This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
16 Oct 1997: Van Der Merwe, Koos
POM. Well first of all, your health?
KVM. I'm perfectly recovered. I was sick, I had shingles and the virus of the shingles sat over and gave me simultaneous kidney and heart failure but I survived and I am not talking to you from the grave but it is me sitting here and I recovered 100%.
POM. But when you had simultaneous - I'm just interested, when you had simultaneous heart and kidney failure were you at home?
KVM. No I was in hospital and I was dying. So you're very fortunate to see me.
POM. I'm always very fortunate to see you.
KVM. Yes but it would have been possible for you perhaps to have undertaken a journey to Hades, the underworld, to see me.
POM. Well I would have followed you there. Eventually I will.
KVM. I'm absolutely sure.
POM. A strange question, you're dying and your whole life doesn't flash by you? What comes into your mind?
KVM. That's a very good question. When I thought I was dying it was definitely a feeling of blackness and death and there was fortunately a silver lining on this thing and that silver lining was the fact that I was going to see you again, that kept me alive.
POM. You're such a bullshitter. I mean seriously. You were very ill, I've been very ill too. It's a very serious question. It's not that you're reviewing your whole life but at that moment what becomes important to you?
KVM. Then I'll tell you seriously. I had a feeling as if there were built-in protection things in my system. I was not panicking, the grave and dying were sort of not very prominent although I knew I was in trouble. What was very important to me, the only thing that really troubled me was my youngest son. I knew my wife was going to be OK and, I've got three children, my eldest son is on his way and my daughter also but my youngest son I was terribly worried about him and I almost formed a pact with the Creator, subconsciously, hell, just give me a little chance, I just have to get this chap also going, let me rather die in a year or two, let me just get this little bastard going also. That was really my only concern.
POM. So things like politics?
KVM. Nothing, no nothing. Just a lot of bullshit.
POM. So for somebody who has spent, as long as I've known you, your life involved, totally immersed in politics of one form or the other and always somebody willing to discuss, analyse, change, do whatever, all this kind of - ?
KVM. Nothing. It is as there were some blinkers the horses have, it was almost as if I had blinkers in place. Boom, boom, and I was content but I had this regret. And politics and even my wife and the other things disappeared and I had this one obstacle, my son, he's not ready, I can't leave him.
POM. Do you mind if I ask you, he's just wavered or - ?
KVM. No, no, he's 25, after my illness he passed his examinations in the computer system field and he started to work and he's going now. As a matter of fact I can die now.
POM. You're ready to go?
KVM. I'm ready to go now.
POM. I thought you were going to say he had joined the ANC.
POM. Nothing quite that bad?
KVM. No. It's interesting, if it happens again now - it wasn't as if I was breaking. I'm sharing this with you because you had a similar experience you say. It wasn't as if I was breaking, I knew I was going to die but I wasn't breaking, saying no, no, no, I don't want to die, I don't want to die.
POM. The psyche, just what's going to happen to it. I think this is what I've learnt about near death experiences is that as you - all the facilities of the body and the mind re-adjust themselves to whatever reality is coming up.
KVM. There was a realignment of all my functions making me calm and the only obstacle that remained was my one son. Otherwise I wasn't breaking, I wasn't trying not to go. As far as I am concerned I'm 60 let me go, if my time is up let it be up. It's very interesting.
POM. Again in the light of what would have been, your passionate commitment to politics and to South Africa, here we have a situation where it comes to a moment of extremity all that almost goes out the window and all you care about is a son who's not doing too well. When you come back to being yourself as you are now has that changed your values in the way in which you look upon things?
KVM. Oh yes. Yes I haven't reflected very deeply about it but I know I'm changed. I'm more humble, not that I haven't been humble. You know that was my great characteristic until then but I'm more humble now and it is as if I'm not so keen any longer on certain values like politics. When I look at politics now I have a feeling that there is very, very little that we can do, white people, very little influence that we can exert really and it is as if one has a sort of a realignment of your thinking, of your values, of your priorities. That obviously brings me to the political arena again and here I just have a feeling that there is extremely little that we can do to influence things.
POM. 'We' is?
KVM. White people, Afrikaner people. There's very little we can do. Things are running. Black people are absolutely entrenched now, the ANC. To rush through it very, very quickly, the three levels of government, number one is the central government, the President is ANC, almost all the cabinet ministers are ANC. But it doesn't end there. You go further, the deputy ministers, the heads of departments, the directors general, the directors, all the important posts in the civil service are manned by them. The diplomatic posts are being filled. They have total control of first level. Then you go to provinces -
POM. One could say, not to be argumentative, I always like to be argumentative with you because that's part of our relationship, that the Afrikaner in 1948 did the same thing. In fact the ANC is just following the example that was set down in 1948 by the Afrikaners.
KVM. Can I tell you what I call that? What the ANC is doing now, we say we have seen the movie in 1948. When we came to power we did basically the same as what they are doing now. It is a normal thing that follows on takeovers by a government. You put your people in position. But now for us to make a comeback we are fighting a machine that on the first level is totally black/ANC controlled. You go to the provinces which now is a very strong level of government, it's totally infiltrated and taken over. You go to third tier, municipalities. In other words right through the whole nerve system of the whole South African society the ANC is firmly in control. As far as numbers are concerned we Afrikaners are 5% or 8%. So what is our future?
POM. Then my question would be, why do you belong to the IFP?
KVM. Because it's the best available alternative.
POM. For Afrikaners?
KVM. Yes. Why? Because it fights centralism, it fights the taking of power in the central part of the government and their hold of autocracy. It advances provincialism where power is devolved. Power is devolved to the people on the ground firstly. Secondly, the IFP has a policy of free market policy.
POM. So has the ANC. There are marginal differences but economic policy is no longer controlled by ideology, it's controlled by global forces that make ideologies irrelevant. So substantially there's little difference between the IFP and the ANC on economic issues. What would you point to?
KVM. Well I'll go further and I'll say that I have a feeling that slowly but surely the differences, the main differences, between the black political parties are disappearing.
POM. I've been a lot of times in the last few days with senior people in the IFP from Chief Buthelezi -
KVM. Have you seen him as well?
POM. Yes. Down to Walter Felgate, to Arthur Konigkramer, to other people in between, and I've become more interested in the IFP as a party because the ANC has become uninteresting, they split and say that these are divisions whereas the IFP is still made up of an amalgam that hasn't quite worked itself out. One message I hear loud and clear is there is no room for whites in the IFP and that senior white people in the IFP are either getting out or they're telling me they're getting out. That's number one.
KVM. Is that a proposition or fact?
POM. I'm saying that as - I want you to comment on that. Two, is that I found very few people to really query the allegations by Walter Felgate that Buthelezi is an autocratic leader who manipulates the decision making process so that it appears to be as though it's the National Council agreement when it's already pre-arranged. Three, the very thing you said, the whites I have talked to in the IFP say there is a noise of no future but they don't make the same sense you are making, that there's an inevitable or inexorable kind of coming together of all African parties into one entity.
KVM. One black party state.
POM. Which leaves out Indians, leaves out coloureds and leaves out whites. That Africa should be run by Africans.
KVM. There is such a tendency. I don't want to comment at this stage on the bureaucracy of Buthelezi.
POM. We'll both be dead by the time my book is published so it will make no difference.
KVM. Let's say that I haven't seen evidence of effective refuting of that statement. Look, what Felgate said is this, he says when Buthelezi goes to the National Council there is a prepared speech and there are prepared resolutions, so the speech is then discussed, the resolutions are then put and passed. That is called democracy. He says it doesn't look like democracy to him. Now I haven't seen anybody addressing that particular issue and refuting it.
POM. Do you think that's democracy?
KVM. I doubt whether that is democracy.
POM. So the IFP, as most opinion polls would indicate, has lost support nationally, not increased support. Despite the miserable record of the ANC nobody else is gaining, number one. Two, if the IFP is becoming a regional party which looks more and more that it is becoming a regional party and even then it's in trouble in KwaZulu, where do you see yourself fitting in this structure? Come 1999 are you going to say I'm going to run again as a member of the IFP or are you going to go into private business or what?
KVM. It is unlikely that I will run for parliament again. You see I am petrified by the thought that by then I would have been in this game for 22 years and that I have had a tunnel vision in life, this zooming in on parliament and politics and I have lost track of the world outside. I can ask you, is there a world outside of politics? And you will probably say, well yes, you can travel, you can go into medicine, there are many other fields, it's not only politics, and that's one of my concerns. Should I go on? I doubt whether I will go on. Firstly because of this tunnel vision thing, that I want to break and go into the world, I'm 60 now, but secondly, I don't know whether we whites really have a role to play except maybe in some cases as prostitutes. They use you until they've paid their people and then they chase you out. For instance, this is not a good example but let's take my job as Chief Whip, it's almost three and a half years that I've been in this chair now, nobody could do the job. But now one or two or three think they can do the job so it wouldn't surprise me if there is now a move to ask me to stand down. Now if that is the position then it will make me feel totally unwelcome in the party because, then because I'm white I do not have a right per se to a position. I am then only having a position because there is not a black available but as soon as a black is available then you must fuck off.
POM. So again looking for context, you were passionate, probably still are, about investigating different avenues of self-determination.
KVM. There's only hope left, secession of the Western Cape.
POM. Which, if one looks at the latest figures, is not about to happen because there will be an African majority there by the year 2000, demographically too that already the National Party have lost an awful lot of its support among the coloured communities that it commanded just even 18 months ago.
KVM. Then there's no hope.
POM. You say there's no hope. No hope for whom?
KVM. For the Afrikaner, for my people. You see, they are killing our language, they are killing our culture, they are killing us.
POM. What about the Freedom Front?
KVM. The Freedom Front started off with two great assets at the time in 1994. The one was General Viljoen and the next one was their policy of a volkstaat, we're going to have our own country, vote for us. Now three and a half years later the lights of the General have been dimmed to a large degree. He's not getting what he wants, he's falling around, he's not the good politician that people thought he was. He's trying, he's an honest man and so on but he's naïve in certain respects. He's still the best available for them.
POM. He commands more respect among Afrikaners as far as I can gather than anybody in the NP does.
KVM. Oh yes certainly. If you go out, people tell me in the streets where they canvass in Boksburg (I don't know what the result of that by-election was), but they tell me that they get people who say, "We work for the General", but these are ex-soldiers and so on. But now this is the first point. As far as the Freedom Front is concerned the second point is the volkstaat. Where is the volkstaat? They had a mandate to go and get a volkstaat. They are silent on it now, they are no longer enthusiastic, they don't discuss it, they evade you when you talk about volkstaat. They are looking for other alternatives. Now when they are weighed at the next election then it can be said that they got nowhere nearer to a volkstaat, in fact the doors have probably been closed on that and the General's lights have been dimmed. So what do they have left?
POM. He would say, I think, that he has moved direction from looking in the immediate future for a territorial volkstaat to what would be a cultural one.
KVM. He said it?
POM. That's separate. That's where he would say that the preservation of language, the right to education in Afrikaans -
KVM. No I understand that but he has to go out and tell people, look in 1994 I promised you a volkstaat, I come back to report to you I can't get it.
POM. OK, so in 1999 the ANC go out and say we promised you two million houses, we promised you this, that and the other?
KVM. The electorate is different.
POM. The National Party goes out and says we promised you - well we forget what we promised you.
KVM. Peace, prosperity, progress.
POM. Whatever. You've got the PAC which has gone from 1% to 2%.
KVM. Are you saying they will retain their membership? Are you saying that the Freedom Front will retain their membership?
POM. Well if you are a white voter and you had to cast your vote tomorrow which party would you cast it for?
KVM. If I have to cast it for a white party? It can only be the Freedom Front. It's like if you have a choice between three fat ugly women, the one is just slightly not that fat and that ugly as the others, but I won't vote for the Nats and I won't vote for the Democratic Party. I've said this to you before, they have got everything in their favour except they are too far removed from reality, they are too clever. They have everything in their favour except votes. I won't vote for them, I won't vote for the Nats. I'll vote for the idea of Afrikaner dreams and idealism which is best personified by the Freedom Front.
POM. So even though nothing has been delivered that dream is still alive.
KVM. I'll still vote for them. Yes, the dream is still there.
POM. Which brings me round to your assessment of the state of the parties. The NP?
KVM. The NP is really in trouble. I can't see this youngster getting them out of trouble. They have lost tremendously. They have lost leadership, they have lost Pik Botha, Kraai van Niekerk, Leon Wessels, Roelf Meyer, FW de Klerk, they've lost all those people. It's interesting but the people who took us into this beautiful promised land, the ones who negotiated it, the ones who concretised it and said here it is, we are in Canaan. Where are the leaders? Where is the leadership that took us into Canaan? They're gone. This is unbelievable. Now they leave it to the youngster to try to solve, so what can he do?
POM. Let me give you a juxtaposition to that, Mandela is saying I'm stepping down in 1999, I'm out of here, I want to enjoy the rest of my life and I'm not consumed by the desire to be the old powerful Madiba all the time. You have Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the architects of the constitution, who said I'm out politics and I'm into making a hell of a lot of money and is doing is very successfully.
KVM. The one is out because he's old and the other one is out because he's a Venda, he's been pushed out. But all the big ones are still there, they have Mbeki, Kadar Asmal, the main body of the ANC is there. The main body of the NP leadership have absconded.
POM. Kadar is stepping down in 1999.
KVM. But that's because of age, it's not because he's lost interest in them.
POM. What I'm getting at is that he's not consumed by the desire to hang on to power.
KVM. But you can't say the same about the Nats.
POM. The Nats to me are nobody. They disappear. I used to have a list of people in the NP that I used to interview. They've all gone.
KVM. They've gone. That is my point.
POM. Can't find one.
KVM. That's the point. So they are disintegrating. It depends on whether the youngster can repair from the ashes of the NP something that he can put fire to again. I very seriously doubt that. So what that means is that there will be millions, or not millions, but a few million voters who are party-less. We had about three million who voted for the NP. Now with the NP's decline who do they vote for? At one stage you had almost a million voting for the so-called right. Where are they now? And the DP is still there. So these people are looking for a political home. But my idea is that the differences between the people are so great that it's going to be extremely difficult for the body of whites, coloureds and Indians to move over to the ANC and the same difficulty exists with the big body of the ANC coming over the other side. So you have two polarised groups and therefore the point I'm trying to make is that I think it is inevitable that there will be a form of realignment, of something new around these variables.
POM. The Bantu and Roelf Show?
KVM. I hear that they can possibly poll 3% I think. Fine. So they will be here in parliament.
POM. In the Eastern Cape, last weekend, the last count I looked at was between 10,000 and 20,000 people.
KVM. OK let's say they get two million votes, which they can't, then they sit in with 10%. So what's the difference between 5% and 10% and 15%?
KVM. That's the point. So they can't get to the stage where they are really a force. You get these difficulties in politics where a political party doesn't have leverage. I was a member of a small political party when we left the Conservative Party, the Afrikaner Volksunie, so the big difficulty is leverage. Now when they had the Volksunie there were six Afrikaners moving out of the Conservatives and they wanted to achieve something in the direction of a volkstaat but they were wasting their time. Why? Because they had no leverage. If they came to the point with the ANC where they disagreed, the ANC would just tell them, look we're not going to do it. And then what do they say? Don't be nasty. There's nothing they can do. You must have leverage. In other words you must have, what we normally say, an AK47 under the table aimed at your opponent's balls. He knows if I don't agree he pulls the trigger. So that's leverage. Now what leverage -
POM. I think I missed the point on the party that you belonged to.
KVM. The Afrikaner Volksunie. It was for a few months or so. But it's the same with the IFP today, the IFP is mainly because of the fact - oh I think this is the Ambassador. What do we do now? I'll be ten minutes with the Russian Ambassador. Do we stop or do we go on in ten minutes?
POM. I can come back in another 15 minutes.