Interview with Rhoda Kadalie, human-rights activist

'What we on the left have not learned is the need for the development of institutional opposition.'

You recently published an open letter to the minister of health that questioned whether she really believes "the rubbish" on Aids the government has been propagating and called on her to resign with dignity. What prompted you?
Simply the fact that people are dying daily in their hundreds and the minister of health, Dr Manto Tshabala-Msimang, has suspended her intellect to support President Mbeki's incomprehensible views on HIV/Aids, which he reiterated in Parliament on October 24. I find that quite shocking and irresponsible. In any civilised democracy, the public would have called for the President's head; that he is protected by his cabinet and party makes the mind boggle. This unscientific approach is not being taken on tuberculosis or pneumonia or any other disease. The world is incredulous about Mbeki's stance. People wonder how a modern president who studied abroad can have such a primitive understanding of the disease.

I despair about the failure to prioritise Aids. It stems from the refusal to recognise the rampant, uncontrolled sexuality of South African men in general, and black men in particular, which is the product of a deeply chauvinist, patriarchal culture. How else can we understand the typical responses of young males when encouraged to use condoms - "you can't make love in a raincoat" or "you can't enjoy sweets with wrappers on"? It is all about a lack of discipline and leaving women to take responsibility. Under apartheid we used to say that women carried a triple burden, because they were black, workers and women. In the face of the Aids epidemic they have been abandoned with the additional burdens of watching their children die or of dying knowing their children will be orphans.

We need leadership at the highest level to preach to young people that Aids is caused by irresponsible sexual behaviour and that if they don't change they are signing their own death warrants. Mbeki should look at the examples of President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and President Festus Mogae in Botswana, who are leading high-profile campaigns against the disease.

Why do so few people dare to criticise the government openly?
People have seen what happened to Helena Dolny at the Land Bank, Andrew Feinstein over parliament's arms probe, and many others; self-censorship has become the order of the day. The media and civic organisations are all guilty of this. There are the whites who feel guilty about the past and don't want to be seen to be criticising a black government. Others are too busy ingratiating themselves with government or don't want to jeopardise their chances of getting jobs or contracts and so on. ANC people will talk behind closed doors, but believe it is disloyal to speak out. Many of my former comrades have become loyal to a party rather than to principles of justice. It was often like that in the past too - for years we covered up the scandals surrounding Winnie Mandela. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. What it demonstrates is that apartheid worked: we have internalised the notion of victimhood so deeply that we can't criticise our own.

What are the implications of this failure to criticise for the consolidation of democracy?
Unfortunately it is true that those who have been oppressed make the worst democrats. There are recurring patterns in the behaviour of liberation parties - when they come to power they uphold the most undemocratic practices. You see the marginalisation of parliament and of opposition, intimidation of the press, women sent back to the kitchen, investment in the military instead of social development, the rapid growth of an elite, and the people increasingly resorting to the courts to get the rights the government doesn't deliver. The most recent, and best, example is Zimbabwe. Many of that country's problems are due to the fact that after independence the newspapers sold their souls to the devil in the name of the national interest. If the media, business and civil society all silence themselves, then there is no hope for us.

Is the ANC government bound to follow this pattern too?
Even though I have studied the post-liberation phenomenon as a feminist academic and understand it intellectually, I told myself it wouldn't happen here as easily. I thought we have many checks and balances, a fine Constitution, an independent judiciary, a potentially vibrant civil society and many varied people in politics, surely things will be different. But I'm afraid we are better at erecting a façade rather than an actual democracy, and behind the façade the rot is spreading.

The meeting in June between the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) and the government was so predictable. The government assumes that there is a "national interest" to which the media should ascribe and if white-owned newspapers are critical they must be racist. I heard an ANC member of parliament tell a group of international professionals recently that the South African media was experiencing "a golden age", when in fact they are spineless and busy censoring themselves.

I sent my open letter to the health minister to the Sunday Independent, which promised to print it in full. Instead it published a news story with quotes from it. When I protested to the editor, John Battersby, he mentioned that he had sent a copy to the president's office - which I presume had objected to it. He did publish it the following week though, as a letter to the editor.

Why did you complain to Business Day about its "constant negative portrayal" of Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon?
First, there is the perception that only a black can be a credible opposition leader. The other, more popular perception, is that Leon does not know his place. He is articulate, unapologetic, intelligent and fearless and hence a threat. For both reasons there is tendency to ridicule him in order to detract from what he says. I wrote to Business Day in August accusing it of doing this and of attacking the DA's racial composition instead of listening to its message. Leon, frankly, has made fewer gaffes than Mbeki and deserves to be treated equally. I argued that we must have a strong opposition in order to consolidate democracy. The job of a newspaper is to encourage a diversity of voices, not to be an instrument of the ruling party and openly push the government's agenda on the opposition. Business Day at least took me up on my objections and engaged in debate with me.

What do you think about the split up of the DA?
Like Helen Suzman, I always thought that this would be a precarious alliance, given the historical and cultural difference between the Democratic Party and the New National Party. At the same time, the amalgamation of all like-minded minority parties into a formidable opposition is what this country needs, especially against an all-powerful ruling party such as the ANC. The problems within minority parties, however, tend to turn around leadership battles, as demonstrated by Marthinus van Schalkwyk. He soon forgot that the DP had given him a lifeline to survive. He now presents himself as being pro-poor and pro-black, unlike the DP. What opportunism! All he is concerned about is a cushy job and his own survival. For that, he will betray his own constituency. The DP will be better off on its own. The party's commitment to constitutional democracy, human rights and the rule of law has always been its strength and on these merits alone it would have been able to muster a principled opposition. I'm afraid the saying "when you go to bed with dogs you stand up with fleas" is very appropriate in the context of the DA.

Will the electorate continue to vote the ANC a huge majority?
In private the ANC are very confident that they will be in power for at least 20 years and have no serious opposition. The voting profile of South Africans under the new dispensation has yet to be established, so one does not know. But in post-independent African countries liberation ruling parties stay on for a very long time. I think people who are disappointed with the ANC will increasingly abstain from voting instead of strengthening the opposition, which will be very bad for democracy. What we on the left have not learned is the need for the development of institutional opposition. A vote is not about a party, it is about good governance. If one party doesn't deliver, try another one. It is time that South Africans learned to vote against corruption and for good governance and effective delivery.

Would a leftwing breakaway from the ANC be a positive development?
Of course it would be a positive development. Many who are disillusioned with the ANC are looking for a home on the left and such a party would be a home to many of those who still vote for the ANC for purely sentimental and nostalgic reasons. Ideally, under such circumstances, I would like to see the DP turn itself into a truly social democratic force as a buffer between the socialist left and the right-of-centre ANC.

The government says that the aim of its social policies is "transformation". What do you understand by that word?
I hate the word "transformation". The government never spells out what is to be transformed into what. Like the words "empowerment" and "employment equity" very few people have thought about what they really mean. Trudy Thomas, the former health MEC in the Eastern Cape, wrote in the Mail & Guardian (September 21) that the Transkei, with its one in ten infant mortality rate, is poorer now than it was in 1994. If children's health services in the Eastern Cape are worse now than they were under apartheid then the word transformation does not apply.

In practice transformation is often used to mean affirmative action, especially appointing black people in the public service for its own sake. What is lacking is the appointment of suitably qualified blacks and women. As a result the government spent R2 billion on consultants last year trying to ensure delivery. I believe we must appoint competent blacks, women and disabled people on the basis of measurable skills - someone's potential is not enough. We can't put right the results of apartheid education overnight, so we have to choose wisely. If we think economic growth, productivity and development are essential for the country then we must be patient and make sacrifices on affirmative action. The alternative is to put black empowerment before everything else, regardless.

Black empowerment has certainly transformed a few people's fortunes.
I find the black empowerment business deals and the extent to which some individuals have enriched themselves quite sickening. I know that improving conditions for the majority of the population will take time, but I do expect symbolic gestures from those who have made it far too rapidly - like driving cheaper cars, or refusing a government pay rise. What happened to the struggle ethos of "living simply so that others can simply live"?

Your grandfather, Clements Kadalie, was the first black trade unionist and married a white woman. Was your background very political as a result?
My father never talks about Clements, I think he was disappointed in him as a father, though he sometimes tells me that I'm a chip off the old block because of my activism. My father was an evangelical minister in Cape Town - one of his parishes was District Six - and worked for the City Council. Because of his job we lived in a section of Mowbray that was exclusively white. We were the only coloured family there and were forced to leave after a minister in the Nationalist government noticed my brothers playing football in the street with some white boys. I remember how my mother cried the day the notice to quit arrived. We moved to Athlone on the Cape Flats just when I was doing matric. What struck me most was how barren it was after the grass and trees of Mowbray, and the long bus journey I now had to school. I'm so glad that my parents have been able to move back and reclaim some of the white area from which they were evicted!

When did you become a feminist?
My sister is 16 years younger than me, so I was brought up the only girl with seven brothers. It was very liberating. My parents were very conservative in most ways, but they never thought I should have less education because I was a girl. I went to a good school, Harold Cressy, and then in the early 1970s to the University of the Western Cape where I studied library science, anthropology and English - I was determined not to do nursing or social sciences like most of the other girls. My father said "only atheists do anthropology", but I loved it. The subject politicised me and it made sense of many of my own experiences. Later, as a young academic, I became profoundly involved in the social issues of the day on campus. The safety of women was a big issue for us. Some political activists were involved in cases of sexual harassment and even rape. I helped to get lights installed and went on to look systematically at all the ways women were discriminated against by university regulations - we won the right to maternity leave for staff when it was still very unusual, and got housing benefits paid to women as well as men. The university was one of the first in South Africa to adopt a policy on sexual harassment. When Jakes Gerwel became UWC vice chancellor in 1985 he asked me to form a women's commission. I introduced a women's studies programme and later started the Gender Studies Unit. I was an "activist academic"; you had to be at that time.

In 1994 you joined the Land Claims Commission. What was it like being part of the new government?
When I was appointed to the District Six land claims unit to deal with about 2,000 unprocessed claims I thought in my soul that this was the job for me. So many people I knew, including my own huge extended family, had been forcibly removed from District Six. I had a staff of nine all squashed into one temporary room and the promise of a budget of R1.7m. A year later not one cent of that budget was forthcoming. We had no money for pens, for the first six months we had no computers, and when they did arrive either had no software or were broken. I used my own contacts to get us some better office space and set about raising money. USAid helped me find the definitive computer program for land claims. Once we had that it meant we could simplify the process enormously. USAid also funded our community education project. We held many meetings on the Cape Flats explaining how to claim and recruiting more claimants. It was fantastic. Many people remembered my father. Then the LCC informed me that I was not allowed to raise money from sources outside government and demanded that I pay over the money I had raised into their central budget. I resigned soon afterwards, quite disgusted.

The District Six claims could have easily been resolved by now. I've never seen so much incompetence or waste of time and money. Efficiency in government requires senior managers to be in their offices, to answer the phone, to deal with the public honestly and to see that documents are followed up, filed and processed. It's as simple as that.

You were one of the first commissioners on the Human Rights Commission, but left in a blaze of publicity in 1997. What happened?
I was very excited and extremely flattered when President Mandela appointed me. I was the only commissioner to be regionally based and had responsibility for the Western Cape and Northern Cape. Given the legacy of the past, the HRC's mandate to protect, fulfil and promote human rights, was extremely challenging. I wanted to draw up case studies and get the HRC to pursue class actions. There were clear patterns - in the Northern Cape it was abuse of farm workers, in the Western Cape it was usually complaints about the public sector. We found many violations of the rights of school children that stemmed from simple ignorance of the rules - in one case a boy was expelled for tying his shoelaces in the wrong way. We had successes - we uncovered routine racism in the ambulance service after a man complained that an ambulance driver had refused to take his critically ill brother to hospital, because he was a "dom darkie". His apology made headlines and the ambulance personnel were given new training.

The Commission never followed through on many more of our investigations, however, which was very frustrating. Complaints were not filed and notices were not served on time. Helen Suzman and I had to argue for a year about why it was important to put a fax machine in the legal office. The CEO, Lousia Zondo, consistently made my requests for resources difficult - I think she thought I was an uppity coloured and certainly treated me that way. Commissioners spent far too much time abroad and paid consultants to do their work. Barney Pityana, the chairman, while he liked my work, failed to take my complaints seriously. Pityana lacks the leadership that is needed for an HRC to be independent of government and proactive in implementing its mandate. Many others agreed but they never criticised openly. Our gravy-train salaries silenced even those who felt unhappy with his leadership. Taxpayers are being cheated, I sincerely believe, because they don't get value for money from these commissions.

Is your current work running the Impumelelo Innovations Award Programme more satisfying?
As a political animal, who always passes up offers of corporate sector jobs, Impumelelo provides satisfaction for my activist side. It is part of an international scheme run by the Kennedy school of government at Harvard and financed by the Ford Foundation. In South Africa the programme rewards excellence and best practice for joint government/ NGO projects that focus on poverty reduction. The awards recognise front-line public officials - people who get round red tape, take risks and inspire others. They show what can be done. We have an award ceremony where we present a certificate and cheques totalling approximately R1 million to deserving innovative projects that improve the quality of life of the poor. The money has to be used to spread the word about the successful project. Not all emanate from government but are crucial partnerships with government. The Carpenters' Shop in Cape Town that provides training and employment for street people was the idea of St George's Cathedral and a businessman. The provincial department of social services now recognises this as a "pilot A project" - a best-practice model that can be reproduced in every other province.