President Mbeki went to a great deal of trouble to engage with minorities across the board regarding their growing concerns over aspects of the government’s transformation policies.

On a number of occasions he graciously accepted invitations from the FW de Klerk Foundation to participate in meetings with the Foundation’s Board and prominent civil society organisations and academccs.   The first meeting was held at Shambala, Douw Steyn’s magnificent game lodge in Limpopo Province, on 12 March, 2002 and was followed by meetings at Intundla, North-East of Pretoria, on 25-26 October, 2002 and at Glenburn Lodge in the Magaliesberg on 19-20 August 2005.   On each occasion President Mbeki was accompanied by strong ministerial delegations – and on each occasion the meetings were held in a constructive and convivial atmosphere.  The Foundation’s delegations used the meetings to express their growing concerns regarding affirmative action, the economy and the right to education in the language of one’s choice.

Most of the members of the Foundation’s delegation agreed that some form of affirmative action was necessary to address the imbalances and injustices created by apartheid.  There were, however, a number of questions regarding key aspects of the BEE process:

On 23 November 2004, Archbishop Tutu, added his voice to those calling for a national consensus on transformation and the other issues confronting South Africa.   In the second Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture he called for the development of a national consensus – and for an open debate on “issues such as affirmative action, transformation in sport, racism, xenophobia, security, crime and violence against Women and children”.  He gently chided the ANC  and President Mbeki for their approaches to Zimbabwe, the arms deal, AIDS and black empowerment which he said “seems to benefit not the vast majority but a small elite that tends to be recycled”.  He was critical of those who “demand an uncritical, sycophantic , obsequious conformity and called for a lowering of “the temperature in our public discourse.”

Instead of lowering the temperature of public discourse, President Mbeki responded to the Archbishop with white-hot anger.  He rejected Tutu’s assertion that BEE was benefiting only a small elite and insisted that those who presented themselves “as the greatest defenders of the poor should also demonstrate decent respect for the truth, rather than indecent resort to empty rhetoric.”

President Mbeki also emphatically rejected the Archbishop’s call for rational discussions to achieve a national consensus on transformation issues. He insisted that only the ANC could set the national agenda – and that the setting of the national agenda was an arena of struggle rather than negotiation.  He added that  because we originated from different political and ideological backgrounds, and diametrically opposed social experiences, it would in any event not be easy to arrive at the national consensus that the Archbishop desired.

A few weeks later, on 7 January 2005, President Mbeki again rejected the idea of any discussion about ‘the national agenda’ even with those (possibly including the Foundation and its associates) who professed to support change.  According to the President, although ‘absolutely everybody’ was ‘in favour of change’ and continued ‘to sing sweet songs about what needed to be done to bring about change, objectively, they were opposed to change’.

The ANC followed up its criticism of Archbishop Tutu with the publication of a multi-part ‘Sociology of the Public Discourse in Democratic South Africa’ in its online journal ‘Africa Today’.  The crux of this debate was who should set the national agenda, the ANC government or the ‘white elite’, assisted by some prominent black South Africans.

The ANC saw this as a ‘struggle’ that would be ‘as demanding and bruising’ as the struggle for a democratic and non-racial South Africa – although it would not be fought ‘with guns, bans, harassment by state organs’ as had happened during the apartheid years.

The ANC believed that “the (white) elite” had decided to confer the title of “icon” on prominent black South Africans, like Archbishop Tutu, because they were sensitive and sympathetic to “white fears”.  “This status is supposed to render the title-bearers immune from public criticism – the ‘untouchables’ whose opinions must be accepted as being virtually equivalent to the word of a god!”  The “elite” would also do everything possible to silence the voices of its opponents and would attempt to win the support of the people by manipulating perceptions and obfuscating facts.

The ANC viewed this as a “historic political and ideological confrontation”, which would determine “what our country will look like at the end of its Second Decade of Liberation.”

The second decade of liberation would focus primarily on the transformation or economic and social relationships.   The main vehicle for this process would be black economic empowerment which would have, as one of its goals, the redressing of “the imbalances of the past by seeking to substantially and equitably transfer and confer the ownership, management and control of South Africa’s financial and economic resources to the majority of its citizens.”

BEE’s guiding objective was the concept of ‘representivity’ which, in essence, required that all South Africa’s communities should be represented at all levels of ownership, control, management and employment in the public and private sectors in accordance with the proportions that they represented in the population as a whole.  The ANC believed that South Africa would not be a truly ‘non-racial society’ until the goal of representivity had been substantially achieved – and that until then, affirmative action would be needed to redress the imbalances created by apartheid.

This view of transformation clearly had serious implications, not only for white South Africans, but for Coloured and Indian South Africans as well – since they were also often on the wrong side of the representivity equation.   In particular, it was difficult to see how ‘the ownership of South Africa’s financial and economic resources’ could be transferred to the majority ‘equitably’ and without violating the property guarantees in the constitution.  Also, because of the difficulties involved in achieving representivity, white South Africans faced the prospect that they and their children would be subjected to affirmative action virtually forever.  This, no doubt, was what the ANC had in mind when it referred to ‘white fears’ in its analysis in ‘Africa Today’.

Despite this apparent rejection of moves to achieve consensus on transformation, the Foundation continued with its efforts to promote dialogue with the ANC.

At a meeting organised by the Foundation and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation at Zewenwacht in the Cape on 3 – 4  June 2005, the discussion with an ANC delegation once again centred on transformation issues.   The Foundation’s delegation said that it accepted the need for transformation – but that it should be the subject of consultation and agreement between the government and those affected.  However, in line with the position that President Mbeki had expressed in January, the ANC side vehemently rejected the need for consultation and insisted that it alone should determine the scope, pace and nature of the transformation process.  After the meeting, Dirk Hermann of Solidarity observed that the two delegations had had no difficulty in agreeing about the day-to-day challenges of life during their informal discussions over lunch – but that there was absolutely no meeting of minds during ‘bosberaad’s’  formal sessions.

On 19-20 August 2005 the Foundation hosted a final meeting with a delegation led by President Mbeki at Glenburn Lodge in the Magaliesberg. The Foundation and its delegation proposed that the government and civil society organisations should consider the development of a code of good practice relating to the fair implementation of affirmative action – in accordance with constitutional principles and recent judgements of the courts.    It was felt that such a code could provide a useful guideline to employers and would help ensure that minorities would be treated fairly in affirmative action processes – and in particular that they would not be subject to absolute exclusion from appointment or promotion.   However, the kind of code that the participants had in mind never materialised.  The ANC side repeatedly answered concerns raised by the Foundation’s delegation by reaffirming their commitment in the Constitution that South Africa belonged to all who live in it, united in their diversity.  What they did not add was there insistence that this ownership should ultimately be determined by country’s demographics.  In his closing remarks to the conference, Dr Flip Buys, the Chairman of Solidarity, said that after the discussion with President Mbeki and his delegation he was still confused – but he was confused at a much higher level!