South Africa, Politics

‘We had bigger challenges then than we do now’ – Roelf Meyer

By Melanie Verwoerd 30 June 2016

Former Minister of Constitutional Development Roelf Meyer talks to former ANC MP MELANIE VERWOERD for EWN about South Africa’s leadership crisis, the future of the country, the rise of the EFF, and whether things are as bad as they look. We’ve been through worse, he says.

See EWN interview with Roelf Meyer here.

MV: How did you get into politics?

RM: Well, I would say politics was definitely for someone like me and my generation a career that came up for consideration. There was an easy way to get into. You just had to follow the party line and serve a constituency and then you were there. I was active in student politics, which I am not always proud of in terms of my participation at that stage. I was president of a conservative movement, the Afrikaans Student Bond. So I was active in student politics and that gave me a natural interest in politics. Then I became a lawyer and soon an opportunity came about to participate. In the beginning I said I was too young, I was only 31, but in the end I turned around and said I would give it a go. Of course we had a constituency system at that stage and I had very interesting constituency. It was Johannesburg West, which included. University of Johannesburg, Wits, Braamfontein and of course Emmerentia, Mayfair and Aucklandpark.

I then became a MP in 1979 and in 1986 I became deputy minister of Law and Order. And we were in a State of Emergency which I had to manage and run. The good part for me was that it forced me to go to townships around the country, because I had to go and see first-hand what was going on wherever there was unrest. I can truly say that there may be only a few townships that I did not visit during that time. This gave me a particular insight into what was going on – unlike most of my colleagues who had never seen a township within.

I was made aware of the life in the townships and what gave rise to the unrest, why people revolted against the system. That helped my transformation a lot and speeded it up in terms of what needed to be done and how to address it. Because the belief at that stage was still – and I am talking about 86/87 – that the problem would actually be addressed if only we deal with the reasons why people are revolting. For example if schoolbooks were not delivered then we must just make sure it gets done. If it is electricity or water supply we must just deal with that and the problem will go away. But of course it wasn’t the case. It was about politics. That understanding came quickly to me and a conviction in my mind grew that we have to address this at the base.

So my own transformation was sped up and I can truly say that by the time the process of talks became in 1989 and FW de Klerk became leader of NP, my conviction was on the other side, I was transformed.

MV: You took over Minister of Defence after Magnus Malan. However, it wasn’t an easy process?

RM: I became minister of defence after the negotiation process started, so after Mandela was released. It was actually during the period of the dismantling of the military capacity we had previously. It was a better time to be minister of defence, but it was also very challenging, because now we had persuade from within that there was a need for change and also to start with the process of talks with MK. I was fortunately to lead the sides, to make it happen, so to convince the chief of the defence force at the time, to start speaking to General Joe Modise. So that was a good time to be involved, but at the same time challenging. I had more problems with the colonels than the generals. The top brass were fairly supportive, because they were good officers. I had weekly meetings with the then military council – so army, air force, navy etc. At these meetings I informed them about developments in the negotiations that was underway, since I was part of negotiating team. I had very little obstruction, if any, from them. But there were a lot of noises from the lower ranks, the Colonels, etc.

MV: You then become Minister of Constitutional development and this is really where your political legacy is formed. In particularly through the extraordinary relationship with Cyril Ramaphosa. Why did your relationship work so well?

RM: I think both of us had intention of making a contribution to ensuring peace. We knew we had a responsibility and we were both committed to that same goal. Of course it was not always easy. I can recall the first talks after the Boipatong massacre. There was a complete breakdown of negotiations. We had to start from scratch, because there was nothing. And the next day we had to sit down, look at each other across the table and ask: “Where do we start from now?” And of course there were demands that Cyril had on behalf of ANC and there were positions that I had to protect on behalf of the NP government. It was extremely challenging times. Some evenings we walked out on each other. At the same time that was happening, we knew that the next day we had to sit down again – there was no other way. And I think that forced us into a relationship and an understanding of what he had to argue for and what I had to argue for. And that helped us – that understanding. In the end it transformed into trust. I keep on thinking there are certain basic steps to develop trust. The first one is: you need to know one another, the second: you have to respect one another and the third: understand one another. That can then lead to basis trust. We had to go through those exercises and fortunately we were both open minded enough to know that is what we needed to do and that is how it is going to work.

MV: Many Afrikaners hated you and it was not easy to keep your constituents on side. Did you get many death threats?

RM: We did in the build-up to 1994. I had a number of policemen who protected me on a 24-hour basis – even sleeping with me in the house. But I wasn’t really ever scared. It was part of the exercise. The decision to get the security was from elsewhere, it wasn’t my decision. I had more threats from within of course than from the other side. In fact I was never scared when going to a township. I was threatened by the people close to me.

MV: We were so proud of the final Constitution. Now this narrative of the Constitution being un-African seems to gain traction and it is said that Madiba and people like you sold out?

RM: I hear it too and I think it is unfortunate. I think it is a very uninformed view. I don’t think people really take into account where we came from and how far away we were from each other at the beginning of the process in 1990 and 1991 when Madiba left prison. We were totally mistrusting one another. We were enemies, fighting for different future objectives and goals. And the way we succeeded in overcoming those differences remains a benchmark to the rest of the world. That is why people call on us from around the world, including Africa, to share our experiences. I was recently at such a meeting in Dakar, Senegal. I was the only white African in the room and was asked to share the SA experience for the sake of what is going on in the whole of the region and in particular parts of west Africa. I think it is unfortunate that people are taking a view that is skewed on what really happened and how difficult it was. The amount of unrest we have seen in the Arab spring is nothing compared to what we saw in the 1980’s and one must sit back and think what we succeeded to overcome. Something that was insurmountable in the view of many South Africans and also the world. That skewed view misrepresents what was really at stake.

The fact that we succeeded in bringing peace in the country was reflected in the Constitution. The Constitution was properly consulted with all South Africans. I think we had the most thorough public participation processes in making the constitution that ever existed on the earth. If I compare it to what is happening in other parts of the world, ours was simply superior in terms of the process of public participation that we followed. Sometimes I wish there was more of that public participation today in terms of government issues.

MV: You became minister of Constitution Affairs post 1994 elections. It was extraordinary times. I recently remembered that Neil Barnard was your Director General, Pravin Gordhan chair of the Standing committee and of course Valli Moosa as deputy minister. Are those good memories?

RM: Very fond memories, because it was the period of implementation of what we had previously negotiated and agreed upon. Of course those of us that were working together at that stage knew each other quite well by then through negotiations to get the interim Constitution. To be, for those two years, the person to implement what we had negotiated, for example, the forming of the nine provinces, was exciting. We were doing very dynamic work, lovely work, and I think we succeeded.

MV: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) came about during your days in Parliament. Do you think it was a success?

RM: Yes, to a large extent. I wouldn’t give it 100%, perhaps 80%. But if you compare it with whatever else there was internationally, even today, ours was a superior institution. If you have to analyse the shortcomings, it comes down to two things. 1) Not everything was exposed in the Amnesty committee and some most probably escaped. 2) I think biggest shortcomings was in the reparations committee and we have not seen the conclusion of that in my mind fully. But as a mechanism as a whole, it helped South Africans to come to peace with each other. The fact that truth was also exposed that we did not know before, helped many South Africans.

MV: I always felt that one of the biggest failures was that De Klerk did not take full responsibility on behalf of whites for what had happened.

RM: Yes, it was part of the limitation that the NP found itself in after 1994. I thought there was a need for a greater break away from the past, which the NP did not accept – which is one of the reasons I did not stay in the NP and walked out of the party in 1997. It is actually interesting to talk about it from a technocratic and academic point of view. What we did in 1994 was a complete break from the past as far as the Constitution and legal framework was concerned. It was a complete transition. We said goodbye to the past and hello to the future. The NP did not do it. It never did it, and that’s why it led to its own demise. My recommendation to the party leader at the time was: “You have to clean this up and make a commitment that NP will come to an end and that tomorrow we will be a new party under a new banner.” That did not happen. However, I did have the pleasure to go to the TRC on my own, to make my own submission and to tell them what I think went wrong. The TRC had an opportunity to ask me all the questions they wanted. And I did so as a member of the government and as former minister and deputy minster. I felt I had that responsibility and owed it to myself. And to this day I feel that sense of relief that I have done that and also for the TRC to test me.

MV: All these years later, do you think whites should do more to improve racial relations?

RM: I think there is much to be done overall – certainly more than what is currently done. There might be a great willingness to do more, but people don’t know how or where – that is part of the problem. When I look at what is currently happening, I think there are two things that need to be done. I think leaders across the spectrum should give more direction in terms of racism. And not only political leaders, but leaders in civil society, the private sector and the churches in particular have a role to play. All of us in leadership have a responsibility to give guidance to prevent the nonsense that often go on in social media.

The other side is to create an active and constructive dialogue – real dialogue between South Africans. We have not met with each other during the last 20 years. It is actually fascinating to watch this, that during times of negotiations and time of change in South Africa there was most probably more discussion and interaction between South Africans than there is now. We probably let ourselves down after the transition by thinking it is done, we don’t need to worry, it will take care of itself. It does not work that way. The separation and apartness still exist and we need to do far more. The answer remains dialogue. Not only one national dialogue, but dialogue in every community. You and I will remember how successful the peace committees were during the transition because it brought people together. Activists, police and local station commanders started to talk to each other since they started to understand each other better. That is not happening now and it leads to a lot of frustrations. I think the easiest thing for people who are frustrated is to find someone to blame. And that blame is very obviously going to go to those people who are seen to be the benefactors of the situation. And we have to address that in much greater measure. So debate must go on, dialogue must go on. And we have to find out more from one another.

MV: You were on Armscor’s board after you left politics and more recently the chair of the Defence Review Committee. In your view, what is the state of our army?

RM: I’m very worried about the SANDF. In terms of the expectations it has to meet, it is totally underfunded. The international norm for spending is about 1.5 % of GDP. In our case it is below 1% and it’s reducing. I’m not saying that only more money is needed. If you have to do what is expected, you need to spend the money and build capacity and we don’t do it. So I am very concerned. I know the minister is very well aware of this. I have heard her speaking about this at great length. But reality is that if we can’t fund what is required we have to scale down the defence force completely and make it a unit that can take care of our internal stability when required and that is it. That is the hard choice. You cannot keep up the face of a big military and then not support it.

MV: There is always tension between developmental needs and spending on military – i.e. how far can you cut back? Have we gone too low in spending?

RM: Where we stand at the moment it is far too low and problem is it is going to be very costly to bring it back to where it is required. It is a balancing act. At the time of arms deal – which is now 15 years ago: there was a general view that it was required. Whether it was right equipment I don’t make a judgement. But we are now in a different phase. At the time of the arms deal, decisions were made on the basis of a previous defence review which said: “We can scale down. We don’t need a defence force since we will never be in a war again.” I’m not saying we are entering war phase, but we have a different responsibility which was not recognised in the 1990’s, which is peace keeping on the continent.

MV: Why did you join ANC in 2004?

RM: I wanted a political home. After I left politics I was completely distracted for a while. I started a new interest in civil society and business. Then by 2004 I started to realise I needed a political home and that I can make contribution from outside. I felt the ANC was going in the right direction. One never fully agrees with any party, but my feeling was that 70% of my views were reflected in the ANC.

MV: Does the ANC still reflect your views?

RM: I have said in other public contexts that I am worried about the credibility of the country’s leadership. I think it is hugely affecting us as a country, from within but also from the outside and in the views the outside world holds of SA. It is a matter of credibility as far as political leadership is concerned. And more and more we find ourselves unfortunately in this narrative, that you either are for the president or against [him]. That is the narrative. Instead of rather looking at all the bigger problems. I think this is contributing to the decline of our fabric as a society and also a decline in what we expect of our government. This is a real concern to me. I would say what happened in December is even of more concern than the Concourt Judgement. The firing of Nene, was a huge mistake that cost the country hugely. I don’t believe the cost have been calculated properly and it might still escalate over time. Then there is the ongoing attacks on treasury – whether on Pravin Gordhan personally or on treasury as a whole. If any of these attacks succeed, on the treasury in particular, then South Africa will have a real setback. So I really hope it does not happen.

MV: And the whole idea of State Capture?

RM: I think it is difficult to define what that exactly means. In the public dialogue it all points to the Guptas. If some of the stories are true, as what Mcebisi Jonas and others were saying, then that is a serious concern. I mean they obviously had more influence, let’s not say power, but influence that is allowed in an open democracy. Some people call it a control of the mafia. So not only the control of the leader at the top over certain people, but a group of people that have control over the state. If the definition of state capture is that, then we have reason to be seriously concerned.

MV: When Zuma goes, who is your preferred choice?

RM: Well, I have been very open about it. From my knowledge and working experience, Cyril Ramaphosa will definitely be my preferred choice. He is obviously going to have competition, that is understandable, that is how things work, but I will support him, I hope he is our next president.

MV: Can Cyril deal with the infiltration of Zuma-ites in all the levels of government?

RM: I don’t think it is up to one person to address all the concerns. It is not possible, nowhere in the world does it work like that. But if the person at the top gives the leadership required and have credibility, others will follow and you can easily have a tilt in the other direction.

MV: You have small grandchildren – do you see positive future for them?

RM: Well, I am not going anywhere and am not recommending it to my children. Prior and post 1994, there was a centre that held the country together. I am absolutely convinced that we had bigger challenges in the 1990s to overcome than we have now. And there was this centre/middle group from different political persuasions that was strong enough and helped us to overcome the challenges during the negotiations. I think that group still exists Of course there are fringe elements that want to disrupt what we have and we have deal with that, since they can undermine.

MV: Are you worried about the EFF when you talk about disruptive elements?

RM: I think if disruptive elements exist in the EFF they can certainly give the wrong direction. I don’t know Malema, but I know others in leadership of the organisation. I tend to think that one should be able to include many of those in this middle ground that I was talking about. The question is: how do you get the dialogue going so that people understand that you can attack someone politically by making your point, but that you cannot be destructive to the country? That is a clear line that needs to be explained. DM

Photo: Roelf Meyer and Melanie Verwoerd (EWN)

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