In an interview on eNCA’s programme The 1st Citizen, former president Thabo Mbeki discussed his view of South Africa 25 years into democracy.
Host Aldrin Sampear asked him to comment on the land debate, a matter he had already addressed in interviews to Sunday newspapers over the weekend.
Mbeki answered that South Africa should do the “land thing”, but on the basis of “an objective understanding of what the challenges are and what we need to do about it”.
He said he did not know if amending the constitution was the answer. “I would have preferred, before we come to resolutions, to understand the nature of the challenge. Once you understand it, you say what the action is you will take.”
When Sampear asked him why it had apparently been a challenge for Mbeki to push land redistribution and restitution under his leadership, Mbeki answered: “It’s because the ANC never identified that there was such pressure. That’s why I say we need to understand the nature of the problem. You are assuming the problem.
“We said there must be a land restitution process. Land claims. We set up a system and a structure for that, which evidently is too slow. It didn’t even have a court and a permanent judge, and all of that. That needed to be improved.
“Then we said to the Land Bank, ‘Some people are going to come to you to borrow money to go into commercial agriculture.’
“The Land Bank is a state bank. So you have to respond to this because this is part of the process of transformation. Then at some point the Land Bank itself got into problems, and so on.”
Mbeki said that during his tenure the predominant problems government had identified were rather “poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and these sorts of things”.
“So we said let’s put resources into addressing these things. Whether we succeeded or not is another matter. But I don’t think there was ever any sense that, for instance, there is huge pressure of land hunger for agricultural purposes among the black people.”
He took issue with the ongoing assumption that this was even a real issue today.
Mbeki explains why he is against the ANC’s approach on Land Expropriation without Compensation
Mbeki believes the land “pressure” is an urban issue & while he was Pres the ANC did not have this “pressure” pic.twitter.com/L7vAUawpig
— Aldrin Sampear (@AldrinSampear) April 28, 2019
“Why are you assuming it? It’s very clear to me that there’s huge pressure for land around urban areas. That’s why you find these land occupations. They are not in the rural areas. They’re around the urban areas, and understandably so. So that’s the land matter that has to be addressed.
“But you see I was against the argument that there were settlers who came, expropriated our land without compensation, and now it’s our turn to expropriate the land from them without compensation, to give to our people.
“Immediately, to me as an ANC person, I’m going to say that when the ANC says we are going to expropriate from whoever and give to our people … who, in the eyes of the ANC, among the South African population, are not our people? Another party can say that … but the ANC can’t.”
He pointed out that the ANC claimed the Freedom Charter as its basic and primary policy document.
“The Freedom Charter says the land shall be shared among all those who work it. Why are we departing from that?”
ANC’s first strategic task still incomplete
Mbeki had earlier said the ANC’s first “strategic task” had been to eradicate the legacy of colonialism and apartheid.
“I would then say that we are still faced with the same task to this day. We have not yet achieved it. That’s why you see everywhere the manifest evidence of the old socioeconomic order.”
However, he said the party had learnt “a lot about what needs to be done to eradicate that legacy … and [has] made many mistakes in the process … and made progress in some instances”.
“What we need to do now is to have another serious reflection in pursuit of that objective. What is it that we need to do, given our experience of the past 25 years, about the economy, about education, about human settlements, about everything.”
He said his old description in parliament of “two South Africas” was still true, and had not been overcome because to do so was “difficult”.
Mbeki acknowledged the “race element” in South Africa was still present.
“For instance, you take the economy … we used to have an international advisory investment council which was constituted of leading businesspeople from around the world who would meet twice a year and make their own comments about what they thought needs to happen, domestically and in terms of our relationship with the rest of the world.
“There’s an issue they kept raising, which we found difficult to answer at a certain point – which was that the big corporations in South Africa, the big companies, have levels of liquidity that are abnormally high, that you wouldn’t find among businesses around the globe. Why?
“They would ask us this question each time we met. In the end we had to answer it.
“We said that the answer is that the owners of big volumes of capital are uncertain about the future of South Africa. Many of them said this transition in 1994 from apartheid to democracy was too good to be true. Something would go wrong.
“So they tended to be cautious in terms of their approach to investing in the South African economy. Because something is going to go wrong tomorrow. After all, we are an African country. That’s the argument. It’s more than policy uncertainty. It’s that we are an African country. If you look at the history of the continent, look at what’s happened. That was the argument. Military coups elsewhere, and here we had a smooth transition.
“To go from a white minority that was very oppressive to a black government and a black majority that’s very forgiving. How long will that last? It was that kind of question from some investors.
“The incentive to invest becomes reduced.”
He said he had met an American economist last year who’d won the Nobel prize in economics, who had raised the issue that South African banks appeared more risk averse than their counterparts in the US or EU.
“The South African banks, if you are asking them for a significant amount of credit to start a business, would almost need to be assured of 100% success before they lend you the money.”
The former president said that if it could be shown that this was the case, government should engage with the banks on why.
The next 25 years
Mbeki’s wish for the country’s next 25 years was for South Africa to learn from the first 25 to inform what it would do over the coming period, “which is going to be very different”.
“Why do we have so many millions of our people who are unemployable? They don’t have the skills that the modern economy and society needs. Let’s attend to this matter. We are not going to solve the problem of unemployment unless we attend to that matter. Why are we continuing to boast, as though it’s a great achievement, that we have so many people on social welfare? It’s not an achievement, it’s a failure … in the sense that if those people were working, they would not need those grants.
“In the next 25 years we ought to say we have radically reduced the numbers of people who are unemployable; we’ve radically reduced levels of inequality between black and white, men and women … all of those things.”