Many of us assume that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for twenty seven years and then suddenly in February 1990 the then South African Government had a change of heart and he was released in to the community. I for one certainly did not realise that the danger of a military coup existed right up until the day of Mandela’s inauguration.

The situation was far more complex and involved than anyone now imagines. He and four others (Sisulu, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Mlangeni) were removed from Robben Island in the early eighties and provided with an isolated suite, in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor maximum security prison. The reason for this was to give the Government discreet access to the people that were seen as the leaders of the black community. At about this time Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie was banished to the small town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State. The only lawyer in town was a Piet De Waal, who was reluctantly persuaded to become Mrs Mandela’s lawyer; to everyone’s amazement a firm friendship developed between Mrs Mandela and the De Waal family, especially Mrs De Waal, since all the meetings between them were conducted at the De Waal’s family home in Brandfort. This in itself was an extraordinary development, such a relationship, between people who had always been stalwarts of the Afrikaner establishment, was almost unthinkable especially on the part of Mrs. De Waal, whose ancestor Piet Retief, leading one of the first ‘Great Trek’ expeditions had been murdered by the Zulu chief Dingaan in eighteen thirty-eight. This sort of development indicated a real change of heart on the part of what most would have considered as ‘dyed in the wool’ Afrikaner volk.

One of De Waal’s long term friends, Kobie Coetzee had by this time become the Minister of Justice in the Nationalist Government. De Waal persuaded Coetzee to pay a visit to Mandela. By this time even President PW Botha knew that he, somehow, had to bring apartheid to an end. Coetzee’s visit took place in the Volks hospital outside the prison, where Mandela had undergone surgery. Coetzee came away convinced that because of Mandela‘s attitude, which was one of constructive, non-bitter, engagement, that he was the one person that the Government could deal with as a leader in the black community. This resulted in several meeting between Coetzee and Mandela, often in Coetzee’s palatial official residence in Cape Town. The meetings with Mandela continued over many months; there were also many meetings between Coetzee and Mrs Mandela in Cape Town at the same time. Mandela’s lawyer George Bizos, who had never been allowed a South African passport was given permission to visit Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s long time friend and associate, In Lusaka; this ensured that all the elements of the ANC were involved in the events that were unfolding.       

Coincident with all this a watershed event took place when the Commonwealth Heads of Government sent a group of ‘eminent persons’, headed by Malcolm Fraser, an ex-Prime Minister of Australia to South Africa to see if they could find a way of developing dialogue. This initiative was sabotaged by Magnus Malan, the Nationalist defence minister who ordered attacks on ANC bases in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana while the ‘eminent persons group’ was still in the country. At the same time Botha declared a nationwide state of emergency. In protest the ‘eminent persons group’ left South Africa immediately recommending that the Commonwealth impose comprehensive mandatory sanctions against South Africa. At this stage many of the reformists had almost given up hope, but not Mandela. Through official channels he demanded a meeting with PW Botha. He actually met with Coetzee again, with the full sanction of Botha. Coetzee widened the discussion group, within the Government, and had many, many meetings with Mandela (forty seven in all) to discuss the future of South Africa. As the group came to trust Mandela they used to take him on drives around the Cape to try to show him how the country had developed during his incarceration. There was one bizarre incident during this period when the man who was showing him around left him alone in the car, with the keys still in the ignition, while he went to a local cafe to fetch Mandela a coke- an indication of the trust that was developing between the parties. It was assumed that nobody would recognise Mandela during these perambulations since as a banned person no photographs of Mandela were allowed to be published. Anyway he looked very different to the man who had been jailed more than twenty years earlier.

Mandela was moved to Victor Verster prison in Paarl in December 1988. He was accommodated in the deputy chief warden’s comfortable house in the grounds of the prison, where he was able to meet with various Government delegations and members of his family. He was allowed to send an occasional fax and was permitted one telephone call to the ANC offices in Lusaka.

Mandela again took the initiative and in March 1989 sent PW Botha a long memorandum setting out the position of the ANC, which amounted to one man one vote and that they would not give up the armed struggle until the Government gave up its monopoly on power. He was also conciliatory in his approach recognising that the white people needed some reassurances in order to give up their monopoly on power. Botha had just recovered from a stroke and was persuaded to meet with Mandela. The meeting took place on July 5th 1989, at night, under very cautious security precautions at the President’s official residence next to the parliament buildings in Cape Town. By all accounts the meeting was cordial and constructive but nothing much resulted from the meeting, although clearly once the meeting had occurred there was no going back and the route to a settlement had been embarked upon. Somehow news of the meeting leaked and was all over the press within days.

Despite Mandela’s efforts to ensure that the ANC were aware of his negotiations there was a suspicion among elements of an organisation called the United Democratic Front (UDF), which encapsulated some thirty organisations some of which were committed to a revolution and were opposed to any form of negotiation, that Mandela was doing a secret deal with the Government that was against UDF principles and interests. Mac Maraharaj smuggled himself into South Africa and using an elaborate form of communication with Lusaka managed to persuade the revolutionaries that Mandela was genuine and was genuinely acting in the interests of all those opposed to apartheid. A further complication at this time was that Oliver Tambo suffered an incapacitating stroke, so he was incapable of taking any further part in the process.

PW Both had for some time been somewhat of a reformist; some of the more idiotic laws- confining blacks to their own areas, making sexual contact between the races illegal- were repealed. He was however ambivalent about genuine reform. The Afrikaner Broederbond, the architect and guardian of apartheid had recognised the need for change and to involve he black community in the political process. Through a British company, Goldfields (now part of BHP), which had significant interests in South Africa, a series of meetings between the exiled leadership of the ANC and leading Afrikaners was organised in England. In all twelve meetings were held, between November 1987 and May 1990, mainly at a Goldfields estate near Bath in Somerset. Two future South African Presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were part of these meetings; Mbeki led the ANC delegations. Unbeknown to any of the Afrikaner participants PW Botha was kept informed of the meetings and more importantly of the content of those meetings, by Niel Barnard who had made an arrangement with one of the Afrikaner organisers of the meetings for a briefing after each meeting. As we know Barnard was also a member of the group meeting secretly with Nelson Mandela; Botha made no move to stop them. Significantly Willem de Klerk, the brother of FW De Klerk, also attended the meetings, and he briefed FW after every meeting. FW as President in 1990 was responsible for the eventual release of Mandela from his twenty seven years of incarceration. Interestingly, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were told by the meeting organiser that Barnard and therefore PW Botha were fully briefed on the meetings. So gradually all the various contacts between the Afrikaner Nationalists and the ANC created an atmosphere of trust, which was essential to the eventual settlement.

FW De Klerk was elected as the leader of the national Party in February 1989 and was inaugurated as President in September 1989. He knew he had to something dramatic to change the course that South Africa was on. There is evidence that he felt an almost religious calling from the almighty to do what he eventually did. Mandela in his on-going meetings with Coetzee had insisted that Walter Sisulu and a number of others should be released before he was; this was done in October 1989, just two weeks after De Klerk became president, almost as a test of what might happen when Mandela himself was released. This approach demonstrates the pure selflessness of Nelson Mandela, with his eye on the good of the country and the long term rather than on himself.

De Klerk eventually delivered his speech to the South African Parliament on February 2nd 1990 which unbanned the ANC and all the anti-apartheid movements that had been banned, including the South African Communist Party. He also announced that Mandela and all political prisoners would be released, which they were on February 11th 1990.  He had had three meetings with Mandela before he made the speech, so a degree of trust was established. The speech signalled a complete change in the approach of the South African Government; there is some doubt to this day whether De Klerk really understood how far his initiatives would lead.

Most of the rest of 1990 was taken up with helping to ensure that people and organisations that had been banned in South Africa for generations were not immediately arrested and imprisoned as soon as they set foot back in South Africa. There was considerable distrust among all parties. The use of force, one of the platforms of the ANC, was unilaterally suspended by Mandela. There was much doubt about the way forward, with the Government wanting to maintain some of the status quo and the ANC insisting on majority rule; inevitably it was Mandela who came up with the solution. In December 1991 The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) representing nineteen political parties met for the first time near Johannesburg- missing were the PAC and Chief Buthelezi and his Zulu based Inkatha Freedom Party.

The CODESA initiative collapsed and was followed by a wave of violence against ANC targets initiated by Inkatha in conjunction with elements within the police. After one particularly horrendous massacre (Boipatong in the Witwatersrand) Mandela formally withdrew from negotiations. There was another massacre outside King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape after which Mandela reduced the ANC’s fourteen demands for the continuation of talks to three, to which De Klerk responded positively. Again Mandela took the initiative at a critical moment. Without doubt the violence during most of the period from February 1990 to April 1994  was instigated and supported by elements of the security forces and Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (ref: Goldstone report).

In mid- 1992 Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa were appointed by the Government and the ANC respectively to head the constitutional negotiations. De Klerk even objected to the three conditions stipulated by Mandela for the resumption of talks, which included the release of two hundred disputed political prisoners some on death row. This time Mandela forcibly stuck to his guns and De Klerk capitulated.

The ANC and the Government continued their discussions, some at a bush retreat on the Botswana/ Northern Transvaal border and later with now twenty six parties met as a Negotiating Council. Generally the Government and the ANC were able to agree on most things; when there was any difficulty Meyer and Ramaphosa got into a huddle and came up with an acceptable compromise. Buthelezi and his Inkatha was a notable absentee from the discussions; at about this time Buthelezi developed an alliance with the Conservative party led by the rabidly right wing Andries Treurnicht. In the middle of the negotiations a white supremacist with links to the Conservative party assassinated Chris Hani, one of the more charismatic leaders of the military wing of the ANC. Again Mandela went on television urging both blacks and whites not to react saying. ‘a white man full of prejudice and hate came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster, but a white woman of Afrikaner origin risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice , the assassin.’ De Klerk was unable to do anything of significance in the crisis. The mantle of leadership had fallen firmly on Mandela from this point on. Instead of slowing down the negotiating process between the parties it was deliberately speeded up.  There were also incidents involving the right wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) and the left wing PAC who led a number of incidents killing numbers of whites. This again had the perverse effect of speeding the process up.

The final clause of the constitution was agreed on November 18th 1993. This was an agreement between South Africans with no outsiders at all involved in the process; this was and remains its great strength. The agreement was a compromise between power sharing and majority rule where minority parties would share in executive power for five years until the election due in 1999.

Almost right up until the historic election of 1994 there was a significant threat from a disaffected coalition consisting of the far right Conservative party now led by General Constand Viljoen  the ex-head of the South African Defence Force (SADF), the lunatic fringe AWB, and the ‘homelands’ of Kwa-Zulu, Bophuthatswana and Ciskei. The Conservatives and the AWB wanted an Afrikaner homeland; the black homelands were just disaffected for various reasons. The idea was that Inkatha,   the Bophuthatswana Defence Force, together with armed elements of the Conservative Party would gather in Mmabatho, where it was hoped that elements of the SADF would join them. This would have been a formidable force had it occurred as planned and could have derailed the political process altogether. It turned into a complete fiasco and all the elements of the coalition dispersed once the disaster became clear.

Mandela, to his credit met, with the Conservative party leaders once and then another twenty meetings were held under the ANC leadership of Thabo Mbeki. The main point of discussion was the need for the so-called Afrikaner homeland.

Buthelezi and Inkatha were only persuaded to join the election process eight days before it was due to be held, which involved much reprinting of ballot papers and some delays in getting the ballot papers to the various booths. So it was a very close run thing. There was some attempted disruption of the election held on April 27th 1994, with some six polling booths being blown up and the ANC’s office in Johannesburg being virtually demolished by a large car bomb.

It is clear that but for Nelson Mandela, the probability was that South Africa would have descended into a bloody civil war from which there was no escape. The whole process from the time he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in 1982, to his release from jail eight years later and the tortuous negotiations in the four years after that until the April 1994 election required infinite patience, and a deep understanding of what the Afrikaner Government were giving up and the pressures they were under. It also required absolute faith in his own position and that of the ANC and its disparate alliances. Time and again Mandela interceded, stood firm, or made appropriate concessions all of which allowed what now seems to be the inevitable process to come to its just conclusion. South Africa was surely blessed by having such a man at a critical time in its history.

(Much of the information in this article comes from Allister Spark’s book: Tomorrow is Another Country. Allister Sparks was the Editor of the Rand Daily Mail for many years up until the political transition in South Africa. The Rand Daily Mail was one of the few opposition voices in the country, consistently exposing Government atrocities. His book is really worth reading).

I and my family left South Africa in 1986. Of course we had no knowledge of what was happening behind the scenes. At the time the rise of the far right wing Conservative Party and discussions of a military coup were on-going. We finally applied to migrate to Australia in August 1984 at the time the Tri-Cameral Parliament was introduced, which attempted to altogether disenfranchise the black majority, confining their political aspirations to the so-called black homelands. Little did we know that, even then, the Nationalist Government was making moves to discuss the future of South Africa with Nelson Mandela.

Guy Hallowes