As South Africa's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki has been virtually running the country for the past few years, but only during the recent presidential campaign has the public come to know him. In frequent radio addresses to the South African people, he has tried to explain why the rate of economic change has not been faster. According to the polls, Mbeki, 56, is almost as popular as the man he's succeeding, Nelson Mandela. Now that Mbeki has won election on his own, the pressure will be on him to deliver material progress to his constituents in the next five years. Last week at African National Congress headquarters in Johannesburg, Mbeki spelled out his plans in a rare interview with Newsweek contributing editor and Washington Post columnist Lally Weymouth. Excerpts follow:
How will your presidency differ from that of Nelson Mandela?
There can't be [fundamental departures] because the situation has not fundamentally changed. During the last five years . . . we laid a basis for faster movement forward in all respects. We passed over 500 pieces of legislation to remove the apartheid laws. The policies will remain the same, but in the second five years, we are better placed to move faster.
Your government has followed a fiscally prudent course. Will you continue to do so in the face of rising social demands?
In the last budget, in March, we maintained our position with regard to the reduction of the budget deficit . . . [although] people were saying there was a danger we might borrow more [and] increase the deficit in order to buy votes. We were not going to do any such thing. We further reduced the budget deficit and corporate taxes, because we need to create the best possible conditions for people to invest in the economy.
What will you do about the high crime rate? Is one of your priorities to get crime under control?
When people talk about crime, it's because of the way crime has spread into the white areas. The black areas have been victim to high levels of crime for many decades. In the past, the South African police virtually had no crime intelligence; they were focused on fighting anti-apartheid activists. [We have] tried to strengthen our law enforcement agencies to try to ensure that they are able to fight crime. . . . In 1994, about 85 percent of the police stations were in the white areas protecting 10 percent of the population.
It is said that your staff is three times as large as your predecessor's, and that you are centralizing power because you like to control everything. Please comment.
It's part of a kind of fear syndrome, which some people seek to cultivate for partisan purposes. I don't know what they fear, but the idea is put out that we have some intention to centralize government.
It is said that you will now pick the ANC premier candidates of the nine provinces, while in the past they were chosen locally.
That's part of people trying to cultivate a fear syndrome. The issue of the nomination of the premiers actually came from the ANC membership, [which] said selecting premiers is not helping us. People fight for these posts and it divides the organization. And so the ANC executive [committee] said, "We'll have these people nominated by the president." It's an internal ANC matter--not a [way] to centralize [power].
The powers of local government are spelled out in the constitution. And we have no desire whatsoever to change that constitution, [which] was largely written by the ANC. I don't know why people think the ANC has changed its mind now.
Is the party an instrument to win elections or a means to control society?
The party, the ANC, is important. If you look at the policies the government has been implementing over the last five years, these were ANC positions. . . . There is no such thing as me waking up one morning and deciding there's a new policy about something and implementing it.
How do you see South Africa's relationship with the United States? How important is it?
Relations with the United States at all levels are very good indeed. . . . During the years that people campaigned for sanctions against South Africa, strong support developed in the United States for a democratic South Africa and that interest has continued. And the relationship is not only that at a governmental level. The economic relations between the U.S. and South Africa keep expanding all the time.
Will you pursue President Mandela's policy of maintaining close relations with Libya, Cuba and Iran?
Which country does not recognize Cuba? South Africa is behaving the same way that the rest of the world is behaving. Most countries--including the NATO allies of the United States--maintain the same relations with these countries as we do.
Don't you think that Libya and Iran are rogue regimes?
Take, for instance, Iran's oil resources. French companies have decided to participate in the development of oil in Iran. They are supported by the French government. Countries around the world have relations with Iran. So, I don't know why South Africa should behave in a manner contrary to the majority of the world.
President Mandela has spoken about foreign campaign contributions and there have been recent press reports about the ANC receiving contributions from Libya, Saudi Arabia and China. How do you feel about foreign campaign contributions?
It's fine. You know the reason is because many of these countries understood [that] you have an organization--the ANC--that was banned in 1960, unbanned in 1990, and its leadership had been in jail or in exile. When the conflict was over, and [the ANC had to] prepare to have elections, ANC supporters said we have an obligation to assist the ANC. Those foreign contributions will wither away with time. Incidentally, all South African parties generate funds internationally.
Under your leadership, will South Africa play a forceful diplomatic role in Africa? What do you propose to do about the approximately 15 conflicts that are ongoing on the continent?
We have to be involved in the search for peace and stability on the continent. We've got to ensure that there is an early warning capacity. To the extent that it is possible to stop a country from erupting--that's much better than having to put together peacekeeping forces.
Second, there are conflicts going on that need to be resolved. We are working on the resolution of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo [formerly Zaire]. And I'm quite certain that it won't be long before we arrive at a framework agreement, as a consequence of which the shooting should stop, and then an internal political process [will begin].
The third question has to do with peacekeeping forces. We are trying to build up a peacekeeping capacity, and have the active support of a number of countries, including the United States. . . . [But] the idea of South Africa leading the continent doesn't sit very comfortably.
While Mandela stressed reconciliation between whites and blacks, white South Africans worry that you will not emphasize it as much. What's the truth?
That certainly is not the truth. . . . This remains a racially divided society. The legacy of apartheid is deeply entrenched. And we need to pursue the notion of national reconciliation--to develop a South Africa in which all South Africans, black and white, develop a common patriotism and overcome the distrust and racial antagonisms of the past. But you cannot achieve national reconciliation on the basis of the perpetuation of the injustices and disparities of the past. . . .
Take a very delicate matter: language. The official languages in the past were English and Afrikaans. Some people say that national reconciliation equals the maintenance of the status of those two languages. [But] we've got 11 official languages, and we've got to make sure these languages enjoy the same status as English and Afrikaans. You can't achieve national reconciliation on the basis of a continuing exclusion of the languages of the majority of the population.
You went into exile in 1962, attended university in England, and subsequently did international diplomatic work for the ANC. Is it hard to believe that you're now president of South Africa?
We--many in my generation--got into the struggle to end the system of apartheid. We had no notion of becoming professional politicians. Even as we came back to South Africa in 1990, the idea was to negotiate a constitution and hold elections. Then we would have finished the job we were doing and we could go back to our professions and become teachers and lawyers. There was never an idea that you could end up as a professional politician.
When did that idea of entering politics strike you?
Still hasn't. It will be very good actually to hand over [the job] to people who sit a bit more comfortably with the notion of being a professional politician. The sooner that kind of person takes over the better--because we can contribute in other ways. I dream about devoting time to students at the universities and giving lectures about the rest of the world.
There's one last thing I'd like to say. We were very pleased with the visit of President Clinton to Africa last year--with the fact that he actually went to so many African countries and spent a lot of time on the African continent. . . . And one of my wishes is that there would be sustained interest by the U.S. government in helping to meet the challenges of African development. . . . We put out the notion that we would like this next century to be the African century [with an] African renaissance. . . . We as Africans should take on the challenge. But I think we will succeed better if a powerful country like the United States joins us in this common effort.