Former South African president F.W. de Klerk surprised the world when he led his apartheid government through a peaceful transition of power to a black majority. He, along with Nelson Mandela, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this courageous act.

Despite concerns that South Africa might be on a slippery slope and heading the same way as Zimbabwe, he is still committed to peace and negotiation and believes he did the right thing.

Gulf News had an exclusive interview with him at the Doha Development Forum last week.

As an African, what are your general perceptions of the Middle East today?
The current crises in the Middle East affect everyone's lives, not only in the developed world, but also the underdeveloped world. America and a number of other countries are so pre-occupied with the problems of the Middle East that they are not paying proper attention to problems elsewhere. From an African point of view, the solutions for troubled spots elsewhere are regarded as a lifebuoy to their own problems.

Your government managed a peaceful transition of power to a black majority. Are there any lessons to be learned from that experience by the Palestinians and Israelis?
Both parties need to restore credibility in each other through creative initiatives, otherwise no one will believe that the other is serious about creating two states. Prior to the 1994 transition of power, my government then decided to lift bans on all illegal organisations such as the ANC, the PAC and the Communist Party without any conditions.

The ANC (Mandela's party) responded by immediately suspending the armed struggle. Once again, without any conditions. In this way, both sides proved that they were serious about finding solutions even before they went to the negotiating table. Palestine and Israel should also negotiate directly with each other and not through third parties.

Can the South African constitution negotiated between your government and the ANC at the time serve as a model for the formation of a government in Iraq?
Iraq does not have a history of democracy and therefore the South African constitution cannot serve as a blueprint for Iraq.

In hindsight, the shortcoming of the South African constitutional model is that we should have opted for a form of federalism which prevents the dominance of one group over the other. Iraq, with its diverse population groups, should consider federalism in which greater autonomy and decision making is possible at regional level.

Apart from the problems of crime and AIDS in South Africa, reports of increased unemployment are surfacing in the media. What's happening to the South African economy?
The South African economy is growing but not fast enough to solve the problem of unemployment. In European terms, our economy is growing by about three per cent which is fairly acceptable and positive.

South Africa is abreast with technological developments in the rest of the world where you get a situation that even a growing company can employ fewer people. We need other solutions to solve our problem of joblessness.

Is black empowerment causing a "white flight" out of South Africa and also forcing private companies to look for opportunities elsewhere?
I believe that the private sector is handling black empowerment fairly well. South Africa has been isolated until recently and what we are witnessing now is the private sector trying out new avenues.

South African companies are prepared to take greater risks than their European and American counterparts. We are more robust and with our knowledge and gut feeling for Africa we are utilising opportunities that they let slip through their fingers. Whenever I see a South African company doing business abroad, it fills me with pride.

Is there a danger that South Africa can go the same route as Zimbabwe where the property of white farmers is simply being confiscated to the detriment of the economy?
That is a far-fetched opinion instilled by those who are against the new political scenario in South Africa anyway. Most of them would have voted against the new constitution and are racist in their way of thinking.

South Africa is different from all other sub-Saharan states in that our constitution contains a bill of rights that would make a Zimbabwe situation (of land grabbing) impossible. We also have a strong and healthy economy with a powerful private sector that does not exist in other African countries.

Why did the South African government not criticise Zimbabwe more openly?
I have been critical about our government's stance towards Zimbabwe, but perhaps too much is expected from South Africa. We are practically being made the culprit in the situation. What does the world expect? Must we invade Zimbabwe like America invaded to Iraq? Should we apply sanctions to let those who are dying of hunger and fleeing across the borders suffer even more? My answer to this is NO!

Only one solution remains and that is of moral pressure and conviction. I have criticised the South African government on this as well. There should have been more pressure at an earlier stage.

A lot has also been done behind the scenes between president Mbeki and president Obasanjo of Nigeria, but unfortunately South Africa does not have the support of the Southern African Development Council, SADEC, for stronger action against Zimbabwe.

Why did South Africa lose the opportunity to become the leader of sub-Saharan Africa?
South Africa is cautious on this front as we do not want to acquire the image that America has in the rest of the world. There is great sensitivity in the current leadership about becoming a big brother prescribing to the rest of the region.

Currently the political opposition in South Africa is not very strong. Is there a danger of South Africa becoming a one party state?
The basic South Africa democratic structure is very good, but the voting pattern is not. The healthiest type of democracy is where the opposition is almost in the position to overthrow the government of the day. I do not fear a one-party state for South Africa. Currently, the ANC holds two thirds of the vote and consists of an alliance with deep divisions on important matters.

Is that why you supported the idea that your old party, NNP, should move closer to the ANC in case of a future break-up?
Exactly. In the past the ANC was bound together by one common goal namely fighting apartheid. This has now disappeared and the signs of tension between them are so obvious that a reshuffle between the moderates and the rest is imminent.

A confrontational Westminster type of democracy is not suitable to South Africa anyway. I have always been in favour of power sharing between parties with broadly the same goal.

Concerns are surfacing in the South Africa press that the government might be prosecuting supporters of the old regime