The GNU must work – SA expects it of us, says Schreiber


The GNU must work – SA expects it of us, says Schreiber

The cabinet lekgotla will tackle policy issues, and new home affairs minister Leon Schreiber says it's a key moment. Meanwhile, he tells ANNELIESE BURGESS, he's tackling a department that's become synonymous with ‘broken' .


LEON Schreiber has a bad cold. “Whatever, we have to push through," he tells me, cough-cough, wrapped in a brown windbreaker in his bare parliamentary office in Cape Town.

It has been 10 days since the president's cabinet announcement. Our Zoom appointment (which was surprisingly easy to get) is for 1pm. I sit on the floor in a corner of Exclusive Books to get away from the noise of OR Tambo International Airport.

It is 12.53. I'm already sitting with Zoom open on my laptop.

“I might be about 10 minutes late — still busy with a meeting about the permit backlog," Schreiber says on WhatsApp. At 13.07 he says he is “logging in". To say I am impressed with this communication from a minister would be an understatement.

“In the beginning, it was simply overwhelming," he laughs.

“I was part of the DA team in the negotiations, and I lost a few years of my life in that process. Just when you think you're making progress it turns around again, and just when you give up there's another breakthrough. That's just the nature of negotiations.

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“Because of that, I knew what the deal was, but in a way I only really believed it when the president announced the cabinet. I sat with my wife under a blanket on the couch in front of the TV, waiting like everyone else, and when the words came out of his mouth it was still amazing — a combination of excitement but also a deep realisation about the opportunity given to us.

“There are few people who ever experience the honour of serving the country at the highest level. I didn't close an eye that first night."

Did he know it was going to be home affairs or was another portfolio also a possibility? 

“We only talked about portfolios late in the process. I think the progression was right. We started with principles and the statement of intent, then we talked about the specific number of positions, and only at the very end was there talk about what the positions were and who the people would be in those positions.

“By the time we knew what the possible options were, it was clear that home affairs suited my background well. I have a PhD in political science, but actually what I did before politics was even more relevant.

“I worked at Princeton University in a research position for about five years, and visited 28 countries in Africa and Asia to understand how one rebuilds state institutions that have been destroyed — whether through war or an economic crisis. And it gave me a very valuable lens through which I now look at home affairs.

“And of course, I also focused on public service and administration in my five years in the opposition benches. It was a good learning school. If you work from the opposition, you have a different perspective than someone who is in government."

Money is scarce

“I've been sitting in meetings all morning. Every branch, every subdivision and all its problems … whether it's about asylum seekers, immigration, visas, people who need to get ID documents. I'm trying to understand it all and it's quite overwhelming," he says with a smile.

“And there is no money, so within the available resources you have to identify a specific, clear, concrete set of priorities, then work innovatively with what you have. I think one of the advantages we have in this department is technology. If we can use technology better, there are great opportunities that we can exploit very effectively.

“The things that matter most to me are what people experience on the ground. The long queues, the backlogs with visas, the system that is always offline. These types of problems in 2024 are no longer acceptable."

Building trust

“This department has an administrative side, a security side in terms of border control, but it also has an economic component. I think much more can be done to attract investor skills to South Africa. We need to make it easy for people who want to come here legally to make a contribution."

In his first week, Schreiber launched a dramatic intervention by granting temporary extensions to foreigners awaiting the outcome of visa, waiver and appeal applications.

The dire shortage of money is something that will be staring every minister in the eye.

“The cuts in the budget are very difficult to actually put into words," says Schreiber. “The only option is to think innovatively. One of the places in the department where we can save a lot of money is to end the constant litigation against the department.

“There are more than 600 court judgments against this department and most of them just involve work not being done. People go to court because they feel they can't trust us. I get a very strong feeling that the reason for much of this litigation is a case of ‘if you don't want to hear, feel in court'.

“We need to rebuild trust with the key players so we can sort things out before they end up in court."

Big test for GNU

“The next big test for the GNU, and we've already been through a few," he says, “is this coming weekend's lekgotla where we'll start negotiating some policy issues.

“We are all going to have to sit together to work through the overarching policy approach and priorities of the GNU. I think the absolute priority should be to create jobs. We need to grow the economy, and if there have to be policy adjustments to make that happen then we need to make it possible together.

“The fact is, this is not an ANC government. Of course, the ANC is the largest party, but it is a government where the manifestos of the various parties must also be considered. The DA is the second-largest party, and we will strongly motivate for certain policy aspects that are important to us. To answer your question about whether ‘the liberals and the comrades' can work together: if we can more or less find each other on policy, then we have a foundation that is much more solid than where we are now, or where we were a month ago."

I ask about the back-and-forth between the parties in the weeks when South Africa was on edge during the GNU negotiations. Just when it looked like it mightn't work. About the leaked letters in which the parties had a go at each other. How are two parties with such divergent political cultures going to work together?

“Look, those letters and the correspondence that played out in public were part of the negotiations. One should not be naive. It doesn't matter where it came from, but someone made the correspondence public for a reason, and in some cases likely wrote it with a purpose in mind. It's just part of the negotiation process, but I think your question about different cultures is valid.

“The DA obviously does not know the ANC very well. And the other way round. One needs to say it — it is strange that there were no meaningful relationships between political leaders of different parties before this election. If you talk to politicians in other countries that also have proportional systems like ours, people from political parties talk to each other regularly, and they know each other because they are used to having to work together at some point. So I think it was and is a big problem that we don't know each other on an individual level. South Africans will be surprised at how few relationships there were across party lines before this election. That's starting to change now, and it's critical.

“But yes, on another level there are also the smaller issues such as different parties having different ways of working and conducting politics.

“The DA is a well-oiled machine. We work on systems and procedures, we write stuff down, our meetings start on time and a lot of our processes also happen on Zoom. Using technology is not strange in the DA. And it is a specific culture that is not a necessity in other parties. These are some of the smaller things that may be a bit choppy at the beginning.

“And then even within a large party like the DA there is sometimes a challenge to manage all the different diverse approaches and backgrounds, and now we are going to have to do it on a much bigger level. I suspect there's going to be frustration on all sides as we start to find each other, but at the end of the day we can't let things like that hold us back."

Twitter is not SA

There is a perception among certain citizens that the ANC has sold out by making the DA a partner in the GNU. How does one deal with this in terms of the psyche of the country?

“There are a few ways to look at it. The first one is to understand what the real weight of social media actually is. Especially Twitter. Whatever it was, it is that no more in terms of the absolute manipulative campaigns run by bots.

“My impression is that a large part of that particular sellout-back-to-apartheid narrative is not really what drives South Africans. These are bots and networks trying to push certain agendas. Look at how the same accounts with no identifiable names started to support MK, and when the election was over they started with ‘the DA is white monopoly capital' and so on. There is a very strong current reminiscent of Bell Pottinger with the aim of undermining the GNU."

But, says Schreiber, it is clear that there is a narrative to be managed.

“You have to find the balance between not overreacting to what the manipulated chorus on Twitter is telling you, but the fact remains that this is new for South Africa. It's new for DA voters and ANC voters. For all of us. From the Freedom Front to the Patriotic Alliance.

“And the way we will work with each other will be decisive. We need to work on trusting each other. In my department, my deputy minister and I come from different parties and we certainly won't agree on everything, but can we build a constructive working relationship? Undoubtedly. And the important point is, we have to make it work, because the alternative to this GNU is people who want to rip up the constitution."

I want to know how the civil servants in the department reacted to his appointment.

“The DG (director-general) called me about an hour after the president's announcement and I got my first day's briefings even before I was inaugurated. It was a very positive experience for our democracy. I don't think it would have happened like that in all countries. And you don't want to be naive and say everything will always go smoothly, but I think it's important to recognise the moment: that the transition was professional. There was no immediate animosity due to differing political backgrounds. This is a feather in the cap for our democracy, and we must not overlook it.

“But I'm also not in denial about the scale of the problems ahead. There's a lot of stuff in this department that will take years to get under control. One challenge is to identify officials, and there are many of them, who have been held back for years, who wanted to make a contribution, who were never given space, who were never empowered, and who may in some cases have had a minister who was not interested. And I think that is all within my control. Especially how we interact with people."

An avalanche of messages

“When I tell you what my inbox and my WhatsApp look like … there are probably about 1,500 messages, and then all the calls that I simply can't answer any more, because then I wouldn't be able to talk to you or do anything else.

“I want to tell you a wonderful story. One of the cases was a farmer's wife who is a Zambian. She applied for her permanent right of residence in South Africa and had to go to Zambia for work, but she had been struggling for a long time for her permit. And you won't believe it, but three officials from the department in Pretoria worked with two other officials from the visa agency, and then one of them got on a plane to East London and went to hand her the document as she stood in line at the airport. Five South Africans from different backgrounds who went out of their way.

“Now, jeez man, if that doesn't give you some encouragement, you're a little too cynical too. I immediately called those officials. And what immediately stood out to me was how they came across when I spoke to them. I still stumble a bit when I have to say that I am the minister, but when I said it there was a moment of silence. As if it weren't to be believed that they had been spotted. I have already had quite a few such cases.

“I am optimistic. As much as you need to hold people accountable when things go wrong, and not hesitate to hold people accountable when there is corruption or maladministration, you can also get a lot done just by showing people you care, by acknowledging people who try hard. And this applies to the officials who are now working to clear the backlog in the department. They are quality people. And if we can manage a few quick wins, we create the idea among the 9,000 people from home affairs that you don't always have to be in the place where people are going to be angry with you. We are not going to manage it overnight, but I think one can manage a lot with a different attitude.

“You would have to be a very brave person to predict that we will solve all of life's problems within the next two or five years. But I hope that by the end of this government, whenever that may be, people will be able to say that things are working better. And part of that is creating the belief that there are people who care.

“We have a unique opportunity at home affairs. For many people, this department is a synonym for broken. And that is also how many people feel about South Africa. So, if home affairs can look like it's getting better and indeed, practically, is starting to get better, then South Africa can get better, and that's going to be my approach, however long we're here."

♦ VWB ♦

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