Anti-apartheid hero Denis Goldberg: ′Zimbabwe′s example is a very powerful one′ | Africa | DW | 24.11.2017

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Anti-apartheid hero Denis Goldberg: 'Zimbabwe's example is a very powerful one'

Denis Goldberg, who struggled alongside Nelson Mandela to end apartheid in South Africa, says Zimbabwe's overthrowing of its long-term ruler Robert Mugabe is a good example of what to do with a dictator.

Veteran activist Denis Goldberg was convicted alongside African National Congress (ANC) leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki for fighting against South Africa's apartheid regime. Released in 1985 after 22 years in prison, Goldberg continued to work for the ANC from exile, and then in government.

Goldberg is an outspoken critic of how corruption and cronyism is flourishing in the ANC under South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma. He spoke to DW about what the military takeover of Zimbabwe and the resignation of the country's long-term ruler, Robert Mugabe, means for South Africa.

DW: What do you make of what is happening now in Zimbabwe?

Denis Goldberg: The important thing is that Emmerson Mnangagwa [who was sworn in as Zimbabwe's president today] has not been elected and has not been appointed by an elected president. The question is, what sort of a man is Emmerson Mnangagwa? 

Read more: Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa returns - What's next?

After all, he did support Mugabe until the very last minute, until his own life was threatened. And Mnangagwa is said to be responsible for the deaths of many people [Mnangagwa is alleged to have overseen an army crackdown on the minority Ndebele people which killed 20,000]. So the future of Zimbabwe is not clear. It's important that Mugabe, [who ruled for 37 years], has been forced to retire. It's too long for any one person to remain in office; it destroys whatever possibility of democracy there might be.

Do you see other African countries following suit and moving for change?

Well, I would like my own country to follow the example of a president who needs to go, who has become authoritarian, and who is supervising the collapse of all the values that people like myself, and many others, fought for, went to prison for, and many died for. So it's a very good example for dictators.

How would you describe the life of young South Africans today, in the era after apartheid [which ended in 1994], now that they are raising their voices?

Close up photo of Denis Goldberg wearing glasses and smiling

ANC stalwart Denis Goldberg has said in the past, Zuma must step down

In the post-apartheid era, many millions of people are living better than before. Some few million have done extremely well; they've become part of government, part of the getting rich quickly - what we call the crony economy - and so it's interesting to see the situation where people mourn Mugabe and would mourn Zuma, [South Africa's president since 2009]. It's not an easy transition to make but our people are speaking out. Young people who've grown up since our transformation in 1994 are speaking out; they want change and change will come about. The example of Zimbabwe is a very powerful one.

South Africa has long been considered Africa's powerhouse. What role do you think it can play in ensuring a smooth transition in Zimbabwe?

It's up to the people of Zimbabwe to decide how they are going to transform their country. You can have a very smooth transition from Mr. Mugabe to a new dictator or you have a more difficult transition to a new democratic system where they rebuild the confidence of the people in a democratic system. It depends on what the people decide and what the leadership decides and what support the generals give to the politicians. Are the generals doing what they are doing now just to save their own necks because they were implicated in much of the violence and the deaths and the illegality? It's not an easy question to resolve. They're saying they want elections by next year – let's see if they take place, and if they do take place, if they are free and fair and the people's voice is really heard. I think it's going to take generations to overcome what's been done to democratic systems [in Zimbabwe].

Turning to South Africa, what is your view on the climate in South Africa at the moment, where there is also a leader who seems determined to cling to power?

There is a very disturbing tendency among some people to blame Nelson Mandela [South Africa's first president after the fall of apartheid] and the then leadership for the fact that the wealth of the country still belongs to the wealthy people – mainly white, mainly international but also some very wealthy black people now. They blame Nelson Mandela for not simply taking everything away and giving it to every black person.

It just doesn't work that way in history. Trying to overcome hundreds of years of suffering and discrimination will take generations. We've had just over one generation since liberation and it's going to take another 20, 40 or even 50 years for us to make a real breakthrough. What encourages me is that, unlike in Zimbabwe, the people have power through parliament to remove a president, a dictator. We have very powerful institutions as part of our constitution to defend the constitution and democracy and the people who have led these institutions have been very outspoken.

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But there is a tendency still in parts of the country where, if you dislike a political opponent, he gets murdered. This is a tragedy that is going on right now. But in general, young people who have grown up since liberation in 1994 are saying: 'These things are wrong, you've taught us how to be architects and engineers and policy makers. Let us do the job and build the country and stop interfering on political grounds to stop us doing it because you want to get rich.'

This is my hope for the future, that the young people are saying they want a change and that they want our democracy to survive.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. It was conducted by Zipporrah Nyamburah.