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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
21 Jul 1998: Mbeki, Govan
POM First of all, how are you? How's your health?
GM I'm fine, fine now. It has improved a lot and taking everything into consideration I have no reason to complain.
POM Since you were released is the South Africa that's taking shape the South Africa that you had in mind when you spent all those years in prison?
GM Yes, you are correct. You are using the correct phrase to say that it's taking shape. Yes. It is what we would like to take place but it's going to take time to be all there. There is nothing as difficult as getting the attitudes of people to change. It is easy to make laws, you go into parliament, you draw up laws and you get them approved after a bit of debate but that does not mean that the attitudes of the people have changed in keeping with your range of legislation.
POM Do you think that applies not only to white people but also to black people?
GM Both sides, both sides. But slowly, slowly education, it's a longish process, slowly they will get to understand one by one or in groups, they will get to understand and appreciate there is just no point, no point in resorting to arms, just no point. You lose so much, you lose life, you lose resources and in the aftermath people feel bad one against the other even if they are not doing anything. We are in the process of reconciliation and striving for peace and talking peace, talking peace every day, everywhere.
POM Now in the speech that your son, the Deputy President, made to parliament he was at pains to say that not very much progress had been made towards reconciliation.
GM Not very much.
POM Yes. Do you think white people still have an attitude that they feel they've given up a lot whereas in fact they've given up nothing?
GM There is no question of giving and giving nothing. You must give something. It's painful but it's got to come and I think sizeable numbers in SA, black and white, are appreciating what is happening and I think they are responding well. There are still a few elements that would like to go back to where things were before these changes took place but we are not going back. The process is forward.
POM One thing that puzzles me is that most people I talk to in government or out of government will say that GEAR is not working.
GM What is not working?
POM GEAR, the government's economic policy, and just last week you had a report from the SA Coalition of NGOs which said that GEAR was contributing to poverty rather than alleviating it, unemployment is going up not down, this year per capita income will fall not rise and yet when critics like the SACP take the government to task, or COSATU, they are tongue-whipped into line and yet the fact is rather than the government saying this isn't working too well and maybe we should have another look because it's not achieving its objectives, it seems to be digging in its heels and saying this is policy, that's it, no discussion, that's it.
GM What are they suggesting should take its place?
POM That's a very good question, but do you not think at least there should be discussion about it, that the creation of jobs is the major most important thing that should be on the government's agenda?
GM Yes but what are they suggesting should take the place of GEAR in order to create jobs and so on? It's easy for people to dig in heels and they are not moving forward. If they dig in their heels and they are not making any suggestions about what better plan, what better strategy should be put in place. They are helping those who want to go back to the past because they are not moving with the people they influence. The important thing is to carry the people forward.
POM But you would hardly say that the SACP wants to go back to the past.
GM Yes but if it is not suggesting how to go forward is it not trying to do the impossible, to remain, not to be static.
POM How has that affected your thoughts? In your writings you were a Marxist theoretician. A lot of Marx has now been thrown out the window, so to speak. Do you see the country on a path to a socialist future or on the path to a capitalist future or is the fact that everyone is now part of a global economy that what an individual country can do is fairly limited because it's subject to all kinds of external pressures?
GM Every time a country, a people, is part of the world, is part of the global picture, whether you like it or not you are part of it, you can't run away from it, you have to adjust. You have got your own aim, your target, you keep on working towards that target but bearing in mind that you are part of the wider world. This is something one cannot avoid.
POM Like, for example, there is very little that the government can do to control speculation against the rand.
GM And those things you can't avoid.
POM Let me talk for a minute about something else that has been upsetting me and that is the situation at Richmond where the UDM is saying the UDM and the ANC should sit down and try to find a common way of stopping the violence and the ANC is saying, no we won't talk to you because that would just give you political stature. Surely the saving of lives is more important. The ANC and the IFP had to in the end sit down and go through a lot of talking before that violence was brought under control. Do you think the ANC is right in refusing to talk to the UDM or that it should, so to speak, bite the bullet and say the only way to stop this violence will be for the two sides to get together and try to develop a peace plan that will work?
GM What makes things difficult there is the fact that the ANC is being called upon to talk to a person whom it expelled yesterday, Siphiso Nkabinde. Is the ANC going to be convinced that Siphiso Nkabinde is not what he was expelled from the ANC for? I think people should take that into account. For Christians God and the devil, they must have had God and the devil some understanding up to a point and it broke down. God was convinced that there was nothing more we can do with the devil and the devil was saying I am going to take as much as I can from God's camp. That's the sort of situation that exists there. It's no use people throwing back and saying you told us to talk and now you don't want to talk, given a specific issue. That's not convincing, it's not going to help anybody. We've got to find a way out. There are elements who have taken advantage of that situation to say we will keep the fires going. We've got to resolve that, find an answer for that. We've got to find an answer for that. People are dying but the people have been dying there for a long time. It's not because the ANC is refusing to talk now that the people are dying. What has been happening before, we had warlords before. Harry Gwala called Siphiso Nkabinde a warlord. If we should use names, giving names, it's not going to help, we've got to find solutions. We have got to get down to the people and convince the people, if they require convincing at all, they do require convincing because we wouldn't be having so many deaths daily in Richmond. But what will succeed is a person that will be able to find an answer.
POM Everybody on President Mandela's 80th birthday had been telling their favourite story about him, do you have a favourite story, an anecdote that sheds some light on his character that people haven't heard? On his birthday everybody has been telling their favourite story about President Mandela, something that he did or what he said in a situation. Over the long time that you have known him do you have one story or incident that stands out in your mind that reveals something about the man and who he is?
GM You know anecdotes don't tell us the story. That's one thing at a time. The time over which things have happened that's what tells us and putting together all the anecdotes, some anecdotes are highly rated, others are not. I would prefer to see the whole thing rather than the fact that oh, today he did not sleep at home, what happened? But his whole life has shown commitment, commitment to an idea, commitment to an ideal and in the pursuit of that he has shown courage, in some cases exceptional courage.
POM But you have shown exceptional courage, Walter Sisulu has shown exceptional courage, Ahmed Kathrada has shown exceptional courage. What makes President Mandela different?
GM In all human activity they decide we will single out this one to lead us in all our efforts to achieve certain goals. Doesn't that make the difference?
POM You can't understand?
POM You're joking! When I read your books you show a great understanding of English.
GM So I say, but he has been good, he has been consistent. Yes. And in good times and at bad times he has shown consistency.
POM If you had to choose between pragmatism, being pragmatic and being loyal, if you had to choose between the two which would you choose? Which do you think is the more important quality to have?
GM I don't think it would be fair to call upon anyone to choose. You are loyal to an organisation, to an idea, but at times things do not always remain the same and in your loyalty there is to be a measure of flexibility and I suppose pragmatism is related to flexibility in a given situation. You are loyal and at certain times given certain conditions you become flexible because it is the only practical, pragmatic approach.
POM I want to for a moment go back to your own writings over the years where you were a leading Marxist theoretician and yet today the universal doctrine is of free markets, getting budget deficits down, restricting government expenditure, privatisation. It's become a very capitalist world. The economics practised by all emerging nations are one by one becoming more capitalistic than ever before. Do you find that disappointing in terms of all the thought, consideration, reflection and writing that you have done over the years that would point in the opposite direction, that would say that capitalism is not the way forward for humanity, that socialism or communism is?
GM I still find the writings of Karl Marx and those who came after him like Engels, like Lenin, they are correct.
POM They are correct?
GM They are correct. And then there comes the implementation period which comes after Lenin, the implementation period. It starts with Stalin, they are implementing the writings and the teachings of Karl Marx, Engels and Lenin. There is a difference between the two phases and the implementation period is difficult and you make mistakes but the important thing is as you go along to see the mistake, to examine and re-examine your efforts to find out if what you are implementing is in keeping with what the theorist says, and mistakes are made and mistakes sometimes become so big as to need people to say we were wrong, we took a wrong direction. Now that happens throughout history. Christ has his teachings but he doesn't live to implement those teachings and many mistakes are made by those who follow and they make changes, they don't discard the teachings of Christ. Look how many Christians are there today. Take the ten commandments, how many people break them today and society comes to accept that such breaches of the ten commandments are the normal thing. Similarly with all types of religion, you take Mohammedanism, at one time a Muslim trader went to Mecca, he was an Indian, big business, he comes back to tell me that there is no religion like Islamic religion. He says there there is brotherhood of man and all that. Then I say to my friends, if ever I have to adopt any religion I will become Muslim, I will adopt the Islamic religion, so I say to my friend.
While I'm in jail I'm punished, three months, six months you are isolated, given only the mat you roll and sit on and you are given only the Bible. I used to play a guitar and even the guitar is taken away from me and on one occasion a gentleman who called himself a Pastor says to me as I go past carrying my mat, he says, "Gov, Gov, you should read the Book of Job." And I read the Book of Job forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, it doesn't give me the answers. And on other occasions I am also carrying my mat to isolation and Ahmed Kathrada says, "I have just received the Koran in English, maybe you should read the Koran", two volumes in English. I read the Koran forwards and backwards and I read again and what attitudes do they have towards women? And I rise to say I would never accept that religion. They say they are following the teachings of Mohammed. I go to Egypt and I find women in black robes with slits here only for the eyes and those black robes cover down to the foot. You don't see another part of her body. Did the prophet teach that a man should not trust a woman? If he did I said that religion is no religion, but it is practised, it is practised and in the process of implementation people go wrong. In certain parts, take the Muslim community in South Africa, they don't behave like the Muslim community in Pakistan or in the Middle East. Here the women wear short skirts whereas there they say a woman can't show her legs. If she shows her legs she is going to attract a man. That's only the process of implementation.
So we can carry on example after example after example. The socialist idea is not dead. They failed in the implementation somewhere but even those who are still adhering to it, like Cuba, like China, I go to China, a vast country, they tell me we join hands with the capitalists, joint ventures they talk of. Marx didn't talk of joint ventures. I think I have given sufficient examples to indicate. I have given you an hour, you know that?
POM No, you've given me 45 minutes. I know because the tape goes 45 minutes each side. They held me up at the door, they were all confused about letting people in so you've another ten minutes. Can we bargain for another ten minutes?
GM Make it five.
POM Looking back, do you believe in God? Do you believe in a God?
GM I don't, no.
POM You don't. Do you believe in an afterlife?
GM I don't think so.
POM What book would you say that you've read has had the most profound influence on your life? If I were going to jail for 24 years what book would you say, if there's one book that you can take with you, take this book and read it, what book would that be?
GM The Dialectics, Marx's Dialectics and Marx's writings from the early 1840s up through to his death. They are wonderful. They talk about things I can understand. Now it's not that - my field of study is economics, capitalist economics, it doesn't give all the answers. I think that answers that question.
POM That's what disturbs me is that, again, going back to GEAR that at the end of two or three years there are now more poor people in the country than there were before 1994. Surely there should be this re-examination that you talked about earlier on, a re-examination of policy in saying something is not working if more of our people are getting poorer?
GM You know there is a period when you did not know what was happening, the apartheid period. So you didn't know the extent of poverty during the apartheid period because it was hidden. Now things are open and you are able to see from year to year. Apartheid succeeded to cover up things. It committed murder and nobody knew and highly Christian countries kept on supporting the apartheid regime because they thought it was good and these people were saying 'in the name of God, in the name of God we're doing this'. But under that people were dying by the thousands. What apartheid has done in this country is so bad. You take the various activities, education, it denies 75% of the population rudimentary education. Wasn't that a way of starving them? Wasn't that a way of killing them slowly, killing them slowly, unlike the Nazis who murdered Jews. These people also murdered, murdered people by the millions but in a slow way, slow poison, arsenic. The other side the Jews are given arsenic and let go. These you die slowly.
POM Do you think that apartheid was as evil as nazism?
GM It depends how you look at it. If you think in terms of killing like the Jews did, carrying people into the concentration camps and killing them and getting Josef Mengele to do the experiments that he did with women and especially those who had twins, there is no comparison because these did not do it that way, but they starved and you died slowly and in the end you died. Isn't the five minutes over?
POM Nearly. You see I learnt from you, you always bargain the extra inch. It's the Irish in me. Just one last question. In your long life when you look back what are you most proud of having been able to accomplish and what are you most disappointed in having not been able to accomplish?
GM There is much that we have not been able to accomplish but I am not disappointed because I have been working towards that goal, towards the accomplishment of that. Hunger, hunger where there is plenty, we have got to get over that. Ignorance where there is no reason for ignorance because there are schools but the education has been denied. We have got to get over that. Health, health, where children are going to die as happens in SA to this day. Take the rural areas, is it known today, are there records today of how many women lose their lives at childbirth because there are no doctors and medical services are not available to them? We have got to get over that.
POM As you look at the future and reflect on the past what do you think is the single biggest problem that SA faces in trying to bring about this massive transformation of society?
GM Resources, money. It's a big problem. Let's call it a day.
POM OK, thank you ever so much. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.