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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

05 Sep 2000: Van Zyl Slabbert, Frederik

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POM     This is the continuation of a conversation that was not recorded, so it's just an ongoing conversation.

     One, I was just going to take you through some statements in your book, it's fascinating, I'm glad it got translated. You talk about De Klerk, you said,

     "He was easily one of the most skilful defenders of apartheid. He was always pushed forward in debates when in a scholastic and eloquent manner apparent sense had to be made out of nonsense with a crooked, cynical smile on his face he defended the moral and practical justification of Bantu education, group areas, separate amenities, the temporary standards of black people without South African citizenship in urban areas and even the tricameral parliament, despite the fact that he had personally informed me in the lobby it would not work. But of one thing he never lost sight, he wanted to become chief state official and for this everything was possible and nothing essential."

     Did you see him in parliament as being a power driven individual who would take whatever move he had to? In his autobiography he paints himself in a completely different light, as an outsider, as somebody who was never in on anything. But yet he was from a ruling family.

VZS     You've read his biography and what is true certainly is they were part of the sort of Afrikaner aristocracy and they were part of the Transvaal Afrikaner aristocracy.

     Now it sounds almost as if I've got something personal about him. I haven't. I really looked at him even before I went to parliament, he was a young MP and I sat in the gallery watching my friend who was then Nico Diedericks, the son of the minister, and we went and he was busy on the urban blacks. So he used the rhetoric of separate development if not the … but the rhetoric of separate development, very shrewd, he was always very shrewd. You have to ask yourself the question, why? Why did he do it? First he wanted to become a cabinet minister, I'm not saying he wanted to become Prime Minister, he certainly wanted to become a cabinet minister because he was a deputy minister and then he became a cabinet minister. Then once he was there he became the Leader of the Transvaal. Now that's a very powerful position, Leader of the Cape, Leader of the Transvaal. When he became Leader of the Transvaal I think he then started getting ambitions, serious ambitions. PW never liked him, never liked him. PW favoured Dawie de Villiers in the Cape and so on. Barend told me it was just as well that De Klerk won against him by 12 votes because if he had won and he had made the same speech De Klerk had made he would have been dead before daybreak, but because he came from the right –

POM     This is the Nixon syndrome on China.

VZS     Exactly. He could do that. I think I've said to you before that one can only appreciate the way he did it if one understands the history of the NP as a political organisation which placed an enormous emphasis on the issue, the leader could not be wrong, the leader had almost infallible powers, he could do whatever he wanted to do. You could see it, and the leader determined how patronage was going to be dispensed, who became a commissioner, who became an ambassador, who became a cabinet minister, all of that. So that is why the contests for leadership were so intense. The battle between Connie Mulder and PW Botha for who was going to become President was intense stuff and Pik swung it behind PW as far as I can gather, Pik and a few others.

     So my short answer is, I don't think he was driven by wanting to become the President the moment he went into parliament, but he certainly moved through all the available opportunities of promotion that were open within the party structure. But that was his world, he was familiar in that world, he liked it, he moved around very comfortably in that world and, of course, as he progressed so his ambitions increased. I have no doubt that by the time he was Leader of the Transvaal he was beginning to think about - I can be the top man.

POM     Would you refer to him as being cynical? Do you think he brought that cynicism to the post-February 1990 period?

VZS     It's a tough one. I think he was very disillusioned by his reception on the government of national unity. He thought that he would be given much greater -

POM     I'm going back a bit, I'm going through after he had released Mandela and made his speech and gone round the world, was being feted as a statesman. His glory days in 1990. Was he cynical in the way that one continues to hear, people like Mac Maharaj going into depth, passionate depth, on how there was a conscious dual strategy to destabilise the ANC on the one hand and negotiate with the other, to weaken them to the point where –

VZS     I have no doubt that that is what his strategy was all about.

POM     That he played in this and that his denials of violence, denials of any security force involvement in the violence –

VZS     I don't think he plotted and planned it but I think that when he was confronted with it he almost went into a state of denial.

POM     That's what I'm getting at because he would say to Mandela, "Bring me the evidence. Don't make allegations", and yet you are saying that as head of the NP he had unfettered leadership powers, he could have called anybody on the mat and said I want this investigated and I want it stopped, period, not next month, I want it the day after.

VZS     Let me give you an example, you can read through that biography. I challenge you to find the name Helen Suzman anywhere. Apart from the fact that my name doesn't appear in it Helen Suzman does not figure in that whole book. Then he tells you that he was unaware of the torture, he was unaware of the repression and the impact it had on people. I mean Helen Suzman spent most of her life in parliament detailing the cases, telling them this is what happened, and he sat there and he really wants me to believe that. Come on, come on. So now what is he trying to do? Is he in a state of denial or is he trying to promote himself even then? He's promoting himself, he's saying, look at me, and in fact I think that he's changed, I had lunch with him about a month ago. A month ago he was in New York, he saw Soros, wants money for the Institute to promote democracy. Soros says to him, "Talk to Slabbert", because Soros is just kicking for touch you see, so he tells him to come and talk to me. So I go to lunch with him and his wife and Dave Stewart and he's sitting there and without even the slightest, the slightest sign of embarrassment he spends half an hour trying to explain the virtues of a liberal democracy to me. I look at him, I just look at him, and then he says this Institute is vitally important because you now have to promote democracy in the world. To me that's pure …  This is the way you're going to go ahead, he's now doing a Gorbachev, he's doing the whole bloody show. He's got to be seen to be with the …  Enough said. I think he's as cynical as all hell about this. I honestly do. Look he's a pleasant enough guy. I enjoyed the lunch, I sat and talked to him, I take the mickey out of him, I tell him, "George is not going to give you the money."

POM     I'm trying to put that in – I've been reading his testimony before the TRC where it's total denial.

VZS     Nit-picking, legalistic.

POM     General such-and-such applied for amnesty. "Are you still saying it's just a couple of mavericks and rogues who were responsible", and his answer was, "Well you can't take what people say in their amnesty applications. It's got to be proven in a court of law before you can take it any further." Let me ask you about in the context of this, Leon Wessels was Deputy Minister of Law & Order in 1987/89. He would have been chairperson of the National Security Management System, therefore just by virtue of his position he would have known more of what was going on than De Klerk. So when he says, "We should have known" and "We didn't want to know", that's kind of, to me, and I have asked him this, and he's kind of said yes and no, but saying, "You had to know what was going on, you were chairman of the system that was reporting directly to the National Security Council."

VZS     And Leon looks you straight in the face and says, "You know when they said things like 'eliminate', 'take him permanently out of society', we should have been more attentive, we should have thought more what could that mean?"

POM     But it's like the National Security Management System was set up to, in a way, replace or on a parallel with government.

VZS     Of course.

POM     That was dedicated to one thing and that was the use of illegal means to put down an internal struggle. He was chairman of the National Security Management System and yet he's the golden boy – why is he the golden boy? Because he made one statement? That's all it took?

VZS     You can listen to Mandela who will tell you that Kobie Coetsee was one of the great sons of South Africa, Kobie Coetsee, Minister of Justice. So it's no bloody wonder Thabo goes around the bend because Thabo could no more bless any Nat than fly to the moon. Mandela, it's no problem. Niel Barnard, great South African, he went to his dinner, farewell dinner as head of NIS. Come on, how do you explain things like that, how do you explain them? I look at him and say – and then what fascinates me –

POM     Why does Mandela do it?

VZS     Reconciliation, magnanimous, fits into the whole image.

POM     Has he mythologised himself?

VZS     Yes, absolutely.

POM     I have gone back, I've made my own investigations, I've gone back and looked at Boipatong and I've spent a lot of time in Boipatong talking to the victims and the families and measuring distances and where their Apollo lights are. I've talked to all the researchers who worked on the case in the TRC, and there was no investigation of the biggest single massacre, the turning point, no-one has actually … the researchers, investigators say there was no investigation, and yet he has formed conclusions.

VZS     Yes. Alex (Boraine) has written a book and I've got to launch the bloody thing. He's my friend. I said to him, "Alex, what are you doing to me?"

POM     This is being launched here on the 10th is it?

VZS     It's on the 5th October, called, "South Africa Unmasked".

POM     Who was telling me about it was Richard Goldstone.

VZS     Oh he praised it to the – I don't know if he told you personally that but certainly the blurb he gave.

POM     He said he gave it a great blurb. He said, "I read a fascinating book, fascinating", whatever, "This fascinating book and I gave it very good blurb but all I'm saying is he never mentions the Goldstone Commission."

VZS     He also never refers to Anthea Jeffreys book. Anyway that's another story. I'll have to get through that little bit of trouble. I'll just say it's essential reading for anybody who wants to know what happened in the inner circles of the TRC. That's about the most vague comment I could make on it.

POM     I want to go back to AIDS because I want to get you interested in AIDS. When one looks at all the data, whatever data there is and just as we talked about the nurses, it's just … The statistical calculations given the state of things now, in five years, in 2010, that's ten years from now, life expectancy in SA will be down to the mid-forties and if the disease keeps getting worse it's going to keep dropping. You have the President of Botswana saying it's wiped out fifty years of development in Botswana, you don't get funerals during the week in Botswana any more because it interferes, when people will be going to funerals there will be no work day, they have funerals around the weekend. My question is: why doesn't the government see that if there's not a mass mobilisation against this almost in terms of struggle sentiments, that there will be no economic growth, there will be no foreign investment, there will be no skill base and this is going to remain a country that enjoys 2.2% for the next forty or fifty years if millions die.

VZS     I don't know. I really don't know. I'm chairman of a thing called OSISA, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. We cover nine countries. It's basically a donor agency and each one of those nine countries comes and gives a story. I'm at an OSISA conference this weekend. I would say Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Malawi, the people who come and talk to us we give money for combating AIDS or educating people doing it and so on. Four weeks ago Mandela, I met him at Helen Suzman's house, she said, "You must come and talk, he's always asking for money." So he phoned me, his office, and I went there and he said he wanted money for the Mandela Foundation. Now the Mandela Foundation actually is the Mandela Children's Fund. But I, in anticipation of his request, spoke to Soros about it before. So I said to him, "Mr President, Soros is not going to sign a blank cheque. You've got to come up with a project, a project that will grab the imagination." He said, "I want money to combat AIDS. What else? I want money to combat AIDS."  I said, "Well that's fantastic." He said, "Well I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll talk to Msimang, the Minister of Health, and we will together work out something." I hear today that she's spreading a thing around about the role of the … in promoting AIDS."

POM     Oh yes, you hear that in every MEC of Health, on the desk of every MEC for Health.

VZS     So I'm waiting. I said to him, "If you come with a project proposal I know for a fact that Soros and all those people would mobilise a lot of money to assist", but I don't know where you start in on this. If you have a President who's in a state of permanent denial, can't even use the word, where do you get it from? Do you do it through NGO's, education? I think this is where my involvement with it lies, more or less at that level. But that's not enough, not by a long chalk. You need vigorous political leadership. I don't know. When will a guy like Thabo come to his senses?

POM     I've got a group of people who I've been working with are going crazy on this issue. They say they want to commit suicide, never can believe what they see here. We put together a plan that would be very different, very radical and probably involve a considerable sum of money to be implemented on a pilot scheme to see whether it works because I think something must be tested before you – again the money that's available for AIDS in the country isn't spent every year. All the donor aid already is not spent, the same as the … money, it's left over. But we have thought this through down to, my example would be drugs, let's say drugs were free, (i) do you have a distribution system that would be … where they are to go, (ii) if they're going to rural areas and you have to take combinations of a blue and a green at eight and a pink and a yellow at twelve and unless they are taken at the right times they're not effective and a regimen must be followed. I'm told that in Xhosa the word for blue and green is the same so if you send in blue and green tablets and you said take two of this and two of that, they would say that means four of either. Can people tell time? Do they have the instruments to tell time? Can we organise to see that they are following the regimen at each level. I'm HIV positive and I feel strong and good and I say there's nothing wrong with me, I feel terrific, but I've got these pills. You know what? On the open market these may be worth something. They may give somebody a high.  So I would sell them. That's what I would do if I had nothing. I think that's the way you need armies of people go into … like you send them to Kosovo, you send them to places where workers who volunteer can teach people the skills to take care of themselves. Not in ethnic cleansing but …  Pallo says it's due to, why the government doesn't move is because of taboos. He's big on taboos. He says there are those who want to believe you can nudge your way along and those who want to take drastic action and so far the nudgers are winning.

     I've been with Mary Crewe and others. Meanwhile I can send you on this report that we did last March.

VZS     Let me make it quite clear to you that if we can find something that can grab that guy's imagination – I managed to get him into housing where he made $50 million available as a draw-down facility. So we've built or assisted in building about 60,000 houses since 1992 and they're at the lower end of the market, made it accessible. He said to me, not once but many times, and he's coming out in December, he said to me, "If you can find a really imaginative project that will make a difference, come and see me." Now you'll have to get this plan ready for me. I'm not going to say it's going to happen but it's worth a shot. It's certainly worth a shot and I can go to him and say, "Listen", you see he's on Thabo's International Advisory Council. Thabo sends a circular to all the members, Tony O'Reilly, Soros, etc., Soros sends that circular to me and says, "Can you write the letter that I can send him?" and so on. So I said that these are some of the issues that concern us, basically with regard to Mugabe. So let's give it a shot. Let's try.

POM     I know people out there who are full of imagination, full of vigour and kind of bend over every time they read a statement every day that things are happening and there's no – I see it as the struggle, that in the end Thabo's decisions on HIV/AIDS or the stubbornness could lead more deaths than ever happened through apartheid.

     I was at the Racism Conference, why was there no Afrikaner participation?

VZS     Well I personally believe, if I had to apply to go there, I wasn't all that interested I must say, but –

POM     You weren't interested because?

VZS     The way it was structured. The way the HRC Report came out. The way the whole media thing was managed and so on. I know Barney Pityana, I can't see what the hell I'm going to get out of this or how I can be useful, how I can contribute. I've written a piece for tomorrow's Citizen which will give you some idea of my feeling about it. Racism is something you do something about, it's not something that's talk and talk and talk, and it's just talking. How do you translate any of that energy into positive action? You get rid of racism through education, you get rid of it through the way in which you run a company, in which you run government. Nobody needs to be persuaded that racism is bad. For God's sake, racism is bad, it's terrible.

POM     I'm talking to all the Generals now, having a great time. In fact the other night I had Jan Wagener who was the Attorney for the 16 Generals who applied for amnesty, so he came to the house to talk …

VZS     You must have unbelievable information there.

POM     This is what I want to raise. I need to raise money. I'm now in a situation of where I need researchers, I need somebody who can do the technology to put all this stuff, to work this technology so that I can – I even need an editor so I can get through the first editing of my interviews, every word, and change every word and re-arrange every sentence. In one of Mac's interviews it took me three days to do three pages, because he speaks so fast and things get wrapped up together so you have to separate and then go back and say, "Well did you mean this, did you mean that? The preposition there, the subject and object, which are you talking about?" I was wondering whether the Foundation, I will give everything that I've done to an institution that it can be archived and kept there as a permanent record, papers, interviews, everything I have.

VZS     I will speak to -

POM     I sold my business, I have Judy here full time, non-stop, I have to employ someone in Boston.  I will do a two page thing for you and send it to you. I've never … in my life, looking for money, so I've never applied for a grant in my life. Some people do nothing but apply for grants.

VZS     You must go and sit alongside Boraine, he'll teach you how to do that in two seconds. He's now Visiting Professor of Transitional Justice at New York University.

POM     I thought one way would have been a way of getting an association with a university here. I would donate all the material and then I would be supplied with a desk, a person to do research while I'm writing, because I have to write a book in both places. I can't write it there, well I can write there but I've got to be here too because of the follow-up.

VZS     You must come with a proposal and let me look at it.

POM     By the time I've finished I will have spent one third of my adult life, I've spent almost as much time on this as Mandela spent in jail. What I'm looking at now is that I owe Penguin/Viking a 700 page book. There's no way I can use all of the material. Everybody would get a sentence. So I'm looking at that as kind of one project which I'm working on. Then I'm doing all the interviews that I've done, editing them all through even each year or each person, probably each year. I'm going to show the train of commentary on each person, everyone's corrected interview, edited interview and then commentary on the interview and how it feeds into developments and then show how subsequent developments – it would be like an oral history through the eyes of 130 people all becoming involved in every aspect of it. This is down to families, children.

VZS     You must put it like that.

POM     Two pages. I'll get that done.

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.