Lend an ear to this lord – Renwick’s appeal

Turning around a dysfunctional South Africa currently headed towards a failed state requires of the ANC leadership the same courage that FW de Klerk displayed, says former diplomat Lord Robin Renwick. Delivering the first-ever FW de Klerk Memorial Lecture, Renwick reminds South Africans of what De Klerk – and the ANC – achieved since 1994, before brutally outlining exactly where the ruling party has failed. In a colourful address peppered with previously unrecorded, fascinating interactions he had with De Klerk and Mandela, Renwick singles out the villains and the heroes of our recent history, displaying an intimate knowledge few outsiders can boast on the thinking of SA’s Nobel-prize winning duo. His message is one of realistic hope but with some non-negotiable caveats. Liberation movements, he says “imagine that they are entitled to go on governing indefinitely. The results are there for all to see.” However, because SA has genuinely free elections, that should not happen here. Hope springs. – Chris Bateman

Things have not worked out as Mandela and FW had hoped – Robin Renwick

By Robin Renwick*

Robin Renwick

I am very honoured to have been asked to give the first memorial lecture in honour of a true statesman, responsible for the first democratic elections in the history of this country, as well as for the termination of South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme – the only country ever to renounce nuclear weapons – plus the abolition of the death penalty, a thoroughly deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, universally admired in the rest of the world – FW de Klerk. I am especially happy to do so in the presence of Elita de Klerk, who brought her husband great happiness over many years, and of other members of his family.

When I came to South Africa in 1987, the country was in the grip of fierce repression under the regime of PW Botha. The ANC leaders were in jail or in exile, thousands of people were in prison without trial, the United Democratic Front was about to be banned, and agents of the security police and of military intelligence were being encouraged to “take out”, that is to say – murder – opponents of the regime. You were facing the prospect of ever-increasing sanctions and international isolation, as well as escalating violence at home.

One of my first calls was on FW de Klerk, Minister of Higher Education and leader of the National Party in the Transvaal. He was, I was told, a deeply conservative figure, having been brought up as the son of a National Party senator and educated in the ultra-conservative University of Potchefstroom. I recall that when the authorities there banned dancing on campus as this could lead to sex, the students’ union queried whether this meant that sex was also banned. They concluded that it was, as that could lead to dancing!

FW represented the very conservative constituency of Vereeniging. Interestingly, however, Helen Suzman, my closest friend in South Africa at the time, told me that he had invited her to address his constituents there. He had said that he did not agree with her, but thought that they should hear her views. Helen had a soft spot for FW, who she told me was a decent human being. She was later to congratulate him “for having made the same speeches I made 20 years ago!”

In my first meeting with FW, noting that I had been in Rhodesia, he said: “I want you to know that if I have my way, we will not make the same mistake they did.”

“What was the mistake?” I asked.

“Leaving it far too late to negotiate with the real black leaders,” was the reply.

Shortly afterwards, the irascible PW Botha threatened a new law to suppress dissent in the universities. At the behest of the Vice Chancellors of UCT, Wits and Rhodes, I went to see the Minister for Higher Education. “There isn’t going to be a new law,” FW declared. “It isn’t necessary, and I am not going to table one.”

When the United Democratic Front was banned, Johann Rupert and I had dinner that evening with FW at the Mount Nelson Hotel. He had not been consulted, he said, and would have opposed the ban. Things would be done very differently if he took over.

When FW did take over from PW as leader of the National Party, I arranged for him to meet Margaret Thatcher, who promised him full support from her if he released Mandela and abolished apartheid. “How far do you think he will go?” she asked me after the meeting.

“Further than anyone thinks,” was my reply.

The sceptics included even his very verligte brother, Wimpie, who told me that he feared that his brother was too conservative to make a good president. I said that he must know his brother better than I did, but I thought that FW would prove him wrong.

And he did so immediately. Desmond Tutu promised us that the churches would marshal the huge demonstration planned in Cape Town, if we could help to get it authorised, which was scarcely necessary, as that was what FW wanted to do anyway. He had made a remarkable speech to the leaders of the South African police, in which he said that the status quo could only be maintained by killing thousands more people, “and when the shooting stops, the problem will be exactly the same as when it started”.

At midnight before his historic speech on 2 February 1990, in which he unbanned the ANC and paved the way for the release of Mandela and all his colleagues, FW telephoned me to say, “You can tell your Prime Minister that she will not be disappointed.”

I am sure that this audience does not need reminding who abolished apartheid. Apartheid was not abolished by Nelson Mandela, though he made a fundamental contribution to doing so, but by FW de Klerk. It was De Klerk who removed from the statute book every apartheid law, including the Population Registration Act, a cornerstone of the entire system.

FW de Klerk’s intention in setting his country on a completely different path was to give South Africa, as he put it, the chance of a new beginning. Nelson Mandela, with whom I also had numerous meetings at the time, had precisely the same intention.

Mandela, on one occasion, urged me to join the ANC, “because you think like us!” I told him that I thought like him, but not like others in his party.

A lot has been achieved since then. Millions more people have access to drinkable water and formal housing and even, though now episodically, to electricity, than they did in 1994. Above all, a new beginning has been accomplished in the most important respect of all, as all South Africans now live in a genuinely multi-racial, far more ‘normal’ society than could ever be the case under apartheid. This was the deepest held ambition of De Klerk and Mandela alike, and it has been realised. Mandela was right in foreseeing that sport, loved by nearly all South Africans, could be a unifying factor.

Not only that, but FW’s other great cause was respect for and protection of the Constitution and the ideal of a state based on the Rule of Law. That too, to date, has been achieved, with the judges, a free press, and the non-governmental organisations combining to help defeat Jacob Zuma’s persistent attempts to undermine the Rule of Law. You have an admirable new Chief Justice, who most certainly will defend the Constitution. You have Kgalema Motlanthe, representing the values of the old guard of the ANC. You had in Thuli Madonsela a public protector to whom all of you owe a debt of gratitude today. The less said about her successor, the better. Defence of the Constitution remains the great cause of the FW de Klerk Foundation, of FW’s alter ego, David Steward, and of other like-minded NGOs.

The Zondo Commission has exposed again the full extent of the criminality in the theft of an estimated 14 billion dollars from the state-owned enterprises and those responsible for it – none of whom have yet been convicted. But the key figures now at last are being pursued by a new public prosecutor, Shamila Bathohi. Pravin Gordhan, who fought valiantly against all that theft, has removed all those responsible from the leadership of the SOEs, though it is proving hard to eradicate rampant corruption at other levels. But what are the main respects in which there has not been a new beginning and, more importantly, what can be done about it?

Kgalame Motlanthe’s statement that, “We did not join the ANC to get rich, we joined it to go to jail,” summarises the problem of liberation movements growing old. Instead of having to make the huge sacrifices of the leaders I knew – of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others of that generation – they imagine that they are entitled to go on governing indefinitely. The results are there for all to see. As you have genuinely free elections, that should not happen here.

So, what are the respects in which South Africa is – very obviously – in need of another new beginning?

EDUCATION

Clearly, things have not worked out as Mandela and FW had hoped. Mandela would be distraught at the fact that basic state education remains scarcely better than it was in the era of ‘Bantu education’, with South Africa ranking among the very lowest numeracy and literacy rates in Africa.

This is what should concern us all most of all, for there could be no more catastrophic failure than this. It is no use pretending to care deeply about the poor and the disadvantaged if they are denied the opportunity to be educated and thereby to develop skills that help them to live a normal life and get a job.

The reason for this abysmal performance is well known. The teachers’ union, aligned with the ruling party, will not permit any performance testing of the teachers; a vast number of whom do not have any skills and cannot be dismissed even though an alarming number of them don’t even bother to turn up for work.

How can this be permitted to continue? Please ask any party standing in the next elections what they intend to do about it.

UNEMPLOYMENT

Mandela and FW would be distressed by the fact that, nearly 30 years on, unemployment is worse than ever – approaching 40%. Being able to earn one’s living is a vitally important element in human dignity. And mass unemployment is a mass breeding ground for crime. It leads, for instance, to the infrastructure theft that is contributing to the crippling of the economy.

The ruling party’s solution to this is to think of replacing the social grants on which, currently, the staggering number of 18 million people depend by a ‘basic income grant’, which is liable to prove unaffordable and which, anyway, will not solve the problem – which can only be solved by creating employment – which much of the government does not understand how to do. In Britain, we have just managed, thank goodness, to get rid of a prime minister who also believed in fantasy economics, to be replaced by someone who doesn’t.

POWER CUTS

The most vivid demonstration of incompetence affecting virtually all South Africans has been the so called ‘load shedding’ power cuts that are crippling the economy. This has been an entirely self-inflicted fiasco, as successive ANC energy ministers, including the present one, have fought tooth and nail against the only possible solution, which was to permit the private sector to make up the power deficit that the government couldn’t. For many years, the miners and other private companies have been demanding the right to generate their own power and to sell any surplus to the grid.

Here at least, there are some reasons to be hopeful, as the government has had to give in to economic reality. The independent power producers will help to fill the power deficit, though probably not for several years. Meanwhile, the minister is talking about creating a second state-run energy company! Even the world’s best satirist, Zapiro, would find it hard to make this up.

SHRINKING MINING

Despite the surge in commodity prices, mining output and the numbers employed in mining have been shrinking steadily in South Africa, due partly to declining grades, but just as much to the performance of the Department of Mineral Affairs. Those wanting to invest in mining in South Africa have experienced from them, especially under Zuma, such a combination of arrogance, incompetence, and corruption that South Africa is currently rated in the bottom 10 countries in the world in attractiveness for mining investment. The government’s attempt to insist on re-empowerment when empowerment partners sold their shares was an additional disincentive to invest, now overturned by the courts. The delays in obtaining permits remain never ending. Despite the country’s massive mineral resources, South Africa is currently attracting less than one per cent of world expenditure on exploration. Just as devastating is the fact that, due to the dire state of Transnet, the mining companies cannot get a lot of their export production to or through the ports.

SERVICE DELIVERY (LACK OF)

A host of ANC-governed municipalities have failed the most elementary requirements in terms of service delivery, while regions like the Eastern Cape have become bywords for the failure of basic services, including health. The fact that so many of these municipalities do not pay their electricity bills has compounded Eskom’s problems.

RACE AND THE WRONG SORT OF TRANSFORMATION

Mandela was colour blind, and the ‘old ANC’ or true ANC leaders I knew and admired were committed to non-racialism. Positive transformation depends on the accelerated training of hitherto disadvantaged South Africans to gain the necessary management skills. Today, the government, dissatisfied with its lack of control over the private sector, is about to mandate that employment must reflect the makeup of the population, thereby introducing racial quotas on a massive scale, irrespective of qualifications or competence – mirroring the disaster inflicted on Eskom by encouraging the departure of large numbers of competent engineers because they were the wrong colour.

Given the draconian penalties for non-compliance (10 percent of a company’s turnover), DisChem is not going to be alone in calling a halt to the recruitment of white South Africans. The (possibly unintended) effect will be to reinforce the conviction of well-qualified young white professionals that they are going to be the disadvantaged in the future, causing a further loss of skills as they are sought elsewhere. Meanwhile, Andre de Ruyter, a highly competent CEO appointed as head of Eskom to cope with the mess inherited from his predecessors, comes under attack inter alia as being too pale for such a task.

FOREIGN POLICY

When Russia launched its imperialist invasion of Ukraine, which posed no conceivable threat to Moscow, Naledi Pandor condemned it, only to be disavowed by the Presidency, in response to remonstrances from the Russian ambassador. Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine have met with no condemnation from your government, while at the UN, your spokesmen have been suggesting that the invasion was justified. Does South Africa really not object to the threatened use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

Your president will soon be embarking on a state visit to the United Kingdom, where there is a fund of goodwill towards this country and towards him personally, but not on this issue.

ECONOMIC GROWTH (LACK OF)

The South African economy is forecast to grow at less than two percent per annum over the next three years. The persistence of such low rates of growth renders it well nigh impossible to improve living standards overall. The determination to cling to state control makes sense only if you have a competent state which, except in the Reserve Bank and the National Treasury, does not exist in South Africa. No one who has been obliged to struggle with the rest of your bureaucracy will feel able to contest this. This problem of competence, or the lack of it, was compounded by the ANC doctrine of ‘deployment,, ensuring that a vast number of people in the swollen bureaucracy, all the state agencies and the state-owned enterprises are unqualified or under-qualified for the positions they hold.

WHAT COULD – AND, IF IT WERE TRIED AGAIN – WOULD WORK

In the 2022 State of the Union address, the president said, “The task of government is to create the conditions that will enable the private sector – both big and small – to emerge, to grow, to access new markets, to create new products and to hire more employees.” He has also declared (against the convictions of many in his own party) that “jobs are created by business, not government”.

This has been tried before and it worked. From 1994 to 2008, under Mandela and Mbeki, pro-growth policies were pursued, with the economy growing at around four percent and unemployment down to half the level it is now, only to be abandoned and not yet really resumed since.

Current pessimism within South Africa could easily be overcome if the president actually felt able to do what he has said. But that would require a change both in people and policies. Appointments would need, for the first time, to be made on merit, rather than to satisfy the various factions of the ruling party. If the president’s idea is to partner with business, it would be desirable to appoint ministers who actually believe in doing so.

Achieving more rapid economic growth would also depend on a change of policies. As with the National Party when FW became its leader, the ANC has within it many verligtes who genuinely want to change the direction of their country and return to the values of Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu. But it also has within it just as many verkramptes, who want things to continue as they are or to align more with the Economic Freedom Fighters, who want to tear up the Constitution. According to Julius Malema, on his return from holidaying on a yacht in Ibiza, they also believe that violence will be necessary to achieve transformation. Allying with or seeking to emulate them would render you un-investable, thereby achieving for you a Venezuela style outcome – without the oil!

The chances of any improvement will depend on overcoming the ANC’s antipathy to the private sector and addiction to state-owned enterprises that have failed, which proved so easy for the Guptas to loot and will go on failing unless private sector help is enlisted to save them. Normal businesses are subject to a more demanding discipline, which is that they go out of business if they do not perform. Since public and private sector partnerships have become the norm around the world, it is bizarre to find them untried in South Africa.

The addiction to failing SOEs is attributed to a supposed commitment to socialism. But the main reason is rather the patronage they confer on the state – and hence the ruling party.

A classic example of this near terminal decline is that of Transnet, which is now in as parlous a state as Eskom. Apart from increasing problems with the rail network, they have proven incapable of operating South Africa’s ports to anything like international standards. The turnaround times for loading and unloading shipping are dismal when compared, for instance, with nearby Maputo which, like many other African ports, is operated by DPWorld and Grindrod. South African exporters have been reduced to diverting huge volumes of traffic to Maputo by road.

So why not bail out Transnet by inviting commercial port operators to manage South African ports? And why not mandate the mining companies to take over the operation of the main coal and iron ore export lines?

Such ideas will, of course, be resisted, but will end up having to be agreed upon, as you are fast approaching just as desperate a state for Transnet as you have for Eskom. The state would continue to own the infrastructure, but this would represent the kind of state and private sector partnership that would help you to overcome economic stagnation.

A glimmer of hope is now said to exist in the prospects for offshore oil exploration and production, which has also been delayed interminably by the Department of Energy, while Mozambique has forged ahead and Namibia has been trying to. A first offshore production licence is supposed to be close to being issued. How can it make sense for South Africa to continue, almost alone in doing so, in making it as difficult as possible for international oil and gas companies to help the country to benefit from its offshore oil and gas reserves, including the tax revenues that would result from doing so?

A further reason for hope has been the demonstration by your Premier, Alan Winde, and his colleagues in the Western Cape that the dream of better government is not a mirage, but definitely achievable. It is not my opinion, but a fact attested by all the relevant audit reports that service delivery in the Democratic Alliance-controlled municipalities has been markedly better than in those controlled by others. The difference with the Eastern Cape is like night and day.

We all know about the party’s travails in working with black South African leaders. But whether or not people wish to vote for the DA in national elections, it is hard to argue against their success at other levels of government or against their achievements in working with, rather than against, the private sector. The results have been an impressive performance by the Western Cape economy and a new trek, this time in the opposite direction – back from the Transvaal to the Cape.

The ANC will try by all possible means to avoid a coalition with the DA, and that may be mutual – but unless your government adopts genuinely pro-business policies more like theirs, you will never achieve a significant reduction in unemployment or growth in the average incomes of all South Africans, which cannot be attained by simply continuing with existing policies.

It appears more likely than not that Cyril Ramaphosa will be re-elected as president next year. If he is not, that will further precipitate the decline of the ANC. He is by nature a conciliator, though he had the courage to save you all from five more years of Jacob Zuma, when not many thought he could win. Many of his more hopeful supporters have been disappointed by his performance since, which keeps being explained as due to the fact that he is a prisoner of his party. But at last, he has asserted himself over independent power producers. He remains more popular than his party. Without him, it would be facing an electoral fiasco. So, let’s hope that he will start asserting himself on other issues.

But your hopes of a better future will also depend on the reputable opposition parties uniting behind the need to defend the constitution and cooperating more effectively nationally, not just locally, to offer a more credible alternative to never ending rule by the same party, regardless of its performance. The fragmented opposition parties have some important points in common in their critique of the status quo, do not share the obsession with state control, and need to seek to form some sort of common front. Ruling parties are only likely to reform themselves when threatened by a loss of power – or after it.

FW de Klerk took over as president of South Africa in far more difficult circumstances. To take the country in a completely new direction, to one person, one vote, he had to overcome those in his party and his community who wanted the status quo to continue unchanged, and to face down the deep-rooted opposition to it within the armed forces and police.

I recall the amazement of my friends in the ANC when he made the speech which changed South Africa forever in February 1990. In doing so, as I told Mandela, FW knew that he was going to be negotiating himself out of power. Many seem to have forgotten how difficult and turbulent a process it was that he then had to negotiate, with ANC leaders asking me about the dangers of a coup and General Constand Viljoen telling General Meiring that they could take over the country in a day. (“Yes,” said Meiring, “But what would we do then?”) But FW never wavered in his determination to see the process he had started through.

You have turned out not to be very good at respecting the achievements of this true statesman, a truly great man who, by his actions, saved the lives of an immense number of South Africans, black and white. The best apology for apartheid was to abolish it and, with Mandela, to give this country the chance of a new beginning, which you have yet to make the most of.

During this extremely difficult and violent transition, with a vast amount of violence between the ANC and Inkatha, and incitement to violence by the ‘third force’ elements in military intelligence and the police, I would find FW, chain smoking at the time, in his office in Pretoria or the Tuynhuis, remaining calm and determined to get to the next stage in the negotiating process. As Mandela, on behalf of his party, was claiming that none of the violence had anything to do with the ANC, I showed him a photo of youths in ANC T-shirts necklacing a Zulu hostel dweller in Soweto. Mandela ended up declaring that, “We are just as responsible for the violence as others.”

As he kept being told by his colleagues that De Klerk was deliberately encouraging ‘third force’ violence, I told him that we knew from our own intelligence sources that this was rubbish, and that FW was doing his utmost to stop all such crimes – only for them to be covered up by some of his generals, who he dismissed as soon as the Goldstone Report gave him the basis to do so.

As I was leaving South Africa, I attended a jazz evening with Mandela at the house of Clive Menell. Mandela had just made a speech breaking off negotiations. I said that this was a mistake: they needed to be accelerated. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I intend to work everything out with De Klerk.”

Later, when he was president, he made the absurd statement that he had preferred dealing with PW Botha. I was so annoyed by this that I went to see him in the Tuynhuis. I told him that, in that same office, I had been obliged to argue with PW Botha for people’s lives – notably those of the Sharpeville Six. On each occasion, I had argued for Mandela’s release, only to find that PW had no intention of doing so at all, as he knew that he would then lose control. “Please remember,” I said, “that but for De Klerk, you would still be in jail.”

Mandela, roaring with laughter, acknowledged that this was true.

Not long before the first one person, one vote election in 1994, De Klerk was invited by the London Times group to make a speech in London’s huge Albert Hall. He was a world hero at the time, as he remains internationally. He received a standing ovation before he spoke, and again when he finished. There were questions at the end, one of them from a black South African. His father, he said, had been taken away by the security police, and so had his brother. There was a moment of tension, as nobody knew what was coming next. What came next was, “So I am thanking God for the day you were born!”

So, let’s please give this truly great man the respect he deserves. And let’s see whether your present-day leaders have the courage, as FW did, to change the unsuccessful course the country has been on to a more promising one – based on encouraging the private sector – as the president has said he wants to do – to partner with government in helping to take on more of the tasks the far less competent state has proven unable to perform (with the alternative being continued stagnation). Pro-growth policies have been tried and worked before, so why on earth not try them again?

  • Robin Renwick, former diplomat and a former member of the House of Lords.

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