MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Today, a newsmaker interview with a former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio to talk about one of the African continent's greatest concerns, Sudan, even as Mr. Mbeki celebrates the World Cup that he helped bring home to South Africa.

Later in the program, we will also talk about the alleged mismanagement at one of this country's most famous and, many would argue, most sacred places: Arlington National Cemetery. And we will visit with rock icon Melissa Etheridge.

But first, this week the U.N. Security Council heard from top envoys working to secure peace in Sudan. That's because in early 2011 there will be a referendum to determine whether or not Southern Sudan will secede from greater Sudan.

At the moment, the efforts are directed at making sure that leading to the referendum, a comprehensive peace agreement stays intact. One of the top leaders charged with dealing with Sudan's many challenges is Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa. He's been talking this week with U.S. officials in Washington and he's with us now in our studio. Welcome, Mr. President, and thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. THABO MBEKI (Former President, South Africa): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, I just wanted to ask, what progress do you think has been made in Sudan? What is the status quo now?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, you know, that really there's been two major challenges facing Sudan. One of them has been the war in Darfur and the other one is the matter to which you've just said, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the war between the North and the South.

Fortunately, everybody has respected the Comprehensive Peace Agreement since it was signed in 2005, in terms of forming a government of national unity and in all the various steps out there to be taken. And as you were saying, are then preparing for the referendum which is scheduled for January 10, 2011.

MARTIN: Is it your working assumption that secession will occur?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, the general statement you hear whenever we are in Southern Sudan, people think that indeed the population will vote for independence. So it may very well be true that indeed that's what will happen.

MARTIN: It has been reported that international observers commonly refer to Southern Sudan as a pre-failed state. The argument being that it's a region with many internal divisions, limited infrastructure, a weak tradition of a civil society. Do you think that that's a fair assessment? I mean, of course the point is made that maybe the U.S. wasn't prepared for independence at the time that it was achieved. So that has been said, too. But there are those who say who are very worried about this. Do you think that that's a fair assessment?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, I mean, the fact of the matter is that, you know, since Sudan gained its independence in 1956, well, the bulk of the years since then, Southern Sudan has been involved in war. And therefore the assessment that the infrastructure is very weak is correct. That there are many challenges of underdevelopment that that is correct. And even you've had, as I was saying, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2005. And the liberation movement that fought for Southern Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement has been in government now for the last five years.

But we are talking about what had been a guerilla movement which took over. So, indeed, yes, it's correct that there are many of these challenges. But when the matter is raised, which is leadership in Southern Sudan of the possibility of them being a failed state, we actually take great exception to this because they say that indeed when many countries on the African continent gained their independence, the people who led them had no experience of government.

The inherited countries that had weak infrastructure and all of that, and that they're quite confident that they would make a success of running an independent country if the population of Southern Sudan votes for independence.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. He's here with us in Washington, D.C. He's having meetings with U.S. officials and talking about progress made in Sudan, where he heads a high-level African union panel addressing the issues of Darfur and Sudan.

So, Mr. President, to Darfur. It's been reported that as recently as May, more than 400 people were killed in the region, suggesting there still is ongoing violence there. The panel that you chair on Darfur makes very clear that there is progress being made, but that there is not peace there. And you make, you call upon some specific steps of the government of Sudan, which you said needs to take the lead in addressing these issues. Well, first of all, do you think it is true that the violence continues?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, it is true that during the month of May, you had this spike in terms of the violence that's taken place in Darfur. It's the highest in the last two years, two-and-a-half years. Basically there are really two reasons for it. One of them is that there's a very serious conflict between two different Arab tribes in Darfur. It's communal disputes among them to do with land and questions like this.

But also, one of the rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, which had relocated from Chad into Darfur. They started trying to spread around Darfur to establish a presence around Darfur. And so the Sudan armed forces responded to that to say, no, you can't the rebel movement that was positioning itself in order to resume the war, so they responded and that's what resulted in the killing.

The danger is that if this matter of Darfur is not resolved now before the referendum, then Darfur will be forgotten. Everybody will focus on the referendum, and yet it is critically important that this conflict in Darfur is solved.

MARTIN: But what evidence do you have that the government is willing to arrive at or participate in a negotiated solution? There have been some steps, like, for example, you point out in your report that the government has taken steps to amend its criminal laws to reflect international crimes.

Mr. MBEKI: Well, with regard to the negotiations, you know, there have been negotiations that have been taking place in Doha, in Qatar. The government of Sudan on one hand and the armed groups from Darfur on the other. The problem in that respect has not been with the government, the problem has been with the armed groups. Even now as we are taking, for instance, this Justice and Equality Movement, which is the biggest of these armed rebel groups in Darfur, is boycotting the talks.

The population of Darfur has said that in order to arrive at a peace agreement, you need an inclusive process so that civil society organizations are getting involved so that the nomadic people get involved, so that women's groups get involved. And so it's necessary to have an inclusive process like that, including the armed groups.

MARTIN: Well, what do you recommend, I mean, certainly I think many people would recognize the logic of that, but what do you recommend? I mean, certainly as a former head of state you recognize the heckler's veto that people just refuse to participate and prolong and delay the process.

Mr. MBEKI: Yes.

MARTIN: So what do you recommend?

Mr. MBEKI: So what we are saying is that let the population of Darfur get together in this inclusive process, invite their armed groups to come. If any one of them decides to stay away, that's their choice. But the fact of the matter is that that population is perfectly capable of concluding a peace agreement, even if there are some people who are boycotting the process.

And I am quite convinced that if you convened the population of Darfur, there is no armed group that is going to boycott that process. They would not do it, unless they want to become completely irrelevant. Once you convene the totality of the population of Darfur. There are representatives drawn from these various constituencies. And that's what we are working at.

MARTIN: How optimistic are you that these events, that this kind of inclusive process will take place?

Mr. MBEKI: I'm very optimistic.

MARTIN: And is there anything else the international community should be doing, in your view?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, I'm (unintelligible) optimist, but I'm very certain that the inclusive conference will take place, which will include the government of Sudan and it will include these various constituencies at representing the people of Darfur. I'm quite certain also that certainly some of the armed groups will come. Any one of them that decides to stay outside of the process would render itself irrelevant. So I'm really quite certain that that is going to take place.

Fortunately, this position about the need to convene and negotiate in a forum of that kind, unfortunately enjoys the support of the African Union, who are now earlier this week, the Security Council of the United Nations supports this. The United States government supports this. So I think that generally the international community is saying to all the Darfurians, including the rebel groups, please, let's move forward and get into this inclusive conference so that we can conclude this peace agreement.

MARTIN: I did want to ask briefly your opinion of the decision to indict the president, Omar al-Bashir, on war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Did you think that was a good decision at the end of the day - was a controversial one? Was it helpful or not?

Mr. MBEKI: When we engaged the population in Darfur, everybody said crimes had been committed in Darfur, and not everybody agrees, including President Bashir. Secondly, that these crimes need to be investigated and prosecuted, and everybody agrees. And, thirdly, that and nobody's above the law, not even President Bashir. So this is agreed by everybody. So, when we then engaged the Darfurians to say, well, then how is this justice to be done since we all agree that justice must be done?

They said essentially that they do not trust that the Sudanese judiciary is sufficiently independent to be able to adjudicate these cases. And therefore the proposal was, which we accepted, that the African Union should bring in prosecutors, judges and other people from outside of Sudan to join with the Sudanese judges and their counterparts to constitute a hybrid court. That once you did that, constituted a hybrid court made up of Sudanese judges and judges from elsewhere, then they would be satisfied with that judicial process.

MARTIN: Thabo Mbeki is the former president of South Africa. He is leading the African Union's high level implementation panel for Sudan. Mr. President, we thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MBEKI: Thank you very much, Michel, and thanks for having me.

MARTIN: This is the first part of a two-part conversation that we are having with Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa. Please join us tomorrow for the second part of our conversation. We'll be talking World Cup.

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