Talking in secret

2012-07-02 00:00

AT a time when the ruling party would have us believe that only the African National Congress (ANC) played a part in ending apartheid, Endgame by Willie Esterhuyse is an important book documenting the story of ANC leaders and a few select Afrikaners talking during the turbulent eighties. Most of the Afrikaners who participated in the talks had access to government leaders.


The author’s involvement began as early as 1987 when Fleur de Villiers, who had been assistant editor of the Sunday Times, telephoned from London to ask if he would talk to the ANC in exile. De Villiers did not share the view held by verligte Afrikaners that reform had to happen incrementally from within. At the time, Esterhuyse was senior lecturer in philosophy at the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), now the University of Johannesburg, and is currently philosophy professor at Stellenbosch.

The idea of informal and unofficial talks between the ANC and influential Afrikaners arose from what became known as the Cons­gold project. Consgold, a British mining house had arranged a meeting of British business leaders with the ANC in 1987 emphasising the need for talks with South Africans. De Villiers initiated the first contact with the Afrikaners, while Michael Young, the public relations officer of Consgold, approached the ANC. Esterhuyse reports that the ANC leaders favoured talking to Afrikaners who were part of the establishment, rather than English liberals.

At about this time Esterhuyse gave his last talk, before resigning, to the Broederbond where he was now considered to be in “political darkness” because of his book Apartheid Must Die, and his support for one person one vote.

Having accepted the challenge to become part of the talks, Esterhuyse had intensive briefing sessions with the National Intelligence Service (NIS). It is interesting to read that the idea of a gradual process leading to Nelson Mandela’s release was first mooted by the NIS.

Esterhuyse reports that P.W. Botha’s Rubicon speech of 1985 caused a paradigm shift in international circles, with many verligte Afrikaners no longer finding the status quo tenable. Those associated with the United Democratic Front (UDF) reacted with intensified pressure on the Botha government, who called the ANC and Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) “terrorists”, but could not apply this to the UDF involving respected church leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak. Key white Afrikaner leaders withdrew their support for the notion that change could come from within, and there was a marked increase in civil resistance. Abroad, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was opposed to full-scale sanctions, and to negotiating with the ANC until her precondition of the cessation of all violence was met. The United States was a major player in imposing sanctions on South Africa.

Thabo Mbeki was centrally involved in the secret talks which proved to be a process based on mutual respect, trust and confidentiality. Such visionary leadership facilitated negotiations. Esterhuyse regards Mbeki as a reasoned and sophisticated politician able to listen to others while understanding what was happening in the rest of the world. Mbeki always insisted on two non-negotiable conditions: the release of all political prisoners, and the unbanning of all banned organisations.

Various circumstances could have derailed the talks: the class differences in the Afrikaner population causing some fragmentation; raids into neighbouring states sanctioned by Botha; Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert resigning as leader of the Progressive Federal Party, and both he and Dr Alex Borain resigning from Parliament which cast doubt on the relevance of the white parliament; the infiltration of the ANC by the ruling elite who were causing division and conflict; operation Vulindlela (Vula), a plan for a military takeover of political power in South Africa; and the possibility of a military coup as apartheid securocrats’ last resort.

Although the talks had been kept secret for two years, in 1989 news of these broke with a Sunday Times headline “Broederbond and ANC leaders in talks”. A statement was issued clarifying that the talks were unofficial; however, the expanding group continued to meet and now included Jacob Zuma. One remark that resonates was that the crux of the matter was a settlement between Afrikaner and black nationalism, with Mbeki commenting that the two had a common enemy: the English press.

The book documents critical events like: the Dakar conference organised by Idasa; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s embarrassing statements about necklacing; Chris Hani’s assassination; the first talks with Mandela in Pollsmoor, and his move to a house in Victor Verster Prison; both Botha and Oliver Tambo suffering stokes; F.W. de Klerk becoming acting president in 1989 and, after a general election, president; the lifting of the state of emergency in 1990; Mbeki’s return after 27 years in exile; the start of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations; the Boipatong massacre; and the first democratic general election.

The final chapter offers an analysis of contemporary South Africa. Esterhuyse finds endemic violence, the HIV/Aids pandemic, systemic corruption, the education crisis, lack of service delivery, and the enormous gap between rich and poor, crucial problems. However, the growing list of black journalists, and respected intellectual and religious leaders speaking out against the current system, give hope for negotiating a better future. Furthermore, ordinary people are protesting about service delivery and cadre deployment.

Without detracting from the importance of the talks, my impression is that a significant commonality between the ANC and Afrikaners was their shared conservative and patriarchal backgrounds. De Villiers, who Esterhuyse regards as a mentor, did not get on with Mbeki, commenting: “Many men don’t like women with strong views”. Furthermore, Loretta Ngcobo’s new book Prodigal Daughters (The Witness, June 6) describes how difficult life was for women in exile who often experienced various forms of abuse by exiled South African men. Despite Esterhuyse focusing on organisations and people working against apartheid, nowhere does he mention women like Helen Suzman, who for 13 years was the sole parliamentarian totally opposed to apartheid, and Fatima Meer, a well known anti-apartheid activist gets only a passing mention. Women’s organisations like the Black Sash do not feature at all.


• Endgame by Willie Esterhuyse is published by Tafelberg.




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