South Africa: Democracy is Mature, the Private and NGO Sector is Strong, and Government is Weak in South Africa, says Moeletsi Mbeki

6 February 2004

Johannesburg — South African President Thabo Mbeki is scheduled to outline his plans for his country in a state-of-the nation address in Cape Town on Friday. It will be his last such speech before South Africa's third non-racial elections, expected in late March or April. The speech is President Mbeki's opportunity to assess the record of his leadership and to demonstrate what progress there has been under the governing African National Congress (ANC), since liberation ten years ago. Analysts predict that the economy, job creation and the continued fight against poverty will feature prominently in the speech; so too foreign policy successes including South Africa's peace efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. But President Mbeki is said by some critics to have failed in his approach to the crisis across the border in Zimbabwe.

Moeletsi Mbeki, the president's brother, is a business entrepreneur and political commentator. He is also the deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank, based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In a wide-ranging conversation with allAfrica's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton he summed up his views on a decade of democracy in South Africa as well as the highs and lows of the ANC government.

How would you assess the past ten years here in South Africa? What are the pluses, what are the minuses, what needs still to be done?

The big blast about South Africa is that we have become a mature democracy during the past ten years. If you look at democracy in Africa, I would count two countries as being mature African democracies - Botswana and Mauritius. Those two countries have never had coups d'état, they have never had civil wars. They have had changes, but changes of president - or prime minister in the case of Mauritius. So we have two mature democracies in Africa. Both these countries became independent in the 60s.

We are, of course, a newcomer. But we are only ten years' old, but our democracy is as entrenched as in Botswana or in Mauritius. So that's a huge plus.

How can South Africa possibly be a mature democracy in only ten years?

You see one of the things that gets forgotten about South Africa is that South Africa is an old state. We are at least three hundred years old. South Africa as a modern state was established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652. And it has been continuously a state ever since then, which is unlike most African countries, which were established as states only about 80 years before their independence.

So that's one point about South Africa. As a society, democracy in South Africa pre-dates 1994, because we had democratic traditions in the middle of the 19th century - what generally is referred to as Cape Liberalism. But that was the beginnings of democracy - of modern democracy in South Africa. The whites had a vote and the blacks had a vote. And the blacks from the middle of the 19th century had their own newspapers - because they were participating in the electoral process and they had their own political parties.

If you take the ANC, our ruling party, for example - if you look at the predecessors of the organisations that culminated in the formation of the ANC - they were formed mainly in the 1880s. They used to be called vigilance associations. And one of the major components of the ANC was the Natal Indian Congress, which was dissolved, but absolved into the ANC. The Natal Indian Congress was formed in 1896. So you can see we have a long tradition of democracy amongst the people, although we didn't have a long tradition of democracy in the state, which is why our democracy - at the level of the state - looks mature much more quickly, because we have had a long tradition of democracy amongst the people.

Let's spool forward to 1994 and let's look at South Africa within the African context, because there were early foreign policy near-disasters, when South Africa stepped out tentatively to make its way within Africa. Look at the debacle in Lesotho in 1998.

One of the things that many people in Africa and many people in South Africa don't understand about the ANC is that during our period when we were in exile and we were in other African countries - for 30 years virtually the ANC was in exile from 1960 to 1990 - we had our head office initially in Tanzania and then in Zambia. But what was happening was that, under the OAU conventions, the OAU conventions made liberation movements into a state within a state.

The net effect was that our liberation movement leaders were like diplomats in Africa. They had very little contact with the people in the African countries. So, they understood very little about the nature of the problems in the African countries, because they were interfacing with government - especially the foreign ministry of Zambia or of Tanzania and then the Organisation of African Unity's Liberation Committee.

So we have quite a bizarre situation in a way whereby the ANC spent 30 years in Africa, but it knew very little about what was going on in Africa. It was focused on its own problem of tackling apartheid. That's why our foreign policy in terms of Africa has been very experimental; let me put it that way.

Hit and miss, even; look at Zaire.

If you take, for example, the fall of Mobutu. Mobutu was to every African the monster. He killed Africa's hero, which was Patrice Lumumba. But, to us as the ANC, we knew very little about that story. So we thought that, somehow, we could have a dignified exit mechanism for this monster, Mobutu.

And yet, President Mandela, as peace mediator, was on that icebreaker, the Outeniqua, on the high seas off the coast of Pointe Noire in Congo Brazzaville, waiting for Laurent Kabila to come on board, with Mobutu almost dying, thinking that he could knock heads together and somehow organise a departure of Mobutu from then Zaire. That failed miserably.

Of course it failed miserably, because it wasn't based on a clear understanding of the politics of the Congo - of then Zaire. Our leaders did not understand who Laurent Kabila was. I mean Laurent Kabila had been fighting against Mobutu in the jungles of the Congo since the 60s. So there was a huge lack of understanding of what the story was in the Congo. Mobutu himself had been very implicated in stoking fires in Angola, in the surrounding countries, in Rwanda etc. But we didn't know all that.

South Africa had to grow up pretty quickly; certainly South African foreign policy. Do you think President Thabo Mbeki has handled it properly? When you look to how South Africa has now got involved in peacemaking in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Burundi. South Africa seemed to have to play catch-up pretty quickly.

Yes, I think we are catching up. And I think we are less ambitious. We came in with big ambitions. We could tell the Basotho how they should live. We could go to the Congolese and say love one another and so on.

Are you saying the idealism has been stripped away?

Definitely our ambition is much, much less. We are looking at how to help economic development and how to help parties to talk to each other - not to help them to talk to each other, but to provide a forum. For example, with the Congolese parties, what we did is we provided a forum for them in Sun City. And we provided, so to speak, consultants. If they wanted a consultant from the South African government, then that person could act that particular role. So, we provided a forum for the Congolese. So I don't think it's quite right to say we brought peace to Congo.

Helped to restore peace -

We helped by providing a forum, a neutral forum, for the Congolese and then making available our own negotiators who had been involved in our own negotiations to be available to help whenever they wanted.

And yet, people say President Mbeki has failed just across the border, in Zimbabwe, with his policy of quiet diplomacy or constructive engagement with President Robert Mugabe.

Well, I think the South African government - including the president - admit that quiet diplomacy has not produced what they thought it would, i.e. a change of direction by Robert Mugabe. It hasn't done so. But again, coming to the point I made earlier, the ANC knows very little about Zimbabwe.

I was a journalist in Zimbabwe for nearly ten years. As a South African, I had to spend week after week in the library at the University of Zimbabwe to understand the society of Zimbabwe, to understand the relationship, for example, between the Ndebele and the Shona and to understand what the Ndebele - who were South Africans - did in the 19th century when they got to Zimbabwe.

So you have those dynamics, which our government in South Africa, frankly, has no idea about. They don't know who (Zimbabwe's main opposition MDC leader) Morgan Tsvangirai is. They don't know who (Zimbabwe justice minister) Patrick Chinamasa is. They don't know who Welshman Ncube (opposition MDC secretary general) is. But they think they know.

So, in a way, with Zimbabwe we have a bit of something similar to the posture we had with Mobutu. Somehow we think we know, when we really don't.

That's pretty serious isn't it? How can that be rectified, because Zimbabwe is right across the border and whatever happens there inevitably has an impact here in South Africa.

There is one thing that our African governments never seem to understand - and that includes the South African government. The role of research in policy is extremely important. It is not enough to have an ideology that makes you feel good or that is seen to be the right ideology. That doesn't solve the problems. You have to have real knowledge of the situation.

We don't know enough about Zanu-PF as a government in South Africa. But we are not prepared to invest the money in the research to get to understand Zanu-PF and understand what the land issues, for example, in Zimbabwe are.

Our government makes all sorts of pronouncements about land issues in Zimbabwe, which they know nothing about. But they make pronouncements. Just to give you an example, the South African government thinks that the British never honoured the Lancaster House agreement, which was entered into between the Zimbabwe liberation movements and the British. The reality is actually the other way round. It's the Zimbabwe government that didn't honour its agreements with the British over the Lancaster House agreement.

But we're not prepared to do the research to get to the truth.


I have no idea.

Don't you have the ear of the president? Isn't that something you're talking to him about - as someone who knows Zimbabwe so well?

Look, I write about it all the time. It's in the newspapers, I'm talking to you and it's all over the place. But, you know - what can I say? As I'm saying, our government keeps repeating that it was the British who reneged on the Lancaster House agreement, whereas it was the Zimbabwe government that reneged on the agreement. Now, if they want to believe what they want to believe then there's nothing you can do about that.

But the consequence of that is, when you act on the basis of information that's incorrect, you end up with the disasters that we are faced with in Zimbabwe.

What should be the way forward? What should South Africa be doing and saying about Zimbabwe - not for the benefit of the western world and the rest of the world, but for what could happen here in South Africa?

Look, Zimbabwe is our neighbour. So it's in our interests for Zimbabwe to be a stable society and to be a prosperous society because, right now according to estimates, we have anything up to three million illegal immigrants living in South Africa. So that is not in our interests. Our interest is to have stable democracy in Zimbabwe.

Zanu-PF has no interest in a democracy in Zimbabwe, because they fear they will lose power. Now the question is what should we do as neighbours who are suffering the consequences. To try to keep Mugabe in power merely makes the situation worse and drives Zimbabwe towards a civil war. It isn't a solution.

What should the South African government do? It must look at all the scenarios and not base its thinking on wishful thinking, but on the real practicalities, the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe.

Do you think that will be done? Do you think the South African government is looking that way? I ask because, of course, this is an election year in South Africa, ten years after liberation, and there are lots of other things on people's mind.

Right now the ANC is such a dominant party that being an election year really doesn't make much of a difference in the life of the ANC. So the question of our policy towards Zimbabwe, or our engagement with Zimbabwe, I don't think it's impacted upon by the fact that we have an election this year.

The reality is that Zimbabwe is drifting towards a civil war. Are we going to sit and do nothing? And when the civil war does eventually break out, what are we going to do? Are we also going to be sitting on our hands saying you guys should talk to each other and so on and so forth? So there are very many complex issues about Zimbabwe and South Africa's own position.

In sum, is the government winning, succeeding or failing?

The government is, in my view, if you look at the politics of South Africa, it is definitely succeeding, in the sense that we now have an entrenched democracy. The government makes a lot of compromises with opposition parties. It accommodates the Inkatha Freedom Party. It accommodates the New National Party. The Pan Africanist Congress has been offered cabinet seats. It accommodates, for instance, the smaller parties. Our deputy minister of education comes from a tiny party called the Azanian People's Organsation (Azapo).

In that respect it has succeeded, because the key problem for Africa, not just South Africa, is social instability, is political instability. Once you remove the social and the political instability, the African people can look after themselves. They don't need some handouts from somebody above, whether it's government or foreign aid. The problem we have in Africa is social and political instability, which then makes it impossible for the people to produce, to develop themselves and to plough their fields and so on. So, that is the problem.

In South Africa, our government has succeeded in taking that issue out of our politics, out of our society and out of our social life. So, in that respect, the government has succeeded.

On the economic management, well it's hit and miss. Our government - but again the private sector is a more important player in South Africa than the government.

And where has President Mbeki failed? His critics point to HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe.

Yes, I think on those two issues, the government… You see, again, our leadership - especially those of us who were in exile in the rest of Africa - our notion of being the ruler, consciously or unconsciously, was looking at the likes of Kaunda, Nyerere and the Nkrumahs and so on.

In South Africa, actually, the HIV/Aids issue, the private medical schemes in South Africa - and the private sector - are the people who are managing the antiretroviral regime in this country in the here and now. What the government is being asked to do is for the people who are not employed, to look after the people who are not employed. And the government has been floundering at that level. But it's not the whole country that gets affected. It's those people who are unemployed or whose employers and so on cannot help them with antiretrovirals who are affected.

But that's the poor, that's the masses.

Yes, that's the poor and that's the mass, yes.

You've spoken about the predominance of the ANC in South Africa and that whether or not it's an election year is virtually neither here nor there. But there are of course two provinces in which the ANC does not have an absolute majority. Do you think the governing party will succeed in capturing these two key provinces?

It's very difficult to tell. In terms of KwaZulu Natal, the electorate is more or less split 50-50 between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom party. Really it's a few votes and it depends on the turnout, I suppose, as to who gets the most of the electorate.

In terms of the Western Cape, the ANC has about a third of the electorate in the Western Cape. Now that we have a partnership with the New National Party, which also has its own following, that might tip the scales.

But you must remember that the regions in South Africa are not like the states in the United States. They have very little power. Most of what they do is delegated to them by central government. They have no tax-collecting powers. In fact, a local authority has more powers because it can charge rates. The provincial government can't charge rates. So it depends entirely on the central government for the money it spends.

Although there is a lot of excitement about who is premier of this or that, the reality is that we are not a federal country and the provinces are just administrative mechanisms. Although they are elected, they are really administrative agents of the central government. They are not like the states in Nigeria, for example. The state governments in Nigeria have real muscle, but not our provincial governments. They are not comparable.

How healthy is political life in South Africa? Because of the dominance of the ANC, there is an official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, but many people now say that South Africa is almost a one-party state.

Oh, that's totally untrue! First, the ANC is a very weak party. That's one of things many people do not know. The ANC depends, to a huge extent, on its civil society allies for the electorate that it has - especially the trade unions, especially the NGOs, the so-called civil society and, of course, the churches. That is why there is so much alarm when Archbishop Desmond Tutu disagrees with the ANC, because the churches bring huge constituencies to vote for the ANC. So the ANC is not the dominant party.

I'm trying to think of a good example: Nyerere's party. If you take Nyerere's party in Tanzania or Nkrumah's party in Ghana, those parties were not dependent on anyone for their muscle. They were the ones who formed the trade unions. In South Africa, it's the other way round. Our trade unions support the ANC, but they are totally independent of the ANC. They are friends, but they are independent.

There's no comparison between Nyerere's one-party state or Nkrumah's one-party state or Kaunda's one-party state to the ANC, because the ANC doesn't control civil society.

And yet the ANC looks unassailable in the elections. How healthy is that?

Well, I think what makes the ANC look unassailable - again you have to understand the role of government in South Africa. The role of government in South Africa, compared to the role of government in other African countries, is very different. Government in South Africa - relative to the rest of society in South Africa - is weak. Whereas government in other parts of Africa - if you take Ghana or Zambia, for example - government is very strong.

In most African countries, the largest single employer is government. In South Africa, it is estimated that the NGOs employ the same number of people as the South African government does. The private sector is far larger than the government. So the government in South Africa, although it looks powerful, is not powerful relative to the rest of society.

We have an enormous private sector, we have an enormous NGO sector, we have many, many sectors in our society, which have enormous power. So the role of government in South Africa is very different from government in most other African countries.

Looking in from outside, nobody, none of the other African countries nor western governments, would say that South Africa has a weak government, surely?

This is one of the problems. We don't understand our fellow African countries. They also don't understand us. Because they see this big country with these glittering skyscrapers, with this very confident ANC with 66 percent of the vote, they think, wow, this guy is so powerful.

Actually, relative to the social players of South Africa - if you take South African Breweries, this is a massive company.

Which is taking over Africa and the world -

Exactly! It is taking over Africa and the world. So now, the government, what is its power next to South African Breweries? Take De Beers, take Anglo-American Corporation, take companies like Shoprite Checkers - these are enormous corporations. Or take the unions. Cosatu has nearly two million members.

So people who don't understand South Africa - our fellow Africans - don't see that the government, when you look at it from outside, you see South African Airways, the government-owned company - but what you don't see are the enormous other players that are very powerful in South Africa.

Are South Africans interested in going to vote, are they interested in government and in the future of the country ten years after independence, liberation, freedom?

I'm going to vote! I think many South Africans are going to vote. But, again, the difference between us, as South Africans, and many of our fellow Africans is that the government doesn't play such an important role in our lives. I mean I never interact with the government. I have a private company which does business with other private companies, so what the government does is of marginal significance to me.

As long as the government looks after the poor, protects our borders, manages our currency properly, for most South Africans that's about all we want from our government. In terms of my own employment, in terms of my medical welfare, our government hasn't even got on top of the crime, so I have my own private security looking after my own home and so on and so forth.

The expectations of the people of their government are not as high as many people imagine, because government in South Africa is actually small. It has a big budget because we are a rich country, but it's not a big player - it's an important player - it's not the only player in the life of South Africans.

What about the New Partnership for Africa's Development, Nepad? President Mbeki is said to be the main architect of this new blueprint for African democracy and African Development. Is it going anywhere?

Well, Ofeibea, I once worked for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. Having worked at their secretariat in Lusaka, during the 80s, I have a practical knowledge of how intra-African cooperation works or doesn't work. I think our government is very idealistic. It doesn't know the reality and the complexity of running an organisation, of getting consensus in an organisation like Ecowas, like Comesa, like SADC. We are newcomers in that line of business. So we come with a lot of idealism and the question is that these are voluntary organisations of sovereign countries.

So to make inter-African institutions like Ecowas and SADC and what have you to work, you need a huge amount of consensus. We don't really spend the energy on building up the consensus. If you take Ecowas, Ecowas is dominated by Nigeria which means Nigeria is the one that has to be giving the concessions most of the time.

In South Africa we are not too keen to give concessions to our weak partners, not necessarily because the government doesn't want to, because other players don't. The unions, for example, may object to the concession that the government wants to give. But the union in this country is very powerful and it can stop the government from doing it.

It's a very complicated situation and Nepad may or may not be the saviour, the bible for Africa. Everything is in the implementation. How much are you prepared to invest in building the consensus and, more than anything else, in understanding what really are the problems of your neighbour? Because, many times in Africa, we cure a disease that doesn't exist and the one that exists we don't cure, because we tend to operate from the imagination rather than from science.

I'm going to ask you personally - you've returned from exile, you're successful and productive. What has been the most important thing that you've learnt coming home and what has ten years of liberation mean for you, Moeletsi Mbeki.

One of the most important things - now you're making me think about something that I haven't thought about - but to me what has been most important is that the last ten years have given me the opportunity to implement what I learnt. And what I learnt, I learnt from the rest of Africa, where I lived and worked in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. And I was at university in England with other African students. I was a member of African student associations, so I learnt a lot from them. I also learnt a lot from England. I was a student there, but I was also active in the politics in England, so I had a bank of experience which I am now using. So that is what has happened to me.

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