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The following is a transcript of a wide-ranging interview between Alec Russell, News Editor of the Financial Times, and Mac Maharaj, former confidant of Nelson Mandela and until recently the spin-doctor of President Jacob Zuma. The interview, on Sunday June 7, covers the Nkandla controversy, the record of the ANC, the party’s succession battle and Africa’s ups and downs since the 1950s.
Mac Maharaj: When President Zuma visited me in hospital there was total excitement. Those nurses and staff who missed the occasion felt terribly aggrieved. But then I said to [my wife] Zarina that his presence, even the image, should have created negativity in some way. We found no evidence of that negativity. By the time I left there isn’t a single person in the entire ICU section of nursing staff from cleaner to nurses, which do not now show heightened warmth towards me. Now, the question arises, there is this one image of the President: how does it square with the dominant image presented by many of the opinion-makers?
On Africa in the 60s
So the issue when most of Africa gained independence in the 60s, again translated itself into what’s our custom? What’s our tradition and the dominant at the time was one-party democracy. All of it, all the founding fathers of African independence felt that way. At that stage even scholars in the West had no fundamental critique of one-party democracy.
So what became the challenge for independent Africa? Economic development is not taking place. The Cold War is raging. Kwame Nkrumah wants to build the Upper Volta Dam. Where’s the money going to come from? Egypt under Nasser wants to build the Aswan Dam. The line up on everything you want to do has been divided on the basis of the Cold War. It didn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong; if you want to tough out the communist country’s grip on the country, you go there and you do your thing and promise the people things. But nothing is being addressed in a fundamental sustainable manner.
And even on the question of those developments, little came forward in a substantial way. There was literature but not in a substantial way to make you aware that if you build the Kariba Dam you must now set aside maintenance. You can’t do it if you wait for one day. There will be nothing.
Alec Russell: So it was quite lucky that South Africa gained its independence in the 90s and not in the 60s?
MM: Exactly. But I don’t want to put it like Tutu would put it that it’s a good thing that Mandela suffered because he became a reconciler.
I was a young man in Britain at that time when Sékou Touré took power in Guinea. Was I chuffed! Yes, a prime minister riding a bicycle. And here’s a prime minister who produces a party congress document, says, we haven’t got the funds, we haven’t got this, but we’re going to develop because we’ve got the main asset: human capital. And we’re going to invest in human capital. So lots of good thinking, lots of attempts to unlock development]. Kenya made an effort of pulling its own way but we cannot forget that the Cold War had a fundamental impact on shaping the pathways and made the pathways extremely difficult.
AR: You’re very candid about your time in the Cold War. But when you look at your attitude in eastern Europe, were you naive?
MM: I’ll put it slightly differently. I was already very left when I left the country and came to Britain. I wanted to study at the LSE. It was not a communist university, but it was left, and I said, that’s where I want to stay. Now, when I look back, in Britain there was literature criticising communism, but it was not criticising itself from what I’ve experienced. So, I don’t want to use the word naive. I was in an environment where the choices that I have to make about what I believe were driven by my experience, and the experience was, you are telling me that communism is rubbish, but when I go to communism it treats me like a human being. My first room was in Notting Hill Gate where the notice said, for “Coloureds Only”. There were 96 beds in that three-storey building. There were beds under the stairs. I paid for the flat £5 and ten shillings, but I think many used to pay one pound and ten shillings, one and a half pounds, for a bed under the stairs. Now, that’s the experience you have.
So, that’s why I’m a little bit wary about the word, because naive implies that there was a better way that we should have known. For me these quibbles that I put up, Alec, is because they arise even now as we talk and debate, because there is not enough public discourse aimed at understanding the views of the other and I use this word based on the way I have looked at Mandela.
There were times when he would phone me at five in the morning, and he’d say, Mac, so and so, what do you know about that person? And he’d question me. I’d put the phone down. What the bloody hell? You ring me at 5 o’clock? Three, four days later I learn that he had a breakfast with the person. He has now looked at the person, tried to understand him, he’s going to engage him from where he comes from and then he’s going to be at pains to discuss with you to bring you to where he wants you.
To return to that period, the next wave in the face of these difficulties was a sense suddenly that it will come through the barrel of a gun. Libya, Gaddafi came that way. What changed?
But then I must be careful, because it’s very easy from hindsight to say what he should’ve done, that he had the resources and where he should have put it. At that time there was nobody saying where to put it. There was no question about infrastructure development
Whether you come from a free market perspective or more of a Marxist attitude, the truth of the matter is that all are premised on free movement, but in the circumstances of the Cold War, closed economies were the norm. And closed economies can grow wealth up to a point, but after that it’s over. So, that’s where I come from, and in South Africa translating all that, we found ourselves confronted with a regime so solidly backed because of the Cold War and because of its strategic position and assets, so firmly supported by the developed West.
So, here’s our battle now. Our strategy’s now compounded. We’ve got a well-developed economy, we’ve got a powerful ruling body, we have a race divide, we have privileged whites. Again it’s coming back to today: when there was white minority rule they could redistribute among the white community because they’re a minority. We can’t redistribute that way amongst ourselves when we are the majority.
When I look back as a young man, at Natal University, I was not prepared to listen to any white person, lecturer, student or anyone, who comes and tells me that I must be engaging in peaceful action. We had to go through a phase where we came to distinguish between extra legal action, extra constitutional action, because we were now fighting in a space where we don’t have the vote but we do not want to end up in jail. So, we began to talk about extra constitutional, extra parliamentary forms of action.
When I got to Britain I cannot think of a period where I grew up as rapidly as I grew up in Britain, because it put me in touch from Malaysians to Latin Americans, Nigerians, the lot. We were all going through the same experiences, and we were going through failures and successes. The British had crushed the Malaysians and Burmese when they resorted to armed struggle. Cameroons attempted it, crushed, and lo and behold then comes the Cuban and Algerian experiences. Just one bloody boat, and here we are. What are we doing? You will see a very interesting debate that took place amongst those that were committed to Marxism. There was one strand that said, the conditions have to be mature, they have to mature for such a revolution to take place. Che Guevara says we can create the conditions. So, here when the debate is taking place, our answer to anybody who says it’s is a problem, we respond that we’ll create the necessary conditions by launching the armed struggle. Forget about some of the literature that’s coming up at the moment, for example claiming that Chief Luthuli was a pacifist. He wasn’t. He presided over the meeting of the national executive of the ANC and next night presided over the joint meeting of the Congresses, both of which authorised Mandela to set up Umkhonto weSizwe.
By that time, not so much the experience of the West but the experience of the East, of the Soviets and the Chinese, were telling us, don’t think it’s just the barrel of a gun; that political mobilisation of the people is a crucial component of the armed struggle. The first time we went for advice: Mao Tse Tung told Walter Sisulu, the then Secretary-general of the ANC that resorting to the armed struggle in SA was a crazy idea. That was in 1953.
AR: Crazy because . . .?
MM: Mao tse Tung said that you haven’t created any of the conditions for a successful revolution. You are thinking that if we can just give you an army and train you, you’ll fight your way to victory. I mention these things because the way forward was becoming a very, very complex one, Every time we tried to do some peaceful action there was increased repression in SA. The answer was more repression from the system.
So what were our assumptions then? Our assumption was, get rid of the foreign ruler and everything will be hunky-dory. That is number one. Our assumption was that economic development would be a walk in the park. We had lived in our life experience in a continent that was used to take the raw materials out of; so underlying that assumption was that all that would stay here for our people’s benefit.
And look back, how we struggled.
On his early activist years
AR: When you were in your early activist years — before you were on Robben Island — did any one of you think it would take as long as it did to bring down apartheid?
MM: You know, when we turned to the arms struggle [in 1961] we thought it would be over in six months. Comrades were not allowed to tell their families. There was a song that we would take the country the Castro way, based on the banana boat song Belafonte used to sing. And when I came into the country on May 2nd 1962 after my training in the German Democratic Republic, every almost every underground unit member was telling me, just give it six months. When we landed in prison, Wilton Mkwayi, every New Year would get up and greet us from his cell, shouting and greeting, and welcoming the new year and saying, don’t worry, chaps, five years and we’re going to be out. And then one day somebody got fed up and shouted back and said, Wilton, I’ve heard this nonsense so many times. And Wilton said, I’ve never told you when the five years begins.
But by the time I got to prison, to be fair, Mandela was already arguing and debating issues of the struggle. With me it is the way in which he won the argument as to whether I should study Afrikaans. He understood where I was coming from. He understood that I was committed to the issue of an armed struggle based on mass mobilisation. But he said to me, Mac, in the end, he says, how do you ambush the other side? You have inferior forces, you have inferior weaponry, but how are you going to defeat that chap? So I say, well, it’s a, b, c, whenever he forces . . . here and do this there, and let me draw it for you on the ground, and I’ll get you to move his forces from this position, where he’s numerical and weapon superiority is neutralised. We discussed this at great length, drawing on the sand, and when we’d finished he said, but if you don’t know the General on the other side who is also seeking to understand what you are likely to do, what you do? And if you don’t know your opposite, how are you going to get them to respond the way you want. You’d better understand that.
No, I said, but I’ve read the Commando by one of the Afrikaner leaders, Denys Reitz and other books so I have an idea how they think. Mandela responded that those were specific instances under previous commander. So what must I do? I ask He says, learn the language. OK, I said, I’ll learn. He says, no, learn their poetry, understand their culture, because I’m talking about understanding.
Now, I don’t think we ever reached a point to have that sort of luxury that we enjoyed by being in prison with Mandela and Sisulu. Unless you do rigorous military training over years and rise through the ranks, these lesson never comes to you.
So, with all those difficulties, the setback of the Rivonia arrests in 1963 was a phenomenal setback, but we cannot interrogate history on the basis that if we were there again would we have done it differently? Because the differently only arises because you’re looking back.
We used to say “we’ll go for classical guerrilla warfare”. I get to prison, Madiba says to me, what do you mean by classical guerrilla war? I said, the way the Chinese did it. Get a liberated zone in a rural area and from there we operate. He says, can you look at South Africa’s map?
Now, one of the most interesting things in my life has been that when I was a student in London and also teaching, I was in a South African Communist Party unit, and we received a request for literature, and I used to go and collect the literature, buy them all over, and mail them to secret addresses in South Africa. I remember getting a message from home that thanked us for the books that we sent and said, can you also make a special effort to give us the books written by colonial forces that defeated the guerrillas in specific instances. If I recall correctly there was British general who had written of his experiences in Malaysia. When I’m now in prison and we’re having this kind of debate, I’m listening to Mandela, what is he saying? So, one day I say to him, bloody hell, did you read this book? He says, of course I did, I studied it. I said to him, so you are the person who was asking for all this literature, and it turned out to be true.
A very interesting point for me from the point of view of lessons. The past should not be looked at . . . generally we look at the past for success stories, but if you want a real lesson from the past, look for the lesson that says what you should not do. So, here we are, we’re caught in this situation, and we were now talking about mounting classical guerrilla warfare. One of the comrades who had done his military training in the People’s Republic of China argued that Botswana was on the eve of its independence and it would serve as our rear base. But then remember at that time there’s the Algerian independence war taking place. The Algerian anti-colonial forces had Tunisia on one and Morocco on the other as neighbouring states to which they could retreat. We’re looking for that kind of environment here in SA. We can’t find it. And so our struggle kind of makes a point where even though Mozambique was independent, Zimbabwe was independent, and Namibia had gained independence, but there was no possibility that we could operate freely. We had to make an arrangement that said to the leadership in our neighbouring countries, please, as our then president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo put it to Samora Machel and to the frontline states, he says, all we are asking you is just close your eyes when our cadres go through your respective countries and lets deny that you’re giving us any facility. We don’t want you to fight our struggle; we know it’s not possible for you to do our fight.
That’s a very important point, because part of the difficulty has been that in 30 years of exile also threw up another interesting problem. How do you get assistance, how is your presence tolerated in the country? These countries do not have the economic, the political power or military capacity to withstand a country like South Africa. How do you live in that host country?
Our exile movements from SA other than the ANC in one way or another got involved in the politics of the host country. We took a position, straight up. At one time I think we were accused by Potlako Leballo of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) who informed the Tanzanians that we were part of the Oscar Kambona plot to stage a coup in Tanzania. The Tanzanians gave us 14 days to clear out of Tanzania, and our guerrilla force had to clear out and we ended up somewhere in a remote part of the Soviet Union!, There was no truth in the allegation against us but we had to work hard to rebuild our relations with Tanzania. So we kept seriously outside the area of host country politics. Again, from the point of view of a theorist, you can start condemning men and making judgments.
That is how things shaped up. So, those are the difficulties, some of them. The rest are there, but they illustrate now the condition of Africa……. because when Mandela went out in 1962, we thought that the independent African countries would be able to train and us and even provide logistic support. If you read that crazy document, Operation Mayibuye, you will see that we thought that within six months we would be parachuting guerrillas into SA using Soviet aircraft, and Mandela himself says that when he went to Ethiopia and he was on the parade and there was a young Ethiopian lad flying a fighter plane, doing all those aerobatic moves in the air. When the pilot landed and walked up to the stadium to take his salute, Mandela got the shock of his life.
Then again there was a black pilot in Nigeria and Mandela is panicking. That gives you an idea how colonialism had destroyed our self-confidence. So that’s how Africa was, but we learn again to cut out the judgmental claptrap. The simple reality is that it was an assumption sitting in the back of our minds. It was not a conscious statement grounded on facts and analysis. It was an assumption that with Pan African unity, every country could become free with us. The reality was Africa was not developed. Each country had enormous problems of its own. Every experiment took us one way and then sometimes took us two steps forward and one back, sometimes it took us one step forward and two steps back. And that’s how we had to move, and it is in that space that we had to move as South Africans. That for me tells me how important Africa was for us, is that by the mid-80s it was becoming clear that either SA was going to be reduced to ashes or it would have to find a way forward.
On career politicians
AR: You have talked about career politicians and their weaknesses. In itself there’s nothing wrong with career politics. Every society needs politicians.
MM: It is the era. The problem with this is that the ANC did not prepare (for office). The comrades came into government (in 1994) with no pension, no work experience. For example a Fort Hare graduate of 25 years of age leaves the country in 1962, returns 30 years later, he’s 55. And when he goes to parliament it is an insecure occupation. So there nothing wrong with politics as a career. In fact, I’m using the word career in an honourable way. When I distance myself, I’m saying as a personality I’m not that (not a career politician). But as a function in society, society cannot do without it. The issue was now you’re going to be a professional politician. You are not the freedom fighter who’s just reacting without asking “what do I get?” That is one problem. And that’s why I said we were short-changed.
In not listening to the others we kept on thinking that if we reassured the minorities, showed them our record, went back to the Freedom Charter, told them how we’ve been to jail and everything together, men, women and even children of all colours in exile, and now post-1994 they’re looking at Mandela and how we’ve peacefully resolved the matter they will change their outlook. We didn’t stop to appreciate how are the other parties were campaigning. The singular message from every other party has been: be afraid. They kept evoking the fear factor so they kept driving the minorities away from coming together. So you see this nation-building agenda is really in an onerous space where the consensus that is there in the constitution disappears when it comes to elections and political fighting. It’s a challenge.
The other day, because of an interview when I was retiring, I was asked this question in the context of xenophobia in SA. I responded that in 2001 I published a supplement, which was inserted into every newspaper in SA. It was titled “ THE GREAT DEBATE: UNITY, DIVERSITY AND RACE IN SOUTH AFRICA”. That same week the editorial of the leading newspaper claimed that race issue is over, there’s no racial problem in SA! We didn’t want to talk but we invoked this fear and therefore it is driving people in that way of thinking. The black vote is split. It’s the white and the other minority voters that are voting in a particular way.
AR: Coming together remains important but the fundamental challenge surely is socio-economic upliftment, getting that right — and having an efficient government focused on it.
MM: Absolutely. That proposition is spot on. But achieving that proposition in a society that we come from needed a consensus. One, there shall be land redistribution. How, what, is debatable. And then debate by saying we’ve debated, we’ve debated, we’ve debated now let’s try this and we will review the matter together in say three years’ time. Because we shared a view, we have differences on how we should do it. The economy. Debate, debate, debate prevailed but we end up by saying we will review the matter together.
President Zuma, set up the Presidential Planning Commission in the Presidency. Every member of the PPC came with his /her own viewpoint. It did not matter whether you’re Marxist, Leninist, whatever, you put the facts and your proposal on the table. Keep your philosophy to yourself. The outcome is the New Development Plan (NDP). We designed it, it is being implemented, and we will look at the results. If the results are not taking us where we want to go and we say, where are we now, then we talk about what steps we need to take to move forward. That’s the type of consensus that South Africa needs because of the tremendous disparity from which we’re coming, not just income but the psychology. We were living in mental ghettos and we needed to get out of the mental ghettos.
If you look at the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) of 1994 what happened in the mandatory Government of National Unity, the government agreed with the proposition, and the question becomes how do we achieve those goals. Minister Derek Keys comes as Minister of Finance. He proposes that a 5% extra levy on tax will provide the funds to deal with the wherewithal for the RDP. We accepted it. 5% extra tax for one year to solve the problem! And the minute we started for example touching the land issue the current owner says you can’t take my land or that the State must pay some inflated price.
So I’m talking about that type of thing where we have to consciously say . . . each political party would have to say, my party would not campaign on the basis of fear because we come from a society, which taught us to fear each other. After that the Afrikaner can say, I want my homeland, I want this, I want that, but he says the one thing, I will respect the fundamental rights. This too was resolved through discussion. Number two; I will never play the fear card. Instead what has become the swear word, the swear word, is the race card. And yet the transformation at the race level is the issue that has got to be addressed.
Where we’ve come on the economy is a very important point. We have come both for South Africa and Africa to the issue of integration and infrastructure development. We still need to refine that a bit. But if South Africa’s Government concentrates on that infrastructure development, makes sure that movement in the country, the region and the continent — goods and services, people — make sure that communications, ICT, make sure that power — and by the way is going to be a big problem, you can smell it, water and sanitation. Big problem, because it’s a lack of maintenance as well. If the Government keeps that focus and continues to try to move in a public/private sector partnership model, with all sorts of variations but so it creates a business friendly environment, we’ll get there. So that’s where the Zuma Government is.
On Africa’s place in the world
AR: one of the big changes in the last decade has been the Chinese involvement — transformational. And yet at the same time you could look at what’s happening now and you say, look, once again Africa is still being used as a giant mine.
MM: Worse. There are instances now happening around the issue of food security. I’m not going to name the countries but they come, they take over large tracts of land, they promise to develop the agriculture and they promise to buy the products, but when they come they bring their own labour, they bring their own wheelbarrow. There’s no skills transfer taking place, no technology transfer taking place.
We are living in a space where the way to get out of that Cold War mentality is to create competitive models from other countries because I think this model is the easiest to beat. This is the crudest model. What I’m saying here is that, guys, the field is open, come with your superior models. That’s why I’m not naming the country. But I think you know it, I know it. Is there change happening? The positives again, the regional blocs, some working better than others, but inceptions of the idea of integration, economic integration, concrete programmes on infrastructure development, each country having its own issues of how to make it attractive to business, that’s happening. But it’s also happening because we are living in a world where this is the space. You want to make money, this is the space.
MM: Africa. But the question for me is what is happening correct, and my test what is correct is, is it building your productive capacity? Is it skilling people, creating jobs? But even more than that, are we doing it in ways that revives an innovative spirit. I know you use the word entrepreneurship. I’ve long gone beyond that word. Over the last few years since I began teaching at Bennington, I left Bennington in 2008, I’ve come to the conclusion that the era we’re living, in is the innovation era. And the reason is simple.
Everything about us, and I’m not talking about South Africa alone, the majority of societies in the world, from birth our language with the children is don’t do this, don’t do that. That’s the wrong language. That kid is exploring and discovering the world, is curious. You need to nurture that curiosity because beneath innovation is curiosity. But our education kills you and tells you don’t, don’t, don’t. America, USA, shocked me. It is the most innovative society I’ve seen. I was shocked that even in Bennington in Vermont, in a very ordinary family dinner, here are two, eleven-year-old kid and 13-year-old kid, sitting at the table, at ease in the conversation, asking questions, raising issues and the parents doing their best to answer, to engage. But not a word to tell them, you’re talking nonsense. That’s what we need here.
AR: So how does one spark that off in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Africa?
MM: I’m working with a friend of mine who came to visit me in hospital. We had a discussion on this matter and he’s just finished running four groups of about 30 youngsters, experimenting with this issue. But you have some very powerful people in Britain. I think one chap is called, Sir Robinson. He chaired one of the education studies. But he confines the education in the sciences. I’m saying, no, you must stimulate curiosity in everything. You and I can walk down there, ten of us can walk there and there’s a leaf on the ground. Nine of us have not noticed it. Maybe the tenth one has noticed it and two years later you’ll find that leaf in his painting. He’s watching, he’s looking. This observe and seek to understand has been drummed out of us. So the how, big question, but is it at the heart, is it the bedrock on which human society has evolved.
All sorts of things have happened in history have taken us always forward. The mechanical revolution, the clock. It gave us a sense that in science we can dominate nature and we made enormous progress. We had the industrial revolution on that basis. Now we talk about a technological revolution. I have no quarrel with all that, but none of that happens without the innovative spirit. None of it.
You see it with, there’s a fad in South Africa, small business development, informal sector, and how many jobs has it created?
AR: Not very many.
MM: And what kind of jobs? Is that the future? Yes, it’s a bridge, it’s a bridging action, but if you divert your energy to that then your long-term sustainability is not going to be there. So these are the kind of challenges, but they’re challenges that have no easy answers.
MM: In our constitutional democracy power is distributed between Parliament, the Executive, the Judiciary and a variety of others institutions. By its nature any institution that is entrusted with power seeks to increase its power. But power is finite and to increase its power the institutions can only do so by decreasing the power residing in one or other institution. But power is finite. It is going to take it from somewhere else. And where do they want to take it away, from the Executive. But it is the Executive and Parliament that ensures we are a democracy. We must be careful. Otherwise we may end up with elite rule. Now, nothing wrong with interplay and tension among institutions — this tension is healthy -, provided we see this tension that is built into it and don’t destroy the tension, but manage the tension. You make mistakes, you’ll come right, but don’t take it as a spider’s web and just take a broomstick to run through it.
So this is where we are sitting. We’ve had all the small debates. Many have resorted to the courts, that’s all. Yes, they should go to the courts if they want to. But the threat that this country is facing, we can change Zuma through elections but once you have given absolute power then you can’t change it.
On the ANC
AR: On that front, what is going to happen? Is the ANC going to divide again as it did at the end of Thabo Mbeki’s time?
MM: There won’t be a division.
AR: Or will there be an assured succession?
MM: No, there will be a succession. It’s a tradition of the ANC that the winner then brings in everybody and the issue is bring them in meaningfully and it’s an issue that is there in the DNA of the ANC. It’s not a new thing for it. There is a person who’s writing a biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme. Do you know that his last years were spent in the thirties actively trying to destroy the ANC? So, and I was telling the biographer, please write it honestly. Show that people have views, they contribute, and they do things that can harm. But what got us right? What got us right was that the conditions arose for the question to be addressed. Others in the leadership, including the newborn Youth League decided to make the ANC a mass based organisation. Once we did that we created the condition for the views of the ordinary member of the ANC have a voice. Right now the ANC does not have tasks given to its branches that compel it to interact with the community. It spends its time watching what is the councillor doing and in danger of losing its organic link with the community and the people it has promised to serve.
So I believe it won’t split. I believe there are a lot of distractions in it. But I believe that addressing the question of the task of the branch and pursuing that line of a consensus, I don’t know whether President Zuma wavered or not on the question of the NDP, because that’s some alleged — that there was Ebrahim Patel and there was talk about, that there’s all these policies and pulls (in different directions). But I think that the job done by Trevor Manuel in putting the NDP together was a unique exercise but it was an exercise started by Zuma. So you see how mixed this thing is.
AR: But it’s gone in abeyance, the NDP.
MM: No, it’s now his front line of his speeches. It’s his front line now. That and infrastructure has become his front line campaigning. And interestingly, for whatever reason, political or otherwise that he had to bring in Cyril [Ramaphosa]. Cyril was the deputy chair of that Commission.
AR: The previous deputy presidents have, by and large, have been president . . .
MM: I think it’s a good thing that Cyril didn’t become president earlier. I think he could become a good president but sometimes too fast a movement can wreck the hell out of you. But I think he’s a fantastic negotiator, he’s got enormous . . . how shall I put it. He’s got an enormous capacity to stay focused at the same time on ten issues.
MM: I think Cyril will probably make a good president. I’m not ruling out that even when he becomes a president you’ll find some major cock-up take place. But the matter of succession will be resolved by the delegates from the branches attending a national conference of the ANC.
AR: The outside world knows Cyril Ramaphosa from way back when he was with you negotiating. And there is a danger that everyone outside South Africa assumes oh, he would be brilliant, but we don’t know how anyone will do, do we.
MM: We don’t know what happens. When power comes into your hands. In fact, in hospital when I thought I was dying, I came to a formulation in the state of semi-delirium because part of my job was to be interacting with you guys and your favourite assertion is that you speak truth to power. You were always whacking me all the time with that. So I added two qualifiers on my statement that I imagined in my delirium. To seek to speak truth to power is absolutely necessary but before you speak make sure it is the truth. Secondly, before you speak be also aware that once you have spoken you’ve exercised power. Only for the reason, how do we build a culture of taking responsibility. And you raised Nkandla. I’d say that is the biggest weakness, the Nkandla saga. He ought to take some clearly defined level of responsibility, even if it is for an act of omission.
But from the beginning, I once said to him, President, prepare yourself for repayment. This is before the report came out. And I said, if you have a problem I’m sure that in your present position it won’t be difficult to raise. He said, no, I did not ask for those security enhancements, I’m not paying. I understood his point of view. We know how stubborn each of us can be and we know each of us have got some blind spot in us. But how this thing pans out, it has gone pretty far down the parliamentary process but what is important is to create a culture of taking responsibility for our actions.
On second thoughts, I think my comment on President Zuma and Nkandla are inappropriate. Firstly, my job as his spokesman depended on confidentiality. My job ended only recently on 30 April 2015. Secondly, the matter of Nkandla is still with Parliament and possibly the courts. There is much contestation between the parties on this matter and I do not want my personal views arising from a confidential relationship to become a political football. I am a dedicated member of the ANC.
Otherwise, I think the reputation of President in Africa in Africa is not weak. I saw the body language between him and Obama and I saw it going wrong. Were you here when Obama visited?
MM: He outshone Obama at the press conference. So he can rise like that.
On Mandela, the leader
AR: From your description of Nelson Mandela, the moment that you were on Robben Island prison with him he had almost a headmasterly role it seems. Was it apparent that he had special leadership skills, or did that become more apparent as time went on?
MM: What I might say might be a bit contradictory. Firstly, let me start by saying that my view on leadership is that there is no gene that says this person will be a leader. I think leadership arises from the way you respond to the challenges you face, and looking at Mandela’s life, what makes you a leader is a very simple proposition. In life at all times you are faced with challenges, and those challenges necessitate that you make choices. In the struggle for social change those choices are not just an individual choice. Invariably when you begin to act on those choices, the results don’t come out the way you want it. And at that point confronted with unintended consequences, you will see the person who now wants to blame somebody, who now wants to know who did what wrong and is moaning about the situation. He is already out as a leader. You will see the leader who will take the consequences that have arisen as is. And then he will turn those consequences, that new environment, and say, what are the challenges here? How do we move forward here? And then he’d begin to discuss and raise the question of the way forward. He’s turned it back into a circle. Challenge, choice, consequence, challenge. But at the heart of it, he never avoids . . . he doesn’t shirk responsibility.
Mandela, when he went to prison in 1962, it was well before the document Operation Mayibuye had been drafted. He is brought to join them in that trial as accused number one. The other day I was speaking in Pretoria. George Bizos was in the audience, Ahmed Kathrada was in the audience too. I raised this matter and I said, are you aware that when Operation Mayibuye, that crazy scheme, was put forward Mandela was in prison and had no hand in it. Mandela didn’t spend time quarrelling with his colleague and about who and why such a plan was considered. It was part of the challenges they were facing and Mandela stood up and said, I’ll take responsibility, I will defend our positions. Rusty Bernstein, one of accused confirms this trait in Mandela.
What no one noticed was that behind the scenes arguments took place. Those arguments went on for years in one form or another.
What does that tell you about leadership? I can never forget that.
So, coming back to this leadership factor. Yes, Mandela had already carved a space in which, even in the treason trial, those qualities in him were being noticed. And I’ve asked Walter Sisulu what made him spot in Mandela a leader? And I said to him, what made you see the potential? And he said, what I saw in Mandela was not only a young man who was determined to fight for freedom, but I saw the determination with which he applied himself. If you go to the Mandela Foundation and look at his notes, you will see how he thinks and rethinks issues, and I’ve had the privilege of working on his autobiography and engaging in close discussions on the contents and his formulations. Security considerations did not allow for Mandela to keep with him what he had already written. Night after night he had to move on writing the next 10-15 pages.
AR: So, he can’t keep referring to what he’s already written, because it’s him with you and with Kathrada.
MM: But all that’s happening is that he and I began to bunk work on grounds of medical health. So, we would stay behind while the others went to work and we would spend the day in the quadrangle — he’s seated on a concrete brick and me on a stone — discussing what he had written, discussing the comments the comments of Sisulu and Kathrada, arguing about matters, and then he would say, yes, you can change this, yes, you can do that, no, that should remain as is. And he has to make it light hearted. It was so funny. He had one day told me about how when he became a lawyer it was very important that you should establish a particular relationship with any client that comes into your presence, and he said, that is around the big desk, that is why your chair must be higher, and that is why the client chairs were lower.
There was one rectangular concrete brick in the prison quadrangle where we were housed. If you stood it upright the person facing you had to look up the person sitting on the brick and Mandela always went and sat on that brick. And there was one rock much lower and that was my seat. One evening I said, this thing has got to stop. So, the next day I rushed out before he could get there and I sat on the concrete slab. Then he came. For the next two days we did no work except to argue about who should sit on the brick! It wasn’t an aggressive argument it was full of good humour.
AR: You referred to the Tutu theory — which I’ve heard him [Tutu] say in interviews with me and publicly — that awful as it was, that Robben Island helped to make Mandela . . . that he went in an angry youngish man and came out as this reconciliatory force. What of that theory?
MM: There’s a book edited by Parker-Hamilton titled, a “Mandela — The Authorised Portrait. I got involved in it and Kathrada and I eventually became consulting editors. By that time Tutu had written his foreword. I was not aware that he’d been approached and when I read the foreword I said to Kate Parker-Hamilton, I have a problem, and she said, but we can’t change it. I said, no, I am not asking you to change it. That’s the Arch’s view and, he’s entitled to it. I suggested that towards the end of the book we interview Kathrada. He has been with Mandela in every trial and in a very close working relationship. Let’s ask him the question how has prison changed him. To counter that argument . . . But I also countered it in a different way.
If you study the manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe, you will see that buried in it there is an embedded invitation to say, “let’s talk even at eleventh hour”. Every move that was made at a time when Mandela and Sisulu were in the leadership structures, on the defiance campaign to the arrest, no campaign was launched without making this point and inviting the regime to be part of the process. So, when we went for the armed struggle, we always left open that possibility and it was so far into those debates that we had in prison but that question was there already in 1968. You will see, in 1968, and I may be wrong on the date by year, there is a petition that was signed by a select group of people headed by Mandela demanding our release. He had drafted this petition and the only non-ANC people to sign it was Eddie Daniels of the African Resistance Movement (ARM). The other non-ANC members refused to sign. They argued that that petition amounted to begging the regime to release us!
What happened then is that Mandela is drafting, setting out his arguments and we’ve agreed we will do this. Helen Suzman comes on a visit. That’s our first visit from her. She asks Mandela: How’s things, how’s treatment. He says: there’s one question, we’re demanding our release. She dismisses it as unrealistic. So, they have a bit of an argument and Mandela begins by showing how, in the Boer War and post- Boer War, people were sentenced and later released. He cites all the cases including Robey Liebrandt, the Nazi supporter. Helen demolishes his argument with one statement. She said, yes, Mr. Mandela, those were failed revolutions, yours is still on. When that happened, and I listened to it, and I said, oh, our petition is gone. No, not with Mandela. Now he had to apply his mind to that question. How, in the petition, do I counteract that response? And he counteracted it by saying, if you are to say that we must remain here in prison, then your argument has changed, you are no longer saying that we’re guilty; you’re saying, whether guilty or not, we must die in jail.
But I’m alluding to such instances by way of showing how his leadership quality developed. He did not dismiss Helen Suzman and say, go to hell. He actually turned the thing around to say, she is passing me a message how the other side is thinking, and when you do that, you can interact even with your worst enemy. I remember General Steyn coming over. He was an extremely polite man, the overall head of prisons. He always came in a black suit with a hat, spotless white shirt. Very soft-spoken. We were in the yard and Mandela is raising our complaints and General Steyn turns around and says at some point, Mr Mandela, you are not in a five-star hotel, you are in a prison, and he said it quite firmly. I’m listening to this thing and I’m saying, oh, boy, that man is in trouble.
Mandela turns around and he says, General, you and I are at war. You’re on one side, I’m on the other side. In a war nobody can predict who’s going to win but one thing we know, that at the end of the day we will have to meet, even if it is for you to just accept my surrender. How that happens will be determined by how we treat each other. Steyn changed overnight. So, I come back to the leadership question. Circumstance. But how you respond, the choices you make and are you prepared to live with those consequences, critical all the time. And Mandela is not an overnight leader, it is through action — and you see it coming and that is where that element of discipline and persistence comes in.
AR: So this is an implicit counterpart to the Tutu point.
MM: To the Tutu point, we had already had the Freedom Charter. South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white together. We had had the last clause about peace and friendship. We had come to Umkhonto we Sizwe and we were saying, even at this late hour let’s talk and resolve our problems . . . I get arrested a year after Rivonia. Accused number one, Wilton Mkwayi, stands up in the dock . . . We’ll still only be conducting sabotage at that stage. Wilton stands up and he says, My Lord, I’m a professional agitator. The bombs that we have set are actually a letter of invitation calling the regime to meet with us.
That was implicit but when the downturn came and exile now became the only place in which the movement will be revived, the sentiments swung and I think that there are two things in battle — you have to teach your combatants to hate the enemy for its policies and practices, but you also have to teach your combatants to respect the enemy for its power and prowess.
Yes, you hate in order to get them mobilised but in your mind you never underestimate the other side and that capacity. But it was not Mandela alone who had this attitude. You will see that he never made a move without consulting the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe and when I came out of prison, I was being sent to Zambia by him and Sisulu…..
I then worked with Tambo and I realised that these three guys had such a phenomenal faith in each other that the issue of rivalry was never there. Each one understood the other one’s strength. Together they made a formidable trio. Mandela and Walter would say, just make sure that OR is fully briefed. And if OR makes any changes, you make them. OR would come to me, what is the position in prison? What’s Mandela’s views? Until I opened the lines, I read the first communication where he is briefing Mandela about the set-up while Mandela is having talks, there wasn’t a secure means for them to communicate . . . They differed and, by the way, they differed at times when Mandela would be brutal, more brutal . . .
I’ve never seen him more brutal towards Sisulu in a meeting than towards anybody else. Having been separated for thirty years, when the three got together in 1990 they were on the same page!
AR: Your point that there was never rivalries is extraordinary, not least given the more recent splits and divisions in the ANC.
MM: Look at today. We’ve got phenomenal challenges. The ANC has the capacity to begin to meet those challenges but look at the meetings taking place. They are all dividing on who should be the next leader. It’s a total waste of energy… . . . When somebody asked me once, how do I look at prison, I said, what a bloody privilege.
Walter was a remarkable man. Walter had a standard four education. Very interested in Marxism, a communist. I would read a book and at work now recount it and as I am recounting, he’d be asking questions. By the time I finished explaining that book, I understood it in a way that I had never done when I first read it, because he had this ability to put the question that got to the heart of things. I would go to him and say to him, I just had a terrible argument with Madiba, don’t agree with him at all. He’d say, what happened, please recount the argument. He wouldn’t tell me I’m right or wrong but sometimes he would say, Mac, you know what, give him a bit of time. You’ll see, he’ll change.
On Mandela, the reconciler
MM:In 1976 he is still asking the question, which is the right way from here? What is going to bring success?
So, did prison make him a reconciler? . . . We must be very clear. And that is a feature that I think that people do not take into account in South Africa in particular, that the form in which oppression took place here was to deny us a history, was to treat us as inferior people and therefore needing to be civilised. It was so persistently driven into us that it affected our psychology terribly, and so if you touch Mandela’s pride then you are in grave trouble.
And it became possible because South Africa and its topography and climate going up to Kenya was amenable to white settlement, so that the social base for the maintenance of rule became settler community, the white community. Whereas if you look at west Africa, that’s where you had indirect rule. They used the traditional structures to rule. It’s actually the kings and the chiefs, they were the recruiters of the slaves. The social system depended on them as the facilitator. Here, the social system depended upon the minority white. So, I don’t know whether you get what I’m trying to say here.
AR: Well, I can tell you one thing it brings forward, the whole issue of exile and the difficulty of spending a life, or much of a life in exile and then coming back to your country.
MM: And then coming back and finding you’re often not at one with your own people. You’re raising for me a very interesting question, because while I’m been spokesman for Zuma I’ve had an opportunity to look closely him, and I’ve had to sometimes defend and explain things. Sometimes he and I would have a joke, and say, are you speaking there? Are you ad-libbing? He would laugh and say yes, I would in mock plea say, please, give me a break. And he’d laugh. But the point about it is that we are still grappling around the world for the quest of multicultural societies, and South Africa is one of the countries best placed to insist that the fundamental rules must be that diversity is a wealth, an asset, but a condition for it to be a wealth is that no religion, no culture, no language should present itself as superior to another. It should pay respect for example to the other languages as a phenomenal articulation of people’s feelings, and then when you do that you will see how the appreciation will come for your language and your culture and your traditions without superiority/inferiority complications. In South Africa there is a very large rural conservative African population. The African who has become detached and says, I believe in monogamy, you’re entitled to, but please tell me where is it written that the natural way of living is monogamy. We are imposing something. You are entitled to impose it, but you cannot make it superior.
So, here we are, these are the type of problems we are facing, but these are underlying problems. You ask me about Mandela and I say, you demean his self-esteem and his community and he will go berserk. It never ceases to happen. That’s the only time I’ve seen that happen.
MM: So, we have the challenges of joblessness, we have the challenges of poverty, we have the challenge of growth without jobs, and we have the technological revolution, which is making change. I think we now accept that change is an everyday phenomenon. So, Africa is sitting at that point, and for me with all the bloody crap, we have the age group of our population — a high proportion of youth — if we can nurture this innovative spirit in them, it will put our continent on a higher road.
AR: On the issue of China and the West both cantering into Africa. How should the continent play its relationship with China?
MM: I think they should challenge each other publicly. Commit to develop, not just as a do-good exercise. Our own developed economies depend on dynamism in that economy. So, let’s run our projects but let’s put it openly on the table how we are doing it. Let’s see the benefits that our flowing and let them compete, and let’s define — beside the fact that you need certain things — let’s define clearly the goals we’re seeking, so that even the people in Africa feel they’re part of it. I think from the aggressive, hostile competition we should now move into this friendly competition.
AR: Friendly between the powers over Africa?
MM: And between business. Big business is facing a problem. The technological revolution has reached a point where I don’t care how big you are and whether you’ve existed for 100 years, some upstart can come up tomorrow and within five years wipe you off the map. So, you can’t afford to stand still, even as big business. So, that’s a wonderful world. So, that’s why I say, let’s encourage that type of competition, but let’s have a consensus besides your individual goals, what are your larger goals?
There are certain sets of larger goals we must all share. Around that point, when I talked about the scientific revolution and where it took us, it was based on us being above nature and using nature. We are now at this point where we have to accept and recognise that we are part of nature, not above or outside of it. So, it’s not a resource to be exploited for my benefit. And it’s not just a small question of conservation, but the challenge is there that to move forward now we can’t keep on behaving as if nature is something we can plunder. I think the world is exciting, and I think that to be involved in helping just the question to come up and people to begin to engage in finding the answers . . . the strand has been there. Where things go wrong is when they become encrusted.
AR: Hasn’t the ANC become encrusted?
MM: No, it has got a crop of members who are focused their careers with little regard to the interest of the people. In the United States, it is a society that has opposed immigrants and a wave comes in. It struggles to get in, it gets in. It upsets the existing way of thinking, but when it settles there the next wave from somewhere else comes along., It is this continual wave after wave that is not allowing you to settle down and now just rest. It’s part of the element that makes it innovative. So, I don’t know where we go.
Last night I was reading a bit to catch up on this migration issue. We quickly want to address a question with an answer. We’re not spending enough time to say, have we identified the problem correctly. You know your business. If you are get things wrong, you know you will be asking yourself, how did I get it wrong? And when you say, how did I get it wrong, your answer is going to be, I did not understand. That means to say, I did not identify the problem. That’s the simple basis of science to me, identifying the problem first. But don’t spend ten years identifying it. So, that’s where I am.
AR: Careerism. Let’s look at President Zuma’s government now. Internationally he does not have a very good reputation and at the heart of it is the spending . . . well, the most obvious example of this is the spending on Nkandla. How does that fit into all that you went into the struggle for?
MM: To a certain extent it was unjust to me. I had a lot of complaints (about Nkandla). But at that time I said to him, you know this is the funny thing, I am absolutely convinced of the rip-off in that chain, but I’m not even sure whether Zuma knows where’s what. I’ve never known him to worry about that part of it. So, yes, it’s a big blot.
MM: But you made the statement about his reputation. I’ve seen him operate in Africa. I saw him at a meeting in Equatorial Guinea I think when Gaddafi was still alive and being discussed. Every head of state had spoken in favour of Gaddafi. Zuma, he says, look, Gaddafi is bad news. We’ve been to Addis Ababa, he comes and puts a tent up there, while we are meeting heads of state, he’s summoning us one by one to go and meet him. Is this what we want? Let’s be clear. Not good news. But the issue is, how do we get him out? Every head of state spoke thereafter saying, President Zuma, please help. That’s one example. I’ve seen umpteen examples I could give you of the way they turn to him. He is by nature a person who tries to resolve problems through dialogue, but there are certain issues that bug us. I can’t tell you how it hurt me when George Bush came to South Africa and put his hands around President Mbeki shoulder and said, my man in Africa.
One of the criticisms of Zuma, legitimate as it may be in some instances, is in other instances a wrong generalisation, because in that search for a common ground South Africa needs a very, very broad consensus.
AR: Which criticism are you talking about there?
MM: The criticism that he’s indecisive. That he pussyfoots. Yes, I think he makes decisions, and that’s very clear when we look at his history. When he asked me to work for him, we discussed it on and off until November 2008. I said to him in the end, I’m not accepting any position in cabinet or in parliament. I said to him, I am not a politician. We started to toy around with all sorts of thing every time we met and I said to him in one of the discussions, I said to him, President, with all of the problems there is one flaw Heads of State fall for. The moment a President enters his second term, the fashion is everyone asks the question, what is your legacy going to be? So, you start spending your time thinking about your legacy. Do me a favour President Zuma, do not allow anyone to raise the question about what legacy, don’t. The judgment of your legacy will be made after you are gone from your post. But we are living in this funny kind of world. Coming back to our Africa growth thing — as I said I didn’t want to mention it. What are the rich Africans spending their money on? What do they do? We are into conspicuous living, that’s all. That’s the big preoccupation, and I think you can condemn us for that but it was what many countries have been through and they still do it.
AR: And they still do it.
MM: And they still do it. They think that if they can wear a Breitling watch, if this watch is worth half a million, fantastic. Is it giving me improved time? Bugger all.
AR What we are to make of Jacob Zuma? There was Mandela who was put on the pedestal as a god, as a prince among politicians. You then had Thabo Mbeki. You now have a very different man, Jacob Zuma. The ANC has an extraordinary record stretching back decades of utter commitment to a cause, and now you have been working for a government under which careerism, corruption have increased. The president while personably very likeable and with an honourable revolutionary track record has been involved in deeply controversial relationships. There’s the Gupta saga, there’s other stuff.
MM: We came with nothing. Some went to their friends, others went to people who were relying on us to help them, but that’s an answer in the form of a debate. My answer is slightly different. All over the world at the moment, the easiest answer when a country is facing a problem is to say, lack of leadership
Obama — lack of leadership. Cameron — poor of leadership. It is almost as if the only leader who is not criticised for lack of leadership is Putin.
There are major issues that have cropped up and they need to be addressed, but I am fearful of how we’re talking about addressing them. I was given the privilege by Stephen Grootes to interview him as a way of introduce his book. He invited me as a fun thing to interview him. The exercise hurt Stephen. He made the statement that our constitution is a constitution, which is based on protection of the minority. I said, are you serious?
And I didn’t tell it to him there, because if that is the constitution, it is going to be overthrown. Ours is a constitutional democracy. It has also very conscious checks and boundaries, but the other day, Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke, turns round and says that the preferable way of appointing people should be by committees. We should not leave such a power exclusively to the President. OK. What’s happened recently? There’s an appointment to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The law stipulates the process for this, a committee headed by the Chief Justice, with member of the Public Protector, member of the Human Rights Commission and a member of the Gender Commission serving in it. They process everything, they come across a candidate, who is presently Zuma’s adviser. They send their recommendation to the Portfolio Committee of Parliament. The issue of the candidate being one of President Zuma’s advisers had been discussed at the committee of the Chief Justice. The opposition would have none of it in the portfolio committee. They are defeated and then the National Assembly approves the selected candidate. So, what do you want? Do you want a committee system, do you want the President to choose? There’s no system that’s right. A democracy has another element to it, and that is that it is also a culture. We need to walk on that road.
So, now comes the most controversial one. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in a public address says, “I want near (that is the word he used according to the media reports), near absolute power for the Judiciary, I want near absolute power for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and I want near absolute power for the Public Protector”. What do you mean by, near absolute power? Such a path would destroy the democratic foundations of our system. I have expressed my view about the distribution of power in our Constitutional Democracy and I will therefore leave the matter at that.
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