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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Interview with President Thabo Mbeki

By Tim Sebastian

BBC World's Hard Talk 6 Aug. 2001

TS: Plots, conspiracies and intrigues are said to be swirling around the President of South Africa. Is he under threat or just over sensitive? And does he admit that his views on AIDS have caused confusion and that he's got nowhere at all on Zimbabwe.

President Thabo Mbeki, a very warm welcome to the programme.

TM: Thank you very much.

TS: We hear that you like a tough debate.

TM: Let's see.

TS: Well I hope we don't disappoint you.

TM: That's fine.

TS: Mr President, with all the talk of plots in this country, plots against the President over the last year, there's almost the impression that you feel like an endangered species in your own country, is that right?

TM: No, I don't. I haven't said anything about plots myself. No, I don't. We've got lots of challenges as you know and I think that the people are responding very well and I think that people are very supportive.

TS: The Security Minister claims of investigating plots to physically harm you.

TM: Those are the allegations they say that they'd received from some other people and indeed the South African press. The day he made that was because the public broadcastor had asked him to come in because that's what they were reporting. So they only asked him the question as to who were their reports referring. So he mentioned the names. Maybe he shouldn't have.

TS: But it came to nothing in the end didn't it?

TM: He was reporting on allegations that the police had received.

TS: It makes the country from the outside at least appear very unstable if you have that and you have meetings of the National Executive discussing plots, people being alarmed at the circulation of a document calling for one President, one term this kind of the thing. The Party Secretary General earlier this year claiming that EU governments and others had mounted a campaign to discredit you. It all seems to build up the feeling that you appear slightly insecure in your position.

TM: No, as I said I haven't myself said anything about plots...

TS: But a lot of people around you have said this...

TM Well as I say they respond to particular allegations that they hear and they make whatever response they think appropriate...

TS: But you don't feel insecure in the job?

TM: No.

TS: You don't feel that people are ganging up on you.

TM: I know they're not.

TS: You know they're not?

TM: I know they're not.

TS: So it's welcome to the tough world of politics then?

TM: Well I suppose it is normal in political activities but it certainly isn't anything that bothers me particularly.

TS: Really? And when the ANC spokesman talks about organised press conspiracy, he says we're clear that it's organised by certain circles in the media, there's a small pocket within business circles definitely involved in a dirty campaign against the President. You don't agree with that?

TM: Well I mean a lot of the reporting is wrong, a lot of the reporting is bad, quite clearly informed by prejudice and not fact.

TS: Prejudice - you mean racism?

TM: That's part of the prejudice yes, that's part of the prejudice. There is a view among some people that there must be a collapse, there must be a cataclysm, it's not quite possible that you could have a black government managing a sophisticated country and economy like this.

TS: Do you think these stereotypes persist to this day.

TM: Yes, they do.

TS: And it's a serious problem now in South Africa still?

TM: It's a serious problem of perception. For instance matter there are some people clearly who believe that they're not quite confident also in the future that there must be some explosion in the future and we'll wait and see... It's the same situation as happened when we had the elections in 1994. Nothing's going to happen, no explosion is going to happen. But because there's an assumption that you couldn't possibly have situations such as we had...we've had all of these years of apartheid and so on...surely these black people must want to revenge themselves, there will be some great catastrophe... I'm saying it won't happen...

TS: But it hasn't happened.

TM: And it will not happen.

TS: You almost tiptoed into government you were so careful to reassure the white population.

TM: We had to...even now we've got to be communicating this message all the time that a democratic government is not a threat to white people. And the response to the whole convulsion around the land question in Zimbabwe... People were saying that President Mbeki is not speaking on this matter when I had spoken on it. In the end I said in parliament that I know what was being demanded. What was being demanded is that I should give an assurance that the same thing wasn't going to happen here.

TS: Which you did?

TM: Which I did and I said but why is the question being posed like that? Because there is an assumption that because we've got a black government in Zimbabwe and you have those land invasions, the same thing will happen here.

TS: But you have senior politicians warning that there could be Zimbabwe style chaos. Cyril Ramaphosa, for instance, warned that unless the whites share their dominant business interests with the rest of the community, there will be Zimbabwe style chaos here. That's a senior man talking, so it's not just outside the country they are raising the spectre of that, it's here in South Africa.

TM: That is where the matter was raised in the first instance, here. The people who had this particular concern, which I'm saying was driven by a particular perception and a particular stereotype, were South African. And Cyril is correct. I mean if we don't move forward with regard to creating a non-racial society and we allow this legacy of apartheid to persist, these divisions between black and white in wealth and income and so on, in the future you would indeed have an ugly upheaval.

TS: Mr President, you mention Zimbabwe. You have been trying to persuade Robert Mugabe to moderate his actions. You've been embarrassed by his actions in Zimbabwe, why do you think your talks with him have not proved effective?

TM: I don't know. What I know is that we can't afford a complete collapse of Zimbabwe on our borders, so we've got to try and do whatever we can to assist them to get...

TS: ...he's not listening is he?

TM: Well he hasn't. I am hoping that with the team of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers that is being established to deal with all of these questions, we'll get something out of that particular process.

TS: The view of the Movement for Democratic Change is that the Commonwealth has been pathetic on the issue of Zimbabwe, would you share that view?

TM: Well it may be the Commonwealth hasn't taken up the matter with any particular vigour publicly. But we must say that they then decided they would send a team of three Foreign Ministers to Zimbabwe and that's expanded now to seven or eight...

TS: But it's no good just sitting down and having tea with Robert Mugabe is it?

TM: We've got to find a way of getting out of this crisis of Zimbabwe, it is critical.

TS: What about suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth?

TM: Would it get us out of the crisis?

TS: Would it signal that a member of the club is not living up to the best rules of the club, the Harare declaration for instance... There all this grand talk about good governments and democracy, if a member isn't paying attention to it and you talk to the member and he still doesn't change his ways, what do you do? You either throw out the member or you close down the club don't you?

TM: As I'm saying, I am personally hoping that this team of Foreign Ministers would help us to move this particular matter forward to a resolution. Indeed in my own discussions with President Mugabe and some other discussions that we had, as a number of Presidents of the region of Southern Africa, with him, in the last fortnight or so, he has said that they are committed to work with that team seriously. And that they are themselves looking for a solution that would be supported by the Commonwealth. So I'm hoping that there will be movement.

TS: Finally? Because we have had encouraging remarks from them before and nothing has happened, haven't we?

TM: Well maybe it is finally, but hopefully something will move.

TS: You wouldn't support suspension of Zimbabwe?

TM: We sit across the border from Zimbabwe. Critical for South Africa must surely be that we don't have a situation that the IMF warned about at the beginning of this year, when they said it is critically important to avoid a meltdown in Zimbabwe. So that's what we've got to aim to do.

TS: But you say time is running out for Zimbabwe?

TM: Sure time is running out.

TS: Which means what exactly?

TM: Which means we've got to act quickly and continue to say it is important to respond positively to these issues which suggest that, yes, there is a land problem in Zimbabwe, there is a need land for redistribution but it must be handled different, without violence, without conflict, within the context of the law, bearing in mind the interests of all Zimbabweans both black and white. It's necessary that the Zimbabwean government to respond positively to those sorts of messages.

TS: And if it doesn't and if it continues not to, it's a bad image for Southern Africa isn't it?

TM: What is the worst, is that you will have the meltdown of Zimbabwe that the IMF is talking about. And indeed what you will have is growing unemployment in Zimbabwe, growing impoverishment among the people, growing social conflict. And I think that is the worst sort of outcome, that collapse of Zimbabwe certainly would have a much, much worse effect on the region than mere image... So I don't think we can very well walk away from the obligation to try and try and try until we succeed.

TS: Mr President we were talking about plots earlier and you said that you had never spoken about plots. You were quoted last year in relation to the AIDS policy in South Africa, as saying that the CIA was working covertly with American drug companies to discredit you.

TM: Never said any such thing?

TS: Never said it.

TM: Never, ever said such a thing.

TS: It was wrongly reported?

TM: I don't know where they got it from, completely wrong. It was not even from the point of view of inference, I hadn't said anything that relates to that matter at all.

TS: And you were quoted at a meeting last Autumn of 200 ANC MPs and Cabinet Ministers as saying that criticism of your AIDS policy was a foretaste of foreign attempts to undermine your government to protect the existing balance of economic power. Is this mischief making?

TM: Absolutely.

TS: You never said this?

TM: Absolutely, yes. That's part of what I was saying earlier about the press here. I have absolutely no problem with the press criticising policies and the things that we do, the things that we say, but you then find that kind of thing happens. It's pure invention.

TS: But your stance on AIDS and the fact that you have apparently questioned the link between HIV and AIDS has brought you a lot of criticism. Not just outside the country, not just from the press, but from fairly powerful interests in this country as well.

TM: Well again that's part of the problem you see. What I've said is this. When from everything that I've read - and I've tried to read quite a lot, because what we're told and what the statistics that are published say, is that we have here a very, very severe problem that's likely to decimate the South African population....

TS: ...up to seven million people may die according to your own figures.

TM: According to these figures. So naturally I say therefore I need to understand as carefully as I can this matter which is such an enormous threat to our population. So I read about it and what I've said about it is this. From what I read which is what the scientists are saying, you have here an acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Now a syndrome is a collection of diseases whose causes are known. You can't say one virus causes a syndrome.

TS: No, but you can say what is the common factor, what do they all have?

TM: You can say, which is what I have said is that you have a virus which causes immune deficiency. But immune deficiency is also caused by other things.

TS: These comments have caused dismay Mr President.

TM: But they are correct...

TS: Even among some of your own workers.

TM: But they are correct...

TS: In your own health ministry people have questioned...

TM: I know.

TS: AIDS workers in Soweto have said you have damaged the campaign; you've muddied the waters...

TM: I think that's a load of nonsense.

TS: Even the head of your Trade Union movement says, you know, that this can undermine the message that all South Africans must take precautions to avoid infection.

TM: Nonsense, absolute nonsense...

TS: Why are they saying this then?

TM: You see it's the misunderstanding about the science of this question. You see as I was saying immune deficiency is a reality, which is part of your AIDS. And I'm saying that that immune deficiency will be caused by many things. The reason that that becomes important is that as a government we've got an obligation to respond to this, and we've got to respond in a manner that is comprehensive, got to respond to immune deficiency that is caused by a virus, you've got to respond to immune deficiency that is caused by other things...

TS: You're the only leader of a major country that is questioning in this way. Why do you think that is?

TM: It's in the science and I'm saying you cannot say to me that of the South African population seven million people are going to die whenever they're supposed to die, and then you don't expect that we look at this matter most carefully, in the greatest detail, to make sure that our responses are correct.

TS: There's a lot of misinformation, hesitation, seeming to question the scientific basis of what respected scientists, Nobel prize winners, people of the Durban Declaration, 5 000 AIDS workers, doctors have said... I wonder whether you realise, whether you accept that your position has actually damaged the fight against AIDS in this country.

TM: I don't.

TS: You don't, so those of your people who are saying that you reject that?

TM: If you take for instance the UN AIDS Conference that took place in the last few weeks, end of June...

TS: Which you didn't attend in New York.

TM: It was a ministerial meeting, it was specifically decided by the UN General Assembly that this was a ministerial meeting.

TS: But Mr President you are the leader of the country that is most affected by this disease in the world.

TM: This was a ministerial meeting and we sent a very competent minister to attend...

TS: But what signals does it send when you aren't there yourself?

TM: No.

TS: The excuse given was that you had a meeting with George Bush.

TM: I had a meeting with George Bush, it was not an excuse.

TS: He would have postponed it for you, I'm sure if you said I need to be at that conference in New York...

TM: There's nothing that I could have said at that conference which the ministers didn't say, and as I say this was a ministerial meeting. The matter was actually formally discussed because we had wanted it to be a summit and the EU delegation at the United Nations said no, let's make this a ministerial meeting.

So it was a ministerial meeting and so we sent a ministerial delegation. But the point I'm saying about it is that you will find that if you look at the declaration, the decisions of the summit are saying the same things that we've been saying, that in your approach to AIDS you've got to go beyond the question, merely, of a virus.

TS: But people say that you now have men sitting around saying TM says we don't need condoms, we don't need ..., we don't need to protect ourselves because there's no link between HIV and AIDS.

TM: No that's not true...

TS: But that's the effect...

TM: It isn't.

TS: People are saying that to us, your own workers are saying...

TM: They may say so...

TS: ...inside your own ministry of health are saying this...

TM: If you spoke for instance to Baragwanath Hospital here in Johannesburg, a big hospital dealing with these issues, what they will say for instance to you is that what they've seen is a drop in teenage pregnancies; what they've seen is a reduction in the incidence of venereal disease because people are responding to the campaign the government is conducting of public awareness, which includes the question of the use of condoms. I don't believe it's true I mean people might say what they really want to say, but in the reality...

TS: But these are powerful people...

TM: They may well be very powerful people...

TS: ...powerful organisations threatening to take you to court to get anti-retroviral drugs distributed

TM: But I'm saying that what's actually happening in South Africa would not support these reports. I'm sure there's a misperception of what is happening in South Africa.

TS: People wonder what your priorities are Mr President because we've seen splashed across one of the newspapers the other day, Thabo Mbeki says corruption is the number one problem. And we hear that racism is the number one issue. AIDS must be the number one issue in this country, if seven million people are potentially facing death...

TM: Do you know what the largest single cause of death in South Africa is? The largest single cause of death as we sit here is what in the medical statistics is called external causes and that is violence in the society. For instance I've seen figures that say that if you take the male age cohort from16 to 45 years, 54% of the people who die in that age cohort die from external causes.

TS: Violence isn't going to threaten the lives of seven million South Africans...

TM: I'm saying that the majority of the people in the country are dying from that and you cannot say to me I must ignore that and not take into account the fact that the majority of the people in that particular age cohort which is a working population, is dying from the violence that is so terrible in this society. The government must respond to that.

TS: Do you regard it as a failure? Let's look at some of the crime statistics, which are pretty bad. The murder rate, per capita murder rate, which is ten times that of the United States. If a government cannot guarantee minimum levels of security for its people inside the country, is this a failure on your part?

TM: I think that if South Africa had a different past I might say yes. But the reality of the matter is that the incidence of crime that you see in South Africa was worse when we came into government in 1994.

TS: The police are killing more people now than they did during the apartheid era...

TM: No, no I'm sure they are not. But the incidence of crime in this country was worse before 1994, so the situation is improving. If it had gone the other way around and maybe perhaps we could say yes this represents a major failure...but I don't regard it as...

TS: A runaway murder rate for example you've got huge skyscraper hotels in the middle of Johannesburg absolutely deserted.

TM: What I am saying is that this is an old problem of South Africa and I can explain to you why, we don't have the time. It's an old problem of South Africa but because it was occurring among the black community and because the dominant issue in society was the issue of the struggle against apartheid, these remarks were not made. So we've had to deal with a very deeply entrenched problem and I think that we are dealing with it.

TS: Mr President are you a shy leader, as some people have suggested?

TM: Well I don't know what is meant by shy. I don't suppose I would describe myself as a showman.

TS: Is there a sense in which you feel that Nelson Mandela handled if you like the glory of the transition and you have to deal with the nuts and bolts of transition. He was able to deal in broad concepts and broad sweeps but you have to do the dirty work for want of a better word.

TM: I think that it was inevitable that there would naturally be the excitement that everybody saw from 1994 onwards and great amazement at this miracle and so on, what in the past some people have described as a honeymoon period. I think it was natural that that should happen. But ever since we got into government in 94 we have had indeed to go down to this daily grind of changing society for the better.

TS: So you don't get loved as much do you?

TM: Well it doesn't matter really but apart from that I think that if you and I walked in the streets of Pretoria now you would see the response of the people might not be quite what you read in the media.

TS: Maybe we could.

TM: Yes, of course.

TS: President Thabo Mbeki, it's been a great pleasure having you on the programme, thank you very much indeed.

TM: Thank you very much.

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.