Interview: Roelf Meyer

Roelf Meyer, a white man in an African party, campaigning in Magoda, Richmond, talks about why the UDM must preach tolerance.

When you campaigned before as the rising star of the National Party you had behind you the power and resources of the ruling party. Now as deputy leader of the United Democratic Movement you are in the toughest position of any politician fighting this election. Not only do you have no state funding but also there has been violence between the ANC and the UDM. It is an extraordinary change around.
It is but I had worked out in my own mind the change I was going to make in my life long before I made it. There were two dimensions to it. First, you have to realise that the NP had come to an end in 1994. History is not necessarily a tidy thing but in practice it was all over then and it was time to make a move in a new direction. It was clear that there had to be a complete restructuring of the party system and this would entail a new Opposition. I said so publicly at the time and began psychologically to prepare myself for that new phase. The second dimension came with my voluntary resignation from the Cabinet in February 1996 — well ahead of the NP’s withdrawal from the government of national unity — to become the full-time secretary-general of the NP. I had come to the conclusion that it was more important to try to change and reform the NP than it was to sit in the Cabinet. Until then I had been part of the transformation process. I had achieved what I had wanted within that process and it was simply more important to get on with the new move. I still think it was a terrible mistake that the NP withdrew from the government because that meant it lost all potential to remain part of the transformation of South Africa. For myself everything has been a straight-line development from April 1994. I knew then that I had to move in the direction that I have taken and I must say I’m thoroughly enjoying being a grassroots politician.

What do you mean when you say "the NP came to an end in 1994"?
Afrikaner nationalism had come to an end as the dominating force in our national life — just as African nationalism will have to come to an end and for the same reasons. Both the ANC and the NP were established as the result of and as a response to the 1910 constitution which created the Union of South Africa. The ANC was founded in 1912 to fight against the exclusion of Africans from political rights in the Union and the NP was founded in 1914 to express Afrikaner resistance to the colonial domination of the Union. The reaction of these two groups to that constitution was to dominate South African history right down the century. But 1994 brought that period to a close, for the new constitution is the first real change from the 1910 constitution and thus the political landscape has to change again. We now have a new and universally inclusive political order and the parties that were borne in response to an old order will have to change.

There are clearly many parallels between African and Afrikaner nationalism, in which case we could be in for several decades of ANC rule.
We certainly don’t want to see African nationalism dominate the stage for that long. But if we leave it to the DP and the NNP then it cannot be stopped. All that they do is to remind the ANC and Africans in general of what white preferences were and why they were so opposed to them. The ANC will always have the upper hand over those parties, so what you have to have is a new political formation like the UDM which is on the same playing field as the ANC. That represents the only way ahead to a proper multiparty democracy that it is our job to build.

The irony is that throughout the transformation you were seen as the most conciliatory figure and were even invited to join the ANC. Now you are in a party that the ANC sees as its most bitter competitor.
I wasn’t just invited to join the ANC. The Soweto branch of the ANC actually proposed me for their list in 1994 but I was always against joining the ANC — that would never have helped to build multiparty democracy, it would have simply consolidated the hold of a hegemonic party. We must have real political competition and break the mould of the dominant party state which existed under NP rule and exists now under the ANC. But I have retained very friendly personal relations with all the ANC guys. We might fight in the political arena but from President Mandela on down I have excellent relations with all of them. The other day I had a debate at Wits with the communist party leader, Charles Nqakula and we were able to joke together before and after it. And, of course, I’m still in touch with Cyril Ramaphosa.

Many people in all racial groups would like to see Ramaphosa return to politics.
I’m asked all the time if I can’t get him to join the UDM. But that is simply not on. I’ve never even raised the question with him.

It is widely assumed that the ANC was ultimately responsible for the murder of your colleague Sifiso Nkabinde. It must be pretty difficult to maintain friendly relationships with the ANC after that.
It’s part of building multiparty democracy to maintain good personal relationships across the party divide and to conduct politics in a civilised and gentlemanly manner. The alternative is what you see in countries such as Angola where both sides simply want to wipe out their opponents. We have to preach tolerance and we have to practice it. I was in Richmond this week and that was the message I took to our people there. Whatever their frustrations about having lost Nkabinde and the lack of progress of the inquiry into his assassination, it is still right for us to be tolerant.

You sound like a missionary. A lot of liberals and radicals have owed a great deal to the missionary tradition. Even people like Alan Paton and Bram Fischer were missionaries of a kind.
There is something very deep in the Afrikaner psyche that was touched by the missionary ideal. We were all brought up on it to some extent. Certainly if I had taken a "rational" decision when I left the NP in 1997 I would have committed myself to another career. It would have been financially better for me and my family. But I get a hell of a kick, a really deep satisfaction when I go out to townships and squatter camps. It is what drives me along more than anything else, feeling part of that broad inclusive South Africa rather than of the small segregated part I used to belong to. I have achieved now the maximum of what any white politician of my generation and peer group can achieve in that direction. My career reached its peak during the constitutional negotiations but this continues that work of transformation; it fills it out.

What are your ambitions now?
Well, it changes as you know. When you are young then ambition is dominant but now I’m a veteran of some twenty years in politics and I have no ambitions of a personal kind — there is no particular meaning for me in being an MP again. I realised early on that there was no real meaning to my being the crown prince of the NP because history would not provide a basis for me to become president or prime minister. In that sense ambition for myself simply ceased to be part of my framework. Now my ambition is simply to make the UDM succeed because that will be the best thing for the country. But I’d like at least one more career, maybe two.

Isn’t there now an inevitable confluence towards some sort of united liberal opposition as the alternative to ANC rule? All that opposition voters really want is to be treated on their individual merits in a meritocratic society. Somewhat to their surprise they find that they have all become liberals.
There is something in what you say but I think that you have to read the UDM manifesto. We have set an entirely new agenda in a very short space of time. If you have a look at the ANC manifesto it is a complete joke. There is nothing in it at all. There is no reference to Gear in the manifesto, no mention of whether it will be continued or not. In effect, Thabo is asking for carte blanche. But what is needed are real practical solutions to problems. For example, we have put forward the idea of a new ministry of civil order as a way of bringing together all the forces necessary to combat crime. I hear from government departments that in effect we have stolen their thunder since they were already talking about this. We are not concerned to take up reactive positions to the RDP or Gear; we want to come up with real concrete solutions. I think that the real confluence will have to come around an agenda such as the one that the UDM has set.

But if we have another five years of a declining Rand, rising unemployment and falling per capita incomes, we could face a virtual collapse of civil order.
I agree: the scenario ahead is absolutely catastrophic. Thabo is a gentleman and I can get on well with him but he is not going to be able to keep it all together. The challenge will simply be too much for him. He will give in to pressures that Mandela would have withstood. There is no reason to believe that things will go better in the next five years than they have in the last. That is why there is such an urgent need for an Opposition to keep the government on its toes.

In practical terms, what does that mean?
Look at what was done about the so-called poor white problem in the 1930s. There were huge government initiatives: why not the same now? If you take all the rivers that flow out to the East Coast you’ll find there are no dams or reservoirs on them. Why not have a huge program of reservoir and dam building? It would provide work and develop enterprises and agriculture. You could get foreign as well as domestic investment for that too. We need is a New Deal of Rooseveltian proportions.

But look at the Independent Development Trust. It was the only body able to deliver real change to rural people and it has been destroyed by affirmative action and political appointments. Any such initiatives as your New Deal would be subject to the same forces.
We will pass through that era. We need a new culture and a new approach and the best person to say all of this is Bantu Holomisa. Tony Leon and Marthinus Van Schalkwyk can never do it but Bantu can. If he stands up and denounces the sort of "jobs for the boys" policy which ruins organisations such as the IDT then he has to be listened to, and he knows what he is talking about. What we need is a culture of empowerment, not one of entitlement.

Under apartheid we all spent a lot of time waiting for the split in the NP that had to happen before things could change. Aren’t we now in the same position with the ANC, waiting for a split that could take an age.
Neither the Progressive Party nor the United Party ever provided the sort of home that NP defectors wanted. That is the point about the UDM. We can provide a real alternative home for those who become disillusioned with the ANC. Most of our supporters are ex-ANC and they can all easily call on other people who are still in the ANC, get them to come to meetings, get them to join us. The NNP and the DP can’t do this. I find that even though I’m white I can now hold meetings without Bantu that project that alternative.

But the very fact that you can pull support away from the ANC means that they will fight you most bitterly.
Well, there won’t be any overnight split in the ANC but what we have to do is to set an example that one can be competitive but also gentlemanly and tolerant. And the UDM has set a good example. After Nkabinde’s assassination Bantu went to Richmond immediately and preached calm and tolerance. We did not want revenge. If we had preached revenge we could have had a big war going in KwaZulu-Natal today but we cooled it all down. It is not a matter of turning the other cheek, just of making the ballot box the focus of your frustrations.

You talk over and over again about the pleasure you get from being with township crowds.
Yes, but I’m afraid I’m still very weak in African languages — I usually speak in English. But the beautiful thing about the UDM is that we use all the languages and have interpreters. Everyone seems happy about that. When I campaign in the Northern Province we often use five languages in the course of a day and it is no problem.

You say you are now able to go into townships and campaign on your own without Bantu Holomisa?
I was by myself in Magoda township in Richmond earlier this week — the community had asked me to come. It was the biggest meeting we’ve had there since Nkabinde’s funeral; 2,000 or 3,000 people turned up, with people streaming in from neighbouring villages. I started off by saying that originally I’d only visited such places alongside Bantu and that I’d wondered whether would be acceptable on my own. They all thought this was a great joke and there was a lot of laughter. It doesn’t matter now that Nkabinde or Bantu aren’t there with me, these people will vote for the UDM as a party.

How well is the UDM going to do?
The problem is money. It makes me heartsore when I see all the posters going up from all the other parties and knowing that we simply don’t have the money to do the same. I suppose in the end it will be money that makes the difference and it makes me sick to see businessmen putting their money in all the wrong directions. But for that I think we could have reached 20 per cent in this election. As it is we’ll still get 10 per cent and could well be the second biggest party but it’s a dreadful pity that we can’t maximise our full potential yet.