Leader: What must he think of us? Letter from the President

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TO: Thabo Mbeki, Deputy President of South Africa.

Dear Thabo,

Well, you warned me. You said that I would find Britain a strange, troubled and even savage country. And you should know. After all, you were a student at Sussex University in the 1960s when, it seemed, the British (or, at least, their newspapers) could talk of little else but two of your fellow students, the twin daughters of a cabinet minister, who had long legs and short skirts. I cannot say that things have improved. I had hoped to learn much from the Mother of Parliaments but I come away only with a series of puzzles and a conviction that this is not a model to imitate. Indeed, I wonder if, to borrow an idea floated by Lord Tebbit in some other context, democracy is not too "simplistic" a solution for this turbulent land. I am reminded, too, of Mahatma Gandhi who, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, replied that it would be a good idea.

Throughout my visit, one part of this country was in a state of almost continuous riot, its cities and towns ablaze, its police and troops under assault, its roads blocked, many of its citizens trapped in their homes. Nobody in the capital seemed greatly surprisedby this white-on-white violence; the events did not even make the front pages of many of the national newspapers. The cause is an ancient tribal battle between unionists and republicans. Last week's unrest concerned a ritual whereby one tribe wished to march, with drums, sashes, bowler hats and a great deal of singing, through another's land. To me, it was incomprehensible and, I have to admit, somewhat comic, but we should respect other people's customs and traditions. Anyway, the march was banned. So the Unionists rioted and the march was allowed after all. Now, the Republicans are rioting. I found it difficult to follow what was going on or to remember which tribe was which (they all look the same and speak the same language, which makes their quarrels more baffling) but Mr Major did not seem to be coping very well.

The week had started on a more cheerful note. Everybody was excited, as I arrived, because a Korean electronics firm had agreed to spend pounds 1.7bn on opening two factories in south Wales, creating 6,000 jobs. Now, Thabo, you and I are agreed on the need to raise the living standards of our people and it is on this measure that we shall judge our success in government. Mr Major and his ministers, however, seem to have quite the opposite strategy: their aim is to lower the living standards of a large section of their population and they congratulate themselves on their considerable progress thus far. Wages in Wales are among the lowest in Europe. Even with that attraction, the Koreans had to be further enticed with subsidies amounting, according to some reports, to pounds 30,000 a job. The Government keeps quiet about this, which is understandable, given how much it talks about allowing markets to operate freely without state intervention. All in all, this strikes me as a strange business. I can see that the Government wants to reduce unemployment but it seems odd to count it as a triumph that the country can now compete only on the price of labour, not on skill and quality. I suppose, too, that it is pleasing to see our former colonial rulers now so dependent on Asian investment, but I am surprised that they are themselves so ecstatic about it.

Yes, this is a difficult country to understand in all sorts of ways. They talk about the global market, which apparently dictates that many people should have lower pay (what they get is called "labour costs") while it equally dictates that other people should have higher pay (what they get is called "incentives"). But what of the ministers and MPs? You will remember, Thabo, your idea in 1994 that we should set an example on pay. You and FW would take a 20 per cent cut and you were rightly most strict that this had to apply to me too even though I already gave 25 per cent of my salary to charity. Here, the argument was about how big a rise MPs would get. Only 3 per cent, said the two party leaders, but the MPs insisted on 26 per cent. They argued that Parliament wasn't attracting the right sort of people, which was a very brave and humble thing to say. No doubt they all expect to lose their seats to better candidates now. My own view is that they could make a more convincing case if they were not always preaching wage restraint. The problem is that the restraint is required of the "labour costs" people such as teachers, nurses and the semi-skilled workers in Wales while MPs like to compare themselves with the "incentives" people such as lawyers, management consultants and City bankers. What the argument comes down to, I suppose, is whether a democratic country is better run by people in the first group, who would be more than happy with pounds 35,000 a year, than by people in the second, who could earn far more outside Parliament. I think I know the answer but you will recall, Thabo, that we Africans are not supposed to be very clever at democracy.

If you asked me to sum up this country, I would say it was suffering from a kind of infantilism. It is clearly desperate for saints and heroes - why else should the sketch writer of the Daily Telegraph, supposedly a sober, conservative journal, report that I "seemed to light up the crowd" as I passed through Westminster, shaking hands with MPs. It is obsessed with the minutiae of royalty. Today's papers were full of the details of the long-awaited royal divorce. The main issue seemed to be Diana's loss of the title Her Royal Highness. This was described as a terrible humiliation, which would require her to curtsey to her own sons, and it had been settled only when the elder one agreed to call her "Mummy". I suppose I should not be surprised that such a peculiar country pays homage to such a peculiar family. I might call it primitive superstition and propose that we send anthropologists and missionaries - but I would not want to be so patronising to my generous hosts.

Ever yours, Nelson Mandela.

Heathrow Airport, Saturday 13 July.