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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

08 Oct 1996: Battersby, John

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POM     John, let me turn to the first question right away, under the constitution, chapter one is founded on the value of 'a multiparty system of democratic government'. How would you define a multiparty system, a viable multiparty system of government, and are there certain indispensable elements that you would associate with it?

JB     Well I think a multiparty system of government is fairly self-explanatory, it means a system in which more than one party vies for support amongst the electorate and normally one would associate with a multiparty system a vigorous opposition party which aspires through the ballot box and through its force of argument and persuasion to eventually win power through the electorate. I think we do have a multiparty system here in South Africa but one cannot look at it in isolation. It's a multiparty system which follows a period of protracted minority rule in which there was, within the minority, a multiparty system functioning but the majority of the population were cut out of the deal because they were disenfranchised and did not have the vote. So the nature of the compromise that was entered into here between the ruling party before and the ruling party now is of such a nature that both sides agreed that rather than fight it out they would enter into a negotiated compromise or a negotiated revolution, if you like, which created as one of its key elements an interim period of coalition rule, or enforced coalition rule, a government of national unity, which left the main opposition party, namely the old ruling party, in a somewhat invidious position, that by co-operating with the new majority party they were undermining their own potential as a possible opposition party and that I think is largely what led to the break some months ago with the National Party leaving the government of national unity to take on the more traditional role of an opposition party which goes out into the field, opposes the ruling party in government and tries to strengthen its base and its membership to be able to fight the next round of elections in a multiparty scenario.

POM     But by all yardsticks so far it would appear that, barring a break-up of the ANC, it's going to handsomely win an election in 1999. I think the HSRC has a survey recently that said that even though people were disappointed in the government's performance they weren't intending to vote differently. When you have one party so dominant, can you have an effective opposition? Can you have an effective multiparty system even though other parties do exist but their chances of gaining power are rather remote, at least for the next generation or two?

JB     Yes, ironically of course what we have here now in a majority situation is rather similar to what we had previously in a minority situation where there was equally little prospect through the ballot box within the white minority voting the ruling National Party out of power. We are now in a situation, as you've pointed out, given the obvious moral high ground that the liberation movement has, given the fact that it is widely perceived amongst the majority of the population as the vehicle which has liberated the majority of South Africans from the shackles of oppression and apartheid, for the next decade at least that reputation will almost certainly carry them through as continuing to be the majority party but will also make it almost impossible for any political party within the present political structure to really challenge them.

     Can one have an effective multiparty system where one party is virtually ensured of maintaining its overall majority and possibly even increasing it? I think it might well increase it at the next election. It's debatable, it's the best we could have hoped for given the past, given the legacy of the past of the ANC which is now somewhere between a liberation movement and a political party; it's in fact a liberation movement which registered to contest the last elections and which will register to contest the next elections. There are significant strains emerging within the broad church of the ANC, particularly over the direction of economic policy. There are strains between the ANC and its traditional alliance partners, the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is something that is being addressed within the movement and is going to be an ongoing tension, an increasing tension between them. But I think that the chances are that there is more reason for the alliance to maintain itself than to break up at this stage and I think they will sort out their differences within the context of the alliance. Although I think they will increasingly play different roles they will be there.

     So can we have, to look at it in a slightly broader sense, an effective system of opposition checks and balances under an ANC government over the next ten years? Perhaps within a party political sense it will be limited and flawed but it will be a lot better than having a one-party system as one does in Zimbabwe, for instance. I think where the checks and balances and the opposition will come from is less from within parliament and I think one can already see parliament becoming less where the action is because having achieved the political empowerment of the majority of black South Africans, obviously the task at hand now is how does that get translated into economic and social empowerment. That's really where the action is and I think that to look at whether we can have a continued negotiated revolution and an evolutionary process taking place over the next ten years you have to look at the broader society and I think the ANC is already beginning to find that governing South Africa is an incredibly complex task. There is a huge range of interest groups whether one looks at the trade unions, business which is largely still in white hands, professional organisations, community organisations, non-governmental organisations, these are all checks and balances and I think one has to look to those elements in the broader society which will keep a check on any excesses that one would associate with a ruling party which is not sufficiently challenged. So I think one has to look increasingly out of the parliamentary sphere into the society at large and to extra-parliamentary organisations.

POM     Do you see the evolution of, again, a strong multiparty system, in the sense in which you defined it at the start of the interview, without there being some significant political realignments and in part you've answered this, do you see those realignments happening and if so what kind of scenario would you envisage?

JB     I don't see any significant political realignments, certainly not before the next election. I am not even convinced that there will be a significant political realignment in the five years between the next election and the following one. I think eventually there will be a political realignment and I think it will be along the lines of a natural break into sort of Christian Democrat/Social Democrat situation where that segment of the society that voted for the ANC but has not been empowered economically and socially will eventually see itself naturally forming an opposition to the leadership, if you like, of the ANC which moved from exile very quickly through a transition into positions of power both at the national, provincial and municipal level and those people would have more in common with the Democratic Party, large elements of the National Party, and they would form kind of naturally the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats would be the opposition. I think up until there is a political realignment all the political action is going to be taking place within the ANC and realignments within the ANC, factions within the ANC along the natural divide between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.

POM     Can you point to a country that you would regard as being democratic that hasn't got a viable multiparty system?

JB     I'm thinking on that one. I can't off-hand come up with one, no.

POM     Given just what you said, John, is the matter of developing a strong multiparty system something that should be high up on the national agenda or is it more of one of these tangential things at the present moment, a diversion more than what people should be concentrating on?

JB     Well the reality is that we have one. On paper we have a multiparty system. We have the ANC, we have the National Party and smaller parties like the Democratic Party and the IFP, so I don't think we should become obsessive about forcing a political realignment so that the ANC is a weaker party and we have a stronger opposition party. I don't think that that's a major priority. I think that the reality is that the ANC at this time is the best kind of grouping that we could have hoped for to take us out of the apartheid era into a new, eventually, hopefully, a democratic order. I think we have a long way to go before we get to having a fully democratic order although we have a very impressive constitution on paper, but I don't think that the priority at this stage is to become obsessive about strengthening the elements of what is already a multiparty system. The priorities are rather getting the economic development policies right and obviously maintaining checks and balances on government through the existing multiparty system, the existence of an independent and free media and the other checks and balances that I referred to earlier such as the business community and so on and so forth.

POM     So on a scale of one to ten in light of the country's priorities where one is very unimportant and ten would be very important, where should the development of a strong multiparty system lie in terms of national priorities?

JB     Somewhere around four or five.

POM     And is there anything in particular that the government should be doing to help the development of a stronger multiparty system or should it be concentrating again its efforts in other places like what you've mentioned, economic policies and social policies?

JB     I think the government should be concentrating its efforts in strengthening what is a very fledgling and fragile democracy at this stage, but I don't see the threat to democracy coming through not strengthening the multiparty system. I see the threat to democracy coming from the legacy of the past. What we have now is a political transformation which has created the foundations for building a democracy. We have a very fine democratic constitution. We have in place all the institutions of a democracy to ensure that that democracy strengthens and develops, such as the Constitutional Court, an independent judiciary, independent media and so on and so forth, electoral process, human rights, the building of a human rights culture. All those things are in place, but matched against the legacy of the past which is at least forty years of systematic undermining of the rule of law, undermining of the criminal justice system, unjust laws which created a disrespect for the law throughout the society, a culture of entitlement which was built up amongst those who were trying to unseat the unjust system by basically saying, well we have an unjust system whose laws we don't respect so now we're going to boycott, resist, armed struggle, all the rest of it.

     The problem today is that this government now has a major task in trying to inculcate a culture of democracy amongst people who have completely lost respect for that. That's where I see the threat coming from to democracy. Also poverty, crime, which are all connected to the breakdown of the rule of law, are really threatening. We now have a situation where it's not just a breakdown of social fabric in our own society but this is now being, with the globalisation of crime and so forth, we're having huge syndicates moving in here and there is a real threat to creating a democratic order. That's where I see the threat coming from rather than a situation where one has one very strong party which is obviously going to be in power for a long time.

POM     If South Africa had to, in the course of developing, had to choose between sacrificing some of the yardsticks that are usually held in the west to be the hallmarks of democracy against some of the imperatives of development, if there had to be a trade-off, less democratic in order to ensure more development, which direction should it choose if it had to make a choice between the two?

JB     Well I think the priority is to strengthen and develop a democratic order in the broader sense of the word rather than the priority of a parliamentary democracy. I think building and entrenching the principles of democracy in the broader sense are obviously the most important priority because unless one does that development won't mean anything.

POM     To your knowledge how, at the moment, are political parties funded?

JB     Well political parties are funded in a variety of ways from contributions from members, from subscriptions. When it comes to election time by corporations and, yes, I think those are the main ways that political parties are funded, and donations.

POM     Basically they can get money from whatever source they can raise it from?

JB     Yes, they can get it from whatever source they can raise it from. There are certain rules and regulations as to how they can raise those funds but it's pretty loose.

POM     Should there be some form of public financing of political parties in order to help strengthen other parties?

JB     Yes, that's an ongoing debate. I think there are pros and there are cons in having a public system. At the moment it is still rather a system where political parties are dependent on wealthy benefactors and corporations who decide that they are going to give and parties that don't get those funds, it's very glaringly obvious in the present situation, that the PAC doesn't have any funds at all. The DP has very little funds and the two major parties, the ANC and the National Party are the parties which have the most benefactors. And I think there is a case, there certainly is a case to make for having a public funding system which would give political parties the basic funds in order to do the basic things and continue to exist. I think that would strengthen the multiparty system and indirectly it would strengthen the building of a democracy.

POM     The constitution actually provides for public financing of political parties. What would you understand public financing of political parties to be?

JB     I would understand it as an agreed basic contribution from the state based on the existing membership and strengths of those parties, or it could be a flat rate which goes to each political party. I'm not sure that they've worked out the detail of that yet.

POM     Would you distinguish between help that a party should get in its parliamentary work, help that it should get to run its day to day operations, and help that it should get to participate in an election campaign?

JB     Yes I think there would be a distinction between that. I think that certainly when it comes to parliamentary work there should be some form of basic funding which allows MPs to have research assistants and secretaries and that kind of thing. In terms of performing its day to day work I think that's an area where perhaps political parties should be largely dependent on the funds that they raise themselves. When it comes to election time I'm not sure, well I guess there would be a case in election time for having some, again, basic state funding which allowed a political party which could not draw funds from benefactors in the corporate sector and other sectors to be able to at least participate in the election.

POM     But you would, just personally, be in favour of some minimal level of public aid when it comes to elections?

JB     Yes, I would see it as a minimal and basic contribution rather than a primary source of funding, yes.

POM     How do you think such a system should work? The constitution uses the phrases, "It shall be proportional and equitable", and in a way the two sound contradictory, particularly if you have 70% of the vote, does it mean you get 70% of the funds available? That's proportional but certainly not equitable if you get 1% of the vote.

JB     I would lean towards a flat rate and a cut-off point, that a party would have to have demonstrated a certain level of support to be able to qualify and would then qualify for a flat rate rather than a proportional rate.

POM     Should there be some commission that would administer the funding of the political parties in this way?

JB     Yes, I think it would have to be done by an independent judicial or other commission in order for it to be fair and in order for it to be seen to be done separate from the power of the day.

POM     How about accountability? Should it be, again, rigorous accountability as to where the money actually goes? I know a number of people have told me that the parties got money in 1994 and that many of them just took the money and took a hike rather than spending it on electoral purposes, there was very little accountability at the end of the day.

JB     Yes absolutely, I think it would be essential for there to be a clear system of accountability. There would need to be a clear stipulation and allocation of the funding and what it is intended for and then there would have to be a clear system of accountability to ensure that those guidelines were adhered to, otherwise it would just become another sort of hand-out, gravy train situation.

POM     Do you think that the public would regard any financing of political parties as being one more element of the gravy train?

JB     Not if it was done equitably on the basis of a flat rate and a cut-off point as I suggested. I don't think that that can be seen as part of the gravy train, and, of course, assuming that there was an effective mechanism for accountability.

POM     You said there were arguments for it and against it. Could you just, in a shorthand way, list what you would see as being the major arguments for it and the major arguments against it?

JB     I think the major arguments for it are to ensure the greatest diversity possible in the political field and that if a certain idea or a certain ideology can demonstrate that it has a certain degree of support amongst the population then it is healthy for the democracy that one's trying to build that it should be able to participate in the public debate and in the electoral process. The arguments against it would obviously be that if one was to use a system which merely strengthened the large parties and disadvantaged the weak parties then that would be disadvantageous in terms of promoting democracy. I can't readily see the arguments against a flat rate system with a cut-off based on proof of support other than that there might be feeling amongst people generally that in a society in which you have such a large disadvantaged section of the population and which is crying out for spending of state funds on development such as housing, education, health care and so forth, that what the hell is one doing giving money to political parties? If that was a very strong feeling amongst the population, well that should obviously be taken into account.

POM     Do you think there would be a possibility that some form of public underwriting of political parties could in fact become a cover for what would become a de facto one-party state?

JB     Sorry, just say that again.

POM     Whether even though they would be giving some minimal support to political parties, that what in fact it would be doing would be in a sense underwriting a de facto one-party state but where the de facto one-party state could always the help it's giving to other political parties?

JB     Well, again, if it was done on a proportional basis and the ruling party got 70% of the funds I think that perception would be very strong that one was moving towards a one party situation and I would be strongly opposed to a proportional allocation of state funds to political parties. One would also have to make a clear distinction between the government and the ruling political party.

POM     Again on a scale of one to ten, how important is it that the government give assistance to political parties in one form or another?

JB     Two or three.

POM     And in terms of both what you said about the importance of a one-party system and the financing of a one-party system, what are the major obstacles that you see to the development of, as distinct from democracy, to the development of a viable multiparty system in South Africa or is it something that will, do you think, occur perhaps naturally in time or there again, given the nature of the society, simply may not occur, but that it's something that you can't force?

JB     What? The development of a democratic order?

POM     Of a multiparty, a viable multiparty system as distinct from a democratic order - if you know what I mean. You've talked about institutions that serve as checks and balances. Are you in a situation where for the foreseeable future the reality is you're going to have one party in power; that the reality is that you're probably not going to have a realignment in terms of that party splitting off into different political parties and there's nothing much you can do, much as its desirable, there's not much that you can do to force a multiparty system where the environment for it doesn't exist?

JB     No I don't think there is a lot that you can do to force it. I think on that score one basically has to live with what one's got, but I again get back to the fact that we do have a multiparty system. You can have an effective multiparty system even though you do have one clear majority party which is likely to remain in power and there are many mechanisms of ensuring that that party, the majority party within that multiparty system is called to account. I think the essential element of all this, the danger of having a one-party state, and what countless one-party states have shown is that power becomes concentrated and that concentration of power corrupts and eventually destroys itself and does not make for a transparent and vibrant democratic order. Again, I don't think that there is a direct link between having a multiparty system where there is an immediate prospect of unseating the ruling party and creating a democratic order. I think you can have a democratic order with the kind of party political set up that we have here at the moment.

POM     How about when it comes to the use of media? Should, again, at election time there be some minimum availability of television and radio to all parties participating in the election?

JB     I don't feel particularly strongly about that one way or the other. I also don't think that free party political time is a particularly effective mechanism for political parties. I think people tend to glaze over and cross channels to a Western or their favourite rock star. I think guaranteed time for political parties is boring to viewers. I don't think it actually makes much difference whether you have it or not and if you do have it the only criteria is that it should be agreed on by all the players concerned, that there's a fair allocation of time and that everybody agrees to that. I think that's the only important factor. I don't think it's a big issue.

POM     If South Africa were to look to other countries for models, at the way they financed their elections, are there obvious countries that come to mind or is it something that you just haven't given a lot of thought to?

JB     I don't know enough about how political parties are funded in other countries.

POM     The impression I get from you, and correct me if it's wrong, is that this whole question of the financing of political parties and elections is something that should be more looked at down the road than as something that is of immediate concern. There are more pressing priorities in the country and the direction and resources of the country should be aimed at those things.

JB     Yes, that is a correct impression. I don't regard it as a major priority. I think that there are much more pressing issues and pressing challenges to the creation of a democracy at all in South Africa which we should be looking at and I, at this stage, and perhaps I haven't given it enough thought, I don't see the funding of political parties as a key issue at this stage in terms of, the stage that we're at, in terms of building a democracy.

POM     When you look at the National Party and the ANC and the manner in which the ANC handled, for example, the Holomisa affair with its emphasis on party discipline and party structures and if you want to air dirty linen then you do it inside the party, not outside the party and you certainly don't start spilling your guts to the media. Is there any real difference between the way in which the ANC operates as a party with its emphasis on discipline and loyalty and the way in which the old National Party used to operate?

JB     There are some disturbing similarities I have to say. I think that the ANC, which as I pointed out earlier is poised somewhere between being a liberation movement and a political party, has not yet grasped the nettle in making the transition between being a liberation movement in exile and a governing party. I think some of the fiascos one has witnessed over the last six months or so, and one of them you named as the Holomisa affair and there was the Sarafina affair and there was the Terror Lekota affair in the Free State, shows that there is a conflict in the minds of the people who are still in the inner circle of controlling the ANC. There is a conflict of interests between what is in the best interests of maintaining the ANC in its present form and what is in the best interests of the country. And what we have seen now on three, four or five occasions is ANC leaders initially acting on their instincts and taking decisions to preserve the ANC which has then turned out not to be the best decision in terms of the interests of the country at large, and I don't think they've resolved that conflict yet.

POM     You hear, going right back to when Mandela came out of prison, one of his first statements was, "I am a loyal member of the ANC", to statements by some prominent ANC leaders that no individual is more important than the organisation. Statements like that have an eerie ring from the past to them. When you consider, I'll phrase this without trying to put an answer in your mouth, that so many of the ANC leadership were trained in the east and that they lived in exile where secrecy would be at a premium and doing things covertly, more the means to ensure that you weren't being spied upon than doing things overtly, do you think that their learned behaviour is to behave rather covertly rather than overtly?

JB     Yes, absolutely, there is no question about that. Having said that I think they have come a long way in two and a half years or five years if you take the transition from when they came back in 1991. I have been amazed on the ideological front how they have done a complete turnaround in regards to economic policy for instance. The only economic policy they really knew before they came here was the kind of Soviet style centrist command economy and they have in a very short space of time not only taken on board the free market, IMF, World Bank sort of route on the economy in the macro-economic policy they came out with recently, privatisation, etc., but they have actually done so enthusiastically and some of their leading proponents, who were former leading members of the Communist Party, are now some of the most vocal advocates of the new free market economics and I think that's very impressive. In their relation to the media one can also see a considerable turnaround, although they have still got a long way to go. Their natural instincts on the media were that the media which had supported them in their fight against apartheid should now support them in their new role as members of government which was trying to take the society out of the apartheid era into the new era. Initially some of the attitudes one got from leading members of the ANC towards the media were very frightening. One still hears a lot of criticism, some of which seems to be predicated on the assumption that we now have an obligation to support them and I think the media in South Africa, like every other institution, has a certain obligation, given its role in the past, to certainly be unequivocally in favour of democracy, of the democratic constitution and even of the mandate which the majority of South Africans gave to the governing party. What we're trying to get across to the politicians is that's a very different thing from supporting the government of the day and that our duty is to ensure that they are loyal to that mandate which has been given by the people and where they are not we have to come down on them like a ton of bricks. They are still having a lot of difficulty in dealing with that and making that distinction between supporting the mandates of the majority of the people and supporting the government of the day.

POM     If you were to compare the media standards here to media standards in other developing or developed countries, where would you rate South Africa?

JB     Well I'd rate South Africa at the upper end of media in the developing countries both in terms of its content and its commitment to a free and independent media. In relation to developed democracies such as Britain, France, North America, I think in terms of quality and standards we are way below them.

POM     You say 'standards', what specifically would you have in mind?

JB     Professional standards, professional standards in terms of what is considered professional conduct in journalism, giving equal say to all sides, acknowledging one's mistakes where one makes them, giving acknowledgement to other publications which have carried the original material. I think we're sadly lacking in all those fields although we're working on it. I also think that we're lacking in terms of the quality of writing, the conceptualisation of stories, the way we tend to be very reactive and knee-jerk in terms of the way we cover officialdom in the media. I think in all those ways we are sort inferior really.

POM     The last question John, could the Holomisa affair have been handled differently and was a message being sent when the boomerang was lowered with such force and absoluteness?

JB     Yes I think it could have been handled differently. I think it was handled in a very heavy-handed way. One has to ask oneself, here was a man who was built up and created by the ANC as one of the eight figures that they chose to be the most high profile people in the election campaign. He then went on to win the elections for the National Executive Committee at the Bloemfontein Conference in 1995, I think, and suddenly because he took a principled stand on the question of corruption in the former Transkei government and payments made through this Sol Kerzner guy and started challenging the leadership of the ANC on some of its statements, he was seen as a cheeky Bantu that had to be got out of the way. It should also be said that he does seem to be somewhat of a difficult character. I am still not quite sure in my mind what his agenda actually is because he seems to have systematically written himself out of the political middle distance. But taking all those things into account I think the ANC could have dealt with it in what could have been seen to be more tolerant, more democratic in the way they dealt with the whole thing and it seems to be that while it might have been justified, given his performance and conduct, to remove him from the Cabinet, it might have been a bit of an over-reaction to insist that he gets expelled and expunged completely from the ANC because clearly he still supports the ANC, but he has a different perception of what the ANC should be.

POM     And is the ANC sending a message to its membership, or members or the leadership?

JB     Yes I think it is. I think the ANC are sending a fairly clear message that it will not tolerate dissent beyond a certain line and over the Holomisa affair and the Winnie Mandela affair and the Terror Lekota affair, although they had to actually backtrack on that. They have tried to draw some of these lines to make it clear to others that loyalty to the ANC and the ANC being bigger than the individual that you referred to, is still very much the name of the game.

POM     OK, we'll leave it there.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.