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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

05 Aug 1997: Van Zyl Slabbert, Frederik

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VZS     It's difficult for me to talk about because I've always been, you know the old story of sociologists are pessimists and economists are optimists and so on, and they have always been and Derek Keys is one of them and are extremely optimistic, oh I'm blessed with this guy. I remember when he was Minister of Finance, I could then not say, and it may be in what I said in the past, if not then I'm contradicting myself which is also not strange, but I would say how they were going to marry the consequences of democratic egalitarianism with the consequences of inequality that would come from a competitive growth economy. I have never really been able to figure that one out. If you have to bring about the economic reforms to stabilise a competitive market system you're going to incur political costs, and heavy political costs, so the whole question is how do you manage this? Take any one of them, getting rid of exchange control, capital flight. What do you do if there is large scale capital flight if it leads to a decline, even for the short term, in investment or whatever you have here? Or the relocation of industry to Mozambique or whatever the case may be because labour is cheaper, all of that?

     I've never been able to figure out why they were so optimistic or keeping the deficit before borrowing at 4%. I mean that's blood on the floor, Maggie Thatcher told him that, that's heavy stuff. Say to people you promise them, I mean old Bundy did it the other day when he was trying to become Rector of Wits, the government promises the mass unification of universities and it cuts back on spending. How do you do that kind of thing? You generate a lot of political ...

     But GEAR itself I think is still on track as an official policy. Mbeki has just come from Gore and company, he took Erwin along, Erwin tells us there will be R20 billion worth of infrastructural investment now over the next four of five years, which I think is absolutely essential if you're going to address the problem of extreme poverty. I would agree with Keys, and this is what this whole book is about, that you have an emerging black middle class, it's just feeding frenzy. It's just unbelievable. I'm not blaming them for personal enrichment, there's nothing wrong with it, but not the gap between them and the masses.

POM     Now are you differentiating on this emerging black middle class between those who would be acquiring their new status and income or whatever through paper wealth, through the leveraging of assets rather than through risk taking and the actual creation of wealth?

VZS     Well a lot of it is at the big deals, the Johnnic sort of deal, that's getting access to shares, it's the big conglomerates concession to empowerment or whatever you want to call it. But, no, that's not really what I'm talking about. The problem with that is that Cyril and Mzi and people like that become unintended role models for randy 18 year old kids in Soweto who then follow short cuts to get there like crime, because the route to get there is not the ballot. How do you repeat what Cyril has done? Because it's a unique historical opportunity for Anglo-American to assuage their sense of responsibility to the future so you cut a deal, you give him preferential discounts on shares and things, you do smokes and mirrors and go to the financial institutions and there you are. So it's not something that you can repeat. How do you repeat a R2.8 billion deal? But the consequence of this is now the man has got all that and I'm not talking about that, that has a different impact, I'm talking about the new breed of bureaucrats, the MPs, the smaller type businessmen who go in there, the new establishment that is there. They, and I don't want to be too harsh on them, but there is in a sense not the same initial concern that the Afrikaner had for his poor, you don't find that here. There are exceptions. I happen to believe Mbeki is one of the exceptions. I think Mbeki has always been extraordinarily sensitive to the very poor and what could be done about them and how do you keep them on board. That's why he's willing to risk the unions as a corporatist group who want to protect their interests because Mbeki knows it's much further than that. You've got to really get down to the basics, to the marginalised poor and so on.

POM     Someone who made that very same point to me the other day was Mr Mothlanthe, the head of the Mineworkers' Union, who was saying the Afrikaners in 1948 when they took over they had the determination and will to truly bring about a transformation of their society and they did it in a comparatively short period and we lack that will and that determination and while they are talking about working forty hours a week we should be talking about working forty-five hours a week.

VZS     You mean he's head of a trade union movement this guy? Short career for him if he carries on like this.

POM     He even talked about forty-eight hours.

VZS     The one thing that I can't factor into Derek Keys' pessimism is the international community, will they come in, won't they come in? Will they support infractural investments and so on because surely there is a sense in which you can see, well if this one goes for a Burton you at least stabilise a very large part of the sub-continent. I don't know, I don't think, I never believed that we could get a 6% growth rate and these rather exotic ideas that you're going to get the economy kicking off, but I'm not as pessimistic as Derek Keys now but then I was more pessimistic when he was extremely optimistic. So they are on a bit of a roller-coaster these economists.

POM     A concomitant issue is of course the whole question that growth nowadays in developing economies very often comes at the expense of job creation.

VZS     The jobless growth problem. Yes, that is serious.

POM     So one can either have growth and no job creation and a huge number of people coming on the labour market every year.

VZS     I certainly believe that is the most important backdrop to rampant criminality, I really do. I think if you think of a youngster who has just written matric, what are the prospects? How do you get anywhere? How do you find a job? It's very, very difficult. So it's easy to look for short cuts under those circumstances. I think another factor that would lead to pessimism is just the weakness of the state institutions and their capacity to deliver. I may have mentioned this the last time we talked but it's still very true.

POM     It hasn't improved?

VZS     I think some steps have been taken in transforming the criminal justice system, certainly they've tried, they've really tried but it's not easy. It's a hellishly difficult thing because you've got to integrate the courts with the cops, with the prisons. It's not only a political integration because you have Inkatha in prisons, you have Dullah Omar and then you have Mufamadi and I don't think Omar is top of the pops with Mbeki. So you have all that kind of stuff going into it. You can bring Meyer Kahn into this but Meyer Kahn has a mandate to transform the cops, or help transform the cops. Who is his equivalent in Justice? I mentioned at this Dakar meeting to Mbeki, I said  that I find it extraordinary that you people, through Zuma, focus in on doctors. They've got to do a year's compulsory service at your behest or your command. Why don't you institute a kind of Peace Corps thing that generates a sense of patriotism amongst young people because the survey that was done by the Institute for Defence Policy shows that 65% of all South Africans say they are willing to do that? So you then say to an LLB student, you're going to prosecute for a year. It improves the performance of your justice system and the administration of justice no end if you relieve that load. Or your engineers, go in a work in local government councils, help with water reticulation or electricity supply or whatever the case might be. Then I can see you're not creating jobs but you certainly are creating an involvement in transforming the infrastructure of the country. And that's a serious lack at the moment.

POM     Someone made the point to me this morning that in many areas the crime situation has improved but the perceptions haven't changed, in fact the perceptions have hardened that the problem has if anything gotten worse so it's becoming ingrained in people's mentality and how they view life.

VZS     It's also, it's a lazy journalist's dream. You take The Star tonight and you just read it and ask yourself where did this journalist work to get that information. It's only the local cop shop and there the story is done for you. Or you read the latest crime statistics or you go to a press conference. It's the same thing with corruption. I don't know to what extent the fact that it's more open leads to a sense of there's more corruption, but if you look at the latest report on the homeland governments that's all part of the previous regime where there was massive corruption. You never heard about it. You know or suspected and thought, hell Lucas Mangope where does he get this flat in Paris? Now there's a much greater sense of let's find out what's going on and being able to do so. So have we got more corruption than we had before? I don't know. I am willing to say I don't think so. I think they are trying to do something about it. It doesn't make the corruption we've got any more pleasant and this sense of lack of moral fibre, I mean the Deputy Speaker gets a fraudulent driver's license. It's a small thing but you just sort of feel why don't you do something about it? So all of that I think adds to a mood of pessimism but again at the risk of sounding boring on this one, but economists can generate a lot of hoopla, hoopla, we're on our way type of thing without really looking at these things.

POM     In some of the recent surveys that Schlemmer's done he said that he's found for the first time that among blacks crime is the number one problem whereas before it had been unemployment and crime ranked about third. It's now on a parity with the concern that whites have and that if a society starts thinking of itself in this way that it becomes a fearful society where you do not go out and are constantly taking precautions and a consciousness of it is there all the time. One, what does it do to the society? Two, how does it affect attitudes in the longer run towards civil liberties? Three, why has the government - when I was coming back now on Wednesday and picked up the paper and it said, "Omar to become tougher on bail restrictions", and I said, "Jesus, I think I read this headline two years ago."

VZS     It's taken him two years to get tougher on this.

POM     Why has it been so difficult to get a handle on the problem where the public can say we see something being done, oh there is a measurable difference?

VZS     Again I don't think there is one single answer. Part of the answer lies in the person of Omar himself who has been difficult, he's been a difficult guy and, secondly, he's inherited an extremely difficult situation and he has had a tendency to sloganise a bit about his problems I think. But let's take that as a case. From the outset there was a tension between developing a strong human rights culture and actually translating what it means into operational context. What does it mean to say there is gender equality? Everyone has a warm feeling about this. It's a matter of simple fact, 30% of women in this country still live under patriarchy. Now do you say, well, hell this is a difficult one, we've got to accommodate traditionalism up to a point? Or do you say, well I suppose that's fine because that represents 25% of the electorate and you don't want to alienate the Chiefs?

     Now I'm not saying there's a simple solution to it but I'm saying there is a tendency to generate enormous expectations about rights, the rights culture, which in your inability to give effect to it brings the whole question of human rights into disrepute. I'm not saying you shouldn't respect the rights of a prisoner but it's easier to respect the rights of a prisoner than it is to respect the rights of a victim, if you understand what I mean. So at the moment the victim feels, well what about my rights, what can I do about it? Now they want to take guns away from private citizens and the automatic response is that now you're making us defenceless. And even people who have never owned a gun in their life suddenly says, hell that's a bit thick. What are you going to do about these guys, the moment you're arrested you entitled to parole and bail and de-da-de-da, you can even if you're wounded in the arrest go to hospital and the cost goes (to the state) - that kind of stuff drives them up the wall because your brother or your wife has been raped and is lying dead there and you're left to look after yourself. I am just capturing the sense on which human rights come into disrepute.

     We've now in the Open Society Foundation set aside a fair amount of money to looking at the transformation of the criminal justice system and particularly how to make human rights relevant to that. Rhoda Khadalie is on the Open Society Foundation. She has now resigned from the Human Rights Commission. She says they create this commission, they don't give us any money, we can't do our work, it's impossible to be effective, rather be decorative and say there is a Human Rights Commission. This is the kind of thing where I would agree with Schlemmer that there is an increasing sense  of siege around the pervasiveness of crime and it needn't be white collar crime, it can be violent crime, that kind of thing. People begin to say bring back capital punishment. 85% of people in South Africa say bring back capital punishment, but then again 75% say get rid of the Abortion Act. So there are some very tough feelings out there that you can't just ignore by proclaiming human rights without giving them content. How you do that that's another matter.

POM     To go back to the situation in which mass poverty for the generation, maybe two, remains mass poverty, where the gap between the first world and the third world does not appreciably decrease. You still have the haves, but now there are the also haves. It's slightly larger if you like with the addition of the black elite into it and people are in most respects no better off than they have been. Is the ANC in that situation in trouble or is it kind of part of the cultural ethos of the country as the revolutionary movement, as the movement that brought independence and liberation and that it can withstand the fact that it can't deliver, that delivery does not become an issue when the people vote for it or don't vote for it?

VZS     You see Schlemmer has done research for Bill Johnson's Helen Suzman Institute. There's a very interesting analysis that came out here. What it showed very clearly is that the ANC, like the National Party had before, it enjoys an extraordinary degree of party loyalty. People are loyal to the ANC, 65% or 70% say whatever the ANC does we will support them even if we disagree with what they're doing. That's the first point. So you have a strong mandate, in a sense, or a strong commitment. Secondly, what also comes out in the research, the vast majority of blacks still believe things are going to get better. Things are going to get better. There is no strong sense of populist revolt against enduring poverty and so on. Now the critical question then is how long will this last? I think it can last for another five years. I think they can get well beyond 1999 and then disillusionment may set in and begin to manifest itself in new political formations and so on.

     The question is, what would happen? I differ a little bit with Laurie and Bill Johnson on this one, they expect a kind of populist revolt. I think that traditionalism soaks up an enormous degree of potential populist discontent. The really poor people live in the deep rural areas under traditionalist lifestyles, the subsistence kind of life. So traditionalism can cope with poverty in ways that your dislocated urban communities cannot. Now those dislocated urban communities, the really marginalised, to fall out of this grand corporate conspiracy of labour and government and private sector, the Nedlac crowd, your squatter communities, they are not looked after by the Nedlac people. They have their electricity connections picked up and thrown away and so on, going on this whole question of payment of services.

     When does that really translate into serious political commitment? I would say after 1999. How? I think if there is a break-up of the ANC the moderate pragmatic, first world of the ANC will remain in charge because just taking the old dictum that once you've got your nose in the trough you're not going to take it out very easily, you're going to stick there, which the Nationalist Party showed for years. So the moderates will be there, you will have a populist opposition and then the Tony Leons and the Roelf Meyers and even Constant Viljoen will leapfrog right into supporting the ANC to keep the populists away. So you could find in five or six years time a kind of moderate multiracial elite taking charge and they may even argue the need for suspending a democratic constitution. They may say, listen, we can't deal with these people. Then you may go the route of a modernising elite who have to suspend democracy for the sake of maintaining democracy, if you know what I mean. I can see that happening. Or you can say if the populists take over this place, because there will be obviously unworkable but highly popular attempts at redressing imbalance, which is not uncommon.  You can look at some Latin American countries where they've tried it, you can look at some African countries where they've tried it, but I don't see that easily happening.

     So what am I saying? I'm saying that the ANC for the foreseeable future will enjoy that kind of support, will have the backing of people because they hope and expect things to get better and the critical question from an activist point is, and this is the last two paragraphs of the book, do you want a weak ANC or do you want a strong ANC? If you get a weak ANC, it erodes, we lose all capacity to control and move. If it's a strong ANC with strong support it could perhaps be strengthened to make aspects of GEAR work, aspects of infrastructural development work and so on because GEAR in itself is conventional IMF policies, there's no real difference. But the pendulum is swinging against that kind of libertarian economics, there is more and more the need to intervene and do something and I think, as Heribert says there, it's better to have the ANC dealing with the unions than having a Tony Leon dealing with the unions.

POM     The Roelf/Bantu Holomisa Show, what I would call 'the odd couple', is this something that is some theatre for a while that will just go or does it have real possibilities? That's one. And two, if it has to have real possibilities it has to have a credible leader which can either be Holomisa or Meyer.

VZS     And it needs money, which they are not getting. I sat a couple of hours with Roelf here. Roelf had a real sort of boy scout approach to the thing: come on now, we've got a job on our hands, won't you come and help me kind of thing. I said, listen, what are you trying to do? No, no, we must get a strong opposition together. It's sort of the poor man's democratic theory that he's selling. The ANC is too strong, we need a good opposition. But the more you ask him what does the opposition have to do, how do you differ, what's your profile where you differ from the ANC? No, no, I like their economic policy.  Holomisa is not a particularly impressive politician. I think they are symptomatic of the decline of historical parties and I put the ANC as an historical party as well, their decline is simply going to take a little bit longer. But the decline of the NP, the DP is hanging in there because they are of enormous nuisance value. They've shifted up from 2% to 3%, but the noise they make is out of all proportion to the support they enjoy but they put their finger in the right little spots and keep people irritated and angry so they have a high profile. You see the best weather vane for where power lies is business and business has tucked in behind the ANC just like it used to tuck in behind the NP. It never supported the Progs. This is a myth. Harry Oppenheimer was a supporter of the party and that caused us endless problems because we could never get money. He gave us some and that was it. People said, oh but you're an Oppenheimer party. You can look where the real money went that time. It's the same people who now pay R250,000 to go to Robben Island for a fund raising dinner, the same lot. So those are the kind of people who will take a long hard look at Roelf and Bantu and say, no, not a cent for you fellows. I said to Roelf, you're unfortunately caught in a situation where the real source of opposition is locked into the composition of the ANC and depending on how that pans out you will either be in opposition or you will be in part of government, but basically you will have to tread water until then.

     Wimpie says there's only one game in town, support the ANC. He says Roelf and his NP are finished, you've got to support the ANC because if they pack up we're all finished. It's an interesting thing, it's in that article. Now with those kind of developments, let me put it this way, the ANC, if they want to, they can mobilise all the support they need to even do very unpopular things. Will they do it? And this is Thabo's dilemma. I think he has the intelligence and the political savvy to know what has to be done, but will he feel confident enough to do it? That's a critical question. I don't know. We'll have to wait and see. He certainly won't make any serious move until he's in charge because as you know the ANC chooses its executive on a popular congressional basis, unlike the NP used to, federalise it and then caucus and all of that. It's a popular vote and the first twenty form the National Working Committee and the NWC effectively is the engine room of the whole show. I think if you could be a fly on the wall of the NWC you will get a much better idea of what's going to happen than listening to cabinet or portfolio committees or parliament, all that kind of thing. I think Thabo, because in a funny way the ANC as a movement is structured very much like an East European Communist Party, the central politburo and then the little structures, and if you can get control of the centre you can move and then you can look for alliances and you look for alliances outside of parliament. He is in a sense trapped by the structures that they have created, the Nedlac kind of logic, the corporatist logic. I disagree to a certain extent with Heribert, Heribert gives far more prominence to the corporatist approach than I do. I think it's an element of political management but it's not the only challenge that we face, it's not how you get there, it's how you get the people out there in the communities. Mbeki has a sensitivity about that. So, someone like De Klerk's brother would say, help him, help the ANC.

POM     In a way there's a kind of a peculiar, not peculiar, maybe far out analogy between Mandela's decision to suspend the armed struggle which Slovo's, I think, rationale was that if we keep making this a problem for De Klerk he keeps getting beaten up from his right and we weaken him. It's better that we deal with a strong De Klerk rather than a weak De Klerk therefore why don't we take the initiative and do it for him so we leave him in a strong position, whereas you need actors here, you need opposition not to weaken the ANC but oddly enough you need opposition to -

VZS     To strengthen them in certain policies, yes. That's right. You see that's the other fascinating thing about De Klerk. Why did he leave the government of national unity? I know people like Hermann and others said at that stage, leave them. To me it never made sense to leave it. Once you've left you're just out and at this Dakar meeting we had lunch and Thabo was sitting there and Thabo said, "You know I said to De Klerk when he came to me about wanting to leave, if you leave the government of national unity you will destroy the National Party." Thabo said, "I told him you're going to destroy the National Party." And the funny thing is I ran into Valli Moosa, I was busy with the local elections when De Klerk left, and Valli said, "Oh what a pity. We needed those guys, they were necessary to give us opposition so that we could do things that were not popular, we could always blame De Klerk. We needed the guy there and now we have nothing." That was the kind of feeling.

POM     OK, I'll leave it at that. Thank you ever so much again for the time.

VZS     A pleasure. I mean, you're a bit like a carbuncle on me, I can't get rid of you!

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.