Many of us assume that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for twenty seven years and suddenly in February 1990 the South African Government had a change of heart and he was released. I certainly did not realise that the danger of a military coup existed almost up until the day of Mandela's inauguration.
He and four others were removed from Robben Island in the early eighties to an isolated suite, in Cape Town's Pollsmoor maximum security prison. This allowed Government discreet access. At 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,with people who had always been stalwarts of the Afrikaner establishment, was almost unthinkable and 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 was now 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; 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 what was occurring.
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. Most reformists then gave up hope, but not Mandela. He demanded a meeting with PW Botha. He actually met with Coetzee, 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.
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.
Further taking the initiative, in March 1989, Mandela sent PW Botha a 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 South Africa's whites 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, at the President's official residence in Cape Town. The meeting was cordial and constructive but nothing much resulted from it, 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.
PW Botha had actually repealed some of the more idiotic, apartheid inspired, laws- confining blacks to their own areas, making sexual contact between the races illegal. He was however ambivalent about genuine reform. The Afrikaner Broederbond, the architect and guardian of apartheid had recognised the need for change and the need to involve the 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 fully informed of the meetings and more importantly of the content of those meetings, by Niel Barnard, who 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. The ANC were made fully aware of who knew what throughout the process.
FW De Klerk was elected as the leader of the national Party in February 1989 and was inaugurated as President in September 1989. 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. 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.
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. 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.