Whiter than white?
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Date: 2 April, 2004

Top: Dave Steward. Photo: Charlotte Haines Lyon

'It was a great day of liberation for all South Africans. It freed whites from the burden of having to carry the whole country on their backs and not being able to look fellow South Africans in the eye.'

Dave Steward was South African ambassador to the UN before becoming head of the government's communication agency and then President F W De Klerk's Chief of Staff.

So what does a former member of the South African government think about the country ten years after the end of apartheid? Charlotte Haines-Lyon found out.

Dave Steward admits that he is from "the old South Africa". I am surprised by his strangely English accent. This soon makes sense as he tells me that he attended a public school in England.

Steward now works with his old boss at the President De Klerk Foundation. The plush office, with a floor to ceiling window overlooking the whole of Cape Town, is rather beguiling.

I first ask whether the end of apartheid was a moral or pragmatic decision. He shifts forward and smiles, "The reforms that took place, in my opinion, were overwhelmingly driven by the economic and social developments of the 60s and 70s."

He continues to explain how due to the rapid growth of that period "it became very clear to white South Africans that they couldn't run the economy by themselves. This brought millions of black South Africans into the formal economy at higher and higher levels. In turn, more had to be invested in black education, which happened although it wasn't the best education."


"It was developments like these that broke down apartheid," Steward insists. "It made absolutely no sense. If you are a white bank teller and you've got a black colleague, you're really not going to go to different dining rooms. Afterwards, you're not going to go to separate places of entertainment or even separate suburbs."

Apparently, reform occurred as the government gave legislative recognition to everyday changes. So persuasive was he, that it was only later in the car, that I realised I should have asked about the difficulty blacks had in getting passes to work in banks and other such places.

He compares the last decade of apartheid to "riding a tiger"; the government wanted to get off but was afraid of being devoured. This was due to three main concerns; firstly there was the perceived threat to Afrikaner nationalism - the desire for self-determination had driven their history for 300 years.

Secondly, there were fears of communism. Steward is adamant that "this was genuinely not just a question of Reds under beds. The fact is, a majority of the National Executive of the ANC were also members of the communist party."

Finally, there was the fear that 'one man one vote' would end not democracy but in chaos. This was fuelled by "the fear that we would go the way that so many other African countries had gone."

Steward claims that apartheid was a government solution to multi-ethnicity that didn't work. Partition, he says, is a model that thirty or more countries have followed since World War Two, including Palestine and Israel.


He adds, "The division of territory, country and resources wasn't fair. Secondly, there were no areas in South Africa where whites were anything close to a majority position." These conditions apparently rendered such partition unfeasible.

1989, it seems, was the year that heralded the way forward. "The then president, PW Botha, had a stroke and FW De Klerk became leader. I don't think PW Botha would have been able to do it," Steward says serenely. "I think he accepted the need for change but I don't think he had the leadership qualities, the imagination or maybe the courage to do what was necessary."

Changes were also a foot in the Afrikaner community. "When the National Party had come to power in 1948, it was very much a blue-collar, socialist movement," he says before telling me how a whole generation of Afrikaners became middle class.

Through university, travel and Bill Cosby, "...they were exposed to global influences. This made them less comfortable with 'statist' policies like Apartheid. In turn nationalism diminished. Steward says: "The fact is, it just wouldn't be cool to go to the Voortrekker monument and sing patriotic songs."

Steward maintains the concern of the communist threat fell along with the Iron Curtain. Accordingly, the world, including Mandela started to realise that a market economy was the solution. He wryly remarks: "Even the British Labour party was quietly appropriating some of Mrs Thatcher's policies."

Globalisation started to place expectations on the behaviour of states. These factors combined with the emergence of Mandela as a reconciliatory leader of the ANC, enabled the dismounting of the tiger, according to Steward.


Looking back on the last ten years since that first election, Steward expresses great pride in his country. He comments that the strength of the economy and peace in the country has surprised many doomsayers of the 80's.

However, he is also sharply critical of the ruling government. Their approach to minorities, their attitude to HIV and AIDS and employment issues, especially with regard to affirmative action, all come under fire.

"The reality is that ten years after the birth of South Africa, we are now beginning to experience some disturbing elements or signs of alienation between the majority and the minority communities," Steward says.

"What is the future of Afrikaans schools? What is the future of universities like Stellenbosch and other culturally based institutions?" he asks as he argues for their right to maintain an Afrikaner culture and language on the condition that they welcome all types of people.

He explains the De Klerk Foundation's advocacy for a second house of representatives from all the communities. This would be used for consultation to ensure the government does not only attend to the majority. The failure to create such an organisation triggered De Klerk's resignation from the government of National Unity in 1996.

If minorities are not embraced within the so-called 'Rainbow Nation', then Steward fears that there will be what he calls internal emigration: "Build your wall a little bit higher. Put some more electric wire over the top and then say 'we'll screw them, they don't want me so I am going to look after my family.'"


Despite the acknowledgement that whites still have most of the money and decent jobs, some whites often complain about new employment laws. That companies must employ a workforce representative of the country i.e. 70% should be black, particularly incurs anger.

Steward argues that these restrictions are not helping the vast unemployment rate in South Africa, currently at 42%: "If you are running a company and you can't appoint on merit then you are not going to survive. You're not going to stay in business." Criticism also hits the unions who have succeeded in instituting the minimum wage and other "rigid labour policies".

As to HIV and AIDs, the government have been ineffective in their response, Steward believes: "It threatens a cataclysm because people don't really know the difference between a thousand and a million."

He echoes other South Africans in declaring: "confronted with this kind of a national crisis we just simply shouldn't have been spending billions of Rands on advanced fighter planes."

But in spite of these issues, Dave Steward is proud of being South African and proud of his country's transformation. When I ask if the last ten years has been a decade of liberation for him, he leans forward with a serious face and says, "Oh ja. I feel very much so."

He concludes by saying: "It was a great day of liberation for all South Africans. It freed whites from the burden of having to carry the whole country on their backs and not being able to look fellow South Africans in the eye."

Editor's note: The views expressed in this interview are not those of surefish.co.uk or Christian Aid

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