by David Capel

A radical agenda for change

Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, talks to Leadership about SONA, the Local Government Elections, Chris Hani and finding ourselves as a nation


If Jeff Radebe is feeling the pressure, he hides it pretty well. Phlegmatic, communicative and forthright, he puts the case for the ANC in a persuasive manner, even in the immediate aftermath of President Jacob Zuma’s Constitutional Court drama over Nkandla, the high theatre of the opening of parliament the night before and widespread predictions that his party faces a significant loss of support in the upcoming Local Government Elections.

Leadership spoke to him a few hours after President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) that had been marred by mayhem in the streets of Cape Town and the now-expected filibustering and downright disorderliness of Julius Malema and his band of merry, red-overalled EFF fellow MPs. If he was in a bad mood, he wore a very effective mask.

Nevertheless, the EFF’s behaviour, he says, was entirely unacceptable.

“I think it’s a sad story, because the decorum of Parliament is severely affected by such behaviour, as is the image and standing of South Africa in the eyes of people outside when they see a spectacle like that. In my view, as the Speaker indicated, the State of the Nation Address is actually an extraordinary session of Parliament, which is convened by the President as the Head of State in order to give his annual address to the people of South Africa about what the programme of government will be for the year ahead, so for members of parliament to disrupt it like that I thought was very bad indeed,” says Radebe.

He says it is important to remember that “we are in parliament not to represent ourselves, but the people of South Africa, so I just shudder to think what the voters out there think about the conduct that was displayed”.

Democracy of the people

Turning to the Local Government Elections it is clear that Radebe is concerned, to say the least, that the ANC’s support is eroding.

“The first point to be made is that we believe in the democracy of our people and their freedom of choice. In fact, the constitutional democracy that we enjoy in South Africa today is because of the role that the ANC has played in the struggle for freedom and justice and, more particularly after 1994, in consolidating the institutions of political democracy. But as the ruling party I think we need to devote more effort towards being closer and closer to our people, so that the demands that they have are progressively implemented.”

Of all the metros the ANC might lose, Radebe is most worried about Nelson Mandela Bay.

“We are concerned, which is why the ANC last year deployed one of its top and most effective cadres, Danny Jordaan, as mayor, in order to ensure that we can maintain the support that the ANC has historically enjoyed here. Nelson Mandela Bay is no ordinary metro. It is named after our icon, Nelson Mandela, who was the leader of the ANC for many years and, over and above this, Port Elizabeth in particular is where many of the stalwarts of the liberation struggle, like the late Premier of the Eastern Cape, Raymond Mhlaba and the late Govan Mbeki, father of our former President Thabo Mbeki hail from. We can’t afford to lose such a strategic centre,” he says.

So concerned is the ANC about losing Nelson Mandela Bay that, 18 months ago, government put about R4.6-billion aside for human settlements in the area.

He says a recent survey indicated that, “by any stretch of the imagination”, Jordaan is the most popular personality in Nelson Mandela Bay. The ANC is pinning its hopes on the football supremo like never before.

“The ANC government,” says Radebe, “has achieved a lot in the past 20 years to eradicate the legacy of centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid misrule. (But) what must worry us is whether or not we are taking the people into our confidence, both in the articulation of the challenges we continue to face and the means by which we seek to resolve them.

“As the ANC we never take voters for granted, which is why we robustly engage in elaborate election programmes to win the voters onto the side of our national transformation agenda. But even more importantly, the ANC has taken stock of the areas of interventions that are necessary to address the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

“The legacy of the past requires that we adopt a two-pronged approach in the resolution of these challenges

“Firstly, we have focused on meeting the various basic needs in health, education, social grants etc, through various fiscal expenditures. Secondly, we are fully conscious that we need to ensure sustainable development through full economic participation of our people. The Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF), an intermediary implementation mechanism of the National Development Plan (NDP), seeks to achieve long-lasting and sustainable solutions in our economy.

“In this regard I could mention empowering the youth through education and skills development, entrepreneurship support through the Small Business Development Department and affirmative action that seeks to bridge the inequalities of the past.”

An ally of the people

Essentially, says Radebe, the ANC must demonstrate that it continues to be the “ally of the people” in their struggles to resolve the historic questions of nation-building in the context of race, gender and class disparities. The ANC must be at the heart of articulating a radical agenda for change in South Africa, which must be implemented by government at NDP level and supported by the private sector.

“We must instil among our people the fact that not only is the ANC willing and keen to resolve their daily challenges, be it at branch, provincial or national level, in all three spheres of government, but that, very importantly, the people themselves must fully participate towards their own economic emancipation.”

He says the core priorities of the NDP are to reduce poverty, unemployment and inequality. To achieve this, the NDP states that it is necessary to radically transform the economy by:

Raising employment through faster economic growth
Improving the quality of education, skills development and innovation
Building the capability of the state to play a developmental and transformative role
Africa’s good story

Turning further afield, he says Africa, increasingly, has a good story to tell. Branded for decades a doomed continent, characterised by malnourished babies, poverty, crime, conflict and squalor, today Africa is on the up.

“Globally, we know that there is presently a serious economic downturn, with China and many other economies reporting negative growth. We in South Africa are affected by this, because we are not insulated from the global economic scene. But if you look at all regions as a collective, Africa is probably the only region that is really starting to grow.”

He says NEPAD remains the key programme for Africa’s economic rejuvenation. “Recently, we have revitalised the African Peer Review Mechanism by appointing Dr Eddy Maloka, a fellow South African diplomat, precisely because we seek to write a different and positive narrative regarding the African story. You would certainly know that as a country we continue to contribute immensely in peacekeeping and related duties around the continent. We continue to promote African unity, which must find expression in greater intra-continental trade and finance. I am confident that through the BRICS Bank we will create financial resources to fund various developments that would buttress what is already a fast-growing continent, economically.”


When it comes to his own leadership style, Radebe says he believes in “quality leadership”.

“There has to be a consensus, but when I’m called upon to take a decision I don’t hesitate. I am very decisive in what I want to achieve. My track record from 1994 speaks for itself, in that I had to take tough decisions when I was in the Department of Public Works. I designed the procurement reforms that we see in South Africa today, especially in support of black emerging contractors, and we initiated the public private partnership. Collective leadership is vital, but when a decision has to be taken I don’t hesitate.

“My leadership style is informed by the experience of political activism in the struggle, as led by the ANC to defeat apartheid and advance the cause of our constitutional democracy. One of the basic guiding principles of leadership is that of democratic centralism. Simply put, this means that the collective can discuss and differ but must rally around the consensus without showing any differences before the consensus was reached.”

Achieved so much

Asked if there is a crisis of leadership at government level, Radebe deflects. “Well,” he says, “I think in South Africa today we should always look at the positive side of things—that after 21 years of democracy we have achieved so much. Many countries in the world have not yet attained what we have. Look at education. I was at the University of Fort Hare recently. Between 1952 and 1955, there were about 492 students there, and only 42 were women. Today Fort Hare has more than 60 000 students, so the progress that we have made since 1994 is phenomenal. The Minister of Higher Education was telling us that today there are a million students at universities and other institutions of higher learning across South Africa, so the progress has been there, indicating that leadership in terms of taking our country in the right direction has been there.”

And young leadership? Radebe says South Africa’s history has shown that the youth have always played a profoundly important role in changing the mindsets of people.

“If we look at the 40s, for example, Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede and others were in their twenties when they effected radical changes in the psychology and thinking of the leadership of the ANC. We saw this again in the 70s during the Soweto student uprising, led by 16- and 17-year-olds.

“We saw this again in the 80s, with former President of the ANC, the late Oliver Tambo, calling the youth of the time the Young Lions, and we saw it again last year with the #Feesmustfall campaign. So I think what that tells us is that the vibrancy of the youth, despite their exuberance, must not be dismissed. However, it needs to be embraced and must be channelled in the right direction. In any event, the majority of South Africans are young people, so it stands to reason that they have a stake in the future of this country, so our role is to nurture them and to ensure that when they come up with new ideas we embrace the progressive nature of those ideas so that we can be able to move forward to ensure that South Africa has a bright future ahead.”

When he himself was a young man, Radebe wanted to become a medical doctor. “I was doing mathematics and science in a big way, even in Matric, but when our maths teacher fell pregnant we were lagging behind in mathematics and students from the University of Natal came to teach us over weekends—and one of those students was Steve Biko,” he recalls. The rest, you might say, is history.

Radebe decided to study law instead and today he has a Master’s Degree in International Law and says he has always cherished freedom and justice, which is why he decided to join the ANC underground.

His heroes, so to speak, include Biko, Mandela, Fidel Castro and the late Chris Hani. Of the latter, he says: “I admired his courage, and I admired his intellect. Despite the perception that many people had of him (as a militant without too much education) he was actually an intellectual.”

Would Hani’s killer, Clive Derby-Lewis, who has been denied parole on numerous occasions, ever be a free man? “Well,” says Radebe, “I think that is a decision for the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, but it is a highly emotive issue…”

On the fateful day in April 1993 when Hani was killed, Radebe, who was then president of the ANC in Natal, was in Durban talking to a journalist when the shocking news of Hani’s assassination came in.

“At first I thought it was just a prank message, but then my comrades called me, and said ‘Hey man, Chris is dead’. That day, South Africa nearly went up in flames.”

Trust of the people

But back to the question of leadership. One of the most important aspects of good leadership, he says, is the trust of the people, “which we must endeavour never to betray, neither through corruption nor through inefficiency.

“As some have alluded to, the making of the greatest revolutionary is in the expression of the feelings of love for the people as the masses face their various challenges. Thus good leadership qualities are inspired by the love of the people.

“The challenge of the youth today is to further the historic mission whose challenges are mirrored in the endeavour to eradicate poverty, unemployment and inequality. Our government reflects what we have termed a generational mix, wherein both veterans of the struggle and the younger generation work side-by-side, one infusing experience and the other energy, to take our country’s development forward.”

In conclusion, Radebe says: “I am of the firm belief that as a nation we need to continue to find each other in the spirit of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Walter Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi and many other departed stalwarts of our struggle, to build an inclusive society.

“In order to build a stable democratic society we need to urgently address the disparities occasioned by the conflicts of the past. And, very importantly, such conversations are the means by which we must find each other and build a winning nation.”

David Capel

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