Book cover. File image.
Book cover. File image.

Book Extract: Maharaj and Jordon on the secret talks that brought apartheid SA to the negotiating table

By Time of article published Oct 3, 2021

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By Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan


Johannesburg - When President F W de Klerk announced the unbanning of the liberation movements on 2 February 1990, he opened the door to negotiations that would end apartheid and pave the way to democracy. But how did this moment come about? What power struggles and secret talks had brought the country to this point?

Written by two ANC veterans who were close to these events, Breakthrough sheds new light on the process that led to the formal negotiations. Focusing on the years before 1990, the book reveals the skirmishes that took place away from the public glare, as the principal adversaries engaged in a battle of positions that carved a pathway to the negotiating table.

Drawing from material in the prison files of Nelson Mandela, minutes of the meetings of the ANC Constitutional Committee, the NWC and the NEC, notes about the Mells Park talks led by Professor Willie Esterhuyse and Thabo Mbeki, communications between Oliver Tambo and Operation Vula, the Kobie Coetsee Papers, the Broederbond archives and numerous other sources, the authors have pieced together a definitive account of these historic developments.

While most accounts of South Africa’s transition deal with what happened during the formal negotiations, Breakthrough demonstrates that an account of how the opposing parties reached the negotiating table in the first place is indispensable for an understanding of how South Africa broke free from a spiralling war and began the journey to democracy.

About the authors

Mac Maharaj has been involved in the freedom Struggle since 1953. After serving a 12-year sentence on Robben Island from 1965 to 1976, he was appointed secretary of the department charged with organising the ANC within South Africa. He served on the Revolutionary Council from 1978 and the NEC of the ANC from 1985 to 2000. He was joint secretary of CODESA, the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum and the Transitional Executive Council. He served in the first democratic cabinet and retired from active politics in 1999. President Zuma appointed him special envoy in 2009 and spokesman from 2011 to 2015, when he retired from that position.

Pallo Jordan has been a political activist since his student days. The ANC sent him to Luanda, Angola, in 1977 to revive Radio Freedom. He was elected to the NEC of the ANC in July 1985. He served on the ANC’s Constitutional Committee, established in 1986, and was its liaison with the NWC and the NEC. He was appointed to head the ANC’s Department of Information in 1988 and served as its principal spokesman until he entered Parliament in 1994. He served in various cabinet positions until 2008.


New terrain, new challenges

De Klerk had to demonstrate that he was in control of the situation. Thatcher was urging him to release Mandela, but he feared this might heighten black expectations. To diffuse the tension caused by police brutality during the stayaway of 5-6 September and to deal with the growing mass defiance, De Klerk allowed the post-election demonstrations and marches to proceed without police interference. On 15 October 1989, he freed five of the Rivonia trialists – Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Raymond Mhlaba – and three other prisoners: Wilton Mkwayi and Oscar Mpetha, both of the ANC, and Jafta Masemola of the PAC.

Mandela’s release was now a foregone conclusion and negotiations likely. In rejecting Botha’s offer in January 1985 to release him if he renounced violence, Mandela had fashioned a link between his freedom and negotiations to resolve the South African conflict and had ensured the removal of the renunciation of violence as a precondition.

The question now was when and how these negotiations would commence. The Harare Declaration enjoyed world support and placed the onus on Pretoria to demonstrate its willingness to negotiate, whether De Klerk was ready or not.

During the latter half of 1989, Mandela met with justice minister Kobie Coetsee; Gerrit Viljoen, the former chair of the Broederbond whom De Klerk had appointed minister of constitutional development in his new Cabinet; and the team led by Barnard. Mandela also met with leaders from the MDM, and with Walter Sisulu on 20 October, shortly after the latter’s release.

It was clear to both sides that the release of the Rivonia trialists had unleashed events that made negotiations inevitable. The focus was now on ensuring that the regime created the right climate for negotiation. In this regard, the release of Mandela and all other political prisoners, particularly those serving life sentences, was top of the agenda. So, too, was the removal of all restrictions on political activity. The nub of the discussions shifted to ensuring a meeting between the government and the ANC. The principle was a foregone conclusion. What stood in the way now was how to get there.

The logistics of the release of political prisoners had been the subject of many meetings, including those between the ANC and the NIS. The latter had sought to draw the ANC into an undertaking that, after 
their release, the Rivonia trialists would not fan unrest and the people’s defiance.

On 10 October 1989, just five days before the release of Sisulu and the others, Coetsee and Viljoen met with Mandela. They indicated that they expected “a commitment from your colleagues [ie, Sisulu and the others] that they will strive towards a peaceful and orderly integration into society without upheaval … and won’t make it difficult”. Mandela countered that unconditional releases “will look dignified”.

Armed with the Harare Declaration, in late November/early December 1989 Mandela wrote to De Klerk on the issue of “creating a climate of understanding”. He pressed for a meeting between the government and the ANC. He was determined not to allow his impending release to be a standalone event, detached from moving to negotiations about the future of the country. He proposed a two-phased approach. During phase one, government and the ANC would settle the five preconditions for negotiations. Phase two would involve the actual negotiations regarding the future, including restoring peace.

De Klerk, Coetsee and the team led by Barnard were seemingly not prepared to reveal their hand just yet, but the Kobie Coetsee Papers open a window into their thinking.

On 8 December 1989, Mike Louw, a member of the Barnard team, penned a memo to Coetsee headed “913: Besinning [Reflection]”, which begins with the question: From a subjective perspective, where do we stand on Mandela? Louw briefs Coetsee on the team’s reading of the situation. He states that Mandela insists on convincing De Klerk of the need for peaceful negotiations. The white community now accepts that Mandela will be released – the only question is when. There has also been dramatic progress concerning the issue of violence as a precondition for release. Louw writes that a more nuanced formula has been found about commitment to decision-making in connection with peace, though this formulation is a headache for the ANC. Louw ends by stating that what was unthinkable and considered dangerous when the SSC met in December 1984 – namely, the release of Mandela – has now become, in all likelihood, the best starting point.

It seems Barnard’s team had come round to Mandela’s proposition that the way ahead revolved around a meeting between the government and the ANC. It was the same conclusion that Coetsee himself had reached, as well as the NIS from their reading of the interactions at the Mells Park talks and their meeting with the ANC in Switzerland. It was the message carried by the Mass Democratic Movement and by the Conference for a Democratic Future held in Johannesburg on 8–9 December 1989 and attended by 4 600 delegates.

Breakthrough is published by Penguin Random House and retails at R280.

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