About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

19 Aug 1997: Kathrada, Ahmed

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM     Mr Kathrada, let me begin first with a statement that FW de Klerk has made and has repeated in one form or another on a number of occasions. What I would like, number one, is your assessment of the statement and, two, whether you think it's indicative of what most Afrikaners even today believe. He said : -

     "The people who structured apartheid and put it on the books were not evil people. Apartheid was in its idealistic form a plan to make all the people of South Africa free. The Afrikaner fought the first anti-colonial war in modern history in Africa against Great Britain so Afrikaners have a deep understanding of the need of a people to be free."

     "We would lead the rural homelands to independence just as the colonial powers to the north had done. The goal was to bring justice to all by transforming South Africa into something like Europe, national states working together in respect of common interests."

AK     I would agree that some people or many people who were not in government would have been misled by these noble sounding intentions of apartheid. I refuse to believe that the architects of apartheid had that in mind. As far as the architects of apartheid were concerned, and this includes ex-President de Klerk, it was an evil, oppressive design to keep people in subjugation. Everything that flowed from it, Bantustans and the tricameral system, etc., was specifically designed by the architects to perpetuate white domination and they deliberately kept the people of South Africa ignorant of what was happening, of the results of apartheid in the Bantustans and elsewhere. What they did is they selected those who were willing to go along with them, what we would colloquially call the sell-outs, they selected them, allowed them enrichment unlimited. There is case going on right now in Bophuthatswana. So they selected these people, used them, but they were backed up by the South African military and the police to keep up those regimes and as far as the media were concerned, the media was manipulated in such a way as to keep large numbers of people in ignorance of what is happening. But I repeat that I refuse to believe that the architects of apartheid really believed in the noble sentiments in which they at that time and even now are trying to couch apartheid.

POM     So when whites say with the revelations of the Truth Commission: I never knew these things were going on. If I had known they were going on of course I would have objected to what was going on. I am horrified by what I hear. Do you think that's for real or that people, I don't want to make the analogy with the Germans and the Jews, but it's like they had a fair idea that all wasn't right with the arrests for violations of the pass laws, the Group Areas Act, it would be reported that somebody like Steve Biko jumped out of the 12th floor of the John Vorster Station, they knew that there was oppression going on but they didn't want to know about it?

AK     To some extent they were ignorant, to some extent, and one can understand it because of the way the media was manipulated and so forth. But they were party to apartheid, they were secure, they were comfortable, they reaped the benefits of apartheid and when people are secure they forget about the rest of the problems that other people may be facing. They take the fullest advantage of the opportunities and the benefits that apartheid was offering them. It's true that they may not know the details but even the media, the manipulated media, knew about Steve Biko, knew about a lot of other atrocities that were committed, knew of the shootings, the bombings, the letter bombs and so forth but they preferred to close their eyes to it. They accepted without question the indoctrination that these were terrorists, evil people who needed to be dealt with this way. They refused to think. So on the one hand one can understand their ignorance or partial ignorance. On the other hand one can't just agree that they were completely ignorant of what was happening. There were so many obvious things that were happening but they accepted it.

POM     But there appears to be, I know in talking to ordinary people, even with the revelations of the Truth Commission I don't find among white people, the average white person, any great sense of remorse. It's like saying, I didn't know about it, if I had known about it of course I would have objected to it but since I didn't know about it it really had nothing to do with me.

AH     Yes that is the unfortunate thing. There is just no remorse. There is no acknowledgement of the generosity of spirit of the ANC, of its President. When the President says that he has forgiven much of the past, though he won't forget, there is no acknowledgement, recognition of what he has forgiven. All right many whites may claim that they didn't know of the tortures and the atrocities but they knew how their servants were being treated, their workers were being treated. They knew it. They were under-paying them. Their police were breaking up strikes and so forth. They knew that, they can't claim ignorance there. So while they may justifiably claim some amount of ignorance they just can't claim that they were ignorant of everything. It's just not true. As I say the tragedy is that while the masses of the formerly oppressed people are forgiving the whites are not acknowledging this. They are still wanting the status quo, all the benefits they had from apartheid, they won't forgo that, they don't want to. And it suits them just to blame the present government for everything that they perceive to be going wrong.

POM     You've mentioned FW de Klerk a couple of minutes ago and one thing has puzzled me and that is that the President and PW Botha appear to have, I won't say a warm relationship, but a relationship. He called him a charming man. He rings him on his birthday. With De Klerk there is sourness in the relationship and even in the Truth Commission there appears to be more attention being paid to the National Party and what De Klerk may have known or not known than to what PW Botha did or did not do. What accounts, do you think, for the difference in the relationship that the President has with PW Botha who presided over the heyday of oppression, if you will, and De Klerk who sought to dismantle it and at least took the initial steps in that direction? And why is the Truth Commission more concerned with what De Klerk may have known or not known than what PW Botha may have done or not done?

AK     Well I can't really answer for the Truth Commission, but I will try to answer your question by reducing my answer to a question of personality, especially the President as I knew him, as I've known him for so many years. He is a very caring, generous person, very broad minded, very trusting and it is with that that he embraces former enemies and all that. But once someone breaks his confidence, his trust, then of course the fighter in him comes out and that happened with De Klerk. The President had praised De Klerk's integrity. Many of us did not agree with him but he said, no, he was correct. There came a stage where not one incident but I suppose several, which I can't immediately recall, led the President to believe that now De Klerk has broken his trust, his confidence and that accounts for the sourness of the relationship. Whereas with PW Botha, as evil as he was, he was evil, he was the oppressor and he didn't make any exaggerated claims about leading South Africa to the new democracy and so forth. So I think that is the difference. Botha on the whole is not hiding what he was doing. De Klerk is just refusing to acknowledge anything. He comes to the Truth Commission and he doesn't acknowledge anything, unlike his minions who acted under their orders are coming out and confessing to things De Klerk is not. He is, as people have said, he is leaving his foot soldiers in the lurch.

POM     There's a book that recently came out by Van Zyl Slabbert and Heribert Adam and some others called Comrades in Business and he makes a couple of statements that I would just again like to hear you comment on: -

     "When the chips were down Afrikaners meekly handed over power without even seriously attempting to bargain any special group privileges. They even agreed to simple majority rule. Affluent Afrikaners sold out the poorer Afrikaners because they felt more confident of their ability to either survive in or leave the new South Africa."

     And most damning I suppose, is he said they conclude that: -

     "De Klerk's negotiators (that would be Roelf Meyer and Leon Wessels primarily) were really a part of Mandela's team in facilitating the transition to majority rule. It was a pushover."

     Would that be your assessment?

AK     Well I wouldn't agree that they just meekly handed over power. What I would say is that - and there one can't take away the credit from De Klerk, he had the foresight and your Roelf Meyers and Wessels, they had the foresight to realise what is going to happen if they do not do what they did at that time. This is what Botha did not have. But it's not true that they just meekly handed over power. They realised that there was going to be an endless blood-bath in this country if they did not do what they did concede. The struggle itself was getting so strong and so unstoppable and this is what your Wessels and Roelf Meyers, and De Klerk for that matter, had realised, that this is unstoppable and if they do not concede - but even in the process of negotiation they tried to keep as much as they could.

POM     Do you think they did a good job?

AK     I think the end result, though nobody can be satisfied, neither our side nor their side can be satisfied with what we set out to achieve and what we finally achieved, but with hindsight I think that there was a good job, all the negotiators, with what they eventually produced. I mean we don't like the idea that the million or so civil servants are still entrenched for five years, still reaping the benefits. There are many things we don't like but that is negotiation. It's a give and take.

POM     You wouldn't subscribe to the school of thought among a number of Afrikaners that De Klerk surrendered, he didn't put up a good fight, he could have gotten much more, he just was a bad negotiator and really didn't protect the interests of the Afrikaners or the whites?

AK     No, I wouldn't agree with that. I think that is where I once again credit De Klerk that he had the foresight, he had the boldness. That one can't take away from him. He and his team did have the boldness to concede at the time that they did concede. They had that foresight. I don't agree that they just meekly sold the Afrikaners down the drain.

POM     This is a quote, today I'm all quotes from other people, from a  book by Patti Waldmeir that came out a couple of months ago. One is what she says and the next is a statement by the Deputy President that I would again like you to comment on. She says : -

     "Afrikaners, pragmatists as they are, made the peace with the new South Africa with extraordinary rapidity. Theirs is a political culture based on an obedience that borders on obsequiousness so they easily made the transition from obeying the National Party to obeying the ANC. Even the Afrikaner dominated civil service and security forces, groups that the ANC had feared would undermine black rule, fell swiftly into line. All of this surprised the ANC which had expected far greater resistance. The sunset clauses were offered because the ANC feared it could not rule without the National Party to guarantee civil service and security force co-operation. So the ANC had agreed to protect jobs and pensions of white civil servants and having FW De Klerk as a Deputy President but within months of the election senior ANC figures were asking whether these gestures had been necessary."

     That's what she says. Then she quotes the Deputy President as saying: -

     "The ANC discovered quite late that we had made a mistake. None of us really factored in the dynamism of what was going to happen. We didn't factor in the speed with which the Afrikaners would shift, recognise the fact that here is a majority, here is a new government and we have to define a relationship with that majority. The notion of a government of national unity derived precisely from the understanding that the National Party would be the political representative of the army, the white police, white business, the white civil service, that it would have a hold on very important levels of power. When we came into government we would come in with the numbers, they would come in with the power and we would need to work together for a certain period instead of saying to those power centres, you are the opposition."

     Was that the feeling afterwards that the giving of sunset clauses and all of that - ?

AK     There may have been some feeling. As I just now said that in hindsight we may regret some of the things we may give, but there was no collective view. It's not as if the ANC executive discusses and says look chaps we've made a mistake, we've given too much unnecessarily. There was no collective decision of that sort but there were individuals, some of them leading individuals, who expressed that view. I had said to somebody that why did we go and make nine provinces, it's become burdensome to some extent and unrealistic. But that's with hindsight. I would agree with Waldmeir's general comment. We differ on details but what I would agree with, and that I think is very important -

POM     Sorry, with Mbeki - ?

AK     No, no I'm talking of Waldmeir.

POM     Yes.

AK     When she alludes to the speed with which Afrikaners have shifted. I would agree with it. One would like to see much more but considering their background, their history I think the Afrikaners on the whole have and are continuing to adjust fairly rapidly to the new situation. If you talk just about this office and the Afrikaner civil servants we have inherited from the past, some of them who were working with De Klerk, and the way they have adjusted and accepted the change. I can't claim that this is the position in every ministry but significant sections of the Afrikaners have shifted. Now just last Saturday we had a soccer match and while I was going towards, I didn't go to the match itself but I was going to Lenasia which is on the way, and it was so heartening to see a whole one bus load of whites with this new flag shouting for a win. But then the TV focused on the audience, the spectators, and people who had been there were telling us - and then there was this upsurge of patriotism, black and white, a lot of whites. I thought that we had reached the peak with the rugby win but this has beaten everything. I don't think that so many whites participated in the last Africa Cup win of soccer as they did now. So there is this very significant change of attitude.

POM     I was there last Saturday at the game so it was a marvellous -

AK     It's also significant that a chap like Hartzenberg from the Conservative Party, Viljoen, General Viljoen who sits with us in parliament, they don't accept the ANC, I mean they don't agree with the ANC but they both accept that there has been a democratic change, a democratic government and they accept that there is a President democratically elected which in itself is a very significant shift from people who at one stage said they would never ever recognise a terrorist as a President of this country.

POM     But do you think, my point I suppose would be, do you think that part of the smoothness with which that part of the transition has gone is due to the very fact that you didn't make concessions, you did guarantee jobs, you did make sure that they felt secure, that they wouldn't be threatened and because they felt secure that made them more co-operative and the more co-operative they were the more secure they felt and one thing fed on another. So rather than saying that the ANC, the Deputy President said that he had discovered quite late that we had made a mistake, that it was a result of those concessions that the transition and Afrikaners fell into line so easily. If you hadn't given them those things there would have been much more tension and resistance.

AK     I think they were significant contributory factors towards the smooth transition but I think what also played a very important role is in the build up to the elections, through the media and I suppose through the churches and other institutions there was this widespread expectation that come the 27th April and everything in South Africa is going to collapse. All the shops are going to be closed, you're not going to be able to buy food, your butchers are going to be closed, so people started stocking up in huge quantities, stocking up food because there was going to be chaos and everything is going to be closed. Your domestic servants are going to come the next day and say, well, this is my house now, I'm going to claim this, it  belongs to me. And there was this widespread expectation fuelled very much by the media. It didn't happen. I think that also contributed towards people feeling more  secure and willing to accept the transformation. They don't like it. Naturally they would like to see the perpetuation of white rule, they felt much more secure then. They did. They don't like it but they have accepted it grudgingly, many of them. Others have accepted it more wholeheartedly.

POM     I talked to, this time round I've concentrated a lot of my questions on asking about GEAR and one of the people that I talk to every year since he was the Finance Minister has been Derek Keys. He says, "I know nothing about politics but I know my finance." And he says that GEAR is nearly dead in the water and I have found a lot of people, black and white, prominent labour officials, business people who say the same thing, that the  best this economy can do just out of reality, the best it can do is to grow at about 2½% a year. In fact for the first quarter of this year it's even had negative growth. Jobs are not being created, jobs are being lost. Given the rate of growth of the population the rise in per capita income is going to be very slow, less than 1% a year. This belief that somehow you're going to have this jump to a 5% growth rate and creation of 250,000 jobs a year is simply a mirage. One, would you agree that there are formidable questions that have to be asked about the efficacy of GEAR itself?

AK     First of all I should make it clear that when it comes to GEAR, or all economic matters, I prefer not to speak. I am not qualified to speak, it's not my field, it's not been my field so I would be making comments not from a very informed point of view. But I would say that the type of figures that are being mentioned, others have mentioned figures which are completely different, knowledgeable people. The South African Chamber of Business don't share the pessimism that others have. So, and here I must say from a pure layman's point of view, there are so many contradictions, I prefer to believe my leaders in government, their view, because I believe that they have done their research, they have  been in consultation with not only South Africans but international counterparts and so forth. While there may not be immediate benefits I agree with them that in the long term we are going to succeed. Maybe not to the extent that we have set out but it's certainly not going to be as pessimistic as some of the prophets of doom.

POM     Does it concern you that after three years, at least as far as jobs are concerned, there has been really no new net job creation? That's just a reality.

AK     Oh yes that does concern us very, very much because we know that in spite of millions of rand coming into the country this is not coming into fields which create employment, a lot of it is coming in the stock market and so forth. But on the other hand there is a trickle which is growing of investments coming into this country which will potentially create employment. I don't think GEAR ever envisaged that immediately after day one that jobs would be created and so forth. I think that they are quite realistic. Last week there was a statement by the Director General of Finance, she thought that we were still on course with GEAR and there was no hint of any pessimism on her part. Again, I must emphasise that as a layman really, and maybe it's out of instinct more than anything else, but I prefer on this particular question to accept the optimism, or realism, if we may call it that, of people who are more directly involved in this thing. On other matters of which I may not be expert I may express opinions but on economic matters I prefer the other course of being vague and more general than I would be.

POM     There was just, to conclude, the report this week by the - I think it's going to be discussed in Cabinet tomorrow, Wednesday - by  the Director General of the Department of Public Service on the state of the public sector, on the chaos in the provinces, the lack of efficiency, the lack of trained personnel. He was even questioning the wisdom of there being the whole provincial set up as it is presently constituted. Is this a major problem, the inability to get control of the public sector, his estimates are that it's going to take at least ten years, they have to train about 22,000 people a year and that even consideration should be given to there being a modification of the provincial set up as it is presently constituted? Do you think these questions have to be asked and debated?

AK     Oh yes undoubtedly. We cannot hide the fact that there is gross inefficiency in certain sectors, especially in the public service both nationally and provincially, there is. While one doesn't want to blame everything on apartheid but at the same time we can't forget that we have inherited a lot of this. We've inherited the Bantustan civil service which was not accountable to anything. So these are major problems. Again I think that they are problems which will demand adjustments on our part. I don't know to what extent these will be very significant or major adjustments but, again, as cabinet is going to discuss it and parliament certainly will discuss it, I won't be surprised if we are called upon to make certain major adjustments to our approach to things. But let's wait for the next period and see what comes out of it.

POM     When you say major adjustments you're talking in terms of, like what?

AK     Well I myself, I was basing it on this when I told you earlier this morning that I am beginning to think that we made a mistake with these nine provinces. I would have preferred now, with hindsight, I would have preferred the four provinces as they were at that time. I think they would have been much more manageable than the unwieldy nine provinces that we have got at the moment, which to my mind, again it's a personal view, has really made our position worse rather than better. It's not an informed view, one has to study all aspects of things before one can -

POM     But could you see a return to, after a consideration, a return to the four provinces?

AK     No.

POM     That's not possible.

AK     No that's not going to happen. Unfortunately things are entrenched already now and you've got large numbers of politicians who are now entrenched in various positions and politicians being what they are -

POM     They're not going to want to give up their jobs!

AK     It's not like the President saying he's going to retire from being president. HHHHHuman beings are not like that.

POM     OK. I'll leave it for the moment and I will set up something else to see you later on.

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.