Interview: Joe Seremane

As a black man in a predominantly white party, Joe Seremane says he is often accused of being a sell-out.

As a black man in a predominantly white party, Joe Seremane says he is often accused of being a sell-out

You are number two on the DP national list in the North West. How far back does your political career go?
I was originally in the ANC Youth League, then joined the PAC as a teenager at the time of Sharpeville. All of us young guys felt that the ANC was too broad a church and that it was basically too moderate. It is quite funny for me campaigning now under the slogan of "Fight back" because that’s precisely what we wanted to do in 1961 after Sharpeville. But the meaning is not the same. When I said "fight back" then I meant that we should take up the armed struggle. Later on, I realised that had been a complete mistake.
When I was on Robben Island I found that the ANC, PAC and other freedom fighters there were all at one another’s throats — there was endless backbiting, mud-slinging and back-stabbing. I hated it and wanted nothing to do with it. After all those of us who had joined the PAC did so because we were proud to be black.

But on Robben Island you could see blacks not even respecting the humanity of other blacks. That really made me think. In the end you have to accept the humanity of all other people and you’ve got to try not to hate people. The ANC killed my brother in Quatro but I don’t hate even the ANC. I know that there are good people and bad people in the ANC just as there are good and bad blacks and good and bad whites and no doubt good and bad people in the DP. One has to accept other people’s humanity and if you do then you really shouldn’t want to kill anybody. But if life has any meaning it’s got to be that all of us seek our fulfilment as individuals and respect other individuals. It’s because of the DP’s respect for individual rights that I’m in this party.

When did you decide that?
Quite a long time ago. In 1994 I felt that it was vital that the ANC should win the elections because it represented blacks, represented the voiceless if you like. But even at that time I thought hard about the fact that history has shown us that all power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It was obvious even then that if the ANC won by a large margin there was going to be an urgent need for a strong and vigorous opposition. Despite my old PAC sympathies I felt that the DP was likely to be the best party at that, not the PAC. Intellectually I came to my conclusions about the DP in 1994.

Don’t you come under a lot of pressure and criticism now from other blacks about being a black in the DP?
I’m not the only one you know! To be sure there are more whites than blacks in the DP but those of us who are black often get together and encourage one another. In any case I am not in the DP because of the colour of people’s skins. I believe in its principles and its ideas. Even if Tony Leon defected to the ANC tomorrow I would stay in the DP because it is the right place for someone who believes what I do. Oh yes, you get told that you’re a sell-out, that you’re stubborn or reckless, things like that. That’s just a form of persecution and I’m not put off by that. I have been persecuted one way or the other for most of my life. When I was a boy I was fearfully victimised by other Tswana children because my father was a Shona. I was persecuted by my own people. Later on I was persecuted by the security police and others. That sort of thing has never prevented me from doing what I think is right. Of course there is a price to pay. If you decide to live with the truth then you have to accept that truth has a half brother or half sister whose name is loneliness. And it can sometimes be lonely. We all want to love and be loved for doing the right thing, not for doing the wrong thing - but things can’t always be that easy.

How did the defection of Dr Bukelwa Mbulawa from the DP to the ANC affect you?
Well, I didn’t know her all that well but I liked her and thought she was a very nice person. She came to see me that morning and told me that she had decided to resign from the DP. What was really upsetting her was that she couldn’t stand all the people that she described as right-wing Afrikaners joining the party. I said to her: "Look, Bukelwa it isn’t rational for us to want other people to see the light and join us and then to be upset when they do see the light and join us." After all, the DP hadn’t changed its policies or principles. It was the other people who had changed. But she couldn’t listen to this. Naturally I was very sorry that she was leaving and after a while I rang her up again to say: "Let’s talk some more". But she told me that she was joining the ANC." Then I said: "Oh well then, there is no point in talking." Until then I had no idea that that’s what she was thinking about.

In the opinion surveys one can see a sizeable number of educated, middle-class blacks who clearly have DP-ish opinions but mainly these people are not going to vote at all.
That’s a striking phenomenon. I think it’s very foolish, but many of them feel that if they can’t vote for the ANC then they should abstain. They’ll get over it. The DP really is the party of the future in the sense that those people will gradually come over to it as they become more rational about these choices. Of course, some Africans feel very intimidated. Sometimes I have gone up to some of them with a DP leaflet and they are clearly frightened of the very idea of taking one as if it might get them into trouble. On the other hand, I see other young blacks who are very enthusiastic about Tony Leon and are keen to greet him. But in general we are still coming out of apartheid era politics and it will take a little time for people to put aside some of these old fears. But, of course, that also means that the DP needs to be transformed so that blacks feel it belongs to them as well.

What do you say to blacks who tell you "you’re a sell-out being in the DP because the DP is too white"?
I tell them that that is just racism. If Alec Erwin or Gill Marcus joins the ANC, do whites call them sell-outs? No, they don’t — and quite right too. It is everyone’s individual right to join any party of their choice. But I also tell them that racism too has a twin brother and it’s called tribalism. If you’re going to try to exercise pressure on people to stay within racial groups, pretty quickly it means the same thing about tribal groups.

Is tribalism still a force?
Yes, very much so. The truth is that many ordinary black people do perceive the ANC government as essentially the affair of the Xhosa or Nguni elite. There are a lot of people who are North or South Sothos or Tswanas or Vendas who feel that way. And indeed there is some element of truth in what they say. Naturally I’m called a Tswana tribalist for saying such things which is pretty ironic since I used to be persecuted by Tswanas for having a Shona father! But I only mention these things because we need to move away from tribalism just as much as to move away from racism. We just have to get used to treating everyone as individuals.

Why do you think there is this racial polarisation?
Well, it’s what the government falls back upon when it can’t boast too much about delivery. But it is also true that people are simply not out of their apartheid mindset yet. After all, now that apartheid oppression is gone, what exactly is one supposed to be selling out to? Usually the idea is that somehow one is betraying the idea of what an African is or should be. But now at last Africans can be what they want, can be individuals. There are all sorts of things that happen now which if you criticise them, they call you a sell-out although really they are nothing to do with being an African. For example, in Hillbrow recently I saw one African relieve himself inside a lift. When I objected strongly to this sort of behaviour I was told I was a sell-out as if that sort of behaviour was naturally African. But it’s not. Africans never used to behave like that and we certainly have no tradition of doing so. It’s as if we have to take the stereotypes of Africans held by the most racist whites of yesterday and then defend those stereotypes. It’s ridiculous.

You were often a bitter critic of Lucas Mangope in the past when you were exiled in Bophutatswana, but he seems to be running quite strongly in the North West.
That’s true. The ANC have handed him votes on a plate by the way they have abused people who live in the old Bophutatswana as "Bantustan fools", and so forth. They have also messed up those few things that Mangope did well. That attitude of denouncing homeland people is intolerable. None of those people wanted to be put in a homeland and while Bophutatswana was an artificial creation so was Soweto. There’s no reason why people in the ANC should look down on those who lived in "homelands". I think the ANC will still win the North West but I suspect Mangope is going to take quite a chunk of votes from them because of this foolish behaviour. And the playing field is hardly level. The DP went through all the legal requirements in Mmabatho and we were told that we could only put up 50 posters. The ANC hasn’t bothered with any of that and has thousands of posters up there. But our campaign is going well and we are going to do a lot better than in 1994.