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Essop Pahad

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Essop man

1939 Born in Schweizer-Reneke, Western Transvaal (now North-West Province)

1958 Member of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress

1962 Arrested for organising an illegal strike, following the banning of the African National Congress

1962 Member of the TIYC Executive Committee

1964 Banned for five years and went into exile

1970s Graduated from the Institute of Social Science in Moscow, Russia, and completed a short military course in Angola

1975 – 1985 Represented the SACP on the Editorial Council of the World Marxist Review

1980s Served on the regional command of the ANC's Political and Military Council in London

1990 Returned to South Africa

2000 Chair of Board of Trustees of the SA Democracy Education Trust

2002 Member of Central Committee and Political Bureau of the SACP

2003 Chair of Board of SA/Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Trust

2010 Member of the Board of the SA 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee

2010 Launched a new national daily newspaper, the New Age

1994-2007 Member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of ANC


Essop Pahad was born on the 21st of June 1939, in Schweizer, a town in the North West Province of South Africa. He grew up in a family of political activists. His father, Goolam Hoosain Ismael Pahad, was a leading member of the Transvaal Indian Congress and the South African Indian Congress. He has four brothers, one of whom is Aziz Pahad, a fellow anti-apartheid activist, former minister, and current MP for Johannesburg West Highlands.


Following in his father’s footsteps, Essop joined the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress in 1958, and in 1962, he got arrested for activism and was banned for five years. He went into exile in 1964. He spent years outside the shores of South Africa during the height of the resistance. While he missed interacting with South Africans and his comrades, his time in exile was a politically active period for him. He interacted and worked with members of the international community, bringing attention to the plight of those in his homeland. He also worked to coalesce international support for the struggle back home.


His enlightenment heightened as he became exposed to diverse world views. He went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in African Politics and a Ph.D. in History from Sussex University.


After returning to South Africa in 1990, Essop found that the unique perspectives he had gained during exile became relevant to his role in shaping the new South Africa. He was at the table's seat during the CODESA negotiations and subsequently held deputy and ministerial positions in the presidency. He lent his hand to forging the building blocks that brought about a non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic South Africa.

Essop leader

Be willing to make some compromises

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Essop Pahad

South African

Public Servant


Served as the Parliamentary Counsellor to then-Deputy President Thabo Mbeki ​



Deputy Minister in the Office of the former Executive Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki



Minister in the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa

Essop interview

Things You May Not Know About Essop

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.




Lessons in exile

“... I think the most important thing that you miss in exile is this daily contact with the masses of the people…Having a deeper understanding of the processes that were taking place. The advantage for those who were in exile and who utilised the opportunity were that you had a great amount of time, to read, to study, to discuss, to debate, to get involved, in all of these discussions, not only with your own comrades but also with many other people. So that whilst we were in exile in England we were able to engage in very serious political discussions with people in the British Communist Party, the Labour Party, others on the left of these organisations. When I was in Prague as a representative of the South African Communist Party, on the world Marxist review. It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to be able to meet representatives of communist parties from all over the world. And that gave one an opportunity to learn about their countries... And so exile gave you this opportunity, if you used it properly, to broaden the scope and the extent of your knowledge, not only about your own country but about the revolutionary movements in the world, about how other people struggle…”



The lift to Cape Town

“... I remember that one set of negotiations was to take place in Hermanus, in the home of the former deputy minister of justice of the National Party. And so I asked one of the national party people to give me a lift down to Cape Town from Hermanus, now he’s the guy that, I forget his name, he’s the guy that left the National Party, then went back into the National Party. And so as he was giving me a lift, because I said to him: “Listen here I don’t have a car, I want a lift back.” He said: “Okay.” So I said to him as he was driving… “Explain to me, what’s your problem, why, what is your problem, so he said: “Well our problem, for the Afrikaaners, is the language and religion.” I said: “Okay. What language is your problem? So he says “Afrikaans.” And I say: “What is the problem?” He says: “Afrikaans is our language and we must defend it.” I say: “But Afrikaans is not your language, first of all, you stole some of it from the Malay slaves, but secondly the mistake you’re making in the negotiations, is that you’re projecting Afrikaans as if it’s an exclusive language, the reality is that the majority of Afrikaans speaking people are black, so you are wrong. “What you should do, you should approach Afrikaans as a national language, as a South African language. In that case, there is no problem, we will then agree that we will then also defend and promote Afrikaans as a South African language in the same way that we would want to do with other languages.” Then he said: “Religion.” I said: “What religion?” He said: “Ja, but you see, we Afrikaaners, we’re Christians.” I said: “What does that mean, the majority of Christians are black here in this country. Why is it a white man’s religion?” So I said to him: “Where did this religion start? It started in a desert, you think they were white, they were brown no? So what you going on about religion?” So he said: “But you’re a communist.” I said: “Listen that’s a different matter, whether I believe in God or not, the question is how would we, as the ANC here respond to people’s belief?” And I said: “The majority of South Africans are religious. Whether I believe in God or not is neither here nor there. The majority of South Africans are religious. “In any case, our religious groups have played a very important role in the struggle, the churches.” And I then gave him a lecture about revolutionary theology and Frank Chikane developed. Ja, so I think by the time we got to Cape Town, his mind was blown a bit…”


The day he got the call to serve

“... When Madiba appointed Mbeki as the Deputy President, I get a phone call from Mbeki to say: “What are you doing.” We were living in Observatory at that time. I say well as it happens I have a bit of a cold, he said: “No I’m sending my car, let's go to Pretoria.”... Now he didn’t have an office, Mandela had an office… De Klerk had taken the bottom part of the Union Buildings… So I said: “But you know Chief, this building, I have two memories. One is my mother, in the famous women’s match, ‘cause she was a participant in that match. I recall her speaking, as a little kid… She saw some white guy waving, and for her, that was a very important part of the march. One white guy working there was kind of waving at them, and the second one was a group of Indian women... So they were standing there and the police came with their dogs. The dogs put their teeth on her thigh, and this man disappeared very fast and the women just stood their ground. So that was a good salutary lesson. So I said: “Chief let’s go.” So we go into the Union Buildings, and there are these white guys there, and they say to him: “Welcome Deputy President, we’ll take you round and you can choose an office.” And I said: “What! No such thing! What Deputy President walks around and chooses an office, what nonsense is this, I'll do it!” So he (Mbeki) says: “Haai chief nah man.” I thought it was an insult to ask the Deputy President to walk and choose. So I go and the first nice office I see, I say no we’ll take this office for him, now we got in there, there are no papers… it's totally empty, there’s not even a paperclip on the table. In the meantime, Mandela is sending him documents that he must sign, because the President had to sign and both Deputy Presidents had to sign. So they brought the pen because it had to be a special pen that you use. Nothing else. So I said to these white ones: “Hey what happens here? I mean there’s no paper, there’s no pen, nothing here.” They said, “Ah don't worry.” They pick up the phone, they're talking in Afrikaans. And there comes the paper, there comes the pen etc” So at least it begins to look like a real office…”



Some diamond in the dirt

"... I had some very close friends from the communist party of Iraq, one or two of whom were killed when they went back into the underground in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. I remember a Brazilian comrade, he was a member of the communist party of Brazil Central Committee, I met him at the party school in Moscow. He left, went back into the underground in Brazil, was arrested and killed… You learn very quickly that there were very many other parties and movements that were facing similar, and sometimes even more dangerous, conditions of struggle… And that enabled us to then have that deeper understanding of international developments of the world. For us, the question of our relationship with the Soviet Union and the socialist countries, the tremendous amount of assistance that we received from the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries was an eye-opener about how you must be ready sometimes to sacrifice your own national interest for the broader international good. So those who stayed in South Africa then were unfortunately deprived of this opportunity to really benefit from this interaction that we were able to have with the rest of the world. So in that sense, exile was a very difficult period in one’s life, very complex sometimes, very debilitating sometimes, because you didn’t know whether you were going home, but at the same time, very, very, very enriching, in political terms. But nothing, nothing can replace that period in our lives for those of us who were in exile, and who chose to benefit from the opportunities that it offered us…”



CODESA, the unlikely friendships

“... The negotiations were a fantastic learning experience for all of us, ‘cause all of us had to learn, but we also had to learn to listen and obviously, I will admit that some of my comrades were better listeners than I was,, from the point of view of what the other side was saying. But you had to learn to listen, you had to then learn to engage with them during the breaks… I remember on one occasion, some of the media people came to me and said: “But you know Kobie Coetzee doesn’t want to give us an interview.” Because they had been asking me some questions and I said: “But why don’t you ask Kobie Coetzee, he’s representing the National Party, he’s the Minister of Justice,” and they said: “No, but Kobie Coetzee doesn’t want to speak to us.” And I said: “Wait,” and I went to him and said: “Kobie wat gaan an nou?” So he says: “What’s going on? So I said: “Kobie, wat doen jy? Nee Kobie man. Moenie so domkop…” These media people, they are going to tell lies about you, because they’ve just interviewed me. So I think the best thing is if you go and tell them what you really think yourself. Not what I think you said. So that there isn’t a distorted version of that.” He said: “Do you really think so? I said “Kobie gaan man,” and he went. So the media was very surprised that the person who got Kobie Coetzee to do the interview with them was me. But he came back to me afterwards and he said: “Oh okay thanks...” So in that way, we struck up this kind of friendship if you like, and a relationship that we could talk to each other, without the barriers that existed at the beginning of the negotiations…”




The difficulties

“... Now I published an article in The Thinker, on the culture of peace and this American professor was saying such wonderful things about the peace accord and I said, “oh my good grief, was it that important”, but it was, this was before the CODESA and negotiations had started… There was this guy who when we came together and had an agreement, the next meeting would come and he would take another position. We didn’t know what he was doing. But we later found that he was agreeing here, but afterwards, he was reporting to Chief Buthelezi and after they had their discussion, he would come with something else. So again you learnt that these are difficult times. You think you have an agreement, and next, you find out after that you don’t have an agreement. John Hall was chairing it. You found that the best way to do this was to carry on working…”


Mbeki always allowed everyone to speak

“... Mbeki didn’t need any whip, he had a sharp enough tongue to do so…. That’s what I’ve been trying to get people to understand, you will recall that those in the ANC who wanted to remove him in Polokwane and some of them in the leadership of the SACP, put it out that he was an autocrat, that he was stifling debates and so on and so forth, and I’ve asked someone and they said “but where?”. In the national executive committee of the ANC, Thabo learned from OR Tambo to never participate. He would do the political input, which is what the president had to do, and then the people would discuss, and he would hardly participate in the discussions. At the end, he might come in and bring the things together. There was a time for example when Terror was chair of the ANC, he used to chair the NEC meetings, and he would attempt to sum up some very hard discussions because remember that there were critically different opinions, sometimes harsh opinions said in meetings of the NEC. You had to bring these together to synthesize them so that the NEC can come to a common position, which we can put to the rest of the movement. So then as soon as Terror finished summing up, all the hands went up, all. Nobody agreed with him, Mbeki would then say “wait, no no, let’s not reopen the debates, I think what comrade chair is saying to the NEC is … And he would sum up and then we would say yes we agree. The same in cabinet, on very few occasions he would take the lead in discussions… So Mbeki always allowed everybody to speak…”


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Essop's conversation. 



A seat at the table, with the enemy

"...We obviously had very little experience of those kinds of negotiations…I think the National Party underestimated our capacity, they thought they knew everything… I was part of the SACP delegation... I had to, first of all, overcome that prejudice of sitting opposite your oppressors. Now in the same commission that I was involved in we had Chris Heunis and Kobie Coetsee… They had to deal with us, but we had to deal with them in a way in which you had to forget in a serious way that, if you like, this was an enemy. You had to begin to internalise that you were talking to a political opponent and that in the course of the discussions you would, well not only me but our whole team in the ANC team had to demonstrate a far greater depth of political understanding and thought. Which actually, by the way, wasn’t all that difficult for me I think, given where we came from and given where the national council was coming from, because they were too narrow-minded, had very little understanding of the world, actually very little understanding about South Africa itself. One of the other advantages that the ANC had was that the ANC had set up a much broader team, which used to meet on a very regular basis… We would debate the kind of positions that we needed to take, on critical issues that were confronting us in the negotiations and so the ANC was able, through this mechanism, to create the conditions to arrive at a better and a common understanding of what positions we should take… We had understood that even if all our people didn’t understand, we had understood that there are times that you will have to make a compromise because you can’t enter negotiations and think that only your positions must carry the day… We agreed on decisions that you thought were sustainable... a building block for bringing about a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. So negotiations forces you to think very deeply, to be ready to compromise, now myself of course, I was a bit of a hardliner sometimes, and sometimes they will complain to Valli (Moosa) and say “When Essop Pahad is not in the meeting, then it’s so much easier talking to you.” And I’ll come back and say: “Hey, I heard what you said, so you’re not going to divide the ANC on this funny basis of yours, of goodies and baddies.”...”


His wife helped count votes during the first elections

"... My wife was an ANC person helping to count the votes, or helping to make sure that vote counting was done properly. So she was at Nasrec, which was on the main vote-counting stations and this former deputy minister, that I was talking about, whose house we’d gone to in Hermanus, was there for the National Party. Now some of the ballot boxes, I think as they were throwing them, had broken open, and she was refusing that they begin the vote count Now the IFP was supporting this ‘cause they knew they had lost the bloody elections. So I phoned my wife and said: “What are you doing?” She said: “Hey we haven’t even started counting, these people are giving us a lot of trouble here.” But she was just part of the ANC team, but the ANC team was led by I don’t know who, Johann (Kriegler) went there. “What’s happening?” Ba bha bha the sides go and tell him what they think. He said: “Right, count!” So one person says: “No we can’t count.” “Yes, you are going to count!” He gave them an order to count and they had to start counting the votes, now you must remember, that if they hadn’t started counting the votes and the next day, that our people if they knew that voting hadn’t started, you don't know what could have happened. They could have stormed the place, ‘cause that was stealing the elections. And Johann intervened at the right time, took the right decisions…”



Unquestionably loyal to Thabo Mbeki

"... I ask where was he autocratic? Can anybody give me one instance in which he demanded that we agree with his point of view? Then they will say Zimbabwe, I’ll say: “What about Zimbabwe?” … Mbeki intervened, his arguments were so persuasive, that if you were gonna disagree with him you had to better know what you were disagreeing about. So then the question came that of course, he argued persuasively, that’s what he did with big business, when we used to have these bilateral meetings with big business, they shouted about Zimbabwe, sometimes he spoke for 40 minutes. When he finished they said “no no no please now we understand''. So it's the same with HIV and AIDS… Mbeki never ever said that HIV does not cause AIDS. Never. And nobody will ever be able to produce a single statement made by him in which he said that. The issue was around ARVs and whether or not the side effects were so bad that in the end, your own medical budget would get out of kilter… The ARVs are too expensive, they are not affordable, and if you have to go from one regime to another one it’s not going to be affordable and if you can’t keep on giving people ARVs, that’s another death sentence. So people must give credit where it’s due… Who drove the campaign for a reduction in drug prices? Who got the United Nations to agree? Who picks up the phone to Kofi Annan? Thabo. Who then talks to the big CEOs of the pharmaceutical companies to say this is unacceptable, our people can’t afford this thing, poor people of the world can’t afford your drug price… Trevor (Manuel) was the Minister of Finance, the amount of money that was given to dealing with HIV and Aids grew exponentially…”



We only what we are because of the ANC

"... Once the NEC had made a decision to ask Mbeki to resign, the next day I went to his house. There were other people there too, and I said to him: “Comrade President, I’ve come to inform you that I'm resigning as a minister, and I’m resigning as a member of parliament.” And he said to me: “But I haven’t asked you to.” I said: “But I didn’t come and ask you permission either.” He said to me: “But why, because you haven’t been asked to resign, the NEC has only asked me to resign.” I said: “No but chief for us, certainly for our generation, we know and we understand and we’ve always said so, it’s in our blood. we are only what we are because of the ANC. The ANC is what made us, the ANC is our life. If I cannot honestly serve the leadership of the ANC, the NEC because I very firmly believe that the decision they’ve arrived at is unjust. The timing is all wrong, how then do I serve, I will not resign from the ANC no. But how then do I honestly serve the National Executive Committee of the ANC, which is the leadership of our organisation, honestly and truthfully? I can’t do it. And so it's better if I resign. Then he asks me, “What would you do?”, I said I don’t know what I will do, it's not going to be the first time in my life that I didn’t know what I will do. I will just go home and tell my wife. I’ve already told her that she’s gonna have to work harder to earn more money… I told my wife: “Listen, before when I was working full time, you had to work and bring the children up, and feed us.” Which is true, it's what she had to do. I said: “Now, you’ll just have to work harder… Maybe get another job, where you earn more money until I see what happens to my pension..."


Full Interview 

Essop Full Interview
Essop lesson

Servant Leaders must be willing to make some compromises


"... I think they can benefit a great deal from our experience and one of the things people ask me I say, “listen, there must be a willingness on the main protagonist to make some compromises, there must be a willingness for those who think they will be the victors to be ready to say, even though you are going to win an election, there are certain other things that you have to give”. Coming into power doesn’t mean, concentrating all your power in one basket, any way you learn very quickly that power is much more diffused than that...."

Daniel in conversation with

Essop Pahad






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