TOPICS > Politics

Thabo Mbeki

July 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Early this month, President Nelson Mandela endorsed his deputy, 54 year old Thabo Mbeki, to succeed him when his term is up in 1999.

Mbeki was chosen by Mandela after general elections in April 1994 to be the first deputy president of the new South Africa.

His ties to Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement go back to his early years as a member of the African National Congress, the oldest liberation movement in Africa. Mbeki’s father, activist Govan Mbeki, was a leading figure in ANC activities.

In 1962, he and Mandela were both arrested and sentenced to life in prison for high treason and for inciting violence. That same year 20 year old Thabo Mbeki left South Africa under orders from the ANC and moved to London. While there, he earned a masters degree in economics from Sussex University. He remained in exile for 28 years. During that time, he became a political protégé of Oliver Tambo, the ANC’s president in exile.

THABO MBEKI, African National Congress: (1985) It’s part of a process which was supposed to create a core of people who would have the necessary skills, the necessary qualifications to be able to participate in the administration or the running of a liberated South Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That interview in Lusaka, Zambia, was part of the NewsHour series in 1985 called Apartheid’s People. Mbeki was among four black and white South Africans we profiled, and the NewsHour has been following his career since South Africa moved from a white dominated government to majority black rule. In 1987, Mbeki’s father was released from prison, an action which signaled the eventual release of Nelson Mandela, freed three years later, and the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Soon after Thabo Mbeki returned to South Africa and became a figure in ANC’s negotiations with the apartheid government. These negotiations led to the end of apartheid and paved the way for Mandela’s presidential victory. As deputy president, Mbeki has a broad portfolio, including economic development, In this area, he has worked closely with Vice President Gore on a commission between the two countries. He is here this week in Washington to discuss economic and investment opportunities in his country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Mbeki joins us now, and welcome.

THABO MBEKI, Deputy President, South Africa: Thank you very much.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I want to talk a lot about South Africa, but just briefly, the news out of Burundi today was not good. How does the continuing violence and chaos there affect the landscape in Sub-Saharan and in Africa?

MR. MBEKI: It clearly is a very, is a worrying thing, and a problem that is difficult to resolve, but certainly that instability in the great lakes region, as it’s called, clearly would have an impact on all the countries and on all of the surrounding countries. I think it’s clear that you need an initiative among the regions, particularly within the countries within this region–as with Rwanda, with Burundi–and Zaire and Tanzania, and countries like this, Uganda–to try and find a resolution of this matter but certainly impact of the refugees and other things would affect these countries.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Would South Africa consider or support being a part of a military force that would go in and try to stop the violence so that all the rest of the problems you just outlined could be dealt with?

MR. MBEKI: If, if it was agreed in particular by the various factions within Burundi that you needed a positioning of an army like this in order to contribute to the problem, yes, certainly South Africa would be willing to contribute what it can to that kind of effort.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But so far they haven’t agreed to have any–

MR. MBEKI: They haven’t.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And is there anything else that can be done without that kind of agreement?

MR. MBEKI: Well, the problem about it is that you can’t send in an army there to start a war, because in local Burundi, I mean, we might very well fight them, you come as an invading force. That is why it is necessary to create a political framework which enables a deployment of military forces.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have any hopes that anything like that could happen? I mean, is South Africa interested in initiative?

MR. MBEKI: The foreign minister in the past has been visited, tried to talk to all of the various factions there to try to persuade them to come to some agreement and approach, a common approach, it hasn’t worked. But we’ve got to keep trying.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You were, yourself, intimately involved in quelling the ethnic violence in Kwazulu Natale in South Africa. This was a region where thousands of people over the years have died in ethnic conflict. How did you do that?

MR. MBEKI: Well, really, it’s–there are two elements to it. One of it is that both the ANC and the IFP–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That’s the African National Congress–

MR. MBEKI: African National Congress.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the Freedom–

MR. MBEKI: The Freedom Party.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The two contending forces.

MR. MBEKI: Well, they are the two main parties in the province–two contending parties–decided to come together to discuss this matter to see whether they could not act together to end the violence between the two of them, and that’s one element of the story.

The other element of course is that the police, the police, themselves, I think have become a bit more effective in terms of carrying out their law enforcement responsibilities in the sense of investigating and catching the people who are responsible for the violence and the murders. I think a combination of those things will produce the positive result. We have sought to encourage all of those processes from government–from where we sit.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That’s why you were there involved in the–

MR. MBEKI: Yes. I mean, we had to go into the province to look at this, to encourage this, that, and the other to talk to all the political leaders and so on.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: So that this area which had been a stain really on the sort of forward movement of South Africa towards a new South Africa scared away investors or at least made them frightened, do you feel that this now has been put to rest, that this issue of instability there is–

MR. MBEKI: I’m convinced that we are, we are on the road towards a resolution of this matter. It’s not as though it will kind of suddenly end overnight, but I’m quite certain that with a combination of those interventions, one political, one law enforcement, we will get to the position where we will bring this political violence to an end, I’m sure.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now on the other side of the coin, the white members of the government of national unity, the National–the large national party, the other deputy president left the government earlier this year. How has that changed the political landscape in South Africa?

MR. MBEKI: It hasn’t really. The National Party is now an opposition party. It has played–it played that kind of role even when it was still in government. Certainly, its members of parliament–so it’s an opposition party–doesn’t alter much. In terms of the government itself, again, it hasn’t changed anything in the sense that in substance policy as far as government is concerned originated from the majority party which was the African National Congress, the ANC, and so we just have a new opposition party.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But last year the majority of whites say in June said that race relations were improving and by the end of the year, it was down from 70 percent to 34 percent. Does that have anything to do with it, or what do you think accounts for that?

MR. MBEKI: No, it wouldn’t have anything to do with that, but it might have something to do with our beginning to address these questions of change, of transformation, of the creation of a non-racial South Africa, because you can’t remain only with a political settlement and leave unchanged, untouched the social and economic and other relations among South African population, and I would imagine that you would find whites who would be fearful of that kind of change.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Affirmative action and those sorts of things–

MR. MBEKI: Affirmative action.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: –redistribution of wealth…

MR. MBEKI: And might feel that that impacts negatively on race relations. But in the actuality in the practicality, in the daily life of South Africa, there’s nothing that would–that had happened which would suggest that race relations had soured for whatever reason. I think it’s just a fear of, of change.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Earlier this year, also, South Africa adopted a much heralded new constitution which guarantees every citizen adequate housing, food, water, and so on. How is the government going to achieve keeping those promises when the international bond markets are breathing down your neck to cut, cut, cut spending?

MR. MBEKI: Well, I wouldn’t say that the constitution–would put–puts it in the way of putting guarantees everybody a house, but the constitution recognizes social and economic rights of the population, which we believe is important.

Now what has to happen clearly of course is that the government using its own resources, depending on the national budget, has got indeed to deliver to the extent that this is possible a better life for the people and certainly the private sector has got to be part of that process, particularly with regard to investing and creating new jobs and so on. So generality of the population understands the constraints under which this government is operating. The limitations that it has with regard to the budget, for instance, and the need to move in a particular direction with regard to maintaining physical discipline, questions of this kind.

And what it expects, the population is that we’ve got to show movement forward, not necessarily radical change overnight, not a million houses in two days, but visible change…that a house was built yesterday and another one has been built today, so they see this incremental change. Then it gives assurance that at some point it’s going to reach them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how well do you think you’ve done by the way of demonstrating that sort of thing to the people, the government?

MR. MBEKI: I think we’ve done pretty well. I mean, you see, for instance, if you take a lot of the rural areas, where your principal problem, your most pressing problem, will not be houses, but will be clean water. Many villages now have got access to clean water which they didn’t have before. And it makes an enormous impact on the lives of people, and it communicates that message to them, that here is a government that indeed has begun to change our life for the better, so I think across the board on very many things, programs introduced in ‘94, free health care and feeding of children who otherwise would go hungry, these things make an impact on people so that they can say that indeed their lives are changing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: On another subject, President Mandela says that he wants you to be the next president of South Africa, to succeed him. What do you think about that?

MR. MBEKI: Well, that’s a matter that must be decided by the ANC in the first place.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But how do you feel about it?

MR. MBEKI: Well, if the–if it is decided that one needs to do a job of that kind, well, one would try to do it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, one of the things that you did when you came here was to go to the Olympics, the first time South Africa had competed since it was expelled over apartheid in ‘72–how did you feel about what was going on there, and did that make you want to be president more?

MR. MBEKI: No, no. It was, it was very inspiring as a South African to be there. I’m told that when the teams walked into the stadium at the opening ceremony, the South African team got the second largest cheer after the United States team, and clearly it was–it’s clearly the members of the team are telling us for instance about the reception wherever they went–good, inspiring occasion.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mr. Deputy President, thank you for joining us.

MR. MBEKI: Thanks.