Washington, DC — This week's African National Congress elective conference will decide who should lead South Africa's ruling political party into the next election in 2014. But key issues affecting the country's future direction are not on the agenda. Moeletsi Mbeki, one of South Africa's most prominent and widely quoted commentators, says leaders in South Africa and other countries on the continent must shift course and adopt policies to grow their economies and eradicate poverty. Mbeki is one of many ANC stalwarts who are not taking part in the conference. His brother Thabo, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as South African president, is another. Their father Govan was a senior ANC leader who was imprisoned with Mandela and others on Robben Island. AllAfrica interviewed Moeletsi Mbeki, a businessman who is deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, in Washington, DC last month. Excerpts:
What is your major critique of today's leaders in Africa?
Most of Africa's ills come down to poor governance, to single party dominance. This is what is behind the mass poverty in Africa. Ironically, that means we need more political parties - because that's how you introduce competition in our governance system.
Civil society - NGOs - play a role, but they are not the solution. We need freedom to organise political parties with different programs to solve the problems of Africa. We need more space for political parties to have access to the electorate, and we need free and fair elections. Without those things, Africa will forever be a continent of turbulence - like we are seeing today in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the South African mining sector, in Kenyan politics, in Somalia and in Nigeria. Real democratic space is required if we are to remove violence from the society and achieve stability and equitable development.
The so called 'Arab Spring' happened in North Africa precisely because there was not enough freedom to have effective political parties, so the population was left no choice but to resort to violence. There are elements of the same trend under way in many African countries. But it is not easy to achieve a critical mass whereby this becomes a norm rather than an occasional event.
You mentioned turbulence in South Africa's mining sector. What's behind that?
The mining industry in South Africa - the oldest in Africa - started in the 1860s with the discovery of diamonds. Labour practices are very archaic. The miner leaves his family in the rural areas and goes to work in the mines on contract, and this is very disruptive to family life. Next to these mines, you have sex workers, and the mines become an incubator for sexually transmitted diseases spread from the mine to the village where the miner comes from. In the rural areas, the absence of male role models has huge consequences for the psychological and the emotional stability of children as they grow up.
We need to develop new towns where these mines are, and that is the responsibility of the state. The government should be developing towns, and the mining industry needs to get rid of the migrant labour system so that the whole family lives next to the mine. But this is not happening in South Africa. Mining companies, the government and the trade unions are passing the buck backwards and forward. In the meantime, miners are living next to the mines, having second families and creating economic demands and a lot of conflict, because they are maintaining two households. This is a major reason why miners are demanding higher wages.
You're a long-time supporter of trade unions. What is your view of their role in South Africa today?
History is changing as it moves on. Trade union leaders are having a second career that they didn't have before, which is to become politicians and civil servants. Their role as organisers of the community of the workers, as representing the interests of the workers, is becoming a stepping stone to becoming a [government] minister! We have ministers in South Africa from the trade unions. Our minister of economy was a general secretary of the clothing and textile workers union. The interest of the workers - yes, he says he is still concerned about them. But he is now a politician, so his primary preoccupation is to keep his ministerial position. Trade unions in South Africa are now becoming agents of the state, rather than representatives of the workers.
You have spoken and written about de-industrialization in South Africa and have said economic production is actually shrinking. How does unemployment figure into the picture?
Many people look at the skyscrapers and highways in Cape Town and Johannesburg and think we have an industrialised economy. Actually we only have a semi-industrialised economy. What this means is that a huge part of the population of South Africa is not in the economy at all. Only about 40 percent of the working-age population in South Africa actually works. The rest - 60 percent - are not working in the formal sector. They live off the formal sector through welfare programs.
Unemployment in South Africa is growing. Our industry is unable to stand up to competition from Asian countries. We are importing more clothes from China, from India, from Turkey, from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Instead of growing and absorbing more labour, manufacturing is shrinking because of this competition, along with agriculture and mining. So many people who used to work in the clothing and textile and footwear industries, who used to work in the mines are now out of work. This is one of our major problems. We need to develop industry in South Africa to absorb the 60 percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 64 who are not now involved in the economy.
Is there a role for expanding agriculture?
South Africa is different from most of sub-Saharan Africa, where peasants produce the food. Peasant agriculture in South Africa has been destroyed for the last 100 years. Our biggest productive agriculture is commercial farming. Before, even though they were commercial, most farms were owned by families. Now corporate ownership accounts for about 20 percent of all farms, and they produce most of the food in South Africa. All the food we eat in South Africa, we buy from commercial producers. The average citizen doesn't grow his or her own food. We buy from the shop, which is why we are seeing South African retailers expanding throughout Africa. They have a very solid base in South Africa, and they are able to use that as a springboard to sell into other African countries.
How can mineral resources contribute to economic growth?
Southern Africa is hugely well-endowed with minerals. If you draw a line from the equator, from the Democratic Republic of Congo south - you have a huge deposit of minerals – gold, copper, iron ore and all the metals that go into making computers and cell phones. But those minerals are exported in their raw form, in a raw state, from that region. Very little of them are processed, let alone made into the components for computers, for cellular phones and so on. What we need to do is to start to make components out of the metals that we have in the region. The irony is that countries like Thailand use minerals from southern Africa to make components that they then sell back to us. When we start doing this ourselves, we are going to create more jobs.
Can South Africa produce the skilled work force needed to do what you are advocating?
South Africa's education system is a very weird animal, if I can put it that way. Some South African universities are amongst the top universities in the world. But they are not enough to produce the huge array of skills that you need to run a proper industrial economy. To run a proper industrial economy, yes, you need top scientists, you need top engineers, you need top research and development people. But you also need artisans, because at the end of the day a cup has to be made by an artisan who knows how to make a cup. A shoe needs to be made by a shoemaker who knows how to make a shoe and so on.
This is one of the problems we have - not just in South Africa but in the rest of Africa. We can produce a doctorate in economics, even in physics, but that one guy is not sufficient to create an industrial revolution! You need a huge array of skills from artisans right up to your doctorate in order to be able to produce an industrial economy. And this is what the Asian countries, China for example, are doing.
I was in China recently and China has, according to their figures, 194,000 students in higher education institutions in the United States alone! If you add in Germany, England and France and so on, you can see that there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studying in the western countries. Why? Because they need the spread of skills which is what is making China into an industrialised economy.
Does South Africa have anything resembling that?
No, we don't have students outside South Africa. We have lots of students from other African countries. The estimate is we have 45,000 students from other African countries in our university system in South Africa.
And what about investment in education?
South Africa spends a lot of money on education, but the quality of public education is very low. We have very high quality of education in the private sector, and private schools are amongst the best in the world. But most people can't afford these schools, and State schools are really not up standard. Our teachers are under trained. We don't have enough equipment in the laboratories. There are not enough books in the libraries, and so forth. And then, there isn't enough discipline of teachers in the State education sector. Our teachers in the State education sectors belong to trade unions which are aligned with the ruling party, and therefore the ruling party doesn't feel that it has to impose discipline.
Are you hopeful, in spite of your critiques?
Yes, of course I am hopeful! I am hopeful, but I realise that there are entrenched interests of the elites and of foreign investors who are in partnerships with the elites in Africa who don't want change, who have spent hundreds of years exploiting the resources of Africa and want to continue doing so. Their collaborators are the elites in Africa. The elites in Africa have a lot to answer for!
If I were not hopeful I would not be living in Africa. I live in South Africa precisely because I think all of us, the citizens of Africa can make a difference. And we really can only make a difference if we are living in Africa.