Thabo Mbeki's letter to Pik Botha

ANC president's response to criticism of demographic representivity, July 17 2007

African National Congress


July 17, 2007.

Dear Pik,

I had a quick glance at the weekend newspapers. As you know, some of them carry prominent reports about what you allegedly said about the ANC, affirmative action and other matters.

I do not know if you actually said any of the things attributed to you. If you did, I do wish that you had raised your concerns with some of us, so that we could address them seriously.

You may not know this, but many members of the ANC were very moved when they got to know that you had joined them as a member of the ANC. In truth, some of them wondered whether the ANC would meet your expectations - whatever these were!

Nevertheless everybody was very pleased that you had joined. They felt that the step you had taken would serve as a strong signal, especially to our Afrikaner compatriots, that indeed the time had come both for them and us each to make his and her decisive psychological and emotional break with the past, to empower ourselves to give birth to the new.

They felt and feel privileged that they are alive and active during a period when they, our country and their movement are breaking new ground in terms of the construction of a new society.

Most certainly, what you said, if indeed you said it, would have pleased and won the support of some, or even many, of our white compatriots. In this sense, it can be said that you acted as "the voice of the people".

But, of course, you will also know that the message you communicated, if you did, will have dismayed the overwhelming majority of our people, your compatriots, who, as you know, are black. With regard to these, you did not act as "the voice of the people."

I am afraid that sometimes the positions we take force such choices on us!

I am certain you know this, that the ANC does its best not to speak for one population group or another, but for all our people. It tries truly to be "the voice of the people", perfectly aware of the fact that this "people" will have conflicting and sometimes contradictory demands and expectations.

This is the difficulty with which many of us have to contend everyday. At all times we try to avoid "taking sides", because we know that to do so might serve to unravel the delicate tapestry that all of us, black and white, are weaving, to bind together, in a "rainbow nation", the various fractions of our population that history had set at deadly loggerheads for many centuries.

In the context of what you are alleged to have said, I would like to say a few things.

The first of these is that as a matter of policy, the ANC does not tell lies. We told no lies to anybody during the negotiation process, including to the NP and the then Government. We have told no lies since, and will not do so in future.

Secondly, we have never hidden our resolve that the new South Africa should "recognise the injustices of the past", as our Constitution says. Neither have we ever been equivocal about our commitment to the view stated in our Constitution in the following words:

"To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination, may be taken."

When, together, the ANC, the NP and others, made this statement and gave it binding legal and moral force by including it in our Constitution, together we told our country and the world the truth, and not lies, about what the new South Africa would do "to promote the achievement of equality", precisely to eradicate the deeply entrenched inequalities that centuries of colonialism and apartheid had bequeathed to all of us as our common inheritance.

Thirdly, and as you know very well, in many respects our country's socio-economic profile continues to be defined, most visibly, by its colonial and apartheid past. This relates to many elements such as ownership of wealth, distribution of income, the poverty profile, access to the professions and the management echelon, land distribution, the human settlement patterns, etc.

We are now in our 13th year of democracy. It is true that we could have moved faster in terms of addressing this historical legacy.

We did not do this because we had to address both black and white concerns and interests. To give a very simple example, in 1994 we could have immediately replaced Generals Johan van der Merwe and George Meiring as head of the SAPS and the SANDF respectively, but we did not.

The fourth thing I would like to say, directly arising from what I have just said, is that very few of our white compatriots seem to understand what the ANC has done for many decades, and continues to do to this day.

To present the matter in its most naked form - for decades, to date, because of its commitment to non-racialism and its love for our country and all its people, the ANC has stood as a buffer between a deeply aggrieved black majority and a white minority that seems mercilessly insensitive to the grievous harm that was done to millions, in its name.

For many years now, many in the black community have said of the TRC process that all that happened was that the black people forgave their oppressors, while their oppressors absolved themselves by saying that they did not know anything about what had happened, and therefore have no responsibility to redress the wrong that was done.

Again the ANC took it upon itself to persuade the aggrieved millions that the TRC process had been truly worthwhile, and that to have forgiven was a more powerful and meaningful confirmation of their dignity than any reparation that their oppressors might offer.

The late President of the ANC, A.J. Luthuli, explained all this in his December 1961 Nobel Lecture at Oslo University, with which I am certain you are familiar. In particular he said:

"How easy it would have been in South Africa for the natural feelings of resentment at white domination to have been turned into feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge against the white community. Here, where every day in every aspect of life, every non-white comes up against the ubiquitous sign, "Europeans Only," and the equally ubiquitous policeman to enforce it - here it could well be expected that a racialism equal to that of their oppressors would flourish to counter the white arrogance towards blacks.

"That it has not done so is no accident. It is because, deliberately and advisedly, African leadership for the past 50 years, with the inspiration of the African National Congress which I had the honour to lead for the last decade or so until it was banned, had set itself steadfastly against racial vain-gloriousness.

"We knew that in so doing we passed up opportunities for easy demagogic appeal to the natural passions of a people denied freedom and liberty; we discarded the chance of an easy and expedient emotional appeal.

"Our vision has always been that of a non-racial democratic South Africa which upholds the rights of all who live in our country to remain there as full citizens with equal rights and responsibilities with all others. For the consummation of this ideal we have laboured unflinchingly. We shall continue to labour unflinchingly.

"It is this vision which prompted the African National Congress to invite members of other racial groups who believe with us in the brotherhood of man and in the freedom of all people, to join with us in establishing a non-racial democratic Congress Alliance and welcomed the emergence of the Liberal Party and the Progressive Party, who to an encouraging measure support these ideals."

Because after 1994, as before, we continued to set ourselves "steadfastly against racial vain-gloriousness", we deliberately avoided determined measures immediately to correct the gross racial imbalances that white South Africa had imposed on the black majority.

We did this to avoid an "easy demagogic appeal to the natural passions", precisely to lay and strengthen the foundations for the creation of a democratic and non-racial society.

The very strange and frightening reality is that precisely our ‘steadfast stand against racial vain-gloriousness' is now under attack from you and others of our white compatriots, if you were reported correctly. The fundamental basis of this attack is that our measured pace towards the creation of a non-racial society has not been measured enough!

We are in fact being told that the positions of the ANC, as explained by Inkosi Albert Luthuli, were too radical for white society! Clearly, what you, if you were reported correctly, and others in white society are saying, is that you would welcome change provided that change does not take place, except as defined in content and pace, by the white beneficiaries of our long history of colonialism and apartheid!

In effect, what you and others demand, if you were correctly reported, is that the freedom we have gained should amount to nothing more than freedom for the black majority consciously to surrender its right to determine our country's future to those who had denied it this right by force.

Put differently, you demand that in return for the decision that white South Africa took - because in reality it had no other choice - that it would no longer carry the burden exclusively to determine the future of our country, the formerly oppressed should use their liberty freely to concede to their former oppressors a continuing right to determine the future of our country!

The result of this is the direct opposite of what you obviously intend to achieve, if you were correctly reported.

When they hear what you said, if you were correctly reported, the black majority that knows no organisation and representative of their most fundamental interests other than the ANC, concludes that our efforts to "appease" the white community have been in vain.

These masses conclude that nothing would ever succeed to persuade white South African society to consider itself part of a black and white society of equals, and to work towards the achievement of this objective.

They come to understand that even the little that we have done in terms of affirmative action, whose effect they feel only minimally, is viewed by white South African society as being entirely unacceptable.

They, and us, are puzzled by the virulence of the rejection of what seems to them and us to reflect what Shakespeare expressed in these words:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

The result of this reflection is that these masses come to the conclusion that since we are condemned for the little we have done, the change that has come to them at a petty pace, we might as well be condemned for the bigger things we can do.

Rather than set ourselves a timid historical precedent that says that, like fools, we forsook the opportunity for radical change, condemning us to a death with no meaningful achievements we could claim, we should spurn the petty pace that creeps in incrementally from day to day.

To stay with expressions in the English language, this translates into - in for a penny, in for a pound!

If indeed the ANC took up this call, and abandoned what Albert Luthuli said about "pass(ing) up opportunities for easy demagogic appeal to the natural passions of a people denied freedom and liberty", what would happen then?

The South Africa we are trying to build constitutes a "jigsaw puzzle" with parts that do interlock, but which also presents a kaleidoscope which clashes in the colouring of the pieces. The historically determined locking contours, the organic interdependence between black and white, none of us can change.

The colouring on the pieces, to enable them to merge together into one coherent and harmonious whole, is what the ANC has been trying to change for many decades. Over these decades, to date, we have asked white society to join us in this endeavour.

I do sincerely hope that our white compatriots will not continue arrogantly to scorn this heartfelt request and plea, which, incidentally, is not born of any feeling of impotence, and therefore imposes an unavoidable obligation on us only to request and to plead.

I am convinced that all that is required is that we should all think and act as South Africans and Africans. Regardless of everything that is said, falsely, about a "racial agenda" of the ANC, everyday we strive to think and act as a South African and African organisation. As I write this letter, I foresee nothing that will divert us from this position.

Speaking on behalf of the ANC in 1996, when we adopted our Constitution, I said: "I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and (Bermuda), who sees in the mind's eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins."

(Hansard will also reflect that I referred too to the Vroue Monument. Speaker Frene Ginwalla reminded me of this national heritage as we sat in the National Assembly Chamber on that day in May 1996, before I spoke. The published texts of the "I am an African" speech omit mention of the Vroue Monument because it was not in the typed text I read, which was distributed publicly.)

I said what I said on that historic day in May 1996, at the national home of the people's tribunes, to convey the message to all our people that the African National Congress is deeply committed to the view that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. I said what I said to tell all our people that the African National Congress belongs to all our people, black and white.

At the end of this rather long and perhaps tedious letter, I have only four questions to ask:

  • what more do I have to say and do to convince you that I mean what I say when I say I am your brother's and sister's keeper!
  • what do you think you should do to convince me that you too are indeed my bother's and sister's keeper!
  • if we are truly such keepers of our shared brothers and sisters, what shall we do together, refusing, despite our history, to do what Cain did to Abel! or should we chain the fate of our country and its millions to the prayer that after we have laid waste to the precious gift of hope and human solidarity born of what was done in 1994, for inhumanly selfish reasons, we shall be forgiven, and allowed to build a new common habitat! Do we have the liberty and right to expect that God will forgive our trespasses, and direct that the generations that live and will live should forgive us and allow us to build a new city that belongs to all our people, which we will name after Enoch!

Yours sincerely,

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