Authors: Robin Renwick
It was made clear to the South African government that I was being sent there as the Prime Minister's appointment. That, I hoped, would give me some leverage with the regime. For they could hardly afford the complete withdrawal of her support, though they had been doing precious little to deserve it.
Margaret Thatcher, at the time, was riding high, having just won a third consecutive election victory in Britain. Having formed a special relationship with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev â whom she famously had declared in 1984 a man she could do business with â she had made, before the election, a triumphal visit to Moscow, where the British press could not believe the size of the crowds that had turned out to greet her. She had used her visit to tell Gorbachev that she was looking to him to change Soviet foreign as well as domestic policy. She found it all the more exasperating that the South African government was so impervious to her influence.
On the day before leaving for South Africa to take up my post, I was summoned to meet the Prime Minister. She had been urged by, of all people, Robert Mugabe to visit South Africa. There was no point, she agreed, in doing so unless conditions fundamentally changed, including the release of Mandela. Only if she could get the kind of results achieved in Moscow with Gorbachev would she be prepared to go to South Africa.
Margaret Thatcher agreed that, while we should continue to defend our economic interests, we should never put ourselves in the position of appearing to expect, still less to rely on, the present South African government to do the right thing. They were far more likely to do the wrong thing.
On Senator Robert Dole's advocacy of support for the Renamo rebel movement in Mozambique, the Prime Minister said that she would tell the Americans that the right policy was to support President Joaquim Chissano, who had replaced Samora Machel following the latter's death in a plane crash. Samora Machel had been effusive in thanking Thatcher for her success in resolving the Rhodesia dispute and had won her support for Mozambique to join the Commonwealth. She commented that the South Africans had been playing a double game over Renamo.
She agreed with my main suggestion, which was that I should tell PW Botha on her behalf in the clearest terms that any major cross-border raids in the run-up to the next Commonwealth conference would make her position intolerable and result in the withdrawal of her support. She concluded grimly that there was no early prospect of political progress.
In her sole meeting with him, she had found PW Botha charmless and inflexible, but she remained convinced of the importance of dialogue with other members of his government. As in her dealings with the Soviet Union, she was looking for a successor who might be prepared to set out on a different course. If I found anyone who fitted that description, I was to give him all possible encouragement.
* * *
Arriving in Cape Town, I was greeted by Pik Botha, the irrepressible South African foreign minister, with recriminations about Lancaster House. I said that, without an agreement, there would have been a military collapse in Rhodesia, and that had been the South African assessment as well.
Pik Botha, changing tack, cheerfully agreed. He thought Mugabe would have preferred to come to power by military means and probably would have succeeded in doing so. The South African government had told the Rhodesians that they were not prepared to take over the war. Smith should have negotiated earlier. But Britain must understand the fundamental differences between South Africa and Rhodesia.
I said that we did understand them. Wherever the South Africans ended up, it was not going to be at Lancaster House. Britain had no constitutional responsibility for South Africa. A settlement could only be achieved between South Africans.
On the Commonwealth conference, I said that the Prime Minister was never worried about being alone when convinced that our position was right, but any more actions like the ones that had scuppered
the Eminent Persons mission would produce a reaction from her. Pik Botha said that he had been trying to improve relations with Mozambique. I warned against continuing South African support for Renamo, which of course he denied was taking place.
Before presenting my credentials to PW Botha, I arranged to have a drink with Ton Vosloo, head of the leading Afrikaans press group, the Nasionale Pers (now Naspers). I did so because, before arriving in South Africa, I had resolved to concentrate my efforts on the Afrikaners and the black leadership, rather than falling into the easy trap of consorting mainly with the more liberal elements of the English-speaking community, who, despite their best efforts, clearly were not able to have a decisive influence on events.
I told Vosloo that Margaret Thatcher did understand the concerns of white South Africans and the historic dilemma confronting the Afrikaners. But, as friends of South Africa, we were concerned that PW Botha was driving his country into a cul-de-sac and at the increasing militarisation of the regime. In making public statements about the kind of changes we would like to see come about, I hoped that these might be carried in the Afrikaans press, especially
and not only in the English-speaking papers. Vosloo promised that the Afrikaans press would carry the Prime Minister's views. He advised me to make some gesture to the Afrikaners. This I attempted to do, despite my own imperfect knowledge of the language, by delivering part of my credentials speech in Afrikaans. It duly was carried on the state-controlled television.
In this, my first encounter with PW Botha, he expressed appreciation for the phrases in Afrikaans, which he took as showing that we had some understanding of the Afrikaner predicament. I said that the Prime Minister did understand this, but was no less concerned about political rights for the black population. At the Commonwealth conference in Vancouver, scheduled for October, she would be facing pressures for general sanctions. If there were further raids of the kind that had put an end to the Commonwealth mission, he should not count on her support. There should be no misunderstanding between us about this.
PW Botha said that he registered the point, but some neighbouring states were helping the ANC to launch terrorist actions into South Africa. He then complained about the ANC office in London. I said that, as the Prime Minister had told him when she had met him at Chequers, the office was permitted to operate in London, provided it did so within the law.
As in all my meetings with PW Botha, who never forgot that his mother had been interned by the British during the Anglo-Boer War, this one was conducted with the two of us alone in a small study in the Tuynhuys. His domed bald head and tinted glasses gave him an eerie appearance, accentuated by the fact that our meetings took place in semi-darkness, lit only by a small green lamp on his desk, conjuring up images of what it must have been like calling on the
in his bunker.
The âGroot Krokodil' (Big Crocodile), as he was less than affectionately known by supporters and enemies alike, was prone to furious outbursts of temper that left many of his ministers frankly terrified
of him. On 6 September 1966, the day his leader, Hendrik Verwoerd, had been assassinated, he had confronted Helen Suzman in parliament, âarms flailing and eyes bulging', yelling at her that âyou liberalists are responsible for this'. In a prior meeting with him, opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert had remarked that Chief Buthelezi wanted to be the âonly bull in the kraal', only for PW Botha to release the supposedly private tape recording of their meeting. Before each of my encounters with Botha, I made a silent vow that it was not going to be in his interests to release the transcripts of any of his conversations with me.
The deputy foreign minister, Kobus Meiring, invited me to meet a dozen young National Party MPs who, he assured me, were reform-minded. The result was a very interesting and encouraging encounter with Roelf Meyer, Sam de Beer, Leon Wessels, Renier Schoeman, David Graaff and others, most of whom were to serve in the government of FW de Klerk.
A meeting with Chris Heunis, the Minister for Constitutional Development â or rather the lack of it â had the opposite effect. His hopes of succeeding PW Botha had been destroyed by Denis Worrall, who had resigned from his post as the South African ambassador in London to run for parliament as an independent, challenging Heunis and very nearly defeating him in his Helderberg constituency in the 1987 elections. With a lugubrious walrus moustache, unmatchable pomposity and a visceral dislike of the British, Heunis warned that no interference by Mrs Thatcher in South Africa's affairs would be tolerated.
As I drove each morning to the embassy in Cape Town along the magnificent Rhodes Drive, which bisects the campus of the University
of Cape Town, I would encounter from time to time groups of students skirmishing with the riot police. The sympathies of the outraged motorists were by no means with the students. The courageous vice chancellor of the university, Dr Stuart Saunders, frequently was to be found standing in the middle of these disturbances.
The embassy itself, reflecting our shared history, was to be found in the government complex, immediately opposite parliament and the President's office. This caused great annoyance to PW Botha, who sent me an envoy requesting us to move. In reply I inquired whether the South Africans had any intention of moving South Africa House from Trafalgar Square.
I made a pilgrimage to Stellenbosch to meet the undisputed leader of the Afrikaner business community and great philanthropist, Anton Rupert. The extraordinary business acumen of this self-made billionaire was equalled by his no less extraordinary modesty. We would have lunch with a minimum of fuss in the local restaurant, where he appeared to be positively revered. When I asked him if he could not use his influence with PW Botha to propel him in a more positive direction, he showed me an exchange of messages with the President in which he had made the same argument in the politest possible terms, only for Botha to take no notice whatsoever.
His English-speaking counterpart, Harry Oppenheimer, had served as an opposition member in the South African parliament, had supported Helen Suzman when she sat as the sole MP opposed to apartheid and had sought to set an example to other South African companies in terms of the reformist political stance of the Anglo American Corporation. That said, as he told me himself, he did not
believe that he or Anglo American or the business community had any influence on PW Botha at all.
I sought to befriend two South Africans I greatly admired and who were to remain close friends of mine to the end of their lives: Helen Suzman and Van Zyl Slabbert. Helen Suzman and I were returning from our first lunch together when, as we entered the parliamentary precinct, an Afrikaner guard peered into the car. Recognising Helen and then me, he backed away. âCan't you see the balloon coming out of his head? Conspiring with the enemy,' Helen laughed.
The politics of the white community remained quite tribal. There was no direct relationship between Helen Suzman and the
Afrikaners, but some of them were starting to make speeches about the unworkability of various aspects of apartheid that sounded eerily like the speeches she had made many years before. In 1986, at the time of the repeal of the pass laws, a National Party MP, Albert Nothnagel, declared that she had been proved to have been right all along.
Frederik van Zyl Slabbert had been the charismatic leader of the Progressive Federal Party, and had infuriated Suzman by abruptly deciding to resign from parliament to pursue extra-parliamentary efforts to engage in serious discussions with the ANC. Together with Alex Boraine, Van Zyl Slabbert formed a think-tank, the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa), and his efforts culminated in the historic meeting between a group of mainly Afrikaner intellectuals and Thabo Mbeki and his colleagues in Dakar in June 1987. Van Zyl Slabbert was denounced for his pains by PW Botha as one of Lenin's âuseful idiots'. Helen Suzman had been angered by his decision to stand down from parliament, thereby damaging his
party. Helping to achieve a reconciliation between the two of them was scarcely less challenging than persuading the government to start talking to the ANC.
In Johannesburg and Pretoria I met three other Afrikaners who were to become both friends and powerful allies. The first of these was Pieter de Lange, head of the Broederbond, the secret society that linked together the Afrikaner elite. For decades, this had been regarded by outsiders as exerting a sinister influence. It was true that the Broederbond was dedicated to the promotion of Afrikaner interests â above all, culture â and was one of the mainstays of the regime. Pieter de Lange, however, had circulated to the members of the society a remarkable discussion document in which he invited them to think the unthinkable. Suppose, it said, there was an African majority in parliament and in government one day: how then could Afrikaner interests be protected? Warning clearly of the impossibility of preserving the status quo, the document contained the striking phrase, âthe greatest risk is not taking any risks'.