Meet Roelf Meyer – how co-architect of New SA sees things today

Roelf Meyer, known for his role in successfully negotiating South Africa’s Constitution alongside the ANC, joined Biznews for an exclusive interview. Meyer provided insights into his relationship with Cyril Ramaphosa and shed light on the President’s challenges in executing his plans. He highlighted the ANC and DA as the only parties with governing experience, cautioning against premature predictions on coalitions. Meyer discusses South Africa’s peace efforts in Ukraine, addresses criticism of the 1990s settlement, and advocates for a revised model of Black Economic Empowerment. Notably, he reveals that the Transformation Initiative (ITI), consisting of him and four other transition veterans, has been requested by the US to share their experiences in dealing with factionalism. – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

Following the Japanese example of bringing business and government together 

Over the last three or four years, we’ve been active in trying to get the government and private sector to understand each other better, first of all. And through our experience, myself and others that launched this initiative, we have fairly good access to both sides, to government on the one side and the private sector, or some private sector industries on the other side. In that process, we help to get communication going and that is happening now. I think what is good about last week’s meeting and the outcome of that and the commitments made from both sides is that the private sector or business or the captains of industry want to help the government in particular in the three areas that provide huge challenges at the moment, which is electricity or energy on the one side, logistics on the other side. And then of course, to my mind, the main one, is the situation regarding crime in the country. And those three areas I think are all very relevant to business. When we started this initiative way back in 2018, it was actually initiated by Johan van Zyl, who was then the CEO of Toyota in Europe. We were good friends. Unfortunately, we lost him due to COVID. But his whole idea was to try to do what the Japanese did so well over the years to get the business and private sector to work together towards common aims and the best results for the country.

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Sympathy for President Ramaphosa’s execution proble

I have a good personal relationship with him, but I find myself in a different position from where he is. He has to deal with ongoing problems daily. I can step back and take an overall view of things, and provide ideas and input where necessary. However, he has the main task of finding answers and taking responsibility for them. It’s easy for people to criticise from the outside, as many do. But being in his position and finding the right answers and executing solutions often becomes the challenge. I empathise with him when it comes to the execution aspect because he doesn’t always have the necessary state ability or administrative capability to implement the solutions. That remains a challenge for South Africa Mr Ramaphosa has a mandate but limited options.  And I feel for him when it comes to the execution side because he hasn’t the administrative capability to execute the solutions. That remains a challenge for South Africa.

Only the DA and the ANC have experience in government 

I think one must remember that there are actually only two parties that are capable of governing in terms of their experience. One is the ANC, and of course, the other one is the DA, particularly for the Western Cape, which is doing a pretty good job. All the other parties that might be in line for coalitions have no real experience, and those that had the experience at the metro level haven’t proved themselves. So, I would not go too early and too quickly in speculation about coalitions. 

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Chances of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia

There is this age-old confrontation between the Russians and the Ukrainians. It’s not only since the end of the Cold War, it was probably long before. I have spoken to people who served in the defence force of the Soviet Union, who told me that the Ukrainians and the Russians never saw eye to eye, even under those circumstances. You know, so it’s coming a long way. That is the one side. The other one is the geopolitical context. The rest of Europe, of course, is looking at Ukraine for a very specific purpose, and so does the United States. And anybody from the outside who would enter the scene of the conflict has to keep in mind what the expectations would be from Western Europe and the United States. It’s impossible that they would allow a peace deal between United Russia and Ukraine to happen without their consent and approval. 

Criticism against the negotiated settlement in the 1990s

I still think it is the best Constitution in the world, by the way. But that whole process, from 1994 onwards, was not about political deals. It was really about agreeing on the content of the best constitution for the needs of South Africa. Why am I saying it’s the best constitution in the world? If you look at Chapter 2, the Bill of Rights provides for everything that is necessary to ensure that every individual in this country has the right to be served by its government. That is what the Constitution says. So, the shortcomings that people are experiencing as a result of that now and over the last 30 years have nothing to do with the content of the constitution. Maybe after we finish the Constitution, we should have provided an implementation plan for that Constitution to ensure socio-economic transformation, which we didn’t do. 

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A new model for BBE

I don’t think there’s any doubt that there has to be black economic empowerment. But many people would say empowerment didn’t take place because the average individual didn’t benefit from that, and didn’t see the results. And the late Johan van Zyl, whom I referred to earlier, always said there can be a different model, and he actually advocated this with the President and with Ebrahim Patel and others, to say there is a different model that business will buy into, but we need a plan to make that happen. The shift should be from equity-based empowerment to actual sharing in the benefits that the private sector produces through its workforce. In that way, we can actually multiply the benefits of empowerment, not only for the individuals who are part of the workforce but also for individuals involved in economic activity on a broad basis.