What is this South Africa we have to transform? - Thabo Mbeki

Deputy President says true reconciliation must be defined as consisting in fundamental transformation (September 9 1995)



Members of the Black Editors Forum,

Comrades, ladies and gentlemen:

For over three hundred years, the history of our country has been characterised in particular by the issue of relations between black and white.

Nobody present in this room tonight requires educating about why this has been the case. We all know of the great distinguishing features of that past.

These include the genocidal destruction of the Khoisan, the importation of slaves from the East, the massive land dispossession of the indigenous majority, the constitutional definition of that majority as non-people who therefore could not participate in the exercise of the right to self-determination, the systemic and systematic all-round deprivation of that majority so that the fruits of its labours could accrue to the white minority, and so on.

When that outstanding son of our people, Nelson Mandela, was installed as President of the Republic 16 months ago, the millions of our people joined in a joyful celebration of the end of that history. As a people, we had freed ourselves from a frightful and pernicious nightmare.

At last we had arrived at the moment when we could all define ourselves as equal South Africans, no longer at war with one another and no longer condemned to an historical path which had produced the enormous volume of misery and human degradation which marked out our country as the skunk of the world.

As we settled down to reconstruct and develop our society, we could not avoid asking the question—how quickly could we shed a terrible heritage of many centuries, how quickly could we turn hell into paradise!

It is possible that at the euphoric moment of transition, many among us thought that we had the miraculous powers to achieve this transformation in a day, that the consequences of three-hundred years of racial oppression and exploitation could be wiped out by the application to our society of a magical formula that would root out the bad and fertilise the good.

All of us and many in the rest of the world saw the noble and correct vision of reconciliation and national unity as precisely the magic formula which our country and people needed to enable us to make a decisive break with the past and build a happy future for all our people.

There can be no gainsaying the fact that indeed our society, with its past of division, conflict and hostility among its people has urgent need to achieve reconciliation.

Without such reconciliation and a healing of the wounds of the past, we cannot produce the conditions of stability and collective action among all our people which are fundamental to the development of our country and the provision of a better life for all, on a sustained and sustainable basis.

Bu then, the question needs to be posed - is it possible to achieve reconciliation without transformation!

Would it in fact not be more correct to define true reconciliation as consisting in fundamental transformation!

It would seem to us self-evident that these two national objectives - reconciliation and transformation - are two sides of the same coin, or two interdependent processes, each of which is incapable of realisation if it is not accompanied by the other.

All of us who correctly struggle for reconciliation must also struggle for transformation.

But to arrive at this position and, in practise to pursue these goals also requires that we recognise the naked truth about our society and not hesitate to expose that truth.

That truth is that three centuries of colonial and apartheid domination have left us with a great challenge of what will clearly be a protracted struggle to create a truly non-racial and non-sexist society.

We must abandon all innocence and naivete which leads to the false conclusion that the struggle is over.

Coming as we do from that section of our population that was the victim of the system of apartheid, we must, ourselves answer the question - what is the national agenda during this first period of democratic rule!

There are others in our society who, in their own interest, are already involved in trying to determine that national agenda.

In this regard, let me quote two excerpts from two editorials carried in one of the country’s daily papers.

In one of the editorials, the editor writes:

“The signals coming from the ANC are far from reassuring. We are going through the whole range of new “democratisation” processes - affirmative action, empowerment, representivity and so on. But the ANC until quite recently has been relatively cautious about causing any strong reactions to its policies. However, its attitude seem to be changing... We can go on listing ANC policies and campaigns that are the very antithesis of reconciliation, but the ANC will take no notice.”

In another of his commentaries, the same editor writes:

“Unfortunately there are stalwarts of the liberation struggle who still do not seem to accept that the battle is over. There are some ministers and deputy ministers who also do not understand that the best policy is to bring about change without antagonising any section of the population. In some respects, they have gone to fast, too far…”

In both editorials, the distinguished editor goes out of his way to recruit our President to his cause, to seek to manacle him to a self-serving agenda which is based on the notion that “the battle is over”.

Here is some of what he writes:

“We don’t think having a row over anthems and symbols is necessary or desirable at this early stage in our history as a democratic country, when reconciliation is still the key objective of President Mandela and nation building is what is uppermost in his mind...But if anybody can frustrate President Mandela’s drive for reconciliation and nation building, it is the ANC itself.”

He also writes that:

“(The ministers and deputy ministers who are going to fast, too far, are) undermining the spirit of goodwill that President Mandela has engendered and arousing fears of what might happen when he goes.”

To reassure himself in the meantime, the editor writes of the President that:

“But he has shown a steely will when he is aroused and we don’t think there is any real opposition to him or his policies in the ANC.”

We would like to take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the editor for the honesty, openness and frankness with which he states his view of what should be on the national agenda.

This is very refreshing in a situation in which more often than not many decision makers seek to hide their real meaning in a welter of correct-sounding words which hide a continued offensive to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

We must however disappoint the distinguished editor and inform him that the national agenda includes not only reconciliation and nation building. It entails also, as an integral part of that reconciliation and nation building, the fundamental transformation of our society.

The struggle is not over and that struggle continues to be led by President Mandela, the fighter for the genuine liberation of all our people, and not a President Mandela whose contribution to the current history of our country is charm and drinking tea with Mrs Verwoerd in Orania, for which the editor bestows the President with effusive accolades.

The conjurer’s trick which seeks to detach him from the forces committed to fundamental change is nothing else but a conjurer’s trick, the creation of an ephemeral illusion that is without substance.

What is this South Africa which we have to transform?

It is one that is characterised by the continued ownership of the bulk of its productive wealth by that section of our population that is white. This includes the land.

Furthermore, the management of this economy again remains predominantly in white hands, representative of the fact that our white compatriots predominate in many of the professions.

The management echelons of the public service also continue to be predominantly white.

With regard to your own profession, the situation is no different. The newspapers and magazines are, despite protestations to the contrary, predominantly white owned, edited by whites and largely written by people drawn from the same sector of the population.

Our universities and technikons still do not reflect the demographic composition of our population, in both race and gender terms, indicating that the new output of professionals and managers will continue to reflect our past.

The homeless, the unemployed and the illiterate in our country are predominantly black.

I am certain that each one of us can stand up and give many examples of how much we continue to face the reality of a past of racial and gender imbalances inherited from our colonial and apartheid history.

And yet those who only preach reconciliation and see such important national objectives as affirmative action, empowerment and representivity as “far from reassuring” would like us to believe that there is no such thing as apartheid heritage which continues to define the socio-economic reality of our country.

Even the architects of the apartheid system make bold to say that we must now ignore the past and pretend that it is past when in fact it is present in our midst in millions of very tangible ways.

The mere reference to the stark reality of the racial imbalances which characterise our society is denounced by these skilled practitioners of racism as being inimical to the project of national reconciliation and nation building.

The previous regime bequeathed to the country a huge public debt, a national budget committed to high consumption expenditure, with very little left to spend on actual development and delivery of services to the people, a badly paid public service in the bottom and middle echelons, with an enormous disparity in pay and conditions between the top and the bottom.

The architects of apartheid know this as well as you and I do. And yet, today, they are among those who shout loudest about the failure of the new government to deliver, knowing very well that in their struggle to defend the apartheid system, they created the conditions in which it would be impossible for the democratic government quickly and immediately to meet the aspirations of the people. 

But of course none of this manipulation of reality should come as a surprise. The leopard has not changed its spots.

This is dramatically illustrated, for instance, in connection with the unrest currently taking place in some of our hospitals. In good measure this unrest has deliberately been fed by a lie told by a spokeswoman of the National Party, who is a member of the national parliament.

Here is part of what this Honourable Member said in parliament earlier this year:

“(Therefore) it was very unthoughtful of the Minister (of Health) in November last year to make a very insulting statement on SABC television, in which she was heard by most nurses to say that one does not need a degree to carry a bed-pan. She also said that nursing was not a profession and that nurses could be replaced by any man in the street. This was a very inflammatory statement and it caused a very tense atmosphere in the nursing fraternity.

Thanks to the professional self-discipline and self-respect of some of the nurses, we did not land in a national crisis because of other radical elements who stopped short of toyi-toying to the Gauteng Parliament. We in the NP would like to sound a word of caution and ask the Hon Minister to make a public withdrawal of this statement and prevent a simmering volcano from eruption…”

Perhaps needless to say, the Minister of Health never made any such statement. That statement was fabricated in its entirety by those who wanted to see the eruption among the nurses which we are now experiencing in some of our health facilities.

Thus having exploited the genuine grievances of the nurses by feeding them with false information, the architects of apartheid can then turn around and with great glee shout about the failure of government to deliver, a government in which they serve, and trumpet much propaganda that only they, who only last year were delivering apartheid, can deliver democracy, prosperity and peace.

But to return to our basic message, we would like to make the critical point that as a country, we have set ourselves the goal of the creation of a non-racial society.

The creation of such a society is a fundamental prerequisite of the national reconciliation and nation building which are critical to our stability and prosperity.

That is why such objectives as affirmative action, empowerment, representivity and the deracialisation of our society must continue to be at the centre of the activities not only of government, but also of our people as a whole.

To say the pursuit of these goals is not reassuring is to make the dangerous statement that we must remove from our national agenda the objective of the creation of a non-racial society so that those who continue to enjoy the privileges bestowed on them by the apartheid system should continue to do so while the majority which that system sought to marginalise, continues to suffer in a position of subservience.

It would however also seem clear that we who belong among that majority should break loose from a mental framework which imprisons us whithing parameters which lead us only to bemoan and descry (sic) the fact that the haves, who also have the best access to the mass media, have taken advantage of their positions to seek to set the national agenda.

We too must make our own intervention. We too must participate in the intense struggle that has broken out in the country to determine what the national agenda should be.

I believe that the Black Editor’s Forum has a critical role to play in this regard. And in playing that role I also believe that we have to take courage into our hands, knowing that whatever we say, fundamentally to address the interests of the marginalised will be shouted down by powerful voices as being contrary to national reconciliation, as being racist, as being inspired by our own frustration at our own inability to deliver.

Neither should we lose sight of the fact that many in our society genuinely believe that as black people we have no capacity to govern successfully, much less manage a modern and sophisticated economy.

These are quick to repeat the nauseating refrain—look at what happened in the rest of Africa!

“After April 27,” writes one editor, “the liberation movements which could do no wrong, will be another nasty old South African government.”

Another says: “There is no logical reason to suppose that the opposite of anything is necessarily better - no more so than to suppose that shoving one’s feet into a fire is the best cure for icy toes.”

To the black person who was oppressed and continues to be deprived, there is every logical reason to suppose that the democratic opposite is necessarily better than the apartheid past and that the liberation movements can never surely “be another old South African government.”

But that voice may never be heard or may be heard faintly because the level of editorial diversity in our society is at a level that objectively permits for the amplification of the voice of those that are happy to mock and reduce to absurdity the serious effort in which millions are engaged to transform our society into the opposite of what the apartheid system made of it.

It would therefore again seem clear that this Forum has a responsibility to continue to engage the question of what we, as a country, should do to give voice to the marginalised, to ensure that these “unwashed masses” are, side by side with those who are privileged, able to exercise their right to determine the future of their country.

I believe that, together, we also have a responsibility to tell the people the truth. Part of that truth is that we are indeed set on the path towards the transformation of our country, that to deviate from that path would constitute a betrayal of the interests and the aspirations of all our people, both black and white, a recipe for an explosion that would erupt as a result of the perpetuation of an apartheid status quo with regard to the distribution of resources and opportunities.

Part of that truth is that there is none among us who has the miraculous power to turn water into wine. Even as the zangoma have tried to invoke supernatural powers to bring about instant change, they have discovered that instant change belongs in the world of stage magicians.

So should it be that we help to develop a national consciousness and a national consensus which recognises that we have to build brick by brick and that there are no completely assembled houses stored in some warehouse that will suddenly replace the ugly slums that ring our towns and cities.

As a government and as the majority part in that government, we are determined to be as transparent as possible, to ensure that the people are fully informed about what the government is thinking, planning and doing, so that these masses are able to intervene on an informed basis, free of illusions spread by those who seek a result other than the sustained transformation of our country and an incremental process of providing a better life for all.

Again, we are convinced that the Black Editors Forum can and must play an important role in determining that should be done thus to empower the people so that they become actors for change and not merely observers and objects of policy who only have power to protest.

The responsibility to take our destiny into our hands means that all of us must become such actors for change.

It means that we must, ourselves, determine the make-up of the delicate balance between reconciliation and transformation.

It means that we must organise ourselves to become participants in the governance of our country and refuse to be persuaded that the government we elected is merely another nasty old South African government.

Let us, together, tie both reconciliation and transformation to our battle standards, knowing that the act of birth is accompanied by pain, knowing that without fundamental change, there will be fire next time.

The struggle continues and victory is certain!

Thank you.

Thabo Mbeki

September 9 2015

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