'It's complicated'

Noseweek takes a look inside the mind of one of South Africa’s political stalwarts.

On a hot February Sunday, Roelf Meyer stared out at the sparkling ocean from a hotel dining room in Bloubergstrand, Cape Town whilst trying to explain the politics of Myanmar, a country in which he’s been spending a lot of time.

Best known for his role in negotiations to end apartheid, Meyer now spends one week a month in Myanmar in an advisory capacity to the head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi. And it’s no walk in the park. Recently he visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh where about a million Rohingya Muslims live “in appalling conditions. with no services, nothing”.

Through Meyer’s non-profit organisation, the In Transformation Initiative which he founded with four others in 2013, he is also involved in peacekeeping missions elsewhere: in Harare, from where he has recently returned, and South Sudan, where he is due shortly, to advise on conflict resolution there.

At 71, Meyer still has his boyish good looks. His blue-eyed charm and diplomatic restraint remain. But he looks tired.

Roelf Meyer

When we met, he was in Cape Town briefly for a meeting with a group of women involved in rebel activities from a range of countries – including Myanmar, Columbia and the Philippines – to “share the South African experience with them”.

But the project closest to Meyer’s heart is the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI), aimed at spearheading joint action by South Africa’s private and public sectors to fix the economy.

He also spoke about his role in land reform, particularly in developing an agricultural development agency aimed at developing about 10,000 commercial farms for black farmers and at “restoring the dignity of rural families across the country” which he said is “critically important”.

Meyer said he still enjoys a close relationship with President Cyril Ramaphosa, and described the day he became President as one of the best days in democratic South Africa. “I’ve been saying for years that if he were president, he’d put us back on the high road. I don’t expect to see him often, but he knows I’m involved in the PPGI in the best interests of the country.”

Meyer spoke of his love for historic books and biographies – “there’s a lot to learn from the past” – and of his fascination with Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts.

Myanmar's President Aung San Suu Kyi

The prevailing narrative on Myanmar is that, three years after taking power, Suu Kyi – a Nobel Peace Prize winner and once an international icon of peace and a champion of democracy and human rights – has refused to speak out against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, and has failed to acknowledge the massacres carried out by the military or oppose the prosecution of journalists.

But, insisted Meyer, it’s far more complicated than that. “The biggest challenge is the fact that the democratic government and the military government are two different governments in the same country, to the extent that they don’t talk to each other. The military government has sovereign power over four ministries: defence, police, immigration and border affairs.

“Their constitution gives Aung San Suu Kyi no power over these ministries. That is the heart of the problem. I find it difficult to get people to understand this. From the outside it looks as if she has complete control, but she does not. I’m not saying she hasn’t made mistakes but the reality is that these issues should be addressed in terms of the role of the military powers, police etc, over which she has no authority.

“From my personal discussions with her, I know what her difficulties are in terms of how far her authority stretches. There are many other problems in Myanmar, such as the fact that there are more than 15 armed ethnic groups there. I have seen refugee camps in Thailand which house hundreds of thousands of people from a range of ethnic groups in Myanmar who have been there for years. The same atrocities happening to the Rohingya Muslims have happened to many others. I am not trying to minimise the Rohingya problem, as what I have seen is totally unacceptable, but we must also look at the bigger picture.”

The eternal diplomat, Meyer – recognised internationally as one of the few people whom Aung San Suu Kyi listens to – determinedly downplays his personal relationship with the Myanmar leader.

“I feel very comfortable with her. As fellow politicians, we understand each other. She trusts me and I want to retain that. She finds herself in a very difficult position. She meets with me whenever I want to – but she doesn’t have to listen to me or take my advice.”

He met Suu Kyi when she was still in opposition and has served in an advisory capacity in the overall peace process in Myanmar for several years.

Myanmar is nowhere near the toughest country he’s had to deal with, Meyer insisted, and he does see light at the end of the tunnel.

On top of his work in Myanmar, he’s also doing advisory work in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Madagascar, Central African Republic (CAR), DRC and South Sudan.

“In Lesotho, the council of churches invited us to help with reconciliation. The small nation has far too many political parties, and there is conflict between them.”

In DRC – “where it’s generally accepted that the man who was sworn in as president was not necessarily the winner of the election” - the ongoing task is to ensure there are “no new disturbances”.

In CAR, where the United Nations forces have a bigger budget than the country’s budget, the task is also about building reconciliation. “That country is the worst failed state I have seen. There is nothing there. It is chaos. South Sudan is busy with a new peace process – for the fourth or fifth time. We were asked by the UN to help.”

In Zimbabwe, said Meyer, “there’s an urgent need to start a process of dialogue (between Zanu-PF and the MDC) but there’s a complete disconnect on what the dialogue should be about. There’s a very real fear that Zimbabwe is on its way to becoming a failed state. If that happens, the consequences for South Africa will be dire. It will be much, much worse than now. People will be running across the border.”

Born in the Eastern Cape and brought up in the Free State, Meyer, who became a National Party MP in 1979, played a prominent role in South African politics, holding the positions of deputy minister of Law and Order and of Constitutional Development between 1986 and 1991, and minister of Defence, Communication and of Constitutional Affairs between 1991 and 1996. He was the National Party government’s chief negotiator in constitutional negotiations and his relationship with the ANC’s chief negotiator, built up with Cyril Ramaphosa, is now the stuff of legend, paving the way for South Africa’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.

In 1996, he retired as an MP and as Gauteng leader of the National Party and the following year founded the United Democratic Movement with former Transkei leader Bantu Holomisa. He retired from politics in 2000 to run a business-consulting firm.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer

Since 1994 Meyer – along with Ramaphosa and others – has been involved in conflict resolution in one way or another, starting with the Northern Ireland conflict.

“We brought the opposing groups, the unionists and the nationalists, to South Africa in 1997… both sides said publicly that the experience was the turning point which made them realise it was possible to find a solution.

“When they visited in 1997 they were still not prepared to meet in the same room. They were sitting in two different rooms in a conference centre and when Nelson Mandela came to speak to them, he had to make the same speech twice. The next year they signed the Good Friday agreement.

“Even in those early days, there were some of us who were regularly working on a request basis in places like Sri Lanka and the Middle East.”

In 2013, Meyer was one of four veterans of South Africa’s transition to democracy who formed the In Transformation Initiative to work in an advisory capacity in conflict zones and the building of democracy and political transition.

Since their formation, the team has been called upon by governments, international organisations, and individuals throughout the world to advise on creating peaceful solutions in, among others, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cyprus, Yemen, Iraq, Spain (in the Basque region), Bahrain, and India (on the Naga question).

However Meyer was most enthusiastic about the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI) which he set up along with Johan van Zyl, CEO of Toyota Europe and Africa.

The initiative has the full backing of Ramaphosa. In January the PPGI laid out their plans for him: “We wanted to get the different sectors of our economy together to say what they can each do to grow the economy and create jobs.”

The PPGI has so far managed to get key players from 22 economic sectors to join the government in this mission and has identified at least 18 specific projects with this purpose.

So seriously is Ramaphosa taking this that he mentioned the projects in his recent SONA address. They range from agriculture and forestry to aerospace, construction, manufacturing and the renewable energy sector.

A document on the projects reveals some inspiring plans: the automotive industry aims to localise the manufacture of automotive components over the next five years to unlock growth opportunities in a stagnant market; the Trade and Industry department is working with the Association of African Automotive Manufacturers to develop a Sub-Saharan Africa automotive pact, aimed at bringing major automotive economies on the subcontinent together to identify production and market opportunities.

In the financial sector, projects include a drive to work with the Treasury to remove barriers that prevent South Africa from becoming the insurance and financial services hub in the region as well as the preferred insurance placement market for the rest of Africa.

In tourism, a number of measures will be implemented that are aimed at doubling the size of the sector, such as addressing visa, safety and communications issues.

In terms of small business: “Only about 30% of our towns (local government structures other than metros) have functioning business chambers and less than 20% have functioning local government structures. We aim to go for a grass-roots revitalisation of local small businesses throughout South Africa through business chambers and a framework for strong collaboration with local government structures as a matter of urgency.”

Meyer was clearly excited about the work of the PPGI. “At last we have a man in (the president’s) office who understands what needs to be done,” he said.

“Although Johan van Zyl lives in Brussels, we also have Nick Binedell, the retired head of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) working full-out for the PPGI.

“You’ll be amazed at what a huge resource base we have… we are able to tap into individuals who are willing to work with us on specific issues.

“There are so many people working behind the scenes for South Africa on this; some are retired and just want to give their time. People are coming forward all the time… they were inspired by Cyril’s SONA address and want to be part of building this country again. One gets the feeling that, in all the sectors of our economy, people desperately want to turn things around.”

Meyer lives in Pretoria with his second wife, Michele, a writer. He has three adult children. His daughter Annerine died in a car accident near Middelburg in the Eastern Cape in 2002, when she was 24. All three children live in Pretoria. “I am very fortunate. Michele has two daughters, one studying in Stellenbosch, the other working in Cape Town.”

Whenever they can, Meyer and his wife spend time in nature and the bush, or driving through the small towns of the Karoo and “doing nothing, except reading and relaxing”.

He will soon be back at work in Myanmar to focus on a new strategy there based on “intercommunal dialogue” in the beleaguered Rakhine state, in the north-west of the country, bordering Bangladesh, the state most affected by the violence.

Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims

“I believe this is a situation that can be helped by the South African experience… along the lines of the peace committees we set up in South Africa in the 1990s. Those committees focussed on creating dialogue at grassroots level. Many South Africans participated in these and I still believe that was a major contribution to our own peace – and way less recognised than they should be.

“Our colleague Fanie du Toit is already on the ground in Myanmar where we will run a pilot project. We already have a joint planning committee of about 30 people, including Buddhists, Muslims and representatives of the minority groupings. They are all ready to work together in what we have called a sustainable peace and development committee, and are planning the first steps of how to implement this dialogue. We aim to launch the pilot by the end of March and then to do the same in the other 17-or-so townships in Rakhine.

“By starting in the most troublesome spot, we can send a message to the other townships and roll it out. Meyer clearly has a lot on his plate.

“I am working way too hard for my age,” he grinned. “But I am doing it because I want to. As long as I find the energy to do it and as long as my mind is active, I will carry on.”

In South Africa, the project that excites him as much as the PPGI is the establishment of the agricultural development agency.

“There’s a vacuum in terms of giving emerging farmers the opportunities they deserve to become good farmers – not only in terms of making land available but in creating spaces for security, funding and transfer of skills. South Africa’s agricultural potential is huge, much bigger than people realise. We are a net exporter of no fewer than 26 agricultural commodities. There should be so many opportunities for new people to come and farm. What is needed is a focussed capability. The government departments for this are not good enough. There is a vacuum. This initiative must be steered by people with the right knowledge base and experience. Sector wise, this is the number one project for me.”

Is Meyer optimistic about South Africa’s future?

“I can see why people have fallen into a state of despair… particularly in light of what’s coming out in all these commissions.

“But I am optimistic enough to say that this is the country where my children have chosen to remain and where I wish to see my grandchildren live.”

Share this article:

Reader's comments

Like to add your own comment ? Please click here to subscribe - OR -


While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the authors nor the publishers of this website bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on the information contained therein.