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A sense of hope
Former president Nelson Mandela spent an hour on Wednesday morning talking to Mail &Guardian editor Howard Barrell and associate editor Sipho Seepe.

Former president Nelson Mandela spent an hour on Wednesday morning talking to Mail &Guardian editor Howard Barrell and associate editor Sipho Seepe at his office in Houghton

Howard Barrell: Mr Mandela, if the people of South Africa were to ask you, "What two or three aims can you give us around which to organise our future?", what would those two or three simple, clear ideas be?
Nelson Mandela: The aims around which we should organise for the future cannot be reduced to two or three. Many factors will influence that forward march things like the health of the nation, education ... But to answer your question, what we really require is the growth of our economy. That is the first point.

The second one is an economy that can provide full employment for everybody, because unemployment is one of our biggest challenges in this country. Then we must build a caring society with law-abiding citizens, a society which will be able to address challenges like poverty, like HIV/Aids and other terminal diseases, because the situation with regard to health is a very devastating one. And if, therefore, I had to give you three issues around which we must organise for our future, these are the ones: the growth of the economy, an economy that can provide full employment and a caring society.

Barrell: If we look at South Africa, we differ in many ways race, language. What is the duty of, first, the government and, secondly, the rest of us in trying to overcome racism and tensions between the races?
Mandela: I think the government must empower the culture and the languages of all population groups in this country. We have made the point that the richness of our culture lies in its diversity and, therefore, [we must] understand this diversity. It is the duty of the government to ensure that all our cultures and languages are given the opportunity to flower.
As for the grassroots, our duty is to be proud of what we are, to be proud of South Africa and to ensure that we support the government and other agencies in promoting the spirit of South Africanism and humanity because you can never be human if you are not humane to others. These are core values we should try to develop. Central to that is the fact that it was the culture of the overwhelming majority that was denied and disrespected. Let us keep that centrality, because, without that, we are unable to empower the culture and languages of other people who are unable to be proud of what we are and to be human.

Sipho Seepe: There is also another culture that we never had in South Africa, and that is a culture of democracy. The African National Congress is becoming a "one opinion" organisation, in that the leader becomes the monly one mwho speaks and everyone else follows. How do we get back to a culture of debate within the ANC where there was once a cherished multiplicity of opinion, where a different opinion was not seen as a betrayal?
Mandela: We must welcome differences of opinion. They will always be there. One of the most effective weapons in dealing with different opinions is tolerance the ability to take criticism and not personalise it, even if a prominent individual is specifically identified and becomes a target for criticism. Tolerance is one of the best ways to solve major national issues.

But, when we criticise the ANC, we must not do so merely for what it says in public we must do some investigation as to what actually happens in its internal structures. I can speak with authority of when I led the ANC, because one of the things I stressed was that members must not be lapdogs. The proper thing to do is to have free and vigorous debate on every issue and to criticise everybody, including the president, because then, when you have the consensus, we can go out and speak with one voice.

Seepe: Ja, and you will be able to defend the position ...
Mandela: Absolutely, yes. And anybody who goes against your position will lose credibility.
Now the ANC has always been a people-oriented organisation. The Reconstruction and Development Programme was widely debated. We had no less than five editions of that document because we took it to the public: not necessarily to the ANC, we took it to business, we took it to the trade unions, and everyone made very important inputs. And it was that collective [opinion] that we eventually published. So the question of grassroots is important.

But in every society there must be a strong and clear authority to bring the country together to bring together those different strains, which are natural, which are the source of our strength, and to unite them.

Barrell: Do you think a white South African can feel proud?
Mandela: Well, it depends on his background and his concept of the future. Even during the most difficult days of apartheid we had whites who identified themselves with our struggle, the struggle of the ANC, and later other liberation movements like the Pan Africanist Congress and the Azanian People's Organisation. They identified themselves completely with our struggle. Now, one of the messages we directed to every section of the population, especially the whites, was that you have given us painful experiences which we find difficult to forgive. Our feelings, our emotions were that we must never be reconciled with you. But our brains said that, if we do not make peace with these people, this country will go up in flames.
Now, although the overthrow of white supremacy was due to the liberation movement, a transformation of the kind we experienced would not have been possible if whites had not decided to cooperate. That is why people like [FW] de Klerk, whatever mistakes he made, have a place in history. They were proud of their country and they realised that he had to make peace with the ANC and other sections of the liberation movement. We have many whites today who are proud South Africans, who say, "We have problems, but this is our country. We will never leave."

Barrell: So a clear commitment by a white South African to a common, non-racial, democratic future in South Africa no matter what his or her past may be is a sufficient moral basis for him or her to feel pride?
Mandela: Well, just look at Parliament just look at the benches of the ANC you will see that there are many whites there, some of whom were not prominent during the struggle. You look at organisations like the Inkatha Freedom Party who have whites, and those whites are proud of South Africa. And I dare say that even the opposition, the Democratic Alliance, is proud of South Africa. They may not express that pride in the way in which it is easy to accept, but I am convinced in my own mind that these people are proud of their country.
But, of course, in the heat of political debate, the opposition will say no good is done by this government. Or they will say, "Well, this is good, but, you are lacking here," and so on. They are doing that because they regard this as their country. They are not prepared just to leave the country and go abroad. That is pride. We have succeeded as a liberation movement to promote the spirit of South Africanism, in which most people are proud to be South African.

Barrell: Would you look kindly at a proposal for a change to the Constitution which sought to entrench, to a greater degree than is now the case, special cultural and language rights for minorities?
Mandela: Well, firstly, in our policy blueprint, the Freedom Charter, we say South Africa belongs to all its people. We say we will make sure that every community, without exception, will retain its language, its culture, its historic background, its religion. We make that very clear. We know that, when there is a change of dispensation, minorities are gripped with fear. And, when a small community's language is threatened, it can reduce this country to ashes. The ANC, as a people-oriented organisation, has always attached importance to upholding the culture, the languages of the minority and also to removing their insecurity.

Seepe: This has been very consistent with Mr Mandela's position. At the Rivonia Trial, he made it clear that he is opposed to white domination as much as he will be opposed to black domination. We are very pleased that the message continues to come across today. A question I want to ask is this: some people have raised questions about the degree of centralisation of power in the ANC and this government. While it may be a strategy to solve what the ANC calls careerism within its ranks, it does not seem to augur well. For instance, the centralised party appointment of provincial premiers takes away the people's right to select their own leaders. The ANC says, "The people shall govern," but this seems to contradict that principle.
Mandela: The real question is not whether there is centralisation or delegation of power but whether there is efficient government. And this is determined by the conditions in which a government operates. If careerism and cliques develop throughout the organisation, it is understandable that a president should say that provincial premiers should be selected on the basis of merit, of ability not popularity, not because they belong to this or that clique. You must understand this as a phase. Little did we suspect that our own people, when they got that chance, would be as corrupt as the apartheid regime. That is one of the things that has really hurt us.
In the provinces, our work can stand still because of infighting, especially for the premiership. The organisation has to respond to that sort of crisis. It must make sure that the people in power are those who have credibility, who are clean. That's why, in Gauteng, we have Mbhazima Shilowa, and that's why in the Eastern Cape we had Makhenkesi Stofile. His predecessor, Raymond Mhlaba, was very good. I was with him in jail for 27 years, and he is one of the most loyal and devoted people. But young people felt he was not fit to be the premier. And they were struggling, fighting for his position. That is why we decided that we should appoint premiers.
I don't think it is likely to be a permanent feature, but, of course, I'm no longer in authority. I am now a penniless pensioner. [Laughter.] And I speak from the sidelines.

Barrell: The formulations of many of the values that underpin our Constitution such as the rule of law and the separation of powers between the executive legislature and judiciary are derived from Europe or the United States. Are these values universally applicable, or should Africans dispute or reject them?
Mandela: It's a grave error to imagine that the concept of separation of powers is identical in the US, in Britain, in France, in Germany, in Russia. They have got important variations. In South Africa our aim is to ensure that abuse of power is curtailed. The system we have chosen is intended to ensure stability, political and otherwise. It's not a question of theoretical debate. It's simply responding to the reality that we once suffered from a great deal of authoritarianism.

Seepe: Actually, I put it this way: whereas other people talk about African solutions to African problems, I say we should be adopting workable solutions for African problems.
Mandela: Absolutely.

Barrell: Corruption comes in all colours and guises. Let's take one. What do you say to someone who gave up everything in their youth for the struggle against apartheid and who, as a state official after liberation, steals state property to bolster their meagre pension?
Mandela: Nothing in our struggle for liberation entitles an individual to think that he has a right to rob the public because he has reached old age. We fought in the struggle because we believed it was necessary for us to do so. Corruption cannot be excused because somebody is poor. We have made provisions for pensions for everybody, but we are limited by the situation which we found. We wanted to build a million houses in five years. But when we said that we did not know we had a public debt of R254-billion. That limited our ability to attend to such problems. But the important point is that there is nothing in our struggle that gives people the right in old age to rob the government or the public.

Seepe: There are times when the view of [an ANC] deployment committee may conflict with majority opinion about someone's suitability for a post. Can we entrust decisions on who is to lead us to a small clique of leaders as opposed to majority opinion?
Mandela: Yes. As I said, there are two aspects that are needed. Our mandate must derive from grassroots. That is the principle of democracy. It existed among blacks long before we met the whites in this country. I grew up in a royal court and, as a youngster, I saw people coming from all corners of the tribe for an imbizo or lekgotla. They would debate the whole day with the chief. And, at the end of the day, the chief would say, here are the various views that have been put. This particular view is supported by the majority and that is our decision by the tribe. So democracy was well understood. We have retained that, especially in the ANC.
But, at the same time, there must be a central authority that is going to pull the country together. With the problems in the provinces, there was no other way if we wanted to clear the country of corruption. The president had to say: "I am going to appoint premiers." And, of course, he is not just acting unilaterally, but with his officials.

Seepe: In South Africa we have seen a conflation of intellectual authority with political authority. It lay behind the HIV/Aids debate in which the president became involved. The government must accept that even though they are in power, they do not have authority in other areas.
Mandela: Well, in every field of activity, you have experts who should be given the opportunity to put forward their views without restraint. But, of course, there are times when the head of state must step in. I think what President [Thabo] Mbeki was saying on HIV/Aids was not properly portrayed by some of his spokespersons, and there was a great deal of misunderstanding, too, from the media.
What he was saying was that in Africa we are facing a serious problem of poverty which places very serious limitations on us to be able to deal with HIV/Aids. At the Durban conference, when I gave the closing speech, I tried to present this aspect not so much because of loyalty to the ANC and to my successor, but because this is one of the most serious problems. And debate must be allowed to go on because we benefit when we allow a diversity of views on something so important. We must be patient, and the experts must be given latitude to express their views.
But President Mbeki was making a point which many of us understand: that it is no use deciding this matter on the basis of the experiences of the rich countries; we must consider the specific conditions in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

Seepe: What I find amazing is why such a simple message was so difficult to put across. Even when the government had a chance to put its views down on paper it caused more confusion. If I was Minister [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi I would have called it gobbledygook. [Laughter.]
Mandela: Well, I am not in government now and I am not an official of the ANC. Sometimes it is difficult for me to get an explanation. Now and again I am able to go to the president and ask for a briefing on a matter, as I did on a number of issues. But, unfortunately, I had no opportunity in regard to this one of going to find out exactly what his motivation was apart from the fact that I agreed with him that the question of poverty presents a particular problem as far as the continent of Africa is concerned.

Barrell: The difficulty for many in the media was that the presidency was questioning the causal relationship between HIV and Aids in a way which was confusing attempts by medical professionals to thwart the spread of the disease. At the Durban Aids conference, you appeared to stand up and generously provide the government with an umbrella under which it could reformulate its position. Would you comment on that?
Mandela: I accept the view of the experts that HIV causes Aids. But, at the same time, I know that some of the scientific explanations that have prevailed for centuries have, as a result of research, been changed. And, therefore, I accept that the opinion of experts on the question of whether HIV causes Aids may change.

Seepe: It is also the experts who have always corrected themselves in science; it is never politicians.
Mandela: I accept that.

Barrell: Would you consider it a setback to South Africa's emancipation if an opposition party, which was not involved in the liberation struggle, was elected as government of the country at the next election?
Mandela: I don't think that is possible within the next 25 years. The only organisation that has focused on achieving a democratic, united, non-racial, non-sexist South Africa is the ANC. Unless an organisation can absorb those principles and put them on the agenda, they can never rally South Africa to become a government.

Barrell: And you're saying that none of the opposition parties, as you see it, would be capable of doing that.
Mandela: Not in my view in the next 25 years. The only thing I regret is the fact that the liberation movement is speaking with different voices. What we need are intellectuals who stress those things that unite us as the liberation movement. The problems becomes easier to manage if, as the former liberation movement, we speak with one voice.

Barrell: Can you expand on that?
Mandela: The ANC, the PAC, Azapo we differ on a number of points, some of which are not so material.
Seepe: What Mr Mandela is saying is that empires are never defeated, they collapse. If the ANC loses, it will not be because of the strength of the opposition but because it will have betrayed its principles.
Mandela: I think that is true. I would endorse that.

Barrell: With the benefit of hindsight, which of the things you did as head of state would you do differently now?
Mandela: I would work harder than ever before. [General laughter.]

Barrell: Were you on holiday while you were head of state?
Mandela: No, no, no. As I have said before, I am lazing around. [Laughter.] And, when there is victory to be claimed, I say I am the man; when something goes wrong, I say it's these young people around me. [Laughter.] That's my strategy.

Barrell: And what achievements are you particularly proud of in your period in office?
Mandela: We have been able to regain our dignity. That is the most important achievement. We have been able to regain our self-respect. We have been able to unite the nation, all the people of South Africa. But, as we say, this is not something that can be achieved within five or six years. It's a process which is going to take a long time. But we are moving in the right direction.

Barrell: And what would your reply be to a young, black person, a young, white person, a young, coloured person, a young, Indian person say 13-years-old, each of them if they asked you: "Madiba, what reason do we have for optimism about the future?"
Mandela: One of the greatest assaults on human dignity is lack of employment, lack of a job. But the president of the country, the minister of finance, the minister of labour are aware of this. That is why the question of job creation has been emphasised. Not only is unemployment an assault on the dignity of the human being affected, but people are not able to develop their self-esteem if they are poor. This is one of the greatest challenges that we are facing. But we have taken steps to get our economy to grow. It may take some time, but that is the hope for the young children today who are unable to be placed in jobs.

Barrell: I wonder if you would allow me one follow-up question: there are a significant number of people in the racial minorities who no longer feel welcome in South Africa. What do you say to them?
Mandela: Well, I expect you to answer that question. Take the coloured community. It has two Cabinet ministers, one of them holding the most important position in government, the minister of finance. Then we have Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi: she is now the minister in charge of the public service. And the Indian community in my government had no less than four Cabinet ministers. And we have whites. And then we have projects which embrace all communities.

Seepe: I think one of the greatest things you brought in your five years as president was a sense of hope. When I was young, when we were out in the streets in 1976, it was a sense of hope that drove us. What is important now is to regain that sense of hope in the face of our challenges.
Mandela: Ja, that's right.
This is an edited version of the interview