Our Mistake in post Apartheid South Africa – Jay Naidoo, Mandela’s Minister

Jay NaidooBy Adagbo Onoja

There is every justification for the African or the black man to be extra-ordinarily sensitive to politics and power in South Africa. South Africa is the best example of Amilcar Cabral’s argument that independence for an Africa nation must be a national liberation movement in power. The logic is that a national liberation movement in power is supposed to be root and branch critique of the sovereignty shy, corrupt, patrimonial and incompetent post colonial African state.

In other words, we were not expecting to hear stories of anyone smartly stabbing the revolution at the back through clever cliquism and use of governmental powers for clique advantage through betrayal, inordinate ambition for political office, the death of consensus, power as suppression of dissent and similar other anachronisms common with power across Africa, especially in countries where the struggle for independence was not through a national democratic revolution as in South Africa

The party, the programme, the ‘correct line’ and the collective as well as the painful experience of liberation struggle were to ensure this. More so that, unlike say Nigeria where the elite got independence on a platter of gold and, therefore, lack the ideological clarity and patriotic sense of leadership to give meaning to the nation state, the South African leadership to date has been made up of cadres who not only endured the pains of struggle but were systematically groomed by the system..

Whether we are talking of Mandela, Mbeki or Zuma, they all went into the struggle consciously and got the best leadership grooming. Mandela was groomed. Mbeki was trained as a guerilla fighter, intelligence officer, propagandist, diplomat and liberation economist. Jacob Zuma was, at one time, head of the ANC Intelligence, among others. There can be no better set of groomed leaders.

For these and other reasons, infractions such as the embarrassing Marikana massacre last August make people to hold their breadth. For, unlike in Zimbabwe, for example, where the military is reported to have said it would not salute anyone who did not fight the liberation war, black police were shooting black miners in South Africa. Was that the black man at it again or just another conflict management failure? What exactly could be going on? Is South Africa living up to the expectations or showing signs of plausible degeneration into a typical post colonial African state?

As the foundation General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Union, (COSATU), one of the pillars of the alliance that took over power from the Apartheid regime in 1994 and as Mandela’s minister in charge of the crucial Reconstruction and Development portfolio then, Comrade Jay Naidoo is in a position to comment on this and other questions on the eve of the second decade of the transition in South Africa. 

He was in Abuja recently and he did that. Before this evening, I had met Naidoo but not physically. Comrade John Odah who, until recently, was his counterpart in the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC), has a way of making one to read a particular book. Even when you reject his overtures to read such a book, he has a way of bringing you to it by reading to you circled portions of the book until you end up having basically read the book. So, by the time I met Naidoo, I had a fair idea of what he sees himself standing for, ideologically, courtesy of John Odah’s ‘book imperialism’.

Danlami Nmodu, Newsdiaryonline publisher and even Odah himself joined in the interview, all of us taking on Jay in the least comradely place– the foyer of an Abuja 5-star hotel, something Jay found a way of attacking in the course of the discussion I had requested basically to listen to a guardian of orthodoxy look back, ideologically.

It had been a very long day full of activities for Jay, including breaking breads at a dinner with some civil society leaders hosted by Odah. But even then, when this discussion kicked off very late into the night, there was still no dearth of enthusiasm or decline of alertness throughout the discussion. That’s probably one of the attributes acquired from being a cadre of the longest and most involving struggle against colonialism of a special type- Apartheid. The issue is not whether one agrees or does not agree with Naidoo’s complicated conception of the developmental state, his virtual autonomisation of the post colonial state relative to contemporary imperialism, his technological determinism, his traces of the tested activist’s ‘anti-intellectual’ sentiments and many more. The issue is his vibrancy as to be a critique of the common place African politician we come across every other day. Below is the outcome of the interview or discussion or whatever you call it with Naidoo who now sits on the chair of Geneva based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, aka GAIN.  

After about two decades of independence, can we say South Africa is performing to expectations or not?

Your question obviously has two sides. Let me begin with the success side of your question. I think the success is that, undoubtedly, 1994 was a political turning point. We were sitting on the verge of a racial civil war which no one could have won. The fact that we moved from an entrenched racist dispensation to a non racial democracy based on one person – one vote and abandoning any notions that the Apartheid government had of veto rights for whites is a major victory, not just for South Africa but for the world. That is something we would never, ever want to go back to. The second is that 19 years of democracy has delivered some gains to the population. Millions of houses have been built. There have been millions of people who now have access to water, housing, education. We have access to some form of social protection today that covers 15 million families. These are major advances we cannot get away from.

But has South Africa achieved everything we hoped for in 1994? No. Could we have done better? Absolutely, we could have done better. What could we have done better with the resources we had? This is where many of us are disappointed because we have not succeeded in dealing with the structural context of Apartheid which was exclusion. Today, we have a vast majority of young people coming out of 12 years of compulsory education, a very poor quality of education that they come out of schools with poor skills, have no jobs and are unlikely to have jobs in their life time. That is a major challenge for us.

The second is the level of inequality. Inequality has grown to a point that we are the second most unequal society in the world. And so, we should be disturbed because the economic strategy of Black Economic Empowerment has not changed the racial character of wealth and income in South Africa. It has definitely created an emerging middle class which is a black middle class but it has only made a small elite enormously wealthy, leaving a vast majority stranded. These are some of the big challenges.

The third is the way in which corruption has grown to where we are in danger of it becoming entrenched or endemic and this is against transparency and accountability as well as the notion of leadership with which we went into government in 1994. It was a notion that our mandate was to serve the people, not to serve ourselves.

Was it that the ANC could fight but did not prepare for power, complete with programs and models?

We had a program, the Reconstruction and Development program. It was about restructuring of the state to build development. It was about restructuring of the party to ensure that it met the needs of our people particularly the provision of water, sanitation, housing, education and health. It was about building the kind of public institutions that guarantee our human rights perspective. We had the type of institutional arrangement to guarantee the kind of democracy we wanted. We had a robust civil society to ensure it worked. The question is, what went wrong. One thing is that our notion was a mistake. When we went into government in 1994, we had this notion of a development state where the state would do everything. But, in the end, we demobilized our people. We made them passive bystanders in the development process because by that notion, we failed to build on the experience of our struggle. Our struggle was won not by any individual, not even extra-ordinary individuals like Nelson Mandela. It was won because the South African people stood up to say they had had enough of Apartheid and by those organisations on the ground that were able to organise the people to paralyse the Apartheid state and force it to negotiate. That was our experience. That was one fundamental mistake we made.

How did this happen?

By our understanding of the development state, we had the notion that a development state would be responsible for human well being and welfare of our people but we could not have the institutional capacity to meet the needs of our people. And so, we made the people bystanders. And this is an important point because we didn’t build on our experience in terms of an active citizenry. We have to understand that ultimately, real democracy based on transparency and accountability is sustained by building an active citizenry. A citizenry can only be active if they are aware of their rights, their functions as citizens and exercise their rights by the way they organise in challenging authority, whether that is in government, in business or even in civil society. That notion of active citizenry is a vital component of countervailing people in authority, including even the ones with the best of intentions.

‘Including even the ones with the best of intentions’! That’s a very interesting expression but why isn’t the developmental state in South Africa about intervening in production so as for the South African State to be able to give substance to democracy along the lines of the Reconstruction and Development program? Is the problem internal or external?

You don’t expect to reverse colonialism of 350 years under 20 years. So, we got a legacy of challenges to face and to reverse. You have to build institutional frameworks, you have to build the capacity of the society, you have to rebuild a lot of things. But, the point I am making is that, in terms of corruption, in terms of how institutions have been mismanaged, in terms of nepotism, these happened under our watch. When you are looking at incompetence, when you are looking at nepotism and cronyism, you cannot blame Apartheid for that. If you take energy crisis in our country today, it happened under our watch. Is the electricity company in South Africa building new power stations? Why is it not building? You cannot blame Apartheid for that. There are some things we cannot blame on the past but ourselves.

I do recognise that states in the world today are susceptible to pressures from vested interests which are global and international. The state is more accessible by vested interests. The state responds more to those who are wealthy. There is enormous concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Unless our people are equally organised, government will continue to respond more to the wealthy than to pressures from the majority. That’s the challenge of government. Even the economic orthodoxy that is driving us in a particular direction such as the replacement of Reconstruction and Development with the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan in 1996 is part of this. So, we are living in a global village but we still have to accept responsibility for the growing inequality in South Africa.

In other words, you are saying the ANC may be failing to be a counterpoise to other actors only because it chose to. How come is it making the choice this way because it is not supposed to be just another political party!

It is not the ANC. All of us who participated in 1994 have to accept responsibility today that inequality is growing in South   Africa. We have to accept responsibility for growing corruption

If you take a mathematical view of this problem, what percentage would you allocate to internal factors as against the external ones?

The global environment certainly has an impact on how South Africa develops. But I am arguing that that is not everything. South Africa is not a poor state. It is a rich state. We do not depend on anyone to balance our book. We don’t depend on some donor to give us money before we go about development. We can decide what to do with our budget. It is the largest budget in Africa. We cannot blame Apartheid, global capitalism or imperialism when we have powerful state organs in the economic sphere to be able to define our way. We have our hands on the state to be able to change direction. It is a choice that we made.

So, using South Africa as a case study, has the national democratic revolution run its course in Africa?

A lot of these are labels. I think what you need in Africa is real democracy. Real democracy is about responsibility, it is about the rights of the people, access to education, right of not only having your child in school but also that child getting quality education through proper teachers, libraries and proper infrastructure. Our fight today in South Africa is about the fight to do what we promised to do for our people in 1994, to deliver our people. It is about leaders who are there to serve the society rather than serving themselves. It is about acting against corruption in a very decisive way. It is about intervening in the economy in a way that creates jobs. It is about providing support to young people coming out of the universities. These are the things we need and they are very practical things. It is not an extra ordinary list of things that we can put under label of national democratic revolution.

Is it still the case that Fanon has said everything there is to be said about the African national ruling elite in the light of the difficulties in providing these very practical things even by the South African State?

Yea but let’s be honest. Which countries today, beyond the social democracies in the Scandinavia, can claim to have created society that is stable, just and fair or based on social inclusion? The United States of America which is seen as pre-eminent in democracy is one of the most unequal societies in the world with 50 million excluded from medical health care and living in poverty. For me, what Fanon raised which is really true and which we need to pay attention to is the issue of the leadership we deserve. What is the way in which one can go that we would best achieve the power of the people to hold our leaders to account and how do we do it in a world where increasingly political leaders are more answerable to vested economic interests than they are to the citizens. How do we create power among the citizens? What are the tools they need?

And so, the challenge that we face today which Fanon wrote about is about how to create power among ordinary people. Technology is fundamentally changing the world we live in compared to the one Fanon lived in. How is technology today going to make sure that people are empowered? I am very positive that many people in Africa are taking advantage of the technology to hold leaders accountable. For example, the way Wikileaks is able to exercise powerful influence on governments and the kind of thing you are doing, (referring to Newsdiaryonline publisher) with an outreach to millions of readers out there. That’s the way in which we would win the battle. It is not about sitting in the foyer of Hilton talking about national democratic revolution.

But your reference to former Brazilian president Lula in your book does not support what you are saying. There, you isolated him as someone who was basically a product of the principles of his ideological and organisational politics.

Sure! People like that are rare occurrences in the history of humanity. How many times do you have a Mandela, a Mahatma Ghandi or a Nasser or an Nkrumah or Lumumba or a Malcolm X? How many of them do you have today? In fact today, our mistake is to believe there are some messiahs who will come and deliver us. Our fundamental mistake today in South Africa is to believe someone like Mandela will come back. In fact, every one of us should be a Mandela. My view is that we cannot put our hopes in one individual. Because that individual comes once in 100 years!

Jay NaidooNo. I think the point about the question on Lula is that even when you have objective conditions for change but which is not matched by such individuals, the mismatch can mar the leap forward. I mean, in a country like Nigeria now where things have gone so bad that people go to thank a governor or local council chairman for paying salaries, how can you expect change without a charismatic and noble individual with moral authority to be listened to? It is so peculiar that even the pressure from below that you talked about must be fired by those that people will listen to. So, it is not really infatuation with messianism.

It takes a few committed individuals to start something working. Yes, extra-ordinary leaders like Steve Biko and all the others. But I feel today that politics is dominated by big parties where these individuals are. And if we put all our faith in party politics, then we would never be able to match the money that your big conglomerates and multinationals are able to muster and put into campaign as vested interests. So, we have got to find a way to put some tools in the hands of ordinary people using modern technology that gives them power to deal with their own bread and butter issues. And that is by keeping the local government councils under collective pressure to make sure there is running water, to hold these people accountable. My experience in South Africa is that we were individual leaders who could not have achieved the transition without the roots. It’s only when we got to the mass groups that had layers and layers of leadership that we were able to challenge authority and hold them to account. An individual worker is powerless no matter how clever he is. It is only the aggregates of power that gives them the platform to negotiate powerfully and today, we need the same thing. Power must flow from below. It cannot be the party because the party wants to win elections, they want to stay in power.

Would you say that your initial apprehension that the trade union could become a conveyor belt of the party has materialised? Has COSATU become a conveyor belt of the ANC?

The fact of the matter is that trade unions are not political parties. We do not recruit workers on the basis of party affiliation or politics. But that doesn’t make a trade union organisation apolitical. It has political aspirations. So, we had a fight to fight that was inextricably linked between unionism and politics. In a sense, we had to find the type of political organisation that would champion the rights of workers. In the South African context, the organisation with the track record, leadership and principles that really supported the union movement was the ANC. That’s why it was a natural alliance between COSATU and the ANC. But the alliance was not based on some vague concept of solidarity. It was based on concrete objectives and those objectives were what were contained in the Reconstruction and Development program.

Let me say that the union has won many more benefits compared to our counterparts in other African countries. We have written the right to strike into the constitution. We have various other rights written in the constitution that have curtailed the power of employers. We have won various rights because we had an alliance and voted in a party that supported rights of workers. But the question we ask ourselves today is, what is outstanding and why?  Fighting corruption to a standstill, guarantee of employment and reducing inequality are all outstanding fundamental issues. The question that is undergoing pretty tough interrogation now is the strategies of achieving the breakthrough in strategy.

Going through your biography, ‘Fighting For Social Justice’, one of your agenda as General Secretary of COSATU was the autonomy of labour in terms of accountability to workers. In the light of fall outs and other squabbles after you left, have you any new reflections on union involvement in alliance?

As we all know, an alliance has very specific objectives. It is not an alliance that should exist irrespective of the outcomes. I am not so sentimental about it. An alliance is there to produce certain objectives dear to the interests of the forces that constitute the alliance. If the current COSATU leaders feel it is not producing results, they are free to review it. The second thing is that there is no political party in the world that doesn’t aspire to control the trade unions or any strong organ of society. Name any political party that is averse to controlling any powerful organ of society. The nature of politics is that you want everyone to comply with you and the decisions you take. That’s the nature of government. And so, we would be naïve to believe the trade unions would not have to fight for its space or that the political party will not try to put everyone in its place with the enormous resources they have. Which means it requires trade unions to be vigilant. It is not trade union leadership but the trade union membership so that they can hold their own leaders accountable. That’s the lesson we often forget, believing that because we are in an alliance, everyone is on the same page. We are not on a same page. Even when you have an alliance, there are certain things that you will disagree and if you can’t disagree in an alliance, then it is no alliance because an alliance is a union of independent actors on agreed program but who can disagree. If there is no contradictions as to often lead to disagreement, then why not become one organisation because then, it is no longer an alliance? If the outcome is not there, then why do you have alliance? If there is no contradiction, why can’t you be one organisation?

There are those who think that part of the current problems of trade unionism in South Africa has to do with the drafting of yourself and 19 most experienced cadres from union leadership into a parliamentary list of the ANC at the beginning. What is your view on this?

The question should be whether the decision was correct that COSATU, because no one drafted us other than COSATU, sent its cadres to the party. Was it the right decision because, once you went into the parliament, we became politicians and yet we had our historical group, the movement. This is the question because we decided that. ANC didn’t decide, much less draft us. It then means the worry should have been whether it is a relationship of contradiction between government and trade unionism. And I would say there is always a big contradiction between any government and trade unionism. But the issue is that, in an alliance, there are structures to deal with issues over which there are agreements. So, in our own case, the important question is what was the ability of the ANC-COSATU alliance to resolve any deep contradiction? I looked at how a particular social democratic party operated an alliance with a trade union in a Scandinavian country. There were institutional structures to deal with it which never materialised in the case of South   Africa.   

What is your assessment of the role of civil society in post Apartheid South Africa? This question is informed by the assumption that the pre and the post Apartheid civil society are poles apart, that a more vibrant post Apartheid civil society could have helped matters.

Civil society in post 1994 has been a case of a dilemma because, like the people, the civil society was also demobilized by our arrogance, including myself, about the development state. It was like, we now have a development state, why do we need civil society or NGOs? So, a lot of NGOs disappeared or went into specific, single issue services. So, post Apartheid civil society has been incredibly weak. A lot of it became single issue focused  – HIV, malaria or child mortality contrary to the tradition of broad political approach within which we used to have specific campaigns on human rights, women’s rights, civic rights and so on.

So, we are seeking a re-emergence of a new civil society, a new movement. The civil society has lost the narrative in Africa. It has no narrative that can inspire people politically. It requires a new narrative, a new way of how we can connect with the grass roots rather than just operating in the type of professionalism that dominates and civil society surviving on trying to raise money from donors. Today, someone in the civil society wants to have money, wants to be paid proper salary. I am not saying this shouldn’t happen but not at the expense of the passion for solidarity and social justice. We need to go back to what happened in the late 1970s. We never had the money, we never had the resources. We only knew what was right, what was justice and we were prepared to die for these values. That’s what we need to do or we remain the outreach or outsourced sort of operators for big philanthropists and businesses of the world.

In the later part of your ministerial tour of duty as Communications Minister under Mandela when new telecommunications were on the rise in Africa, you had an African road show. A decade or so later, what’s your assessment of the situation?

I think one of the most outstanding things that have happened is the revolution in telecommunication. We are the fastest growing market in the world – 600 million mobile telephone users in Africa. We were able to insist on the most advanced technology in this regard unlike other parts of the world. The question is what is the application of that technology in Africa? It could be the backbone of the revolution about deepening democracy because almost everyone has a phone, a camera and that makes everyone a citizen reporter who can expose corruption. It makes everyone has the power to tell a story. The technology is not an end in itself but it gives us the power of deepening democracy when the parents, students and teachers can call those officials responsible for depleting state resources and ask them, where is the money voted for running schools, for buying textbooks, for the desks. Or, when growers can cut off the middlemen from bargaining the price of their crops.

We have just had 8 years of Lula as leader of the workers’ party in Brazil. He left power with over 80% rating and beside him, many other Latin American countries are in the hands of left governments. This is far from the case in Africa although both Africa and Latin America are in the same boat. Why is this the case?

Lula da Silva of Brazil happens to be one of the extra-ordinary leaders with a vision of social solidarity. But he was also a pragmatist. You ask Lula today what is his ideology, he will tell you he was elected to represent the people and he did just that. He doesn’t like to be put in any box. I had many discussions with him and I can attest to that. Nonetheless, he is a progressive. In fact, it is rare to find the leader that remains true to what he or she represented before coming to power. He did this with extra-ordinary results. Lula did extra-ordinary works because of his integrity and passion. His most important agenda was to put food on the table and all his policies were to ensure this. He represents a progressive way of thinking and operating government.

When you take an aggregate view of the transition turbulence in South Africa, the democratic combustion in North Africa, the legacy of violence in West Africa and emerging tradition of violent elections especially in the Eastern end of our continent, do you link the scenario to anything like the demise of the old order and the contradictory birth of a new one, not only for us but also the global totality?

I think the world is in ferment. I think the world is in search of a new narrative, of meaning. I think the world is in decay. Actually, the old order is in decay but there is no blueprint out there and I don’t think a blueprint can be shaped by intellectuals speculating it out. It is when you have taken the voices of the ordinary people in all the villages, among farmers, trade unions, unemployed youth and we build something that we all own or of the world we all want. If we leave the world as it is currently structured, we are all going to be destroyed, we in Africa who are much poorer, especially as it concerns climate change if what I saw in Lagos is anything to go by.

Onoja, a columnist with Abuja based Blueprint is reachable via [email protected]

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