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an interview with

Thabo Mbeki



Former President of South Africa

Thabo Mbeki was interviewed in 1995 by Jo Mennel at the State of the World Forum, hosted by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and produced by Gorbachev Foundation/USA in San Francisco. Time Magazine (April 18, 2005) describes Mr. Mbeki as the most powerful man in Africa.

Thabo Mbeki President of South Africa and President of the African National Congress Jo Menell: What were you hoping to get from this conference, to hear or to impart or to share?

Thabo Mbeki: Well, the issue that has been discussed is clearly a matter of some importance for us as South Africans. We are in the process of defining ourselves, so it is very interesting that someone out there is discussing the question of the world. Part of the reason we came was to listen, but another part was to say something of what we think of ourselves and where we should belong. The kind of person who is participating in the forum is one who is engaged in the formation of policy or public opinion. This kind of process does not produce a resolution at the end of the day, but it's a building block to something important.

Jo Menell: One of the areas discussed here is reconciliation with the past so that you can go on and build a future. Do people have to be held publicly accountable for crimes?

Thabo Mbeki: The truth needs to be told about some of what happened so that we can get that matter behind our backs. If somebody was killed in brutal circumstances or somebody disappeared then and we don't know where they are, we need to give an opportunity for an explanation to be made. If you don't do that, somebody will keep asking the question, What happened to my brother who disappeared. Who was it that killed my sister? We do not know how they would respond if they knew. Would they take a gun and shoot the person who was responsible? Would they denounce Nelson Mandela for having reconciled with this person? I think we need to get the truth told, and let the people confront that truth. The sooner the better. Once that is done, the people will then say, "It happened, it's all past, let's now move on."

Jo Menell: How do you explain the transition in South Africa happening as bloodlessly as it did?

Thabo Mbeki: The process of negotiation in South Africa lasted for at least ten years. We started discussing it in the middle 80's. The leadership of the South African people, black and white, politicians, business people and professionals, religious leaders and sports people, we all started talking to one another and asking the question what shall we do with this country? We can't continue this system of apartheid, so what's the next step that we take? What kind of outcome broadly do we expect? We spent quite a bit of time discussing issues like the release of political prisoners until everybody agreed that this was a necessary pre-condition to any forward movement. The miracle came about partly because it was prepared for. In all those years we got to know what people's fears and concerns were. If you had a democratic society, what would that mean for a white privileged person? What would bother them so much that they would resist the process of democratization? Then we would look for ways and means to adjust that. A lot went in to it. It didn't happen all of a sudden.

The second element is that we reached a kind of balance of what used to be called in the Cold War a balance of terror. Both sides knew that we could unleash significant destructive power against each other and in the end neither side would win. In a situation like that you say, okay we can both hurt each other, neither one of us will win, why do we want to hurt each other? Why don't we sit down and see how to solve the problem? We had that particular political balance which produced the miracle.

Jo Menell: So South African has a lot to teach the world about conflict resolution.

Thabo Mbeki: Most certainly. It would be difficult to convince a South African that there is any problem so intractable that it cannot be solved by negotiations. South Africans would say that you haven't tried hard enough. Perhaps you are over taken by dogma and therefore refuse to allow for flexibility, for compromise. If people thought the same way in the rest of the world, perhaps solutions could be found.

Jo Menell: How important do you think individual relationships are in this process of negotiation and conflict resolution?

Thabo Mbeki: The personal interaction, understanding what moves the other person is absolutely important. During the ten years that we negotiated, people in leadership positions got to know one another. The more we met, the more people were relaxed. You would understand certain things which could not be written or even spoken. When you used a particular word, you would see the person sitting across the table frowning and then you would know that this particular word conveyed a meaning which you were not trying to convey. That kind of access, in a sense to one another's souls, becomes important when you're engaged in a process of negotiations to resolve a dispute.

Jo Menell: Do you think that technology can impede rather than assist visions of world peace, of a global economy, of solving the problems of pollution and devastation of society?

Thabo Mbeki: It's not technology. Technology facilitates knowledge, communication, access to the truth, access to people, and the capacity to find solutions quickly. No, I think technology is excellent. The people who handle it are the problem and the exploitation of modern means of communication to propagate old ideas and to perpetuate old ways of doing things. You must empower people to speak, to stand on their own feet and not depend on experts, and technology gives you the capacity to communicate in that manner. But communication is a means of further empowering those who are already empowered and will therefore want to perpetuate whatever it is that they already stood for. I don't think that technology is an impediment. I'm not referring to anybody present in this room, but it's the person standing behind the camera who might very well want to continue to convey images that they're accustomed to conveying in the past who might be disempowering to me.

Jo Menell: What about consumerism and sustainable consumerism, which sounds like a paradox to me. You can't tell somebody in Soweto that they shouldn't want a 36-inch TV screen. They're going to want it, and why shouldn't they? But how does one control consumerism so that a society doesn't become consumed by it?

Thabo Mbeki: I don't understand why anybody should feel uncomfortable about a human being saying I want to live a better life. The purpose of development must surely be to improve the conditions of life of this particular person so that they want TV and washing machines, and I think that is good. I don't think it's something that one needs to condemn. But you need to expand the areas of life in which that citizen intervenes. If I as a citizen feel that the political system is closed to professional politicians, the only thing I can do is go to the polls and vote once every five years. The rest will be dealt with by whoever happened to get elected, but the system otherwise is closed. You are then disempowering me in terms of making a contribution to something other than chasing after a television set or a new car.

I might very well want to make a contribution in terms of how our country thinks and where it's going, but if that's a closed thing, I live with no option other than to buy a television set and go to watch football. So, I don't think it's the fault of your individual who wants good consumer goods. I think they are entitled to seeking those consumer goods and they're entitled to getting them if they can afford them, but I think you need to say to people, "What happens at the United Nations is not the exclusive concern of the diplomat. Here are the issues the United Nations is going to discuss this year. What do the people think? What should our delegation to the United Nations say?"

I think you would find that people would pursue not just the purchase of a TV set. They would also make a contribution to other things, but that space needs to be opened by people who might very well feel threatened. If we make diplomacy look ordinary and accessible to the people then maybe I might lose my job as a diplomat. So the more exclusive we make it, the better it is for me.

Jo Menell: So somebody now can get a refrigerator and it's really useful. Now they can keep things cold, food lasts longer, less threat of it getting salmonella. But that refrigerator is giving off gases that are destroying the ozone layer and destroying our planet. How difficult is it in South Africa to get the mass of people who haven't had refrigerators to think globally that this may not be a great thing and this could actually be destroying the future for their kids?

Thabo Mbeki: It would be rather difficult to build an environmental awareness on the basis of the emissions from a refrigerator. But if you went to the people and said that the coal fire you're burning has this kind of impact, it would directly relate to them because early in the morning in Soweto and in the evening the whole township is blanketed by the smoke. People can feel in their bodies that it's unhealthy. So there would be a sensitivity to environmental questions, but I don't think you can start at a point which does not relate to their direct experience. Coal-fired electricity stations give off the smell of rotten eggs. People smell that and you can say that this is not good. The matter of soil erosion and the degradation of the air relates directly to the people. When you say we need to protect our environment and we need to secure this heritage, they will respond because it impacts on their daily lives.

Jo Menell: Sixty years from now in South Africa, you might still have the wealth and control of major production in the hands of a few people. If one is to rely on the goodness of the rich to give to the poor, history shows that that doesn't happen in many places. How can you correct that imbalance, given that there is such an enormous discrepancy in South Africa? What is your vision to level that playing field?

Thabo Mbeki: Well clearly, it has to change. You can't let it go on forever and there is nothing within the system which is self-correcting. It requires government intervention. We have to establish a regulatory framework which addresses the matter of cartels, monopolies, and trusts. We have to create the space for the development of small and medium businesses, focusing in particular on the black communities, so that the big conglomerates can't shut out the entry by the small and medium person.

But it also requires that the state give capacity to that small businessperson--credit for instance. It is necessary for the government to say, "Never mind collateral. We've looked at you, we believe in you, here's your credit. Go ahead and start your business." There are a number of things that need to be done to de-racialize the South African economy, but it's not anything that you can leave to fortune.

Jo Menell: Or the individual goodwill for that matter.

Thabo Mbeki: I don't think it's a matter of individual goodwill. If you're asking a business person to engage in something that is radically different, they will say, "I hear you, but is it profitable for me?" They won't say, "I hear you and it strikes a particular point in my mind and here's the check."

Jo Menell: Is there anything that we haven't touched on that you feel you should say?

Thabo Mbeki: We must say to the governments, the large corporations, and the large institutions in the developed countries that we have an obligation to address suffering and poverty and degradation wherever it occurs. The security of an America can't be guaranteed if there is disaster in Latin America or in Africa. The people who have power may not think like that, but you must define national interests in a broader context of human interests. We are coming from many years of the anti-apartheid struggle and we want to see that the ordinary people are on the agenda. Without that, without a changed manner by which the big and the powerful and the rich deal with the poor and the small, this new world we are all talking about wouldn't amount to much.

Jo Menell: Thank you very much


Interview with Thabo Mbeki © Concensus Designs, Inc. For permission to reprint portions of this interview, please contact East Beach® Productions.


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