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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

28 Aug 2000: Ebrahim, Hassen

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM     Hassen and I have just been talking about violence and particularly when you said that people come to you and say why doesn't the state get nastier in their crack-down on violence, you gave a response in terms of what licensed violence means.

HE     I am a firm believer that having gone through the constitutional process and negotiations and having been through the history that I have been through, that one must be extremely cautious when one gives the state the licence to carry out violence. It's a very, very dangerous thing violence and the use of weaponry. It's not something to be treated very, very lightly. And so when a call is made by ordinary frustrated citizens to act more ruthlessly against violence or against crime, it's very difficult to respond and explain that the moment you give it's like allowing soldiers out of the barracks and then trying to put them back in the barracks. It's no different. One must be very, very cautious about that. So personally I am very keen to make sure that my view is that the state must never be given free rein in carrying out violence. I do, however, believe very firmly given our history and given the history of other countries, that there are circumstances and times in history when they have no alternative but to resort to violence. Those must also be treated very, very cautiously and must not be taken lightly. Those are very, very difficult decisions which can really scar the psyche of the people. It is the same thing as Sarajevo, Bosnia where you see kids playing games with weapons and enacting, playacting, those violent scenes and so on. It's what it does to the psyche. I am a firm believer in gun control at a very, very strict level. You cannot have it otherwise.

POM     You said earlier something that struck me too, that even today you can't look at SA through the prism of a single truth.

HE     I think that is so true.

POM     There are many truths.

HE     There are so many truths. The issue is not so much how we interpret SA because people have interpreted our history in different ways. We all have our different experiences. At the end of the day the value of the truth in interpreting the past lies only in how it helps us in taking us to the future and given our history there are different truths. People saw our history in a different way. It's the same debate that goes around with regard to Nazi Germany. Many German people argued 'we didn't know'. Many white people today, very good people, given how they were brought up didn't know, didn't mean any harm, didn't want any part of any evildoing and saw our history in a totally different way, including denying that experience. So there are different truths and the value of those different truths, the importance of it, is not to try and compete and compare between them which is the real truth but the value of it lies in how it helps us in understanding where our country should and ought to be going to. It's the fact that we come from such differing past cultures, history and goes to the fact that the struggle in SA today is to develop a common national psyche, a new SA nationality and culture and history where we can all talk about one culture. That's the struggle now.

     So when you talk about looking at our history through different prisms then I think the value of it lies there, it's to recognise it. By and large I think the constitution attends to it too, to reconcile because it is an amalgam of the aspirations of the majority as well as the fears of the minority and recognising those differences and you see the balancing taking place within the constitution, that the whole nub of the constitution is the vision for a future SA. It's where we're going to. So that's my view on really the different truths. Often now you hear people debating about our past and we see it in my department with people who have been with the department for many years and people who are newly recruited into the department and what people firmly and sometimes not so firmly refer to the old order and the new. You see those dangers coming up and it becomes an issue, a very real issue.

POM     Do they have different conceptions of justice, of what justice is?

HE     I don't think it's essentially different conceptions of what justice is but whether you're talking about bureaucracy or administration of implementation of policy or whatever it is, it's the whole attitude that today we are looking at a new approach and so when we refer to a new approach we're not just referring to bad and good, black and white, we're really referring to a new way of doing things. It's not exactly as if the administration previously was inefficient, it was extremely efficient and there's a lot of good out of that that we can still utilise today but a lot of it has to be debunked because there's a different way in which the world is working. The paradigm internationally has shifted and so we need to make that shift. SA is no longer an island, we are part of the global community and more and more as you talk to people, which may be different from what I discussed with you previously, is this whole issue of globalisation, recognition that you're part of an international community and the world operates and functions differently than it did previously.

POM     I know that sometimes, for some years, just off the top of my head, when I've been here a bit, referring to the interviews, I do a long essay on my impressions from the period when I've been here and in one of the years I wrote that the irony in SA is that SA gained independence as a sovereign state just as the idea of sovereignty was becoming obsolete.

HE     I think that's the big thing, yes.

POM     So it has these tensions.

HE     Absolutely.

POM     The meaning has completely changed.

HE     The whole concept of globalisation has, which is a really contradictory argument which also calls for localisation. So as much as you become part of the international community people are looking at the localisation of authority, powers and so on. So people refer to the supra-national and the sub-national rather than the national. The nation/state concept which really came to the fore at the end of the first world war and particularly the second world war has changed and when the nations could support the nation/state given the European Community, people no longer talk about nation/states, people talk about the local authority as

POM     A conglomeration of regions.

HE     Absolutely.

POM     Regions within countries and sometimes across countries.

HE     That's exactly the point. So we gained our independence and our new constitution within still the mould of the nation/state concept. I think the pressures internationally, not just in SA I mean how do you define sovereignty and nationality given SA's history and location within Africa historically and politically, given the fact that we now tend to be quite xenophobic ourselves. Our tolerance of other nationalities, particularly Africans from Central Africa, our lack of tolerance is quite profound. I think people are seriously looking at our roles and responsibilities quite aside from the fact that historically Africa has been very kind to us despite its difficulties within our struggle. It's now our turn to try and help promote the development of human rights and freedom and constitutionalism and democracy in other parts of Africa, but we still maintain some level of xenophobia which is a struggle I think we need to develop. So as much as I call for a national South African psyche I think that to some extent that's eroded, that politically whether we like it or not you will have people of different cultures emerging in the SA culture.

POM     The question I am frequently asked when I go back is: why can't SA get its act together, what's wrong? It's been six years now and you hear the same old problems, it just hasn't it's stalled. It's like down a runway, the Concord or whatever, it crashed the other day and they said it was going too quickly, it's stalled and never lifted cleanly off the ground. As it got up rather than beginning to soar it kind of wobbled off.

HE     Isn't that a wonderful example of the different prisms we're talking about and the different truths because on the one hand even us South Africans would argue the same. We're very critical that we haven't made progress fast enough. I've just finished a course at Harvard, the Harvard lecturers have a different take on it which I found quite interesting and astounding.

POM     Which course was this?

HE     The Harvard Senior Executives Programme, I've just come back from Boston, and each and every one of those lecturers argued what a privilege it was to participate in a programme with South Africans primarily because SA provided that example in history of a change from the old to the new in a much more dramatic way than has been encountered in most other countries. If you look at countries turning around from total oppression to freedom, freedom is encapsulated in the type of constitution with the type of ethos that we have embedded in our constitution and making the progress that we are they feel that our progress has been somewhat astounding, that sometimes we are far too critical of the lack of speed, lack of progress that we're making. I think somewhere between the two, again, are the two competing truths that I think one needs to look at.

     The common criticism which came up in the Presidential Review Commission is that we're big on policy, short on delivery and the common argument made is that we're not delivering fast enough. In our department right now in a different way we're looking at that debate and that debate merely suggests that the nature of the change that took place in SA brought about two major pressures on our department when we look at delivery. One is that we had to implement and introduce a large number of different pieces of legislation required by the new constitution firstly, and secondly the new government, the democratic government. So a government department, like no other anywhere else in the word, all of a sudden being confronted with in 1994 a new constitution and demands and pressures to actually produce and implement new legislation. Very clearly given those pressures and given the fact that nationally we're looking at ensuring the government does not spend with gay abandon, that our resources that we can put into the implementation and delivery would be somewhat limited given the number of pieces of legislation we have to put in. But that's one part of the change that we have to undertake.

     The second part of the change is that the world, government, the economy and generally the public sector has changed the way in which it operates. People are now introducing a much more corporatist approach to the way in which the public sector is to operate and that's international. So we have to also build on that and that created a whole series of new pressures in terms of service delivery. So it's very difficult, and if I look from practical experience being in this department and looking at government, whilst I too am very, very critical of the progress or the lack of progress, I am somewhat mindful and I temper that criticism with a dose of reality.

POM     You all had to go through a process of transformation, of structures and -

HE     We all had to transform. We had the embodiment of that. We had embodiment of that because we came with no background in management in the public sector. Not only did we have to learn how to become the public service, or to become public service managers, but we also had to learn what was required of the new (I don't like the term 'international order') but the new way of doing things, a paradigm shift, moving into the 21st century, the impact of technology and the way in which we interact with each other and our ability to deliver a service to the public, the type and the quality of service that is required, the need for customer orientation, looking at the state and its departments rather than hovering above the populace, being located amongst the populace where you respect the taxpayer as being the person who pays your salary and the level of service that is due unto the taxpayer and citizen.

     So it's a new approach, it's a totally new approach. If you take away the negativities of our history, of apartheid and whatever, the old public sector would never have managed in the current international order because the demands are different. We are not only having to change with the new constitutional order, we had to also change with that. So people like us had to jump through three hoops. Firstly, the first hoop we had to jump was to make that mind-shift and become public sector managers; the second hoop we had to jump was to make that mindset change, that shift in mindset, paradigm, into moving into the 21st century; and the third was the new constitutional order and dispensation. So it's phenomenal pressure and so when I examine where I have come short as a manager in the new order, when I look at that, then I look at that not to justify my weaknesses as a manager but to try and understand so as to try and come to grips with it. So if you look at whether it is budgeting, whether it is the way in which you manage accord and interact with ordinary people, the old way of thinking cannot be dealt with. It's totally different. In the old days you had a vertical, hierarchical structure, top down where what was said on the top merely got implemented without questions being asked. Now we talk about a consultative process, you never implement policy without taking people on board. You want a different approach and attitude towards dealing with citizens and the broad public. So it's a totally different ball game. The rules have changed and the point about the 21st century is that the rules are continuing to change. It's not static, we're living in a very vibrant  atmosphere.

POM     That could almost go, I often use the example of the reason why one shouldn't buy a notepad or a laptop computer, it's like saying, well R6000 today but if I wait six months there will be a better one on the market for R5000 so I'll wait six months. When six months goes by I say, do you know what? If I wait another three months there'll be another one on the market and I can buy it for R3000 and it will be better too. So in the end it seems that I shouldn't buy one at all.

HE     That's a very, very plausible response. The world is changing.

POM     Every time we adjust to a change, the change has become obsolete because it's been replaced.

HE     The only way I can describe it is Trotsky's argument of a continuous revolution. We are revolutionaries continuously. The Internet, E-Commerce, is changing the way in which the world works. We are no longer a far-flung country on the southern tip of Africa. We're part of the world and what happens here impacts on other parts of the world and what happens in other parts of the world impacts here. So when America sneezes we catch the flu instantaneously, not any more in months to come or years to come. We are part of that international community, we are part of the global village. Those are the realities.

POM     I read the financial sections of the papers here and I see more print space given to what Alan Greenspan may do or may not do than to

HE     Absolutely. He's become an important face.

POM     He's like a known figure here.

HE     Absolutely. Everybody talks about Alan Greenspan, but Alan Greenspan is an important man and Bill Gates is an important man because they change the shape, technology, they shape the economy, they shape the way in which we work.

POM     Let me ask you in this context, because now it's become a crusade with me, I've always been interested in AIDS and edited a book on AIDS in the States in the late 1980s when it looked as though it was going to become a heterosexual disease and the white middle class suddenly sat up and took note. Then when it became more or less confined to the gay community, or to drug users who invariably were black and poor, the public lost interest. I go around and just last week I talked with Mr Motlanthe and brought up questions that I bring up with everyone; why wasn't there more talk about AIDS at the Port Elizabeth conference, even though it came on the heels of the AIDS conference in Durban? He talked about it and he's the second or third person who's talked about it, black and white, in a way that disturbed me. It's a problem but it's one of many problems we face and they're all interlinked. I was saying, no, you don't get it, it's a plague, it's destroying your country, in 20 years from now if this goes unchecked it will be one in every child out of ten who will die of AIDS. You would have no teachers, you'll be educating people in hi-tech and they will useless because you'll be saying why educate this person as a surgeon, he will take nine years of training as a surgeon and if they're HIV positive they will only live for three years, bad investment. Foreign investors will say why go into a country where if I bring in sophisticated technology and I have to hire a skilled labour force, I will have to employ three people for every one to be able to operate because two out of three are going to die. The demographics of the country are going to change. The social base of the country will change, the structure of society is going to change. Millions are going to die and yet it hasn't hit home.

HE     I share your view, I share your view about the urgency and the enormity of the plague and it's nothing short of a plague, pandemic. But again I'm not sure if one wants to make light of it by arguing it from the perspective of a different truth because AIDS is a reality. It's a reality which is impacting on every level of society and we see it in all public and private organisations and social life. We're losing people, valuable people and the most important resource that we have is this human resource and I don't want to make light of it because you cannot make light of it but you cannot make light of the other problems the country faces as well. It's a very curious situation. It's damned if you do and doomed if you don't because if you look at the type of pressures on people in the public sector and people who are agents of change, agents of transformation, managing the transformation, at the helm of it, then AIDS becomes, albeit a very important one, it becomes one of very many different other major problems. I don't think one could make light of and one can't explain any laxity in it. By all means, even in our department it's policy to make sure that education about AIDS and doing something about it is a reality. It's a reality you cannot fob off or make light of. We see that reality all the time.

POM     It's almost as though you're at the point of saying we have a state of emergency in this country and it's regarding AIDS, special measures have to be taken and we may have to suspend certain provisions of the constitution, may have to in the good of making sure that there are people there who will be able to enjoy the constitution.

HE     That's a very interesting argument, that's a very, very interesting argument.

POM     In moments of supreme public crisis the concept of what is the right of an individual changes, no right is an absolute right in itself.  I'm not either for it or against it but if I were president I would say we have to begin a programme of testing for HIV. Now, what are outcomes? Outcomes are like what one read in the paper this weekend of doctors disclosing this information to employers and the employees getting fired. That you crack down on. That's a dealable problem, it's discrimination, that you can deal with. One can say these are all the bad outcomes that one can devise a policy to, but the need to know and control the spread of a plague is greater than the wrongs that might be done to any one individual.

HE     I think that's a very interesting argument because put that argument on the side and look at exactly the other plague in our society, or the perceived plague which is crime and violence, violent crime, and you hear exactly the same response. And I am saying, be cautious of it. Put aside that argument and then you look at the rising unemployment and educational crisis or the crisis in education and you see again the same argument. I'm saying be very cautious -

POM     I am being cautious.

HE     - about looking at one of the major plagues hitting our society and dealing with that as an absolute to the exclusion of others because there are a number of issues that are impacting and I think there is a thread, not a threat, running between them or a relationship between them, but the way in which you respond whether it be AIDS, crime and violence, sexual violence, unemployment, service delivery, all of it depends on really the perspective that you wish to take but if you look at the transformation of society as a whole then it's this great debate that continuously takes place in the public sector. There's this word called 'prioritisation' and everybody uses it and it's a question by what criteria do you prioritise.

POM     In America it's  -

HE     Yes a new word. It is an American word.

POM     Why not just say we should have sub-priorities?

HE     That's right but that is the buzzword today. It's a buzzword throughout society, prioritisation and the question is by what criteria do you define your priorities in that really? So it's a criteria by which we define the priorities whether it be AIDS, crime or unemployment, service delivery or access to justice. It is what is the crucial issue, what underlies that bottom line. For me from the constitutional perspective it is always a question of power. It is the people in power in any society that define what the dominant criteria are, defining the priorities in society. That is what gives rise to the way in which one responds to the different plagues that society is confronted with. So I think when dealing with the response, and I think one must also deal with the underlying priorities and the value systems by which your argument whether AIDS is given sufficient prominence or not, it's a value system underlying it and that's what I believe must be debated. What are those values, what are those values that one attributes in weighing up crime, dealing with crime as opposed to dealing with education as opposed to dealing with employment as opposed to dealing with this pandemic AIDS?  What happens then in many societies it's the ruling elite that does that. That's what I think is where the debate essentially lies.

POM     I edit a journal when I'm over there, where you just came from, and I do special issues and I've done one on AIDS in the US in the eighties and I'm doing one now on the Economic and Social Impact of AIDS in South Africa. If you can think of people I should be talking to? I've talked to a lot of people on the AIDS Committee, for months we've been in dialogue. In particular I've been talking to a woman named Mary Crewe at the AIDS Institute in Pretoria who brought up what to me was a very brutal but honest look at the progress of the plague, or whatever, of AIDS called "To the Edge". Did you every get a copy of it?

HE     No.

POM     I'm going to send it on to you. It didn't get widespread distribution and there's no government comment. In fact it was very critical of government, rightly or wrongly so. But I suppose I'm thinking in terms of their priorities but among those priorities all are not equal, some are more equal than others and that to get US attention and resources you must show the US that it's damaging its interests, not your interests. They only act when they feel that it's hurting, they've got to turn it almost into a foreign policy issue to the world, that if they allow this whole sub-continent to go under it will have a destabilising impact, because of globalisation, on the rest of the world and if it happens here the next to fall is India where it's just waiting. It can overtake SA in about ten years and be where SA is today. This isn't going away.

HE     It isn't going away.

POM     And therefore if you send troops into Kosovo what you need to send into southern Africa are not troops, but doctors, nurses, medical back-ups that can go into villages, secure villages, as they do in military training, teach people if they say give food, give out drugs. My answer would be twofold, one, you provide drugs, people must be able to use the drugs. Who is going to teach the people to use the drugs? Look at the assumptions that are made. People have these drugs and they are administered three times a day. It won't cure but it will lengthen life. You're assuming that the people (a) with AIDS will come forward, (b) you're assuming that they can read time and know the difference between eight o'clock, twelve o'clock and nine o'clock, (c) that they can count in different combinations, (d) that they know different colours, and I say that because I think it was Mac who was talking about this, he said in Xhosa the word for green and blue is the same. What if all these pills arrive and they were green and blue? You go to a Xhosa village and you say take three green and four blue. They'll say thanks very much, we'll take any combination we like. How do you build an infrastructure which has to be put in place and that can only be done if you have an international effort and that you can administer it, you, you in South or southern Africa can say to the rest of the world when they say there's worse than a war going on there, we must move resources in, we must help with training, technology, the basics, the logistics, all of that besides that if we give out drugs, free drugs and they're taken in the wrong combination. The first thing I would do if I was a patient who was HIV positive and I was told to take drugs and I was poor and I looked relatively healthy when I looked in the mirror, I'd say I look fine, you know what? I'll sell these damn things.

HE     That's right.

POM     There's a market out there. They might give somebody a high, who knows? Suddenly you've got drugs being used by everybody, the drugs lose their potency, the virus mutates, it resists the drug. All of these things must be addressed simultaneously and that requires enormous co-ordination, enormous investment. Some estimates already put are that the loss in economic growth in SA in 15 years will be almost 25%, that will mean no jobs so unless you get AIDS under control and then you've got this malign argument that as long as you keep it among poor people that's fine because you're really killing off the unemployed.

HE     That's an awful, evil argument.

POM     But it's made.

HE     I know. Padraig, there is nothing but agreement with what you're saying. You can't make it any less important than what you are arguing.

POM     But do you understand why - I didn't come here to talk about AIDS, this is what you call one of these you're like Mac now when he goes off in a different direction. The evidence is that AZT is phenomenally effective with pregnant women. In study after study conducted throughout the world it's just overwhelming. Where one would say from a scientific point of view, as far as one can go, this works and it works very effectively, and yet the government will not make it available and it could be done at a low cost and the lives, the money that would be saved on the lives saved is far greater than the cost given the number of lives that would be lost if we don't use it, the orphans that are born and have to be taken care of. I don't get it.

HE     I wish I were a little bit more knowledgeable about the debate to speak more eloquently about it, but one thing that is very clear and one thing that I do understand is that it's the worst possible plague that we can ever be confronted with, that it's responsible for the loss of more lives than we have had in wars and that we are obliged to do something serious about it for the future of this country. I'm very clear about that, very clear about it.

POM     There's something that hasn't materialised yet, it's not education. Most countries, and I'll leave it at this after this or I'll take up your whole day talking about AIDS, in most countries education has a minimum effect, awareness campaigns a minimal effect. It's a nice way out for spending money on education, putting billboards up there, condoms aren't used.

HE     Can I say one thing which I think will address the issue? For me I don't believe that we are doing enough and, frankly speaking, I don't think we actually could do enough to address the issue of AIDS, it's such a serious issue that you simply cannot do enough because every life that is lost, quite aside from the noble ideas of keeping life as sacred, the impact it has on our society, on our culture, on economy, on our country and the future of where we are going to is so serious that you simply cannot be lackadaisical about dealing with this matter. It is something of enormous proportions and it's an extraordinary plague which requires perhaps extraordinary responses. I'm not a very good judge of whether we're doing enough because I don't regard myself as knowledgeable enough to make that statement. I don't believe that no matter what we're doing can really be enough and I think lots more energy ought to be put into it. That's my view on the matter. We simply cannot do enough.

POM     It should be on the UN Agenda, it shouldn't be a South African issue.

HE     It's an international issue.

POM     That's right.

HE     It's the one issue that should unite the world, where the world may be divided -

POM     UN Security Council should propose

HE     - on world economic policy or anything, there should be one single view. You cannot have differing views on this.

POM     Anyway, I won't talk to you any more on that.

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.