Interview: Ben Ngubane

RW Johnson talks to Ben Ngubane about devolving power to the provinces and Inkatha’s relations with the ANC.

Although you're national chairman of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the party's leader in KwaZulu-Natal, you often sound as if you could be in the Democratic Party. Would you call yourself a liberal?
Yes, indeed. I come from that tradition. I went to a mission school, attended the University of Natal and was a keen member of Nusas, which was a magnificent liberal organisation. I've always been a strong Catholic and I would regard Archbishop Denis Hurley as the outstanding church leader of my time - brave, compassionate, unswervingly humane and liberal even under the greatest pressure. He never played to the gallery; a man of pure principle.

Did those such views mean you felt out of place when you were a minister in the national government?
No, not really. Most of government is trying to work out pragmatically what exactly you're going to do and then working equally pragmatically to implement it. To be sure, when Mrs Madikizela-Mandela was my junior minister we had differences of opinion and lifestyle, but even so we'd sit down and work things out. Being premier of KwaZulu-Natal is a far tougher and more wide-ranging job but actually the same applies. When you get down to it, government is - or ought to be - about delivery, about drawing up business plans and budgets. Party differences seldom give us any real difficulty.

Currently there's some talk of actually abolishing provincial government and yet at the same time many of the premiers want more power devolved to the provinces.
I'm very much one of the latter. But when we meet in the premiers' forum we all have similar concerns. It's more obvious all the time that the IFP was and is right to be federalist. It's particularly important that the provinces be given policing powers and we must also be allowed taxation powers. But our autonomy could be cut. Many ministers in the central government are way too interventionist: far too much of education is still nationally controlled, for example. Those ministers would like to cut our autonomy. But this will only happen if MECs don't do their jobs properly. At the moment I'd say it was a toss-up which way it will go.

Walter Felgate, interviewed in the January issue of Focus argued that the real crunch came at a lower level and that the IFP has an insuperable problem in the clash between preserving the powers of the traditional chieftaincy and the principle of elective democracy in local government.
Don't take Walter Felgate too seriously. He was always an impossibly difficult man to work with and I think he's really someone who can only see his own self-interest. It would be understandable that Walter should now be so embittered with the IFP if we had deliberately marginalised him, but it wasn't so. He ceased to play any role in the party simply because he was so ill. He now behaves as if that was somehow our fault, but his bitterness is contained within himself.

As for the chieftaincy, there Felgate is trying not to admit what he knows. He's worked in Maputaland, he's lived in old traditional Zululand, he knows how the chieftaincy works. You can't expect the elders in those areas to accept some young man elected just because a party put his name on a ticket. It doesn't work like that. The elders - and that means the community at large - are very slow to accept anyone. They want to know who you are, where you come from, who your family was and if they were respectable people. In those areas everything is still done with the chief - not just the allocation of land but settling disputes, getting married, everything. It's a way of life and the minister, Mohamed Valli Moosa, has been very foolish by trying to impose one man, one vote democracy there. He's paying no attention to the anthropology and sociology of the situation. Democracy in the countryside means respecting its lore, usage and custom, not flouting it. You have to be more gradualist.

We now have a situation where most of the Nguni traditional leaders right down the eastern seaboard are opposed to the ANC government. The Zulu ones always have been and now the chiefs in the Eastern Cape seem to be up in arms too.
It's very worrying. But I think Thabo Mbeki is sensitive to the problem. There is a real danger of the gulf between the chiefs and the government opening into one of total defiance. That has to be headed off. The White Paper on local government has to be reversed. Its recommendations for the countryside will be just as disastrous as its megacity plans for the urban areas. Again, it makes us feel that the IFP was right about all this in the constitutional negotiations. We said this situation could be avoided by asymmetrical federalism, that is by giving some provinces different powers from others, and you can't keep governing against the social structure. It's the same thing as ignoring the role of age in African society or of trying to carry out reform of the hostels without taking account of the extended family structure.

The original sin here was the ANC's refusal to make room for traditional African society within the liberation struggle. Inkatha contributed a great deal to that struggle but our role was denied and denigrated. Now that same sort of liberation struggle thinking is trying to ignore the social realities of African life. It won't work and it is deeply debilitating for our social structure. As it is, our social fabric is in tatters - look at the crime, the rape, the child abuse. We need to work with the grain, not increase the stress by working against it.

You feel government policy is working in the wrong direction?
Yes, in many areas it clearly is. I'm hoping Mbeki will really pull the country out of the mess it's in. The situation in higher education is particularly worrying: we can't allow the destruction of our centres of excellence in the name of transformation. And our labour legislation is a complete disaster. Of course it's important to protect those in work but there's no point in legislating in a way which actually destroys jobs. The problem here is a belief that you can simply make things the way you want by passing a law. You can't. Even America has not been able to prevent its blue-collar workers from having their real incomes cut. It has to happen because America's comparative advantage does not lie in its unskilled labour and such labour is cheaper elsewhere in the world. If America can't resist the logic of the market, then we certainly can't.

What we actually need is training, training and more training. Not just excellence in higher education but perhaps even more important, training for artisans, plumbers, mechanics and other intermediate skills. That's where we should be putting our effort, not in playing Canute with our labour laws.

Don't these differences make it hard to see the IFP getting together with the ANC? What are the prospects for a merger or a joint list in 1999?
There will be no merger and no joint list. The differences between us are too great, especially at grassroots level, and these differences have not really been addressed. I'm expecting a re-run of the 1994 election except I am hopeful that the IFP will do better in KwaZulu-Natal than last time. But the IFP-ANC talks are important: we must work together to lower tension and increase tolerance. This is essential not only for the sake of peace but in order to achieve the delivery of services and development at local level. But our relations will be badly damaged if the ANC tries to use Walter Felgate as a battering ram against us. Anyone is free to change party, of course. But our politics are so brazen and deadly. Felgate had an extremely privileged position within the IFP and to exploit that to try to hurt us will be to sabotage our attempt at better relations and thus our hopes of peace.

In our other publication, Briefing (February 1998) we related how you had prevented a provincial assembly debate on the question of the apparent involvement of high level politicians in the bank heists in KwaZulu-Natal. You said you did this to save money but there were many within your own caucus who thought this was going too far in sacrificing everything to the cause of better relations with the ANC.
I read that in Briefing. But the reason for postponing the debate really was financial. To reconvene the legislature for a special session would have been expensive. At the same time I was locked in crucial discussions in the national budget forum and in desperate negotiations with our bankers over the province's overdraft. If at that point I'd lashed out extra expenditure, no matter how slight, not to pass urgent legislation but simply to have a rancorous and probably inconclusive debate, the people I was dealing with would have thrown up their hands and said we weren't serious. But the legislature will reconvene soon and then the debate must take place. (Editor's note: It was held on March 19.) The questions raised about political involvement in the bank heists are extremely serious. There are doubtless many dark secrets there, which ought to come out. But not only about that matter.

How do you mean?
Look, we still haven't got to the bottom of the assassination campaign, which murdered some 400 IFP leaders. The TRC has obstinately refused to look into this, it's a disgrace. Without any doubt at all MK hit squads were roaming the province, running guns in from outside, and were conducting a large-scale strategy of targeted murders. The people who carried all that out are probably sitting in high positions today. Moreover, this was going on while the de Klerk government was in power. They knew what was happening and they covered it all up. The National Party and the ANC were in an effective partnership from 1990 on and one of the terms of the deal seems to have been that this murder campaign could be waged without hindrance. There may be even more dark secrets about that than there are in the bank heists affair.

How do you assess the political situation four years on from April 1994?
If I were in the ANC I think I would be somewhat panicky. They're closing ranks and not admitting it but actually none of them would ever have predicted then that four years later the Reconstruction and Development Programme would have failed, that the Masakhane campaign to get people to pay their rates would have failed, that unemployment would have risen, that so few houses would have been built and that there would be a textbooks crisis in the schools. The country as a whole simply hasn't got its act together and all of us who are in power must take some blame for that.

The IFP had 20 years in government before 1994 and we had a shrewd idea what was coming. Dr Buthelezi always made it clear that the government couldn't hope to do everything and all at once but the ANC were in no mood to listen. I don't think they even noticed the size of the national debt until after they got in. For our part, we decided we would support the RDP, the special presidential initiatives on health care for children and so on but we had few illusions. We desperately want the country to succeed but this is going to mean admitting to what has happened and changing policy in a number of areas.

Are you the next IFP leader?
In Zulu culture that's a deadly question. Dr Buthelezi is still extremely healthy and fit and he has many years of active politics left in him. Speculation about the succession is simply foolish. I have my hands more than full as premier and party leader here. The IFP made a bit of a mess of the local elections in KwaZulu-Natal and I am deeply conscious of my responsibility to deliver a resounding IFP victory there in 1999.