that in company law for instance there is already recognised the enforcement of a collective right where a group of people in a company would stand together and exercise class action. My understanding was that this legal figure at law was then already being used in society, class action, and what legally was contemplated, what progress has been since then I'm not sure but the fact is that I believe that we were then witnessing a development world-wide that would affect South Africa and I waited very patiently for the time that we had to recognise that as one of the key elements in creating peace and stability in this country and bring assurances to people who have unnecessary fears.
POM. For example in the United States the right of Hispanic communities to have the education of their children conducted in Spanish is taken as a given.
KC. It's now taken as given?
POM. As a given.
KC. And no-one will dare to take it away?
POM. No-one will dare to take it away. It's now a right, cultural or multi-cultural rights are in fact the in thing.
KC. It's a sensible thing to do. In the United States of course it could be a consideration that pursuing that policy, or allowing that to happen, may have the effect of Hispanics replacing eventually the English speaking world. Some people believe that this could happen as early as the beginning of the next century.
POM. That's right. Well in some states it's already happened, in California and New Mexico, the states bordering Mexico.
KC. So some politicians would then consider intervening and trying to redirect the course of history. But that's for the Americans to say. The fact is that this is a phenomenon that you can't ignore, but I'm just addressing now the phenomenon, I'm not addressing the political side, I'm not expressing a political opinion. All I'm saying to you is that the National Party has been in that position ever since the eighties and it culminated in July 1989 when we adopted that as policy. It did not reflect 100% the position of the National Party in the Bill of Rights as we adopted it in the interim constitution and I am not trying to say that it will be 100% reflected in the new constitution.
POM. But it's reflected to a greater extent.
KC. All I am saying is that it's reflected in a much more articulate, nice bill than before.
POM. I found that one of the interesting things to follow, that initially the ANC saw any mention of group rights as almost being synonymous with racism or trying to maintain the privilege of the past and that it's only the last year or two that you see an actual movement on their behalf to recognise that education and mother tongue ...
KC. Linguistic and cultural rights are given rights. No, as I say, one should not gloat about it because you haven't created it, it's just a question of political parties becoming amenable to already existing situations and recognising reality. For instance, within the ranks of the ANC there are many Muslim people and the Muslim leadership have been pressing for recognition of their cultural and religious position. As a matter of fact they are not, up to a certain point they weren't satisfied with that. When you came in I was discussing a feature of one of our committees on this issue and I am not surprised, I am not even gloating about the situation because I was taken to task, if you turn up the records you will find that I was taken to task by no less a person than Alistair Sparks in the closing sentence of a certain chapter that ironically I became the one that was not satisfied with the outcome of the constitution. This was the very issue. There were several issues but this was one of the major issues, the one element that we needed to ensure stability in this country was still lacking.
POM. The one element that you needed to ensure stability was?
KC. Recognition of the group situation, a much clearer definition and the recognition of that. That was one of the major issues, if not the major issue, because I said there were enough examples in the world to follow. But I had plenty of trouble within my own circles because when I started to pursue this much stronger because I was handling the Bill of Rights on behalf of the National Party government at the time, and you know we published it as well, you will recall that there were allegedly differences within the ranks of the NP singling out myself and a couple of other people, but this was one of the issues, if not the major issue.
POM. You see that now reflecting itself in the whole debate about language?
KC. Language and culture and religion. I am very satisfied.
POM. If you take the Afrikaners it seems to me that broadly they have moved away from the idea of a volkstaat but that the issue of language has become the badge of their identity.
KC. That does not mean that all their fears have been allayed but what it does mean is that mechanisms have been created and will be created within which they can operate to protect their interests. Many people would say this is a compromise but it's not a compromise, this is sensible politics and constitutionalism because how can they survive with a language but nothing else outside the South African constitution? You tell me. Do you know of any such possibility, that they could have survived as a volkstaat just on the basis of an own language? There is no such basis. Agreed? However, the most sensible thing that they have done is opting for working with the constitution and they have exchanged this ideal of theirs which could never have been realised without complete destruction of themselves and whatever they stood for.
POM. When you were involved in the whole process of negotiations since 1985, did you find it a problem that whenever you would put proposals on the table that they were invariably looked at by the ANC as mechanisms that somehow were designed to ensure the perpetuation of apartheid?
KC. Are you talking of myself or my party?
POM. Your party.
KC. Well yes, for instance when the NP decided to embrace the concept or the notion of a written Bill of Rights there were voices within the ANC saying they are now doing this in order to protect themselves in the future. Yes, there were such voices. If we draw that line through to the present day situation the interesting thing, of course, is that there are voices now within the ANC propagating a lesser degree of transparency, propagating a lesser degree of separation of powers, a lesser degree of complete autonomy for parliament as opposed to the executive. There are parliamentarians who talk to me and say they observe also a lesser degree of enthusiasm on the part of very important ANC spokespersons on the topic of independence of the judiciary. I haven't detected that myself yet but some people think they have.
POM. Do you think that the ANC enjoying such a huge majority in parliament with the prospect that in the run up to the next election many of the smaller parties will fade from the scene, like the PAC?
KC. It all depends on the question whether the final constitution will in fact entrench democracy, meaning party politics, because you know and I know that one of the most important features and by-products of democracy is that the opposition parties whether they be big or small be in a position to oppose government and parliament is a bridge between government and opposition politics. Would you agree with that statement? Because if you don't have such a bridge in an open and transparent manner that would then be very fertile ground for subversion and underground activities. But parliament is there to diffuse all such ideas and aspirations and the more you give opportunity for diffusion. But then your executive virtually have to be all people with political fibre, moral fibre and they must be capable of good management otherwise they must understand that the battering ram will be polished and will be taken out against them. Now that's a question whether the ANC will continue to be of that ilk.
POM. The temptation given this large majority.
KC. To deal with opposition politics.
POM. In a more off-handed way or a dismissive way.
KC. Is to silence them. You see these trends already also in the expression of concern on the part of the press that they detect a leaning towards criticism of the press whenever they fulfil their role and being over-sensitive for criticism and lesser acceptance of the fact that people are in the public role, a certain percentage of their energy will have to be devoted in countering biased and prejudicial argument and comments, criticism and explaining one's position. You must have patience and what is more you must have a solid base of good governance in order to answer this. If you don't have it then your inclination would be to silence.
POM. When I look at the future, just taking the local government elections as a barometer and you see for all practical purposes the demise of the PAC, the demise of the IFP as a national party in terms of the percentage of the vote it got, not as a regional party but as a national party.
KC. Will their numbers increase?
POM. They got under 2% outside of KwaZulu/Natal and the Cape metropole. You have the DP which is a marginal voice.
KC. It all depends on, I state this again, if you have anything else but a proportional voter system. A proportional voter system encourages small parties, that system encourages parties to obtain the minimum. What is it, 5%?
KC. 5% and there will always be a party appealing to the black people and a party opposed to the ANC. So the PAC may be replaced by AZAPO. Now and again I pick up a report on AZAPO growing. They, of course, can only flourish at this point of time on revolutionary kind of politics so they would appeal to the masses who have not been satisfied. They would appeal to the masses without housing, the masses disillusioned by the ANC, the masses that now see their erstwhile union leaders drive around in luxury cars and live in luxury housing. And I'm not criticising that, what I'm saying to you is what people may think and what will contribute towards the formation of a new party or the hopes of an already existing party.
POM. I think in a way there you've put your finger on it and it has been fingered by other people too and that is that the inability of the economy, even if it grows, to create jobs which is not a new phenomenon world-wide either. I know I've interviewed every Minister of Finance back to Barend du Plessis and I go and I see Derek Keys every year just because he's my barometer, because he said to me quite confidently three years ago that the best this economy could do between now and the year 2000 was perhaps alleviate unemployment by 1% a year at best, and every year I go back to him and I say in response to the same question what's your answer, and he says, "The answer is the same, we can't create jobs", which means that the country stands very much in danger of becoming the have society which would include a sizeable number of blacks, the middle class, and the have-nots, the masses that are out there whose life will not improve very much and who will be looking for the promised land, so to speak. How do you deal politically with a situation like that?
KC. Well you should ask members of the government that question.
POM. Oh I do.
KC. You can at the very most ask me what I would have done or what I think should be done. Well we should create, the government should create a more friendly investment environment, investment friendly environment. Now this says it all I think. How to go about that I can only surmise but lots and lots have got to be done in-house with unions, trade unions and the leadership of business, the captains of industry, but at the same time with the position they have awarded to workers in this country and considering the lines with COSATU and considering the fact that COSATU is posturing as the street parliament.
POM. The street parliament?
KC. As the street parliament, considering all that I doubt whether they will succeed unless we have a world-wide boom that brings so much prosperity here. I think that could perhaps be a solution, but whether we have the capacity to handle a boom even now I doubt it, I doubt it, I seriously doubt whether we can handle a boom.
POM. Whether you can handle a boom?
KC. Yes because we've just been through a boom, do we realise that? We've just been through a boom with all the offers of support. It's like a multi-billion budget for an individual and he can't spend it. We couldn't touch the potential even of all the assistance offered to us. At this point I'm an outsider, but we did not even touch it. So what you observe now is foreign countries, foreign investors I'm told but definitely foreign countries, becoming very cautious towards us and when they come here they ask questions on capacity, on political will and on succession, especially succession, and especially the ability to do what is in the best interests of the economy as opposed to servicing old connections such as the Cuban connection and the Libyan connection. If those connections are to be serviced then I think that we may end up witnessing a slow, slow, gradual withdrawal from the market orientated countries.
POM. The honeymoon is over as regards just the offer of assistance on any kind of unlimited scale?
KC. As I say what I am observing, now you've got a date, is a very cautious approach. I've been now in my new life interacting with foreign missions and foreign ambassadors and foreign visitors, delegations, in such a manner or in such an intensive way that I think I'm in a good position to say to you that I detect a cautiousness in their approach towards us, towards parliament, towards South Africa. I wouldn't say that that is necessarily wrong. I think sooner or later we have to stand on our own feet completely, utterly and completely, and we all knew and realised that some time in the future the honeymoon has to end and that we have to live with reality. So sooner or later this has to happen and in many cases, our parliament for instance, with all the outside offers we've had, sensible people in the leadership of parliament immediately took up the position very well but we must determine whether we would be able to support this kind of development when once it's our property, meaning all kinds of development.
. Once we have 100 computers, once we have 100 researchers will be we in a position to continue servicing those computers, continuing paying those researchers in the coming years? I'm just putting this as an example of what attitudes should have been all over with outside assistance, but at the same time if any country with a small farming project, I think the attitude should have been ensuring a capacity to continue with that project even after they withdrew. I say first of all we had to realise sooner or later the honeymoon would be over. Secondly, we have developed a second front, or rather a second layer of capacity in the provinces and the provinces, the premiers and executive have been much more involved in a direct relationship with the people of the provinces who are in a better position to consider industrial development in their provinces with the result that in many cases there were twinnings between a province here and some mostly powerful outside entities, or provinces or whatever. It's a very positive development based on this notion of twinning, it's coming off the ground, really coming off the ground. I just hope the new constitution will endorse their capacity, the provincial capacity and the provincial competency to do all this.
POM. That's one of the issues still outstanding. I'm not a constitutional lawyer but I've always wondered what happened to the great debate about provincial competencies.
KC. Well that debate has almost been finalised and that's where the new body that will be a substitute for the Senate comes in of course. Be that as it may I think I haven't told you much that you didn't know already.
POM. Well again, you've put the emphasis on different things. For example, today is a very good example of an action being taken that sends all the wrong signals to the outside world regarding the direction in which South Africa is going, it would seem to me, and that further actions like this or the threat of mass action in a rolling mass mobilisation in KwaZulu/Natal is setting up a prescription for disaster. And this is where I, in a way, will come back to maybe the question that I began to ask you, as an example of a question that I would ask you and then didn't, was I know you said Chris Liebenberg brought in his budget, it was praised, it was fiscally constrained, it was praised, lauded by the IMF and the World Bank and the country was growing at 3.5% for the first time in decades, there was a little boomlet at least going, and then suddenly things start falling apart. It begins with the rumour of Mandela's health and there is a trickle on the currency, then you have a new Minister of Finance and that trickle turns into a stream and suddenly the whole thing starts going out of control where the balance of the economy in terms of things like inflation, interest rates and whatever are suddenly all up for grabs and the boom can be very quickly stifled. Why are things that tenuous in your opinion, and how long will that tenuousness continue?
KC. I don't think it's that tenuous, I don't think so. I think it's like anything that goes down must have been in the sky somewhere. We couldn't have been in the air or in the sky all the time, we had to go down and find our level. What is this game that people play jumping down from a bridge, bungee jumping, the rubber that will allow you to go down and up again and then you find your level. And I think this has to happen to South Africa. The sooner we find ourselves in a position of not being the rainbow nation or rather the flavour of the year, the sooner we find ourselves no longer in that position the better. Of course then we could get on with our business but at the same time we should realise that the world was prepared to forgive our rather amateurish way of dealing with politics, I'm talking now of my people, I'm talking of my previous life, we were amateurs in these relationships in politics in the sense of doing everything that was wrong. Now we have become professional together with the ANC but sooner or later people will expect you to continue your professionalism and show your real ability at governance. We have now shown our ability at finding a solution for our ailments and finding consensus but I think the world will settle down and say, well now they must do their share in Africa, they must now develop their own markets and if they want to drop their controls then they must surely be aware of the fact that they will be exposed to Chinese low priced goods and they must know that they will then actually close down their own factories, but if they want to be Mr Popular or Mrs Popular or whatever by dropping their controls, exposing their own people, let them suffer. And if we could furthermore persuade them to drop all their other guards and all their other controls so that our markets could flourish, so that we with our better control of the market mechanism could invade the South African markets, could invade Africa, what is more if we could keep South Africa economically on their knees so that she can't exploit or explore Africa for her own benefits so that we can do it, we being the collective markets and the very strong markets in the world, because there are 400 million people in Africa, there are always countries that will be in a position to buy consumer goods. Some will experience droughts, others not, but there will always be countries capable of buying in Africa. Now who is going to sell to them? South Africa was in a very excellent position to be the gateway.
POM. South Africa was in an excellent position?
KC. Yes. So many countries begrudged that position, so the longer we are on our knees the longer they can use the African markets themselves. Is that a valid argument?
POM. Yes, but your niche in world trade is so small and that by and large a country the size of South Africa is at the mercy of the global economy. There are many things that it has lost its independence to do.
KC. Exactly. You see that's a point. If we are further now integrated into the world economy unconditionally then we will be at their mercy, and smaller countries, and that would go for almost all these Atlantic board countries, especially those in South America, it would go for Namibia, the Southern African group, they are all smaller countries that wouldn't be able to stand up against the larger markets so the larger markets or larger countries impose on us a condition that we must drop our controls otherwise we can't be allowed here, there and everywhere. But if we drop our controls then we can enter. But the moment we drop our controls our markets are flooded with consumer goods and our own textile industries have to close down. It's as simple as that.
POM. I go to the flea market now and pick up a small item and I look at it and I see 'Made in Taiwan'.
KC. Or mainland China, Taiwan, Korea. And who sells that small article? Not the South African. It's probably a chap from Ghana or a chap from Zaire, aliens, aliens selling on South African soil alien goods.
POM. Well that's the problem.
KC. Yes, that is the problem. We have been alerted now to the situation. Now people start to realise how important it is to have border control. Yes, it's as simple as that, to have border control. As I said, South Africa is perhaps like a honey-pot the way from Africa. It's because we were having a boom which was not based on productivity, hard work, ingenuity of this government. This government was enjoying this boom ever since it got into power on 27th April and it was based on the past.
POM. Which can't be admitted.
KC. All they do admit is that they inherited a large debt, but they don't say what else they have inherited. But that's just by the way. I think what I'm saying to you is that it's going to primarily be a question of economics, of providing jobs, and you've put your finger on it, of increasing the growth rate and not be satisfied with 1% and increase it in such a way that you could decrease the unemployment. That's going to be the challenge otherwise we'll be devoured by unemployment, we'll be devoured by economic problems and hence there will be less and less productivity and we will become poorer and poorer. So that's why I say the sooner the government realises that the honeymoon is almost over, or is over, and that they will have to use market laws to stay within the market, meaning productivity, savings, hard work. There is no substitute for that is there? Do you know of any formula except if you have the kind of rule that will make people believe that it's going well, that it's a way of life to stand in a queue, to have no consumer goods, to just have closed factories, to be at the mercy of foreign assistance?
POM. But part of what I see as being the attitudinal problem here is that there is still this preoccupation with what would be called 'white privilege' and therefore when they hear people like you, white people say this is what must be done, it must be hard work, it must be this, it must be that, it must the other, they say, "Well it's easy for you to say that you lived off our backs in the past, you exploited us, you got wealthy because of us and now you're asking us to accept lower wages, you're asking us to accept lower this, you're asking us to accept lower that but you're not willing to give up part of your wealth to make that happen, or your advantage to make that happen." I find the racial thing is still the undercurrent that drives everything in the country.
KC. When I say to you what I think should happen then perhaps you should ask me, now who is to work harder? Who is to do this, that and the following? Now I don't exclude the privileged class. I don't exclude the basis of their wealth as a basis also for the country's productivity, meaning that many people's wealth is to be found in pension funds, insurance companies, with direct and indirect investments and interests there. I don't say that these should not be used for productivity purposes but they should definitely not be drained to service the unemployed and the revolutionary. If the wealth of this country is to be used, could be used to provide a sound basis for development such as for instance an investment tax I will be the first to say yes.
POM. You drive up and down, you do it more often than I do, between Johannesburg and Pretoria and I've noticed the development on those roads both in terms of volume of traffic, number of buildings gone up in the last several years. There have been an incredible number of buildings going up. You go out for an evening to Rosebank or to Sandton and the cafés are full, you go to the restaurants at lunch time they are full of people having three-hour lunches.
KC. Over the weekend I was at Gallagher Estates and I saw the same, except that I now see mixed crowds.
POM. OK, you see mixed crowds?
KC. Not proportionately mixed yet but I see mixed crowds.
POM. Is this like a separate country developing within a country?
KC. You're talking up there?
POM. Yes, that axis, and you've another little country developing down here around the Cape.
KC. It's possible that the Gauteng impetus is based on the very condition I have mentioned to you, precondition that the wealth should be used to generate job opportunities for other people. Perhaps they do that to a certain extent already, creating job opportunities especially in the building industry because the number of building projects is impressive.
KC. And the housing there, I travelled past a new development there and I saw three or four black families and white families living in the same neighbourhood so it's not exclusive to the whites.
POM. But is it happening at such an incremental level overall that it gets swallowed by the larger mass of unemployment and poverty?
KC. Yes you see at the same time I have a statistic at the back of my mind, it's more than 40% unemployment in Gauteng. What's happening of course is that people converge upon these provinces and the concern of this government, I believe, is people coming across our borders. I think that there is a quiet, a very quiet concern at this point of time that they do something about the border control and I see that aliens have now been challenged for passports and visas at one of these flea markets. You understand what's happening? They come in their hundreds across the border, in their hundreds, and they never return. They form a chain up to Kenya, up to Zaire and beyond, Cameroon even, Ghana. Sometimes it's a chain that's kept alive by goods being infiltrated from up north and I am the first to say, well, give those very nice wood pieces a chance to be sold here. I don't know how they survive because if you watch one of these stalls down here at the station you see people hardly buy anything from them because the competition is so still and the tourists concentrate on the Waterfront and they are not allowed at the Waterfront to sell these. Have you been down there? You must really go down there and speak to these people and you will discover that many of them are aliens. Where were we?
POM. We were trying to move the immovable rock, that is the rock of unemployment.
KC. Yes, now I said to you what I think should be done but whether there will be success is dependent on political will.
POM. Where to this extent, how successful were the liberation movements in the past in their call upon the people to make the country ungovernable, where you have essentially a set of social attitudes that militate against hard work, a culture of dependency, of entitlement, of waiting for the hand out?
KC. I must say that the governing party or the majority party really wanted to change that. They accepted that they had to change and from Mr Mandela down were encouraging the people, coercing the people all the time to change. The struggle is over, liberation is done, now we must get to hard work. That you must acknowledge and that you must give credit to them for. All of these are happening not in terms of a negative agenda, I'm now talking of the negative factors, all these are happening, the negative factors, not with the assistance or support of the ANC government. They want the opposite. I hope I've made that clear. The government of national unity want the opposite. They all want the opposite but it's the factors outside government that are so overwhelming that I think do not prevent them from registering success all the time.
. What I am trying to say is that they must have the political will to change these and recognise these. And I said to you I'm not sure whether that will continue to be the case if they continue at the same time to have allegiance rather to old connections than to the need of the moment, and the need of the moment I said, I want to wrap it up, the need of the moment is recognising that unemployment can only be turned into the condition of employment if they acknowledge market factors and there are no substitutes for those. Those are hard work, demand for your products, proper payment for your products and from this will flow - and of course loyalty to own industry.
. I also said, and I don't know what the answer is, if we are forced to throw open all our gates to foreign goods, consumer goods, farming products for instance. Whenever there is an over-production of dairy products for instance in New Zealand do we have to receive it? What is the position? I don't have the answer. All I say is my inclination is immediately to say, no, we must protect our own industry. The same would go for all facets of farming. But of course it would also go for trade and industry in general. I think that we will have to find a balance between all these various very valid dominating situations. United Nations is now trying to establish UNTAT 9(?) in South Africa, which means an integrated global trade adventure, whatever. If they succeed and open up possibilities which people have hitherto not recognised and have been lost because the major countries have been dominating the international economy then that will be a great success. I understand some people to say on Saturday afternoon that this is what they should do, is open new avenues for the smaller countries, the lesser developed countries. So that's another possibility but it will take time.
POM. My hour is up?
KC. I'm afraid that I have to wrap it up. I have other commitments as well. But you'll be staying around. You know you have now seduced me into talking on a topic which is something like breathing. It's got to be there but I am no specialist in lungs and whatever is needed to breathe.
POM. The problem is that the specialists have made such a mess of the whole thing, that you need people who think without all the woolly theory.
KC. I've now deviated from my old ways. I've always tried to adhere to what is my responsibility and my speciality.
POM. What I would like to have with you are just a serious of conversations on particular issues because I see the way of the book being put together is taking all these conversations and creating a mosaic of opinion and difference and then illustrating them with fact and reality.
KC. And apply them to what is.
POM. Yes. Like the whole idea of that speech which I'll get from your Secretary.
[NB: Mr Coetsee was saying that the alliance is committed to socialist values, or socialist elements strongly associated with it. The RDP is a free market document and the ANC understands that the root to socialism is through free market forces and they understand that this is so but that they may not be fully committed to it. So the difference is between understanding the full implications of the free market and being able to operate on those principles and be committed fully to their implementation.]