Meet Moeletsi Mbeki: Fixing SA all about choices – can’t have it both ways

Entrepreneur, scholar and author Moeletsi Mbeki is celebrated in South Africa for his outspoken criticism of the Zuma Administration, once describing them “like children playing with a hand grenade.”

In this in-depth interview with Biznews.com’s publisher Alec Hogg he shares stories from his formative years, what shaped his philosophy, his perspectives on what is needed for South African renewal, and how to understand SA’s current challenges within the context of global history.

In a wide ranging conversation the brother of former SA President Thabo and son of SACP leader Govan draws on a lifetime of learning to suggest solutions to a country where tough decisions are required to jump off its current depressing path – and identifies uncertainty around property rights as the fundamental problem that must be addressed.

Alec Hogg is in the Biznews Studio with Moeletsi Goduka Mbeki. He asked him what ‘Goduka’ stands for?

Well, it was my grandfather’s first name, which became my middle name.

And the Mbeki name in South Africa is synonymous with politics. Your brother was the President. Your father – a key part of the struggle. Just tell us a bit, about how you grew up.

Well, I grew up at a general dealership shop, which my parents set up in the early 40’s. My mother joined the Communist Party I think in mid-1930, when she was a student and according to her, recruited my father although my father denies it.

Anyway, I grew up in the Transkei at our shop, which was serving the peasant community that existed then, such as the farmers, and the migrant workers came from there. We used to buy maize and whatever they had to sell from them, and we sold blankets and blouses, etcetera to them.

Did you work in the shop?

Yes, I worked in the shop from when I was literally, about five or six. I know quite a lot about retail from those days. I used to have to go with my mother to wholesalers to buy groceries (such as sugar) for the shop.

Your mom sounds fascinating. Here she was, running a shop – capitalism – and yet, as you say she was one of the stalwarts in the original Communist Party in South Africa. How did she bring the one together with the other?

Well, I think that soon after they completed their higher education, they realised that it was going to be very difficult for them to get jobs. The main job in those days (in the 1930’s) for Africans with higher education was mainly teaching, which was controlled by the Government.

They concluded that sooner or later, they were going to collide with the Government and they were going to be fired, and so they had to have a business that would look after themselves and their family, and it was a very good decision.       

Read also: Moeletsi Mbeki: I’d give Mugabe, Burundi bad leadership ‘award’, Zuma, Thabo, too

Did it eventually happen? Did they collide with the Government and get fired?

Yes, I think my father was fired for something at some school where he was teaching, so they did collide pretty soon.

Having teachers as parents must have given you an advantage with education being a priority, no doubt.

Yes, it was a huge advantage because we always had books at home. We always had magazines at home. In fact, the first novel I remember trying to read, which I didn’t understand, was by Maxim Gorky, the famous Russian communist novelist.

It was a novel about sailors on the Volga River. You can imagine. There are hardly rivers in South Africa, let alone rivers the size of the Volga River and I was trying to read this novel. I think I was about 11 years old and found it on the bookshelf, and so yes, it was a great advantage.

Your brother Thabo, who went on to become President of the country: you have diametrically opposed views [it appears] on many things. Were you close?

No, not very close because he was mainly brought up by my uncle (my mother’s brother) who was a musician. He was a very well-known South African composer. Thabo spent a lot of time with that family in Queenstown. We don’t actually have diametrically opposed views.

They are opposing views within the ANC, which is where all that happened, but it’s not a personal disagreement with him, or between he and I.

Well, let’s see. Just talking about the ANC very briefly: it was once described to me as being like a football club. You don’t always like the coaches and the managers and sometimes, the players are disappointing as well but you’re still part of that football club. Is that still the case in South Africa?

No. It’s no longer the case, but it was during the struggle. Obviously, since 1994, the glue that you were describing as holding the ANC together started to weaken after the ANC became the Government. There were lots of disagreements as well as agreements about some of its policies.

Yes, the glue had weakened and it’s weakening more. For example, COPE walked out of the ANC. The Youth League, which is now led by Julius Malema, walked out of the ANC. The National Union of Metalworkers has walked out of the ANC and so the glue is perishing, if I can put it that way.

Julius-Malema

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema

Why?

Well, I think it’s a phase of history. When you are in a struggle, you actually have no choices. You have one choice: fight or give in. You have no choices. When you are a free, democratic country, you have many choices. The Ruling Party has many choices.

The Opposition Party has many choices and so people inevitably, start to debate the choices they have. Sometimes they agree on most things. Sometimes the agreement space becomes smaller and smaller, and that’s when you start to get the fragmentation.

You’re a scholar, a journalist, and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. You’ve been a consultant. You think for a living, if one can put it that way. The way you express that, is often through books. Your book ‘The Architect of Poverty’. What stimulated that to begin with, and what was the real message you were trying to drive home?

One of the things I always say is that I only have one thing to thank the National Party for, and that was driving me to exile because if I hadn’t been exiled I wouldn’t have had the experiences of what was going on in the big, wide world that I got during my [nearly] 30 years in exile.

I lived in the United Kingdom where I was a student. I lived in Tanzania where I worked for a while. I worked in Zimbabwe for a Zimbabwean newspaper as well. I was a journalist there for nine years and I learned a great deal about other parts of the world.

Vietnam, for example: the conflict between Vietnam and the United States, and between China and the Soviet Union etcetera. Then, the emergence of independent Africa: what was being achieved, what was not being achieved, and what were the obstacles? During the years in exile…

Fortunately, I was in exile starting from the mid-sixties, which was an incredibly dynamic period in the world then and especially of course, in Europe, the United Kingdom, and France.

It was an amazing time to live – to live during that time. For most of us who were interested in politics or involved in politics, we had to learn a huge number of things in a very short period of time.

Shaping your mind must have shifted [I guess] as you accumulated more and more knowledge.

Absolutely. Being in a country like the United Kingdom, which is where I was… It’s an amazing country, in terms of the level of knowledge that the society has. The British learn about anything and everything under the sun. If you want to know the grammar of a pygmy language, you are likely to find a grammar book somewhere in the British museum about some pygmy language deep in the jungles of the Congo. It’s a highly cultured society. It puts a lot of value on knowledge and expertise. For learning, you can’t beat the United Kingdom. I think it still is one of the leading countries in the world, in terms of knowledge.

In those 30 years, were you ever fearful? Maybe just take us through your path then because clearly, you would have left here in some fear at least, that the National Party or the Apartheid Government would try to reach out and quell you.

Oh, yes. I was at school in Lesotho actually, because my parents didn’t want us to go through the Bantu education system. In the late 50’s, my younger brother and I were sent to Lesotho and from Lesotho, I went to the United Kingdom. Initially, I studied building so I worked in the construction industry in the United Kingdom and in Tanzania.

Then I changed to sociology (also in the United Kingdom) and then, I started writing. Well, I never stopped writing because one of the things student agitators always do, is write because their propaganda or what they consider their profound views have to be put across.

Those days, broadcasting was not as wide open as it is today in the United Kingdom. I think you only had BBC (state-controlled) and there wasn’t as much variety as you have today with broadcasting. Writing (i.e. magazines and newspapers) was still the medium of communication.

What was your first book?

Well, the first book was actually published in Zimbabwe. It’s called ‘Profile of Political Conflicts in Southern Africa’, which was somewhere in mid-1980 where Southern Africa was in the grip of the huge conflict. There was a State of Emergency in South Africa.

There was a military destabilisation of the Southern African region by the South African Government. There was the South African army in Angola.

They had their agents in Mozambique, which were terrorizing the people there and so, what I was looking at and trying to explain was the conflicts are in Southern Africa and the likely outcomes of those conflicts. I was then working for the Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe so it was topical, anyway.

How accurate were your conclusions?

Well, I haven’t read the book for a long time now. I don’t remember what I said but I think the important thing for us [at that time] was to get the population to understand the conflicts and what they are because it looked like we were in the middle of hell, literally.

Which we were…

Which we were… We had to show the population that there were discreet occurrences such as the Apartheid processes, the collapse of the Portuguese Empire, and the defeat of Smith [more or less] by ZANU and ZAPU and then, the conflict between ZANU and ZAPU after independence.

For example, we had to show the conflict between MPLA and UNITA in Angola and the international players such as the Cubans, Russians, and the Americans etcetera.

A chaotic period.

A very chaotic period.

Fast-forwarding a little bit to maybe ten years or so ago, when you started thinking and speaking out profoundly about what’s going on in our own country, in South Africa. Many people think you got it wrong. Other people hero-worship you because it aligns with their way of thinking. What shaped your reading of the situation here?

Well, I spent about three years in Tanzania, from about ’72 to ’75. One of the things that struck me was how the state in Tanzania, which was preaching socialism [during Nyerere’s time], was exploiting the peasant population.

I became interested in how this was done so I studied Tanzania’s taxation system and after studying it, I could literally write the Budget of the Tanzanian Government. The fundamentals of the Tanzanian Government were that they creamed off the cash crops that the peasants were producing, such as tea, coffee, and tobacco.

They would then buy it at below world market price [to the peasant], sell it at world market price, and pocket the difference. One of the consequences of that was that the peasant could not modernise his/her agricultural technology because their profit was being taken away from them.

One of the consequences was that Tanzanian agriculture was very backward – dependent mainly on the hoe. Even the animal-drawn plough was not universal in Tanzania in the 1970’s. The question of how a society uses its surplus became of great interest to me during the time I was in Tanzania.

In fact, I wrote a two-part article. Interestingly, it was for the Youth League Magazine of Nyerere’s own party. At the university, they had a magazine for which, many exiles wrote and I wrote a two-part article showing how peasants are exploited. I used South Africa as an example, but hinted at Tanzania.

I wasn’t addressing it directly. Fortunately, I used my mother’s surname Moerane as my author signature, and so it was Moeletsi Moerane.

A couple of years later, a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam told me that a guy from Lesotho who’s surname was Moeletsi, was denied a job in the sociology department because they thought it was me. They thought he was the author.

Did you ever meet him?

I did meet the poor guy. I commiserated with him.

That would have given you some profound insights into how things could develop. Looking at what happened in South Africa, you have always been a critic. You’ve always been outspoken. Are there things that have happened since 1994 that excite you, that keep you living here and keep you moving in the right direction?

One of my most valuable experiences in South Africa was having lived in the United Kingdom at the time I was living there. There was a huge movement in the study of English history. If you look at English history, at that time the main books were for example, EP Thompson’s ‘History of the English Working Class’.

These were major studies. There were major studies for example, about the industrialisation of the United Kingdom and England, in particular and its links with colonialism. There was a famous book by another historian (Eric Hobsbawm) called ‘Industry and Empire’.

Then the various students from the colonies who had been doing their postgraduate work were writing books, which were being published in the United Kingdom. One of the famous books, which was very popular with us [South Africans] was a book, called ‘Capitalism and Slavery’, written by a man who became Prime Minister of Trinidad.

Another one was about the slave uprising in Haiti and yet another, about what was going on in the United States. That’s how I tended to look at South Africa.

We always forget that South Africa was created by the British. You can never understand the South Africa of today if you don’t have a really knowledge of British society, of British imperialism, British colonialism, and of the massive class divisions that exist within British society.

When I look at South Africa, it is from that background where e.g. I find South Africans are preoccupied about race. Actually, in my view, race is a very minor factor in the shaping of South Africa. It’s been the exploitation of the minerals, which is a major driver of what shapes South Africa.

And class…

Of course, the classes that go with that. There are managers, the migrant labour system and the chiefs who oversee the migrant labour system, etcetera. Today, I find that my party, which my parents built up, is perpetuating the same system. That’s a fascinating story.

Is there an intellectual paucity within the leadership? I say this in the context of what you wrote in a recent piece by saying, “ANC leaders are like a group of children playing with a hand grenade”. Those are powerful words. Is it because there are good intentions but perhaps, not understanding the consequences?

Again, one has to look at the whole generational makeup of the ANC leadership. When the ANC was set up in 1912, you had the top brains amongst the African people. Many of them had studied in the UK Many of them had studied at the Columbia University in America and many of them were very rich.

As the 20th century progressed, the wealth of this group started to decline, the urbanisation started to grow, and it became more and more of a mass movement.

As a result, the intellectual calibre started to decline and the slogans became [more] the method of discourse rather than an exposition of the pros and cons of a situation. Today, I think the ANC really manufactures slogans rather than analyses of our situation.

And make some interesting choices of its friends globally, for instance. Recently, the engagement between South Africa and Russia seems to be hitting a new level, just as Russia is about to go bankrupt – are perhaps, ‘short-sighted’ approaches.

As I started saying, these are the choices, which you are faced with. We are now faced with choices as to which countries we associate with. Yes, the Soviet Union was a big supporter of the ANC during the struggle. It trained many ANC members as lawyers, historians, engineers, and military operators but the Russia of today is not the Russia of the Soviet Union.

It’s a very different Russia. Our association with the old Soviet Union generated a huge anti-West (because this was during the Cold War) sentiment in sections of the ANC, especially those associated with the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba etcetera. A huge part of the support we [South Africans] had for the struggle against Apartheid was also from the west.

One of the main offices of the ANC was in London and one of the main players that tipped the balance against the Apartheid regime, and which forced it to the negotiating table, was the United States Congress, which overruled Ronald Reagan and imposed sanctions on South Africa.

You can see we have choices. We can either continue with the Soviet Union to the exclusion of our relationship with the Western countries or… These are the choices and dynamics, which face the ANC, the Government, and the country.

Why, with ‘The End of History’ as Fukuyama wrote in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, would be still be holding on in this country to things, from which the rest of the world seem to have disassociated themselves? Where do we come from, in that regard?

We are not hanging onto it. I think it’s very important for us as South Africans to realise that ‘some people’ are holding onto it. It’s not all South Africans. As you point out, we have this relationship with Russia, which seems a bit unequal to me but anyway, we have it.

We have it with China, which, to me, seems to have many elements of inequality. When my brother was President, he alluded to this but it’s a choice we’ve made or rather, it’s a choice the ANC has made.

Or certain people in the ANC…

Or certain people in the ANC have made… Not everybody in the ANC thinks that is the way the country should be going and so, it’s really [especially] up to you folks in the media to keep putting the message across. There is no monolithic view about where South Africa should be going.

There is a debate amongst South Africans. There are many different points of view about which we way should be going and that’s what democracy is about.

Do you think the Constitution will hold? There are question marks from some sectors of society that for instance, a third term will be enacted for the President as has happened in other parts of the continent recently?

Well, for me the constitution is very important because that is what’s negotiated by representatives of South Africa, but there were not always agreements amongst the negotiators.

For example the Property Clause – it was hugely contested. At the time, I was working for COSATU. COSATU, which was part of the ANC negotiating team, was various and had very strong reservations about the Property Clause but, in the end, there was a compromise, so it is there in the constitution.

Would you be surprised if COSATU tries to go around it, notwithstanding that it’s in the constitution? No, I wouldn’t be surprised. A constitution is a very dynamic instrument really, which changes and changes, and I think one only has to look at – I suppose it must be the longest, single, surviving constitution, which is the American constitution and it’s been amended umpteen times.

The amendment per say, is not necessarily a bad thing. The original American constitution allowed for slavery. Today’s United States Constitution is against racial discrimination of whatever discrimination. Certainly, it doesn’t support slavery.

How do you see things working out then because for many, many in the white population in particular – they say, “If the Constitution is changed, I’m out of here.” It’s dinner party talk, (perhaps not accurate) but how do you see our country moving ahead, given that you’ve made a lot of sense now that there could be amendments and should be amendments to the Constitution because it is a dynamic vehicle. What’s the other line in the sand?

Personally, I think there’s a lot of panic that is generated by a comment here and there, by this, that or the other politician and many people tend to see that as ‘the end of the world is here’. First, the ANC is not very good at implementing anything and this has always been my disagreement with the ANC, going back to when I was at primary school.

It will pass all sorts of resolutions and this, that and the other, and then fails to implement them, so I wouldn’t be too worried about all the pronouncements that are made.

For example, there’s a pronouncement made by the Minister of Land Reform that he’s going to take half of each farm in South Africa and give it to the farm workers, and then expect South Africa to prosper. Now, first is he going to do it, really? The answer is no. He won’t do it. I don’t know why he thought he should make that…

I think there may have been a bi-election somewhere, where he wanted the ANC to win, so I would take, with a pinch of salt, many threats that are coming from politicians, generally. The future of South Africa – well, there are huge changes that we need to make in South Africa.

If I can make an illustration – you should never forget that we were colonised by one of the most powerful countries and economies in the world, at the time, so South Africa, like the United States by the way – was shaped by the United Kingdom.

Now, we have a huge stamp mark on our body of politics, which is an imprint of the British, on how they ran the world in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.

Now, in our case, in the case of the United States – cotton slavery was the heart or one of the key drivers of the Industrial Revolution, in the United Kingdom, in Lancashire and so on, and slavery was part of that process.

Then for us the mining sector was one of the key drivers of the Gold Standard and all of those things, so South Africa was very central to the role of the United Kingdom, as a world power, and they created the mining industry and the migrant labour system, and the Bantustan system, and the Pass system. Now, many of these institutions are still there.

Now you can’t change the society by maintaining old practices, so they have to go. Now, if you look at Marikana – Marikana has happened many times before but the present Government is keeping, and the present mining companies, are keeping a system that has long passed its sell-by date, so there are certain things that we really have to change.

The Americans inherited slavery from British rule but they got rid of it. After independence from Britain, it lasted for 90 years but he decided, no, we have to get rid of it because it is going to destroy our country, and it virtually nearly destroyed the United States.

We can’t keep the migrant labour system and the mining industry operating the way it is operating and thing that South Africa will be cohesive. Our inequalities will just accelerate because it is in the nature of the institution.

It’s also a very stressful time to do that though, the turbulence that goes with it – not just the mining sector but in many areas of our society. Are you seeing a very rocky road ahead, as we address these issues?

You know Alec we’ve been through many rocky roads right. There was a rocky road during the Anglo Zulu War. There was a rocky road between the Xhosas and the Boers. There was a rocky road between the Boers and the British, so we’ve had many rocky roads but gradually we’re moving forward. We’re getting to better and better environments.

We had a very rocky road getting rid of apartheid but I think everybody agrees that the outcome was certainly worth the pain that we went through. Now, we are still faced with having to restructure our economy, and that is a very rocky road, which we are going to be faced with.

For the Americans to get rid of slavery it cost them 600 thousand people killed in a Civil War. Now, I’m not recommending we should go that route.

At least we have learnt our lesson from the Americans but if there are powerful forces that say we must retain the migrant labour system and the structure of our economy that is excluding huge numbers of people – then you will get a very rocky road.

What is your solution, when you think about these things? You’re an elder now. You’re 70 years old, which is hard to believe that you’ve been around for a long time, but still very youthful in the thinking. What is the solution, given that it isn’t just one enemy called slavery that we have to attack?

Well, in my view, we have to think about the interests of the people of South Africa and not about the interests of the ANC or of the DA or of the EFF. We have to think about the interest of the people of South Africa. By this – I mean all the people of South Africa.

Not just the wealthy, the middle class or just the poor, so we have to reposition in our mind first, our country in the world – where should South Africa be in the world? In my view, there’s no magic to modernising a country. We have to modernise South Africa.

South African economies are 19th Century semi-colonial economy. It’s not working. We have 35%  unemployment. At the back pages of ‘The Economist’, they publish every week data about 42 leading countries in the world. We have the highest unemployment – consistently in that table, so there is something very fundamentally wrong with South Africa.

Our economy is not performing and there are very good reasons why it’s not performing. It’s an archaic economy that is stuck in the ways of the past that is still being driven. For example, our exports are driven by mining, and mining is driven by migrant labour – it’s driven by old-fashioned technologies and export, of raw materials.

Now an economy that exports raw materials can never go anywhere, and we have to realise that and we have to change. It’s not going to be easy because the mining industry is a hugely powerful industry in this country. They account for 60% of our exports, so they have huge leverage, so they can resist change and these are the dynamics that we have to address.

Isn’t the private sector doing interesting stuff anyway? When you look around us here, in Sandton and you see new buildings going up. They’re not mining company buildings. They’re services businesses, services businesses not just for this economy but for the hinterland as well. Is that where the future lies, a more educated, a more service driven economy?

It has to be. That’s the way of the world and that’s the way the world is going but we also have to have a manufacturing industry because we have a huge poor population, with low skills that is unemployed, so instead of us giving them Social Welfare, which is what the present Government thinks is a solution to poverty. We have to get investors.

We have to create entrepreneurs and support entrepreneurs to actually, employ people. Whether they’re in the service sector, in manufacturing or even mining but it has to be job creation. The mining industry in this country is declining.

Not because we don’t have minerals but because there’s no investment and there’s no exploration, but there are laws of disincentives that our current policies are putting in front of investors.

If there was, one way of realigning the incentive to create jobs…

It has to create a profitable economy because the job creation from an entrepreneur, and I’m one of the entrepreneurs, I’m afraid it’s still a by-product of making profit. We have to have profitable businesses and in South Africa not only is the profitability of our businesses hamstrung by all sorts of Government activity but the security of property, in South Africa, is constantly being undermined.

Notwithstanding the Constitution by the ruling party, by the Government, so when you create that sort of uncertainty then there isn’t going to be large investment and you will get investment, for example, in real estate because you just rent out your building rather than having to manage a huge number of workers – producing wealth on a daily basis.

Moeletsi, as an entrepreneur and we hear this from many entrepreneurs in South Africa, particularly small ones, the Labour Legislation makes it very difficult to hire someone if you are not able to fire someone. That seems to be a real conflict area, where the Government talks about decent work. People around the world say well, just get into the system. Somehow, get yourself apprenticed. Get yourself exposed. Where do you stand on that issue?

I worked for COSATU. I was head of communication from 1990 to 1993, so for me Trade Unions don’t frighten me. I used to own a construction company and I worked with the unions when they unionised the construction company.

I’m a partner in an agricultural business, the Food and Allied Workers have been there to organise workers, and we follow the rules and it’s no problem to our business. Again, I think we do have this ‘dinner talk’ in South Africa, which we mistake the ‘dinner talk’ for the substantive issues.

In reality, where you have 35% to 40% unemployment – what kind of power does labour have, very little? The Government can pass any amount of law as it likes. Where you have 40% unemployment in the African population, they don’t have the power. They have very little negotiating power, so to me, most of that is a myth.

Certainly, in my companies, I haven’t found this legislation to be a problem. The biggest headache to me is the Black Economic Empowerment Legislation, but it was the private sector itself, which created Black Economic Empowerment. It was not the ANC. The private sector created that, so now they’re crying but they created it.

You find that a problem…

No, I think the big problem we are faced with in South Africa is that there is a huge amount of insecurity in terms of property rights. That is a fundamental problem. People look at manifestations or symptoms that come out of that but, actually the fundamental problem is that there is a lot of uncertainty, in terms of property rights.

For example, the South African Government used to have binational investment treaties with foreign countries, like Germany, the Netherlands and so on. They decided to terminate those treaties, when they failed and they said, “We will write our law.”

Not negotiate it with you but we will write the law ourselves. Now they think that the Germans should just lie back and say okay, you write the law and if you feel like it, take my Mercedes Benz or BMW Company because your law says that you can do it.

They don’t realise the impact of doing that on the local investors. The local investors are realising that there’s a threat to property rights of foreign investors – how much more to me, as a local investor.

These are they dynamics that we are facing but there are good reasons why this is a phase in our history and we have to find a solution to it.

Talking to young people today some say, who are sitting in the UK learning, understanding the world better than perhaps previous generations in South Africa, who didn’t travel that much. Would you urge them to come back and make a contribution here? On the other hand, would you think that they might have a better time to return home, once they get their skills?

As I pointed out, I benefited from my years in exile, so I think many of our young people, if they have the opportunity – they should take advantage of it, to study elsewhere outside the country and to gain some experience.

During my time as a political analysis, I used to go to the City of London, to do presentations, and I noticed many young South African asset managers working in the city. It’s a good thing. Hopefully, they will come back however, at the end of the day there has to be a future for young people in this country. There has to be a future for their families.

If they can’t see a future for their families, you can preach as much as you like about them being unpatriotic but there’s no future. We all have to work together to stabilise South Africa and to overcome the anachronistic aspects.

There is nothing wrong with having an anachronistic economy – it shows we have an old economy but there is something wrong with doing nothing about it and to keep repeating the same thing, thinking it will give you a different outcome. Now, that is wrong.

We’ve seen the students raising their voices. We’ve seen the churches marching against corruption. You mentioned earlier that America had to go through a Civil War and 600 thousand lives, before it found change. Where’s the spark going to come from? How can the spark be ignited?

I don’t know but I want to see that spark. Once you get that spark, you will never know what will be the outcome. As somebody once said, “It only takes a spark to start a fire. Now once the fire starts, then you can’t control it, so there are huge risks in sparks.

My own inclination is to try to persuade the key players in our society to listen to the students. By the way, at the very beginning of the process of introducing loans in higher education I opposed it. I actually was at a debate at Wits.

I was invited by the Wits SRC somewhere in 1996, or somewhere there. I spoke against the introduction and I’m still against the introduction because I know the level of poverty of the great majority of the people in this country.

Those children can’t afford to carry a loan, so we have to prioritise. If we are going to prioritise buying submarines, okay fine. Then what are we going to do with these?

We must go and invade somebody. Buy guns posts, and then go and think about whom we are going to invade – that is a priority but you can’t have it both ways.

If we have to modernise our economy we need skilled people. You can’t modernise an economy with unskilled people or people with old skills. You cannot modernise an economy if you don’t modernise your education system.

South Africa’s education system is totally rotten, from top to bottom but we keep hammering at it and doing the same thing, making it bigger, instead of really addressing… One of the things that the university students have sparked is the discussion about other education systems.

For example, one of the things I picked up from one of the papers is that of the students who qualify for university education in England, 45% of them go to university. In Germany, it is 27%. Now what happens to the rest?

The article didn’t say what happened to the rest but a lot happens to the rest but it’s a different system, which is what makes Germany the engineering hub that it has become. They have a different education system that gives them the results that they are after.

We cannot keep hanging onto thinking we are going to replicate the English system, whereby 45% go and do academic work. Where are the artisans going to come from?

Read also: Vavi on SA: ‘A kleptocracy led by thieves’ – corruption cost R700bn in 20yrs

Lots of challenges, lots of issues, and lots of insights. Just some quick answers. Your favourite car?

I drive a C-Class.

Your favourite book?

My favourite book I think ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ remains one of my favourites. It’s about slavery in the new world. It has lots of lessons.

Your favourite holiday destination?

I have a holiday home in Mauritius, so that is my favourite destination.

Your favourite other country, apart from South Africa?

United Kingdom, because I lived there the longest.

Your favourite music?

Mozart, I think, is my favourite composer but between classical music or for a certain period in jazz, those are my two favourite music, they go together.

Football team?

I lived next to Arsenal for many years, so I’m an Arsenal supporter.

Player?

I’m a bit out of touch with that now.

So it would be anybody who puts on the ‘Gunner’s’ jersey, I’m sure.

Yes.

Your favourite role model? Do you have one (from history) – not necessarily, someone living or dead but just someone you’ve been able to learn a lot from?

Well, one of the people, whom I learnt a lot from is the Chinese revolutionary Max Shachtman. He understood what his country needed to do.

What type of change had to be done? How was that change to be driven? As he got older, after achieving the changes that he initially wanted, it went off the rails a little bit but in terms of moving China from being semi-colony. He definitely had a great vision of how to do it.

Apple or Android?

Apple.

Your laptop – Apple or Windows?

It’s Apple.

Are you a fan of Steve Jobs, or just what he produced?

I know very little about the guy. Once I saw his presentation. I went to Paris with the company that distributes these products. Myself, I’m not a great proselytiser. Steve Jobs was a great proselytiser. I’m suspicious of proselytisers and profits but the products are good and for a journalist – I think Apple meets all of our needs, as journalists.

Facebook, Twitter, or none?

None.

Moeletsi Mbeki, it’s been a privilege.

Thank you.

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