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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

20 Sep 2000: De Klerk, Willem

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WDK     I still believe that in all honesty that we're still in the middle of the dynamics of transition and that things will get better, perhaps that's wishful thinking, that the attitude of government is to settle things. There is no hidden agenda there, they want to be a success, they want to bring down crime and corruption, they want to reach out to minority groups to a certain extent, they want to get their macro-economic things in the GEAR policy working. They're playing with COSATU and the Communist Party to do lots of negotiations. A little bit double-tongued when they talk to them, it's another story when they talk to other people, other groups. But by and large I still feel that the dynamics to grow into a real settled democracy are still at work. That's the paradox, that's the one side of the paradox. The other is that there is a feeling, more intuition, that Thabo is not really as successful as I hoped he would be.

POM     What happened?

WDK     I don't know. Something – the AIDS thing of his and then Mugabe. I mean Mugabe, I can understand something of that, politics in black circles, and, OK, he wants to centralise everything but he's closed to the press, he's not present in parliament, he's on and off the record saying that his main job now is to secure the world, the international world so that it will open up to us.

POM     But he's kind of taken on this global mantle of being the spokesperson for the developing world and for Africa in particular, but he's in danger of losing his own constituency, his own country.

WDK     Yes, you know somebody, just this morning I talked to somebody, not politics, but he also said, "What happened to Thabo?" So he said, "Isn't it logical to start with your own country and fix things here, don't worry about the rest?" Well it's not so simple because we're a region, southern Africa, but I think that his focus, the perception is that his focus is mainly on the international world and the African Renaissance idea and trying to build a constituency for himself to be a great messiah to a certain extent of Africa. I knew that his administration was always not that well, his office, his whole office, it seems to me that whatsisname, the ex-Reverend, Chikane, it seems to me that things are not going smoothly in his office, that there's a lack of addressing things and get it over with and formulation of decisions and things. So my intuition says there is something wrong with Thabo.

POM     You're the third or fourth person who has said that to me in the last couple of months, people who would bear Thabo no ill will and who would have expected him to have been very, very competent.

WDK     Yes, I'm one of those people.

POM     As manager and president that he would bang things into shape and be a mover. They all are puzzled. I'll just run a theory by you. One person said to me that perhaps Thabo has really no developed sense of a South African identity. He left the country when he was young, he was schooled in England. If anything you would expect him to be Eurocentric. He travelled extensively -

WDK     During all the years –

POM     - under Tambo, he didn't spend all his time in Lusaka, he was in all the capitals of Europe and America and he was a suave man, a sophisticated man. He comes back to SA, he is picked as deputy president, he does the day-to-day work of running the government from an office. He never gets out there in a way and mixes with the people. I wonder if he knows what township life is like. Does he know his own country? Does he know rural areas? He may talk 'I am an African', that's broad, it struck me afterwards why didn't he say, "I am a South African", rather. He's now picked his identity as being an African identity in order to find an identity for himself. This thing of being Eurocentric, then you look at the composition of his AIDS Council and all the dissidents are non-Africans so if he's looking for African solution to an African problem why has he invited in all these?

WDK     That's true. I think there's perhaps something in that theory that Thabo is not the best, perhaps, from a psychological point of view, identity crisis, he is trying his utmost best to be – doesn't try to be a Mandela but he tries to establish himself as a wise, competent leader and it seems to me that he's not very successful in that and then the reaction is that he's becoming very intolerant of any criticism, very intolerant of the press, intolerant of parliament even and closed.

POM     Is that because he has closed himself with a circle of people who he can count on and will never say, "Thabo, that was a really very silly statement that you made today, you've got to stop making statements like that or people are going to start laughing at you"?

WDK     Well of course, as you know, that's typical politicians, this whole thing with people who will always hallelujah. But it seems to me, I also picked it up but not firsthand, that there are a lot of 'in-cabinet' groupings and that Thabo is more and more closing himself up to certain groups, that's a little bit too critical, behind closed doors with him. I haven't got it firsthand but it's a reliable source.

POM     That he's – in cabinet he has -?

WDK     He has his favourites there, he's closed to any criticism there and people who are too straightforward in cabinet with him, typical PW Botha style, he marginalised them. They're not part of his inner circle, he doesn't listen to them. He sees something of disloyalty in any form of criticism, even from his own ministers. This source of mine said he had it from a certain minister that he's very friendly with.

POM     Can you envisage a situation where, the word schizophrenic is often used to describe SA, but you have almost parallel situations: you've a great constitution, you have a parliament that functions. It may be a one-party parliament but it functions, it has sub-committees, they have hearings, they go through the motions, you have a free press, you have an independent judiciary, an extraordinary Constitutional Court. Those institutions are all working well, they're functioning. Laws are being passed, the business is being done in that way. Then you have a different SA which is on the verge of social disintegration where there's no value on human life and AIDS which is destroying the fabric of not just society but of the economy, of any prospect for long-run sustainable development, of poverty that's not going to –

WDK     Which will be with us for –

POM     - change very much. In between you have an elite black middle class that –

WDK     That is becoming stronger and stronger.

POM     Stronger and stronger and have identified with the white middle class because their concerns are the same; safe neighbourhoods, good schools, good health care. You've two South Africas that are not based on race.

WDK     Probably, as you know perhaps better than myself, but he's always talking of the two nations.

POM     But that's black and white.

WDK     That's black and white. Rich whites versus the poor blacks. And this thing that his Minister for Health duplicated, this report, I can't understand this, and she's still very adamant about it. So you must see Thabo's instructions in that to a certain extent.  I don't want to …

POM     This guy's a certified madman.

WDK     Yes!

POM     At least Duesenberg won the Nobel Prize.

WDK     That's the driving force for wiping out blacks in Africa, that's nonsense. That's the two South Africas. I always hoped and believed that was very much focused on that the government will, this bad side of SA, they will sort things out and Thabo will be the saviour, he will be the man who is going to do this job. And it's now a year, more than a year that Thabo is – how long is he now Prime Minister?

POM     Nearly 18 months, since May of last year. It's now nearly October.

WDK     October and there's an old saying going that if you're elected as a president or a prime minister you must do your thing the first two years or three years because when you come nearer to the next election there is no room for absolute radical (not radical in the radical sense) but leadership of quality and then it's electioneering. So that is a worrying factor. And then emigration. I read this morning, that's the SA Academy – an Afrikaans Academy, in 1999, this is the immigrants and then the emigrants. Look here, 8000, 10,000 in 1997, 9000, 8000, 10,000. It amounts to nearly a million people. That's mainly, according to this article, it's mainly the middle class, the educated, and the immigrants are poor African people slipping over the borders and trying to get work here. So that's also a very worrying factor.

     But we can't afford, just coming back to that, we can't afford to be too negative because hope is the energy in life.

POM     If I put a very simple proposition to you, and I put it more and more to people, that unless the country energises itself at all levels, particularly through strong political leadership and commitment to deal with AIDS, that the prospects, the economic and development prospects for this country are very poor and in the short run you are going to get no foreign investment because no foreign investor is going to come to a country where he says, "So I bring in capital and for every skilled worker I employ I will have to employ three because two of them will be dead within 10 years. If I invest in them in terms of human capital it's a waste of money so there are other places in the world I can go."

WDK     That's only from a point of view of AIDS. AIDS already closes the doors for us for investments but then there's crime and political instability to a certain extent, racism, our labour laws and that kind of thing. And I think that's why Manuel, Erwin, and I think Thabo too, are very, very worried about our investment situation, investments from abroad and that's perhaps why they're focusing on that so much, spending so much time and energy, and even Manuel and Erwin and Thabo they more or less are 80% of the time abroad, they're not here.

POM     But it's like they don't get it. You can make a passionate case to a businessman why he should come to SA and he will simply look at the demographics and say, "You know the best estimates are that you're going to lose 21% of your highly skilled people over the next ten years through AIDS. What do I do for skilled labour? In fact I'm going to have a sick workforce on my hands. How many hours am I going to lose through productivity just because of illness? How many am I going to lose through funerals? Don't tell me about the great financial incentives and all of that."

WDK     That's very true. This AIDS thing may be our death stand as a country, really, and the government – well they're trying their best to do a lot of things but the perception is that Thabo politicised the whole thing. It's poverty, it's apartheid …

POM     The perception abroad, like where I go, not that I go further than my usual kind of rounds, is, "What's happened? Why isn't he dealing with the problem?" It's not just the denying of established, as far as you can establish within almost certain bounds of probability that HIV causes AIDS, but why doesn't he –

WDK     Accept it.

POM     Step out of himself and say we've a problem, people are dying, we have no labour force, in education we have no teachers, no nurses?

WDK     He's so stubborn, he had a lot of chances to come out of the whole thing. Let's say it was an error but there were opportunities for him to manoeuvre himself out of it, face saving opportunities, back door opportunities, and he didn't take them.

POM     Mandela gave him one at the end of the AIDS conference.

WDK     Yes.

POM     Then he gives an interview to Time Magazine, so in the same week that he gives an interview to Time Magazine he goes before the UN and makes, according to the papers here, a sparkling performance but it's completely overshadowed by what he says in Time Magazine and more people read Time Magazine than listen to what goes on in the UN.

WDK     I see in this morning's Beeld that there's an advertisement in the New York Times, a government advertisement for investment opportunities, etc., etc.. The report says the advertisement is not very well accepted, it's not really a quality advertisement. It's an advertisement in the first place.

POM     It appears to be – Simon Barber had a piece in Business Day about it today. He quotes from paragraph three. He says there is some political instability in the country between Mandela's ANC (he says 'Mandela's ANC') and the IFP, overlooking the fact that they are partners in government.

WDK     That was also the accent of this Beeld article too, that that advertisement is going into the Zulu traditions and there is still tension between the IFP. No it's very true but, well, even a Minister like Kader Asmal, we were so excited by him as a Minister of Water Affairs, and he started with the whole education thing, well he's accustomed to fix, but he's also very disappointing in his performance about different facets of education, higher education. Our Minister of Justice is a very educated man but he's also making a fool of himself time and again in statements and things. So, yes, it is worrying and you can't say this to Thabo via the white press, as they call it, or via personal appeal to him within the framework of friendship because he's very, very suspicious that you've got a hidden agenda. Whoever, like Willie Esterhuyse, Esterhuyse is an old friend of Thabo, and he's still in very close, more social, contact I think. He told me that Thabo visited him when he was in hospital, also with a bypass operation, and they see each other on social occasions. Even Willie said, "Well Thabo is – one must handle him very carefully, with soft hands, otherwise he rejects you."

POM     But this must be a different Thabo than the Thabo he knew years ago?

WDK     Yes, a good mind and a very good sense of humour and a logical, rational approach to problems and things. So, yes, it is worrying. Let's see what's going to be the result of the next elections. I don't expect the new opposition to be very successful. It's a good thing that the NP is dead now, from my point of view, but I don't believe that the DP even with the merger, it's again they're not going to make inroads in the black community and even the coloureds who were kind of at ease with the NP there may be a lot of coloured people that are going to vote ANC instead of for the DP alliance. It's still my absolute belief that opposition in SA must be black opposition and whites can be an appendix in this opposition and an appendix in the ANC. The status of whites in this country now is to be an appendix, we're not really going to be in real influence and power. That's something of the past. Initially I hoped that the split between COSATU, socialism, populism and those kinds of things will happen here somewhere after 2004, but I don't think this is going to happen, it's in the far field.

POM     One thing struck me last year, I think first during the elections in Peru and then in Mexico and then in Zimbabwe, that the opposition to the old established order came from the emerging middle classes which in fact had benefited –

WDK     From the new governments.

POM     From what had been the new government, they were the first to turn against it, whereas the people who stuck with the old government were the poorest, the unemployed.

WDK     Did you mean is it not going to happen here, that our middle class will become more and more involved in opposition politics?

POM     Do you think could happen?

WDK     I think so but I don't think for the next election in 2004, that won't happen then. There's lots of criticism but they're also very, very cautious not to criticise too much. There was a lot of work, Schlemmer has done this report that more or less 80%, between 70% and 80% of blacks are still loyal to the ANC and vote for the ANC. So I don't think that's going to happen, perhaps after 2004.

POM     It's going to take a long time.

WDK     That's the hurt for SA. Therefore, when I must present something or speak to people I say, well, to suffer a little bit, we're still in the whole storm, the eye of the storm of transition and all these things, even Thabo's kind of strategies and things, everything is connected with the uncertainty in the hearts of leaders and in the communities and this whole AIDS thing and everything is connected with transition, affirmative action, etc. So we're going through a lot of crises now but the turning point will be somewhere in 2007, 2008. I think we haven't got that time because if we collapse economically we're going to collapse from the … there is no deliverance for the poorest of the poor. What can we do about it? What can we do about the poorest of the poor, I'm asking you? It's not that easy.

POM     The other side of that question is do the poorest of the poor really care about being the poorest of the poor or are they so disempowered that they expect nothing anyway? They're disappointed, that's why they'll always vote for the ANC because they don't expect their lives to change so in a way you don't have to change. Once you start catering to their demands you start creating expectations, you start in a way upping the ante.

WDK     You can buy the poorest of the poor with running water, a few little things, from our point of view. But as you also know in the middle class is the potential for revolution. What revolution? Hopefully in SA the middle class will be and is focused on a capitalist, democratic culture.

POM     What do you make of the Consultative Conference in Port Elizabeth to talk of there being too many careerists and opportunists and we need to develop, in a way, a new man, a selfless man devoted to serving the public and it's fine but it's not the way human beings operate. I get on in life and I buy a bigger house and I buy a bigger car and I'm worried about interest rates, am I going to keep my job or become wiped out by global competition? I'm not thinking about dragging the poorest of the poor up by their heels. I'm more concerned with making sure that I stay well above ground.

WDK     So we won't be too pessimistic. I think one must keep in the country, I'm talking now from a white perspective, an Afrikaner perspective, one must keep, I would like to say faith but I'm not talking religious, but faith and hope that things will settle down. This atmosphere of pessimism, Afro-pessimism, we must break through that. It's severe now in white circles. They're very, very pessimistic about things. We can't all sing in that choir. One must say, well there are also positive things. As you said the institutions are working, the Constitutional Court, etc., etc., etc. The democracy is still very well encased in SA and there is potential and apart from AIDS and other things it is still a country that one can do business with. One must focus on that kind of attitude.

POM     Do you think that the average Afrikaner is worse off now than say ten years ago or that by and large standards of living have only been marginally affected?

WDK     I won't say that I think the average Afrikaner is still well off. There are more and more poor whites again, very, very poor whites, but that's a handful. The average Afrikaner is still on different levels living the good life.

POM     You go to Rosebank and Sandton and any of these places at night and all the restaurants, every night, are packed.

WDK     Yes, especially Rosebank is – but it's a white kind of a business centre.

POM     It's all white. I don't know where middle class blacks go to eat and drink.

WDK     A little bit more in Sandton, I don't know.

POM     More in Sandton than in Rosebank?

WDK     Really there are a few people that lost jobs and so on via affirmative action but they got very good packages and we hope, I'm talking now as an Afrikaner, that more and more entrepreneurship will develop on different levels of Afrikaner society, the family starting a little business selling koeksisters and this and that, and there are signs that there's a lot of initiative going on in Afrikaner circles to say the public sector is closed for us now, professions will be closed to us more and more and we must now go into business. Even the small business sector, even for blacks, may be a very good development in SA. That's a ray of hope and the same goes for the white community, especially the Afrikaners.

POM     I think you made that point to me last year. If you didn't, someone made a very similar point that just as the Afrikaners displaced the English in 1948 from the public sector and drove them into business, now blacks are displacing the Afrikaners and the people who are emigrating are mostly English speaking whites and there's a vacuum in business that is now being filled by Afrikaners who say the future depends upon ourselves.

WDK     I think one must further that kind of attitude within your own group and one must underline the fact for the ANC that in 'coalition', in a framework of working together, having the input of different communities, that's our future. I'm not very worried about the fact that it's a one-party state now. There are still enough checks and balances. We will see how things will develop from now until the next election. Perhaps Thabo's just in a kind of … situation. Let's watch it and see.

     When are you going back?

POM     I'm going back on the 4th of October. I'm going to Ireland to do a couple of talks at the end of October and then I'll probably try to come back here in November. I find now that I have to work with - even if I pick ten people, I have to work with them every week. I am now giving them assignments to say this is your interview for such and such a year, I've corrected it, now you've got to do your corrections, go through my corrections. We've got to sit down together, you've got to answer new questions, you must make time every week. And to get people to do that -

WDK     In November, it's December, more or less like August in Europe, it's holiday month. November is very, very fully booked usually. The customers that you're working with, the Christmas parties and end of the year general meetings. I don't think November is the best month to do that.

POM     Which is the best month?

WDK     I would say February, March.

POM     I'll be back then too.

WDK     OK, Padraig, unfortunately I must go out this evening.

POM     I just really came by to say hello. You look terrific.

WDK     Yes I'm really feeling –

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.