Interview with Zola Skweyiya: 'Politicians don’t like to be told what to do, the challenge is to find ways to actively involve researchers.'
in SHS Newsletter 11
Zola S. Skweyiya, Minister for Social Development of the Republic of South Africa, is the new Chairperson of UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST) Intergovernmental Council. MOST is organizing the International Forum on the Social Science – Policy Nexus (IFSP), which will take place in Argentina and Uruguay in February 2006.
You were recently elected president of the Intergovernmental Council of the MOST Programme. What does this election mean to you?
It gives me an opportunity to involve myself more, as a South African and as an African, in issues of social transformation. It also gives me an opportunity to put issues of extreme poverty in the forefront of the agenda. Some of the issues confronting us are to a large extent similar to those which many parts of the world, including parts of Europe and North America, experienced 200 years ago. Some of the issues are similar to those currently confronting parts of South America, the Caribbean and Asia. In Africa, all of these issues are a reality today.
As a member of the International Steering Committee of the IFSP, you have played an active role in organizing the Forum. Why did you decide to commit yourself to this initiative?
First of all because of the experience that I have as a South African in dealing with development issues, in particular the question of poverty which is central to the task of the government. Secondly, because of my experiences in the liberation movement which, until 1994, was an activist movement. When we came to power, the question arose: what kind of State do we want? We did not want to duplicate the model of the past colonisers. But, as a liberation movement, we did not have the resources to set up a State! We had to rely on assistance from the international community and from academics within South Africa who had been questioning the previous order. This led to the Constitutional dispensation that we have today, which I believe reflects the aspirations of the people quite well, and which helped us define the initial public policies of the government. But what I see currently is that the connections between, and the networks across, decision-makers, academics and civil society, which existed in 1994, and which had been built up through the 1980s, have to a certain extent been weakened or, in some cases, no longer exist. When the liberation movement took over the State, it relied upon the same academics that had helped define the new policies to become involved in implementation. So they were absorbed into the State. That is our weakness today. I foresee that, in the very near future, we will not have the requisite academics in universities and policy activists in civil society to match the needs of the progressive State.
What issues of particular relevance for African decision-makers will be addressed at this Forum?
The Forum will be an opportunity to both share knowledge and explore possible avenues of further cooperation. It will also be an opportunity to learn from best practices. The South African State, which is only 11 years old, does not have to reinvent the wheel. Since 1957, when Ghana – the first former colony to do so – became independent, many countries in Africa have faced similar problems to those facing South Africa today. We should learn from their experiences and their practices, and make sure that we do not repeat their mistakes. For instance, the gender issues that we face in South Africa today have also confronted countries such as Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. Many issues have global dimensions and we should therefore learn from each other. At the same time, we must use existing research to bolster our capacities. The Forum will enable various categories of participants to create networks of people working on the same questions and issues.
As a politician, how do you explain the lack of interaction between decision-makers and the academy?
Well, sometimes I don’t think that the politicians want to be told what to do! Often researchers are critical. But in the end, in Africa, the concern for poverty is something that we all share. The challenge, as a politician, is to find ways to actively involve researchers. You have to make sure that you actually understand what they are saying and find ways to implement their ideas. This is important because the way we use our resources have all sorts of consequences. For instance, in South Africa we wanted to distribute emergency food parcels to poor and vulnerable families. But the way we did it caused more problems than it solved, because distribution was outsourced to private companies that did not come from the communities concerned and did not know precisely which were the poor households in the community. As a result, the food parcels were sometimes distributed to the wrong people. But thanks to the advocacy groups and academics, who became very critical and raised their concerns in the press, we were able to discover the problem. Critics maintained, and rightly so, that as a policy-maker I ought to have known. The issue is one of an openness to feedback but we also have to accept the existence of constraining tensions between researchers and decision-makers. For instance, in South Africa, we have not yet managed to reach all the orphans who have lost their parents due to AIDS and other factors. This issue – its dimensions and mechanism of resolution – continues to cause tensions between advocacy groups and the Government.
One of the issues to be addressed at the IFSP is urban policies. Is this issue important in South Africa?
Urban policies are central to almost all Government programmes. As you know, people are migrating from rural areas into the cities, because of the demand for services and opportunities that are not available in the countryside. The Government is trying to improve infrastructure in rural areas but despite this, people are still moving to the big cities in large numbers. So we face the challenge of providing them with adequate housing, schools, water, sanitation, electricity and so on. We also have to face the social ramifications that often accompany certain features of rapid urbanization such as crime, drug abuse, violence against women and children, and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
One of the big challenges in South Africa has been to dismantle the inequalities resulting from the apartheid system. How far are you in this process?
We have moved far considering what we inherited from the apartheid regime. We have been able to ensure that we have a democratic State and have been able to meet some of the aspirations of the people, for instance in terms of education, health and social security and, to a certain extent, housing. But expectations are legitimately high and we still face many challenges, for instance in ensuring that education is free and available for all children, or in providing water and electricity for all. One problem is lack of skills – money alone is not enough. There are still many difficulties in reaching out to everybody, and in ensuring that the right people receive government services, at the right time and under dignified conditions.
Interview by Jeanette Blom
Zola S. Skweyiya was born in 1942. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) at the age of 14, in the year when Nelson Mandela was arrested and tried for treason (1956). He has a doctorate in law from the University of Leipzig (1978). Dr Skweyiya established the ANC office in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and represented the ANC at the Organization of African Unity from 1982 to 1985 and at the United Nations Commission for Human Rights from 1984 to 1993. On returning from exile in 1990, he chaired the ANC Constitution Committee and participated in the ANC Negotiations Commissions. He is a former Chairperson of the United Nations Commission for Social Development. Dr Skweyiya was Minister of Public Service and Administration from 1994 to 1999 and has been Minister of Social Development since 1999.