The negotiations to set SA free THE TALKS , THE TRUST AND THE FINAL DAYS OF APARTHEID
Old arch-enemies met one another as South Africans Both sides held their enthusiasm under wraps
In the early 1990s, South Africa was on a knife-edge. Nelson Mandela was free at last, but a peaceful political transition looked virtually impossible, with both sides of the divide poised to take up arms. As a senior negotiator, Niël Barnard was in the engine room of the historic negotiations which almost derailed several times. Here he remembers how the ANC and the then National Intelligence Agency (NIA) met in secret in hotel rooms in Europe to make it all happen
THERE was no time to spare; the wheels were duly set in motion for Operation Flair. While any responsible intelligence service must, naturally, act within the law and with the necessary mandate, we could hardly inform the politicians of the details of the highly secret plan to make contact with the ANC.
With this in mind, the day after FW de Klerk’s election as state president on August 15,1989, a carefully worded proposal was submitted to the State Security Council (SSC).
It read: “It is imperative that more information be gained and processed on the ANC and on the aims, alliances and potential accessibility of its respective leaders and groupings. To realise these objectives, additional direct action will be necessary, in particular with the assistance of the functionaries of the National Intelligence Service.”
The SSC approved this unanimously.
I must admit that I did not inform De Klerk about our secret, but well-meant, motives at this stage.
The most obvious member of the ANC leadership to contact overseas was the influential Thabo Mbeki, the organisation’s head of international affairs, who was based in London. There were many avenues for us to contact him and the external wing, but we had to use one that Mbeki trusted and considered credible.
Such an avenue was the esteemed Stellenbosch academic and philosopher, Willie Esterhuyse, who had already built up a good personal relationship with Mbeki, thanks to a series of talks held at Mells Park House in Somerset, England.
Mbeki and the ANC’s external wing had to feel secure in the belief that this was not just another false alarm – that the government was serious about negotiating and would act honourably.
By this time, an assortment of self-appointed intermediaries between the government and the ANC had come to the fore. These communicated confusing and sometimes toadying messages to Lusaka. The government could simply not afford this.
To complicate matters even further, representatives of the government and the ANC were being watched with eagle eyes, particularly by secret service agencies in America and Britain – the CIA and MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service, SIS) – and we could not allow them to manipulate the process from the outset, based on their information about developments.
We met Esterhuyse in a safe house, a flat in Somerset West. He agreed to communicate our intentions to Mbeki in London. After solemn assurances from Esterhuyse that it was not a trap, Mbeki agreed to a meeting with representatives of National Intelligence Agency in Lucerne, Switzerland.
After many calls between Maritz Spaarwater (alias John Campbell), NI’s chief director of operations, and Thabo Mbeki (alias John Simelane), it was arranged that the two, each with a colleague, would meet on September 12 in the Palace Hotel in Lucerne.
Early that evening, Mike Louw and Spaarwater booked into the Palace in two adjoining rooms with a shared sitting area. Mbeki and Jacob Zuma (alias Jack Simelane) had landed in Geneva earlier that same day and travelled to Lucerne by car, unaware that they were being followed the entire way by NI agents. At the reception desk in the Palace, they were shown to rooms 338 and 339.
The men on both sides were tense and suspicious. Mbeki and Zuma had every reason to mistrust the situation. “It could have been a trap; on opening the door, they could have been mown down,” Louw said later. So, they left the room door open.
Eventually the two ANC leaders arrived and, when they saw the two South Africans, they walked in.
“Well, here we are… bloody terrorists and, for all you know, f***ing communists as well,” Mbeki said coolly.
“We all laughed. It broke the ice,” said Louw.
Four days after President De Klerk’s epoch-making speech in Parliament on February 2,1990, Louw and Spaarwater were back in Lucerne. This time they met Mbeki and Aziz Pahad in the Palace Hotel. The NI men still travelled under false names and carried false passports to avoid attracting undue attention.
The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone was in high spirits in the afterglow of February 2. But the time for getting to know one another had passed and there were serious issues on the agenda: how members of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – until a few days previously, still banned organisations – were to be brought back into the country; how to prevent the security forces from cracking down on the “terrorists”; how to prevent right-wing white extremists from taking the law into their own hands… procedures and structures had to be put in place to manage all these aspects.
The government’s representatives insisted that the ANC leadership at the highest level, preferably its national executive committee (NEC), should react positively to De Klerk’s announcements of February 2; that the organisation should exercise greater discipline to control protest action inside the country; and that a procedure be agreed upon to end the armed struggle.
The group decided to form four working committees to handle urgent matters: Mandela’s release; the release of political prisoners and those in detention; and facilitating structures for talks between the government and the ANC, and those between the NIA and the ANC’s intelligence network.
Two weeks later, I was joined by Mike Louw and Fanie van der Merwe, the adviser on constitutional matters from the Department of Constitutional Development, for the next meeting with the ANC group, comprising Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Aziz Pahad and now also Joe Nhlanhla, head of ANC intelligence.
For security reasons, the meeting was moved to Bern, the Swiss capital.
President De Klerk was fully informed and we undertook to continually keep him up to date on all developments. This time, comprehensive logistical planning had to be undertaken for the return of ANC members to South Africa and their participation in the opening conference of the negotiation process.
The three of us left South Africa, landed in Geneva on February 21 and travelled to Bern by train. In the same carriage were three of NI’s experienced operators, including two women. We recognised one another – without any acknowledgement of this.
While we settled ourselves into the Bellevue Palace Hotel in Bern, Louw made contact with his NI operational colleagues outside the hotel to make sure that everything was in order and that no enemies from other countries were watching us.
On our side, the atmosphere was extremely tense. So much could go wrong. Strolling through Bern’s peaceful streets, we repeatedly went over the agenda for the talks and discussed every last logistical detail. We were acutely aware that we could not make a hash of the talks: South Africa could not afford to begin the negotiations with disagreement and unnecessary suspicion.
The next morning, at the hotel’s breakfast table we recognised the Mbeki team in the dining room, but neither they nor we gave any sign of this. An hour or so later the two old arch-enemies met one another as South Africans in my hotel room and the negotiations, which were relaxed and good-natured, could begin.
With his quips, Mike Louw had everyone, especially Zuma, in fits of laughter, such as when he related his concern about wasting water in the hotel’s toilets in comparison with the water-saving pit toilets of his childhood days on a farm near arid Prieska in the Northern Cape.
The discussions were purposeful and went on until the early hours of the following morning. They focused sharply on the arrangements needed for bringing the vanguard group of ANC members back into South Africa so that they could attend the first formal, open negotiations on the country’s political future. There was never any question of undertaking this planning process without the ANC’s full partnership.
Mbeki, the ANC group’s spokesperson, informed us that some of his comrades believed that the government wanted to use the occasion as a pretext for luring the external wing’s leadership back into South Africa, only to put them behind bars. Happily, we were able to make short shrift of this ridiculous suggestion.
We told them that, if we did not accept one another’s bona fides and integrity, there was little hope of tackling the negotiations – or, for that matter, the current talks – with any success.
We also pointed out that far greater challenges to mutual acceptance of our trustworthiness and honesty as negotiating partners no doubt lay ahead.
Mbeki also wanted to know how the government would react if Joe Slovo, chief of staff of MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) and general secretary of the SACP, was part of the ANC’s core team at the initial negotiations.
We answered that we were hardly in a position to choose the members of their negotiation team – and went on to joke that the government could even consider including right-wing fire-eater Eugène Terre’Blanche, leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), in its own negotiating team.
However, that evening, when I gave President De Klerk provisional feedback on the course of the discussions, he dug in his heels and objected in the strongest possible terms to the very idea of the inclusion of Slovo in the ANC team, saying that his supporters would refuse to accept it. After a somewhat lengthy exchange of ideas, I reminded him of the Basil D’Oliveira fiasco of 1968: the government had refused to grant the former South African, a coloured batsman of note, a visa to tour South Africa as a member of the English cricket team. This had led to the cancellation of the tour – which, in turn, had encouraged various other sports sanctions against South Africa. De Klerk finally agreed that we could not afford such foolishness in the upcoming political negotiation process.
In addition to the planning of the negotiations in South Africa, a number of political, economic and social challenges were raised time and again by both sides, but not discussed in detail – which was not the aim of the meeting. Furthermore, as officials, we were neither competent nor qualified to take a stance on matters of policy or core principles.
Another question Mbeki posed was insightful: Would the government permit the traditional practice of toyi-toying by his comrades during political demonstrations? The mobilisation of the masses was still one of the ANC’s most potent weapons and, on this, as far as the organisation was concerned, there could be no compromise.
My answer to Mbeki was that mass mobilisation often led to acts of revolutionary violence and that the ANC appeared unable to control its supporters when mass hysteria gained the upper hand. The security forces would then have to step in; after all, we could not conduct orderly and peaceful discussions against a background of threats and manipulation by an uncontrolled mob.
That evening, we enjoyed a delicious meal together in the hotel’s restaurant. And, even later, in the early hours, I ordered a bottle of Chivas Royal Salute – a fitting 21 years old – to be sent to the hotel room. Both sides held their enthusiasm carefully under wraps, but secretly we knew that our peaceful revolution had come of age.
DRAMA: Dr Niël Barnard (Mark Strong) and FW de Klerk (Matthew Marsh) in the movie ‘Endgame’, which dramatises the final days of apartheid in South Africa, focusing on the secret talks held between the ANC and the Afrikaner National Party, the topic of Niël Barnard’s book.