For the South African apartheid regime, some were terrorists; for the others, some were freedom fighters.
Hélène Passtoors is a Belgian national who was teaching in Mozambique in the 70s and early 80s when she was recruited by the South African African National Congress. She transported weapons, established arms caches and participated in special operations. In 1985, she was arrested, convicted of treason, and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. She was released in 1989 following negotiations between the Belgian and the South African governments.
She later worked as a journalist, lecturer and author. In April 2011, she received the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo from the South African government for her contribution to the ANC struggle and the spirit of friendship she demonstrated for the South African people.
Mint Press News met her in the little Belgian village where she now lives for an exclusive interview on race relations and South African’s vision.
Mint Press News (MPN): In the early 80s, you were an ANC activist, fighting against racial oppression in South Africa, yet you were considered a terrorist. It is an interesting perspective when you compare that to the current tendency to use and abuse of this label.
Hélène Passtoors (HP): Well, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, this is what they say. For the South African apartheid regime, we were terrorists; for the other countries in Africa, we were freedom fighters. As for the West, they had a rather ambiguous attitude towards South Africa. They had this idea that, after all, the South African government was white, they saw it as a sort of outpost of Western civilization I suppose and so, even though they were opposed to apartheid, many Western governments thought they must be reasonable people and it must be possible to talk to them; they believed the ANC should negotiate with the South African government… In the United States, we were considered as terrorists until 2008, when they passed a law taking the ANC off the list of terrorist organizations.
And of course, since this was during the Cold War, we were supposedly communists, even though this was no true. The ANC was – is – a very broad movement of people with all possible different political opinions. We all agreed on one thing though: that everyone living in the country was South African, be they white or black. The ANC – as opposed to the Pan-African Congress who in principle wanted the whites out – was struggling for a non-racial country. It had a leftist, progressive ideology, but was definitely not communist, although it was allied to the Communist party.
MPN: Black and leftist… this was enough to make you look like the bad guys in the eyes of the United States?
HP: Not bad, dangerous. Even though we were fighting a racist regime, even though little by little, people all over the world started realizing that this kind of system should no longer exist, the ANC members were seen as dangerous because they were very independently minded – they still are, actually – and they would let no one tell them what they should do. A lot of Americans thought they were under Soviet influence. It is true that a lot of ANC members had trained in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, but ideologically, they were independent, they refused any outside control whoever they got money or weapons from. And this, the U.S. found difficult to accept of course.
MPN: Do you think there is still a racial problem today in South Africa?
HP: No. There is no basic problem of one race versus another. I mean, not more than here [in Belgium].
But there are different life experiences and opinions. In the media, you still mainly find the white opinion, the white way of looking at things. You won’t find the black perspective.
Another importance element is that, with a few exceptions, the white people are still privileged: they have better housing, better education… And so, regularly, progressive whites engage in what is called the “whiteness debate” saying “why don’t the whites tone down a bit”, “they should not speak out so loudly”. And regularly, black people say: “we are fed up with their attitude”, in particular of the media. But twenty years is nothing, you know, to turn an entire society upside down.
MPN: Does that mean that positive discrimination did not work?
HP: The government decided that everyone should meet quotas for the historically disadvantaged people, be it on the base of race or gender. All companies in South Africa have accepted this and positive discrimination in ongoing in all areas. Additionally, all discrimination, based on gender, race, religion… has been outlawed. This is why I say that there are no basic problems of race.
This said, there are still two major problems. The first one is the high unemployment rate; with also a problem of increasing xenophobia towards Africans…
MPN: You mean blacks against blacks?
HP: Yes, South Africans against migrants from other African countries. It’s hard to understand in the light of the past struggle…
The second problem is class: this is a big subject. Before 1994 [when the ANC was elected] there were class differences in the non-white society but everyone fought together, so it was not an issue. But now, more and more black middle-class people are moving out of black townships, into formerly exclusively white areas. What used to be racial exploitation has become, to a certain extent, a class difference.
The fact is that positive discrimination in employment in practice only works for the middle-class. You know why? Because the working class under apartheid was exclusively black. In other words, there was no white competition and so, of course, positive discrimination could not work. As a result, poverty is still essentially black.
MPN: And 90 percent of the South African economy is still in white hands…
HP: It is actually worse than that. Capital is largely in the hands of foreigners who do not reinvest in South Africa. The ANC government tries very hard to negotiate with companies but the large majority of shareholders is foreign, so it is difficult. Even at the Johannesburg stock exchange, 70 percent of the capital is in foreign hands.
MPN: Even though Thabo Mbeki [the second post-apartheid president] carried out some major economic reforms and integrated South Africa into the world economy?
HP: Yes, absolutely. To the point that some radicals say he went totally neo-liberal. But the question is: to what extent did the South African authorities have the choice? They inherited a bankrupt State and needed money to carry out a major reshuffle of the administration, to set up a pension and redundancy fund for apartheid civil servants… As a result, the ANC government started out with a tremendous state debt whilst the capital was fleeing the country. This is one of the reasons why Mandela was so often abroad: he wanted to attract investments to re-build the country. Some investments have come, but much less than expected. Westerners did not put their money where their mouth was. It was as if they could not believe the new government could do well; they wondered what would happen. Many asked: “What is going to happen to the whites in South Africa?” Why did they not wonder about what was going to happen to the blacks? There still is that kind of prejudice against, a distrust of, the blacks, you know.
So Mbeki had a problem and he had to deal with it one way or another: the IMF had a plan ready, with everything they thought the new South African government should do. But the South Africans did not want to have an enormous debt like so many other African countries, with the IMF then imposing structural reforms and the like.
So Mbeki chose a sort of middle-way: he did privatize some state companies but he did not privatize basic sectors, like transport or energy. And he introduced an important social policy with pensions, child allowances, basic housing, sanitation… There are still problems of course, but even the IMF and the World Bank reports now admit the social progress.
MPN: More recently, the South African government has been talking about another economic model, the “development state”?
HP: Yes, this is slightly different. The idea comes from the Asian tigers. In a nutshell, the State uses its economic power to partially steer the economy and determine “growth paths” for the country. In other words, the State intervenes to help the most promising sectors of the economy which can grow and create jobs. And this is what South Africa wants to do now.
You know, the opening up of the economy in the framework of liberalism did a lot of damage to important sectors of the South-African economy. A lot of shops for example were taken over by multinationals. The textile sector, which used to be important, was also damaged by cheap imports. In the automotive sector, a lot of spare-parts used to be produced by local businesses. Now, they are all imported. The same goes for mining machinery. The government would like to rebuild those and build up other sectors. As for mining, it wants to impose a certain percentage of value added inside the country. And it might contemplate some protectionist measures to reach those goals.
MPN: Do you mean they are adopting the BRICS approach? What is the role of South Africa in this regard?
HP: Yes, indeed, they are. There is an agreement between the BRICS members that they should protect each other’s growth paths. At the last BRICS meeting, South Africa raised the idea that any agreement between a BRICS and an African country must be done according to the African Development Plan. They want to get rid of bilateral agreements like those with the EU and the U.S. or at least ensure they are in accordance with their vision.
MPN: Many African countries have signed bilateral trade agreements with the European Union.
HP: Yes, they have been under tremendous pressure to do so: and how can all these small African countries resist the EU and the U.S. on their own? The EU and the U.S. always pretend to give development aid in exchange for these agreements. There is a lot of talk about China taking over the continent; but at least they build infrastructure, roads, dams… The EU and the U.S. don’t do that.
The idea then is to get rid of bilateral agreements – or at least restrict them or make them conform to African requirements. South Africa recently revoked its bilateral investment treaties (BITs): it is a good tendency because these investment treaties aim really at protecting overseas investors, never mind the country’s social and development objectives.
This does not mean that there won’t be other treaties, but on a different, more equal footing, with less, or preferably no, space for interference, exploitation etc. South Africa is one of the countries pushing in that direction; and the fact that they are a member of the BRICS is important. Together, they are stronger. The African Union is also taking on more powers.
MPN: But on the other hand, the AU is making arrangements with NATO for the training of African troops…
HP: Yes, I suppose it is all a matter of negotiating. They don’t want to cut all relations either. And military training is expensive, so why not ask NATO. This said, South Africa is very worried about Western military intervention on the continent. About Mali, for example, South Africa was very reluctant. But in the end, president Zuma thought things were so bad that he agreed to a French intervention. This said, Africans complain a lot about France. The French authorities said they wanted to get rid of Françafrique [ed.: Refers to France’s relationship with Africa and denounces the neocolonial relationship France has with its African former colonies] and the like but on the other hand, they are still very much around… South Africa and the AU are also worried about Africom, the US’s military program for Africa, which similarly advances through bilateral agreements.
When Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a South African politician and former anti-apartheid activist took over as chairperson of the African Union Commission, she was very surprised to see that the organization was actually financed by Western donors. This is a problem, of course. She said she wanted African countries to pay their contributions.
MPN: It is hard to be really independent if you don’t have money…
HP: Yes, it is a balancing act. This is what politics is about. Most African countries have had their economies growing recently though. They have revenues from the minerals… Of course they have to spend it well.
MPN: It is about the same with New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) : Africans want to decide on their own path of development but they have no money and ask Western donors for contributions.
HP: Yes, it is supposed to be a sort of Marshall Plan for Africa, based on the idea that “you messed up in Africa, so it is about time you pay but we decide on what we want to do”. It is about ‘reparation’ instead of ‘assistance’ or ‘aid’. But this idea of reparation does not exist in Europe or the United States. Minds have not been decolonized yet…
MPN: What do you mean?
HP: Well, Western countries have never put into question the vision on which the colonial system and the slave trade were based. They have not asked themselves to what extent it still influences their way of seeing the world. They still have that idea that the white West is naturally dominant. European governments just don’t realize that maybe they owe something to these people. In Latin America, they have killed the Mayas; in the United States, they have killed the Native American population; in Africa, there were too many people to kill but they used slaves and colonies to enrich themselves. This was all done at the expense of many people; who to a large extent are still poor.
They don’t seem to realize that they have done pretty bad things to these people, that we owe them some reparation, at least partially. Development aid is not our generosity; it is very little compared to the profits they still get out of these countries. Additionally, donors always want justification for every single penny spent; if it were reparation, you would let the local government decide where and how he wants to spend the money. But no, it is the EU calling the shots. OK, there is corruption, some say. Yes, but here too. Anyway, this is only their business insofar as Westerners are involved; but otherwise, it is up to the Africans themselves to fight against it.
So there is still that racist idea that we are better; that we deserve to be privileged; that we deserve our standard of living. You also can see it in race relations in Europe and in the way they treat migrants: it is still that same vision of black or colored people. There is a very easy example: Western tourists go everywhere around the world: and they think it is normal to receive a special treatment and protection. But why? What is so normal about it? No one asks the question.