Interview with Peter Mokaba

From radical demagogue to non-racial democrat, Mokaba emerges as a champion of minority representation. By Patrick Laurence.

For a man who in the early nineties won popular notoriety in the white community by leading African National Congress rallies in the chant: "Kill the boer, Kill the farmer", Peter Mokaba has a surprising priority in the pending campaign for the 2004 general election.

It is to "win over" whites and boost the still meagre number of whites who support the ANC.

If Mokaba's vigorous dancing on the ANC platforms at election meetings in the months before the watershed 1994 election made him a political ogre in the eyes of most whites, he now talks the language of the inclusive tradition of black nationalism. Instead of chanting a slogan that rivalled the Pan Africanist Congress cry of "One settler, one bullet" in inciting black people to racial hatred, he now lauds the virtues of non-racial democracy and racial partnership.

As the ANC head of elections, his focus is the whole electorate, not just the black component of it, though the majority black community is, of course, of crucial importance to the ANC. To target whites does not imply neglecting blacks.

He believes that farmers are beginning to see the attractions of what he terms "non-racial power", as distinct from "apartheid power". "(White) farmers are now working very closely with me". They even include, he asserts, men who, under the now imprisoned leader of Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, Eugene Terre'blanche, smashed through the glass doors of the venue of the Codesa settlement talks in mid-1993 to disrupt negotiations there.

Noting that 2002 had been declared the "Year of the Volunteer" by the ANC, he says of men (and presumably women) who were once considered diehard Afrikaner nationalists: "They are now working closely with me quite openly. They realise there is nothing to fear. I was very pleased to see them". He does not identify any of the former right-wing zealots who, by his account, have turned full circle in just under a decade. Presumably he thinks it is for them to declare themselves, not for him to publicly name them.

Mokaba, who received messages of goodwill from one or two of the security police officers who detained him in the eighties during his serious illness in 2000, cites the continued existence of poverty in South Africa as a reason for the ANC's success in recruiting white farmers to its ranks. They realise that the large number of mainly black poor people is not just a threat to the emerging and (in some cases, conspicuously rich) elite, he states.
He quotes words that President Thabo Mbeki has used in the past. "As long as poverty exists, it is a threat to all. If the poor rise, it will be against all of us".

But he is not solely concerned with seeking to win recruits in those spheres of society where the ANC is weakest. He sees one of his primary tasks in the months ahead as ensuring that ANC representatives, from national levels of power downwards, are more responsive to the needs of their (mainly black) constituents. Linked to that objective is a related aim: making ANC voters more aware of whom their representatives are. He wants to see a more viable, on-going relationship between the ANC representatives and the people who elected them.

"Participatory democracy still needs to be promoted," he says. "It is not enough to vote a representative of the ANC into power and relax. There is the challenge of educating people about partnership. We must ensure that they work together continually and that they realise that by-elections are as important as national elections".

A task team, headed by political analyst and financial entrepreneur Fredrik van Zyl Slabbert, has been appointed to consider whether the present electoral system should be reformed. The appointment comes in response to criticism of the present party list proportional representation system. Two oft-cited deficiencies of the system are, firstly, that it places too much power in the hands of party bosses and, secondly, that it makes elected representatives too remote from the voters. These two factors are inter-related: because representatives are beholden to the party barons for their places on the list they are less disposed to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of ordinary voters who voted for the party they represent. The absence at provincial and national level of demarcated constituencies aggravates the problem.

Mokaba, however, is not one of those who thinks a new system is required. While he is worried that "many of our people do not know who represents them", even at local level, he is opposed to any move towards a winner-take-all constituency based system. Stressing the need to ensure minority representation in South Africa, he says of the winner-take-all Westminster system: "It will not serve a South Africa (still emerging) from the apartheid system. It will not help African countries coming out of a one party system. It will not help Africa out of its current problems".

He concedes that a hybrid system combining elements of ward or constituency representation with the existing proportional representation list system, which already pertains at local government level, may help if extended to the provincial and national levels of government. But he thinks the real challenge is to educate representatives on their obligations and voters on their rights. "If you don't have dedicated representatives who know they should go to the people, changing the electoral system is not going to improve the situation", Mokaba contends.

Recent local government by-elections have shown a sharp decline in the percentage poll compared with the 1999 general election, even in ANC-dominated areas. Mokaba, however, is not concerned. He is confident that the ANC has gained more than it has lost since the 1999 general election and the 2000 local government elections: "Independent polls indicate that ANC support is growing," he remarks. "Whatever the turnout, the ANC's winning margins increase."

By-elections in Mangaung, in the Free State, Alexandra, in Gauteng, and Bela Bela, in Limpopo, where the ANC won between 78 and 90 percent of the vote, support his point. Against that, however, Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Alliance, boasts that his party has increased its share of the vote by up to 15 percent in areas regarded as ANC strongholds.

Mokaba, who seems to have become more reflective since his illness, is aware of the danger of assuming future loyalty on the basis of past support. With an eye on the 2004 election he ends on a cautionary note: "ANC cadres should not be complacent. The people need to be serviced."