This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
23 Oct 1996: Matthee, Piet
POM Mr Matthee, the constitution provides for 'a multi-party system of democratic government'. How would you define a multi-party system of democratic government and are there certain elements to it that you would consider indispensable to its working?
PM I would say in a multi-party system of government there should be provision for strong opposition. It is very important that a minority party, and then of course also the official opposition party, should be empowered and be in a position where they have full access to what is required of them to be able to not only criticise the government of the day but also to be able to put alternatives to the voters on a regular basis and it should not only be left to election time but this should be right through if it's the five year period as we've got it. I would say that in the end a multi-party democracy can only really succeed if parties who are not in government succeed in mustering enough support so for a situation not to develop where the governing party, for instance, would have, for instance, a two thirds majority because that, of course, effectively would mean that they could change the constitution as they wish. I think in our situation at least the basis for a proper multi-party democracy is there in terms of the constitution but I am very worried that we could be moving in the direction of a de facto one-party state which will mean that in theory and on paper it is a multi-party democracy but effectively we will be far from that.
Again, we have the problem in our country at this stage that what is happening at central level and maybe at parliamentary level is one thing but what is happening on the ground is another thing and we are, unfortunately, far away from what one could term the ideal multi-party democracy as it is understood in most well known democracies. To give you an example, there are vast areas and densely populated areas where one party controls an area and where certainly other parties cannot even dream of enrolling members or do any kind of electioneering. All those matters will have to be addressed and on an urgent basis. The problem also that one is starting to experience at this stage already is that the governing party in South Africa at the moment is starting to show a kind of attitude of a party who has too much power in the sense that they are over-sensitive to any criticism whatsoever. In fact it is clear that they do not or cannot really tolerate the kind of criticism that is expected and that is part of any vital democracy. This is coming out also luckily in the press and it is quite clear that the press that we have in South Africa at this stage is showing that they have the kind of independence where they are prepared to criticise despite what the consequences thereof are. Even a paper like The Sowetan is saying that the ANC is showing signs that they really do not understand democracy the way that it is understood all over the world in the sense of being over-sensitive to criticism.
POM So on a scale of one to ten where one would be relatively unimportant and ten would be very important, where would you place the need to develop a strong viable multi-party system in South Africa?
PM You may be surprised but put it at ten, and for the very specific also if we look at the past of our country because effectively we had a one-party state although amongst the white electorate it could be regarded as a democracy on paper but the National Party in the previous dispensation was so strong that effectively it was a de facto one party state. The problem with that kind of situation is that it does not matter really which party is the governing party but that it is also starting to show now that the old saying of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely just seems to be proven over and over again. Of course at the end of the day if the electorate or important groups in the electorate find that there is really no way of having any say or any future say in the running of the government, that they feel that they are being discriminated against, as we are finding now already, we are finding already discrimination in reverse, that there is not a democratic way of changing the system, then it becomes dangerous and then it really is a danger not only to democracy but to the whole stability of a country.
POM Given just the way people vote it's obvious that the ANC commands most support in the country and will continue to do so for quite some period of time; in that event where you have one dominant party how do you see a multi-party system developing in South Africa?
PM I think that first of all it is correct to say that of course during the last election the vast majority, namely 62% of the electorate voted for the ANC. That does not mean that that is the situation right now. The latest opinion polls have shown that there is a large measure of dissatisfaction amongst many people who voted for the ANC in the previous election. The position, however, according to the latest opinion poll by the Human Sciences Research Council shows that those people who are, if one can use the term, disillusioned are not at this stage in a position where they want to support any other party. They would rather stay away from the polls. As I see it the only way that a truly multi-party democracy system can develop in South Africa is for us to give the lead and to start with a process of actually changing the whole political scenario in South Africa because unfortunately if one looks at the results of the previous election it boils down to almost the racial-cum-ethnic census and of course many people voted for the ANC because of the liberation struggle and not because of policies or anything of that sort. I must say that the National Party has actually taken the lead in this direction now of saying that we will have to change this pattern and the only way to change it is to actually bring people together around certain core values and to change the outmoded political pattern that has developed over a long time because of our past.
What one finds interesting is that one finds also in parliament, even parliamentary colleagues, belonging to the ANC who actually agree more with the core values of the new National Party and one can see that there are not only as far as supporters go but even at the level of public representatives one can see that there are members of the ANC with whom one can see yourself in a new political party or overarching political formation. And that is the way to go. That is the only way that I can see how one can get out of a situation where we will move into the same pattern as what has happened in Zimbabwe and Namibia where you have effective one-party states.
POM Do you think that new party, whatever you want to call it, whether it's the National Party or a new formation under a different name, do you think it would have to be primarily African-driven, that is that the primary leadership must come from Africans, that the situation of where you had a political formation primarily headed by whites will never attract significant numbers of African votes?
PM I think that it will be very important that everybody in this country will be represented in such a new party and certainly if one talks specifically about Africans, of course the African population will have to be well represented also of course in the leadership of such a party. But the specific point that I want to make is that if we want to succeed in really creating a truly multi-party democracy we will have to succeed in getting away from race, from ethnicity, as far as political persuasions are concerned and we will have to get to a situation where we can say, and all South Africans can say, "We vote for a specific party not because there are so many whites or so many blacks or so many Indians or so many coloured or brown people in it, but because of the values and the value systems of that specific party so that we can get to a point in this country where elections are fought not about the past but about the future of the country and we can have an issue driven election." I believe that the further we get away from apartheid the better our changes are for such an election.
My biggest worry is the first election because I believe that if we do not succeed in stopping the ANC from getting a two thirds majority in the next election we will not be able to do that in the next fifty or a hundred years because the moment that a party is in the position where it has total and absolute control, which a party with two thirds support in this country will have, that party will be in a position to see to it that they cannot be put out of power. I think if we succeed in bringing the ANC down to round about 50% and opposition parties or such an overarching opposition new political formation to something close to that, looking at 40% or something like that, the ANC can still be the government but the fact of the matter is then in the next election in 2004, and I also think for that period between 1999 and 2004, one will really see multi-party democracy in this country going from strength to strength.
There is one other matter which is very interesting and which I think I should mention because I specifically also argued this matter before the Constitutional Court, I was mandated by the National Party to do that as head of the legal section of the National Party, and that is the whole question of the anti-defection clause, Section 43 (b) in the interim constitution. What is interesting is that all the other parties except the ANC wanted this section to be scrapped and for there not to be an anti-defection clause. Unfortunately the ANC succeeded with their majority to retain this in the transitional arrangements which will mean that it will still be there for the foreseeable future and, unfortunately, the Constitutional Court gave, in my view, a very poor judgement as far as this matter is concerned and quoted the examples of Namibia and India, India which is really totally irrelevant because it has a totally different system of representation, namely constituencies, it does not have a PR system at all. And I really think that if there is one thing that stifles and actually prevents what otherwise already at this stage would have been seen to have been a natural growth in multi-party democracy, that that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks and it is very unfortunate because in all the recognised democracies in the world this, what is called the imperative mandate theory is actually prohibited and it's very unfortunate that this is now also part of our new constitution. It actually is what one can describe as a blot on the constitution because really political scientists and writers all over the world have spoken out very much against this. The one name, Klaus Sterren, for instance, the well known German constitutional expert says representative democracy without a free mandate is unthinkable, and this is the view of virtually all constitutional exports all over the world and I really think we look a bit silly in the eyes of the world with keeping this anti-defection clause.
POM Some people believe that perhaps not before 1999 but certainly after the 1999 elections, that the probability of the ANC splitting in some left right or left centre direction will be fairly high. Would you subscribe to that or do you think that, again, power is a great cohesive and you can tolerate many disagreements as long as you hang on to power but if the result of your disagreements is the prospect of losing power you tend to paper them over?
PM Well certainly that is correct but I think despite that that there is really in the ANC - we must remember the ANC is not a political party in the normal sense of the word, it's really an alliance of communists and COSATU and so on, and it's very clear that there's a lot of tension in the ANC and that there are vast and actually serious ideological differences within the ANC. You find in the ANC really radical, if one can use the term on the real left side, and then you find people who really, if one listens to them and you talk to them and you get to know them, you realise that they would be a lot more at home in a party like the New National Party because they agree more with the politics of the New National Party and of course therefore with what one envisages as a new political formation with these core values than they can ever agree with what a large sector of the ANC stands for. And I think that is really the reason why the ANC is so opposed to the scrapping of 43 (b) as they realise that should that go and should there not be an anti-defection clause that they will certainly split. I've no doubt in my mind about that.
POM Now some people have suggested to me that for the moment, at least in the short term, that you need a strong dominant party which can concentrate on what they would call transformational politics, the restructuring of the economy and the socio-economic system and that if you did have a very vibrant and competitive multi-party system at this point that politics will become election-driven, i.e. parties would be always looking at every issue in terms of how it played with the voters and in that context the necessary changes to bring about redistribution of resources and reorganisation of the public services wouldn't be undertaken or would be undertaken much more slowly and incrementally?
PM Well I think it depends from what angle one looks at it. I think if one really believes in democracy and you really believe that a vibrant multi-party democracy is the best way of actually achieving those kind of results, then I would say that that would be the only way of actually in the end getting to where we want to go because I cannot see that any opposition party at this stage does not want transition, if one can call it that. The official opposition today, the new National Party, have brought about the biggest transformation in this country that one can dream of, that is admired all over the world. But it depends where one wants to take the country to. If you want to take the country to a proper multi-party democracy where it is based, for instance, on economic freedom, on the freedom of the individual, on the freedom of cultural groups and so on and so on, we can carry on, and if you want to get the country to a point where the core values that we say we believe in and that we have spelled out are being respected and are not being trampled upon, then of course a multi-party democracy is the best way of getting there, and a proper multi-party democracy.
But on the other hand your problem is if you have too strong a party, yes it is a simple way of maybe looking at it, that it would be easier for that party to do certain things and do certain things quicker and so on, but the problem is that moderates in that party which up to now have been in a position where they could withstand the pressures from the radicals, will then not be in that position because the radicals will point out to them that they have the power to do the popular things which will see to it that they will be popular and they will have to do it whether it's the right thing for the country at that point in time or not. And of course the problem is it may for the short term look easier to have a very strong government who can virtually do whatever they want to, to achieve their agenda and their results, but of course in the long term that may lead to really instability again in the country. One will have to take all the people in this country, and of course I know you can never take 100% of the people with you, but at least all the people who can have an effect on the future stability of this country, who can have an effect on whether there is a proper growing economy and so on and so on in this country. You will have to take those people with you because otherwise they are either going to emigrate or they are going to start a new form of resistance.
POM So given that the constitution provides for a multi-party system, what should the government be doing, what actions should it be taking to promote a viable, strong, vibrant multi-party system?
PM One of the first things that they should do is that they should get rid of the anti-defection clause in the transitional arrangements which, of course, can now be done by ordinary legislation. It's no longer in the body of the constitution as such where it is entrenched. It will have to see opposition to them in the sense of parliamentary opposition and political opposition not as a threat and not as they are starting to do whenever they are criticised or whenever political parties don't agree with them, you are termed unpatriotic or racist or whatever, and they will have to also provide that in the parliamentary process minority parties are really and truly empowered to do the job that they have to do as what one could call a loyal opposition. They will have to start realising that one cannot just force your own opinions down the throats of people who disagree with you and they will have to be less sensitive as far as criticism is concerned and rather start seeing constructive criticism for what it is and not attacks in the sense that it comes from people who do not really understand what it's all about. And one of the most important things that they will have to do is they will have to start concentrating on the future and not every time that they are criticised try and raise apartheid from the grave because it's almost a parrot-like response that you get every time you criticise them. For me one of the worst experiences was to hear somebody like Kader Asmal who I have a lot of respect for, he was a Professor in Ireland of human rights, for somebody like him to say the reason really why we were attacking the Minister of Health on the Sarafina issue, the real reason behind it was because she was a black woman. That really was one of the most, well, worrying things if somebody of his calibre can say something like that.
POM So with regard to assistance in terms of public assistance, the constitution says something that sounds contradictory, it says, "Assistance should be proportionate and equitable." You could have public funding used to help parties in elections. You could have money made available to help parties perform their parliamentary duties more efficiently or you could have assistance to help parties run on a day to day basis and essentially provide them some funding to promote their own growth. Would you be in favour of funding in any of those areas or all of those areas or would you perhaps favour a system where a party would be given a lump sum which it could spend as it wished as long as there was full disclosure as to how the money was spent, or should the government stay out of the business of financing political parties period?
PM I think there is a case to be made for some kind of funding to enable parties to perform their duties specifically, I think, at parliamentary level, at what is termed constituency allowances and so on. Of course, also as far as, this is actually not just the party, but I mean, for instance, the leader of the official opposition should be put in a position where he can perform his duties as leader of the official opposition. I do not think, or let me rather put it this way, it seems that, and I still have to do some research about this, both from what I've heard is that the position in many countries is that actually opposition parties on many aspects are funded on a more favourable basis than the government party. One has always got to be very careful that if you just fund parties across the board, just purely on a proportional basis, that you do not then actually entrench almost the percentages that you have and that you stifle again the healthy development of multi-party democracy. Therefore, I think that one has to have both.
Yes, government funding on certain aspects but also I do not think that we should go the way of where private funding of political parties should be limited or prohibited because then one will actually really interfere with the normal political process in the sense that people cannot really put a party that's not in government in a position financially where it can actually fight the government. One must, of course, also remember that a government is in a position where its leadership and all its leaders have administrative support and so on available to them from government sources in any event, not for the party as such, but we know that the leaders of the government party, for instance, can travel freely at government expense wherever and whenever they want to. So there has got to be an equitable situation arrived at. But I think it's a very complicated matter that will need a lot of research and it will need to be addressed and to be tackled in a way with the aim of achieving a truly multi-party democracy because if that's not the aim at the end of the day it can very easily, this whole process can very easily be misused to actually rather achieve an effective one-party state than multi-party democracy. So one has got to be very cautious about that.
POM So would you distinguish between, just on a general level, some form of public funding for political party development and some form of public funding for elections?
PM Yes, I must be honest that I haven't really given it that much thought up to now. Certainly there's got to be - I would rather see the funding going more towards the development of resources and to put parties in a position where they can fulfil their duties also towards the electorate. If one talks about development one must be very careful and there is this almost notion that one should therefore, if you talk about development, look at development also of people and structures that have been, what is the term, in the past been discriminated against. But if one really wants to look at the development of political parties we again mustn't fall in the trap of thinking that it's only, for instance, the ANC and parties like Inkatha that have the support of people that were not so privileged as other people in the past. The National Party is going full out, for instance, for, if one can call it, the African market and we are succeeding in making significant breakthroughs where we can get in at this stage. We must be careful also not to base, if one talks about development, along those lines. So again it must be equitable, across the board.
As far as elections are concerned it's a more difficult one. One will have to look at the whole question of whether the funding of political parties, whether donors should be confidential or not and so on. Obviously if the donors of a political party are not kept confidential, of course all minority parties are put in a very awkward position, specifically in our situation at the moment because the government, or the political power that's in power, in government, they are the ones that can have the control over government jobs and whatever and very few big companies and even individual donors would like to be seen that they actually give money against the government of the day because of the fear of being discriminated against, especially in our country at this stage that's a very serious matter to be taken into account and a serious concern. So it all depends on all of that, but it's a very complicated matter and I certainly don't have all the answers.
POM Sure, the debate is just being joined so to speak. How about the sources of funding? What, to your knowledge, does the current law allow? Can you take money from whatever source you can get it from? Is there no differentiation made between domestic contributions and foreign contributions or between donations from foreign individuals and foreign governments?
PM As far as I know there is no limitation on it at this point in time. Of course the only limitation that there would be, and I think that goes more for, well certainly for other parties as well but maybe even more so for the governing party, is that you cannot or one should not take money from somebody who wants a specific favour from the government. Of course this is the kind of thing that happens all over the world. We know that. But if found out that is corruption. So that is, as far as I know, the only real limitation.
POM Would you, or do you think the National Party would oppose contributions coming from foreign individuals or foreign governments?
PM Not as far as I know. I must confess I do not specifically work with that. It's not part of my responsibilities. It may be better to speak to some of our people who specifically deal with that. But as far as I know we have no problem with that whatsoever.
POM So looking at the question of financial assistance from the state, on a scale of one to ten, again where one is relatively unimportant and ten where it's relatively very important, where would you place some form of assistance to political parties on that spectrum?
PM It's not an easy one to answer but I would put it around six or so, in that vicinity, because I think there should be some form of, certainly some form of financial assistance. But on the other hand I don't think that that should be the sole form of income of parties. I would say round about six.
POM How about the media and particularly the public media? At election time should there be free availability of the media to political parties and should each one perhaps get a block of time? Should each one get the same amount of time?
PM I would say first of all there should be total freedom, I am a believer in freedom of the press, let me just make that very clear, and I think the only thing that the press should be limited by is the normal laws of defamation and so on. But as far as advertisements are concerned I think that there should be at least an equitable situation especially as far as if one looks at the electronic media, the SABC, that that cannot be just on a proportional basis but that it should be at least the official opposition. It should be in a position where it has the same amount of exposure as the governing party during election time. I think that would only be fair.
POM But you don't think a party like, say, the size of the DP or the PAC should get the same amount of air time as the NP or the ANC? Public air time.
PM I think again that it should be reasonable and equitable but I think one could maybe take it a bit too far if you give a very small party - it can certainly not reasonably expect to have the same kind of air time as major parties, as either the government party or the official opposition. But they should not be discriminated against purely because they are very small, if you know what I mean. In the sense that just straight proportionally I think they should be given more but certainly they cannot be expected to have the same kind of air time. I really think that would be unreasonable and that cannot be expected.
POM Do you think that if there were some form of public funding that most South Africans would see this as just one more dose of the gravy train?
PM I think it depends on how it is handled. Again I go back to where I say that this should only be part of it, that shouldn't be the sole source of income. It also depends in what way it is done. I really think that all South Africans who have any understanding of politics, and I think the majority of South Africans also at this point in time do not want anything but a proper multi-party system in this country, which is very interesting by the way if one speaks to many people who have supported the ANC and actually to some of their public representatives who are as worried and as concerned as a person like I am about the threat of an effective one-party state. I really think this whole concept of multi-party democracy on the one hand versus a more authoritarian and de facto one party state, that this may very well be the main or one of the main election, what shall one say, points on which the next election may turn because I am amazed to find how many people actually understand what the effect of an effective one-party state could mean for South Africa and I really don't think that the majority of people will have a problem if it's done in a way where it promotes multi-party democracy. But, of course, if it's done in a way where it is just to entrench the government, or the already entrenched, I think there could be a revolt against it.
POM Should there be an accountability system built into it?
PM I think there should be a form of accountability built into it, yes, of course.
POM So if they get X amount of money for anything from the public purse you've got to show - ?
PM No, no, from the public purse, yes certainly, but not as far as private money is concerned. I really think one's got to be very, very careful when it comes to money privately collected for a party. Yes, of course, normal accounting procedures and so on but again one's got to be very careful before one makes the condition that the identity of donors and so on of a party should be made public. I think one's got to be very, very careful about that because of the reasons that I've mentioned.
POM What's more important, building houses and putting people to work or creating an accountable system of government?
PM Well I think both are very important because I don't think the one can - I don't really think that in the long term you're going to be able to build enough houses really to be able to uplift the poor and the underprivileged if you do not have a proper accountable government because if money is squandered by government you have a serious problem if there is not accountability and then it's not going to go to the right place, it's not going to achieve the results because it's going to be squandered. Unfortunately, we're already seeing that. What are the people of South Africa getting, what is it helping the AIDS campaign in South Africa, the hundreds and thousands of people dying of aids, for R14 million to be squandered, really, in the way that it was squandered? And so we can carry on. Of course one can get examples from the past, from the previous government as well, but the fact of the matter is that we must get away from that kind of situation.
In the end I think that, what certainly I want to see in this country to happen, is a proper multi-party democracy, proper not only in theory but in practice. I believe very strongly that federalism is one of the mechanisms that one can use to achieve that, and I believe very strongly in the kind of federalism that one finds in so many countries where it is successfully applied, Australia, one can carry on, the United States and so on. And I really think that that's very important because at the end of the day the most important thing is that the vast majority of people in a country, and that goes not only for South Africa but other countries as well, should feel that they have a dignified place in the sun in their country. If they haven't got that, if they haven't got equal opportunities, but equal opportunities not in the sense that everybody is like communist equal opportunity, you know what I mean, but equal opportunities where really if you want to achieve something in life you can do it and that there is a meritocracy. If one doesn't have that I think you are heading for problems.
If we didn't do what we had done, which thankfully one could play a part in, we would have ended up with very serious problems. We would have ended up with a total civil war in this country at the end of the day. In any country where a significant number of people feel that they are being discriminated against, feel that they are not being treated on merit and so on, that they are being discriminated against, one will end up with problems. It doesn't matter whether it's Sri Lanka or whether it's Ireland or whether it's South Africa or where, that will happen and that is why I believe a multi-party democracy is really the only way at the end of the day that you will have long term stability and long term stability which will also be where the government of the country will be in a position to actually uplift, and the economy of the country will be in a position to uplift the under-privileged, because we must realise we have no chance in this country if we cannot succeed in uplifting the under-privileged. We will have to do that.
The basic difference, I think, between us and the ANC is that they still tend to believe that if you take from the rich and if you distribute that amongst the poor that will solve the problem. What they do not realise is that will make it worse because if you do not make it possible for the entrepreneurs in this country to really achieve what they want to achieve and to make it possible for them to prosper you're not going to get investments in this country. If you're not going to get investments the economy is not going to grow. If the economy is not going to grow we're never going to be able to uplift our people and it's a vicious circle which we will never be able to break if we want to do it in a simple way of what is the easiest or appears to be the easiest way, the way that the communists are thinking of doing and certainly a big element in the ANC alliance is still thinking of doing. Then I'm afraid we have serious problems. On the other hand we've got to have a market-driven economy, free market-driven economy but with very strong emphasis on social upliftment. That's why we as a party have decided and we are now putting into place an anti-poverty strategy because we know if we don't succeed in that we will not succeed in this country.
POM OK. Thank you very, very much.