Authors: Robin Renwick
In spite of De Klerk's successful meetings with the Prime Minister and Chancellor Kohl at the end of June 1989, President George Bush felt unable to invite him to Washington, for fear of difficulties with Congress. The US official responsible for Africa, Hank Cohen, protested in vain that âit would be a mistake to deal ourselves out of the game' just when it was becoming more interesting.
PW Botha invited Nelson Mandela to tea with him in his office in the Tuynhuys. Mandela's warder helped him to knot his tie: he had not had much use for one in prison. Niel Barnard, head of the NIS, knelt down to tie Mandela's shoelaces. PW Botha greeted him courteously. Coetsee and Barnard had advised Mandela to avoid raising contentious issues with the President. So they talked about South African history. The meeting lasted less than half an hour. At the end, Mandela
asked Botha to release all political prisoners. Botha said that he could not do that.
Mandela was generous about this meeting in his memoirs. What it really amounted to was an attempt by PW Botha to upstage De Klerk and to show that, politically, he was not dead yet. As I pointed out at the time, however, the meeting was going to make it impossible in future to criticise contacts with the ANC.
In London, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston asked if the Prime Minister would meet Albertina Sisulu, a request strongly supported by me. She had suffered more than most at the hands of the regime, having been detained and banned herself, as well as having had her husband imprisoned for the past twenty-six years. She was held in considerably higher esteem in Soweto than Winnie Mandela, and we had helped to get her son, Zwelakhe, released from detention.
The Prime Minister met her in Downing Street on 12 July. The UDF activist Azhar Cachalia, who was accompanying Albertina, felt that Thatcher lectured, while President Bush, whom they had met in Washington, listened. Albertina was struck by Thatcher's confidence that, after the elections, her husband and Mandela would be released. (Great admirer as I am of George Bush senior, he did not make anything like as strenuous an effort as Thatcher did to bombard the South African government with demands for reform and the release of Mandela. At this time, he and Secretary of State James Baker were preoccupied with the looming collapse of the Soviet Union and, later, the reunification of Germany. South Africa did not figure in George
Bush's principal memoir of his time in the White House and barely registers in those of Baker.
It did not take much longer for matters to come to a head with PW Botha. He reacted furiously to an announcement that De Klerk would be meeting President Kaunda in Lusaka, about which he claimed publicly that he had not been consulted, though he had in fact been informed. De Klerk and the cabinet had had enough. In a meeting with President Botha on 14 August, they asked him to retire gracefully, which he declined to do, berating his colleagues instead, displaying in De Klerk's words his âirascible and cantankerous nature'.
They thereupon insisted unanimously on his immediate resignation. The Prime Minister congratulated De Klerk on taking over as President.
In the elections, the National Party won ninety-three of the seats, giving them a clear majority in parliament, but lost ground to the Conservative Party, which won thirty-nine seats and around 40 per cent of the Afrikaner votes. The Democratic Party, successor to the Progressive Federal Party, won thirty-three seats.
The election had otherwise been peaceful, but on election day, 6 September, a number of coloured youths were killed in clashes with the police in the Cape townships. Two days later, Archbishop Tutu called for a protest march in Cape Town, on 13 September. Tutu asked me to meet him at Bishopscourt, where he gave me a message for the Prime Minister, urging her to help get the march permitted. Allan
Boesak was also present, sounding as usual more militant than Tutu. From Bishopscourt, I went to see Van Heerden and Pik Botha, who needed no convincing that the march should be authorised; if it were banned, De Klerk's presidency would get off to the worst possible start. But the security chiefs, as usual, were opposed.
Next morning, as I continued my lobbying of the South African government, Johan Heyns walked into my office, accompanied by several other leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church. They had flown down from Pretoria and had heard that we were trying to get the demonstration permitted.
They went off to see De Klerk, determined that he should not start his presidency on the same footing as PW Botha. Overruling the police chiefs, De Klerk agreed to authorise the demonstration. I was asked to help get assurances from the church leaders that, if the police stayed on the sidelines, they would help to guarantee that the demonstration was peaceful. When it took place, we held our breath as a huge crowd assembled. The church and UDF leaders managed effectively to marshal the demonstration, which passed off peacefully.
The Peace March, as it was called, was one of the largest public demonstrations ever in the Cape. It was a turning point in South Africa's history, as De Klerk proceeded to authorise demonstrations in the other major cities. In his first decision as President, he had banned use by the police of the
â the hide whips the South African police had employed for decades as one of their favourite methods of crowd control.
In response to Desmond Tutu's message about the planned demonstration in Cape Town, the Prime Minister replied that she was
glad the march had been authorised and it had passed off peacefully. She added that she condemned violence from any quarter, including by the police. We had made clear our opposition to detention without trial and had sought to secure the release of the detainees and long-term security prisoners. We wanted the unbanning of the ANC and the lifting of the state of emergency. We were urging De Klerk to make a reality of his promise of dialogue and were working for progress on all the issues of concern to the Archbishop.
The Prime Minister sent a message to congratulate De Klerk. She had high hopes for a new determination to solve South Africa's problems by dialogue. He had described the election result as a clear mandate for reform. He knew the importance she placed on the release of Mandela and Walter Sisulu. He had expressed his intention to draw genuine black leaders into negotiations on a new constitution. She did not underestimate the difficulties, but the first weeks of his administration would be of particular importance. She welcomed the decision to permit the demonstration in Cape Town.
From London, Anthony Sampson asked me and 10 Downing Street for help in ensuring security for ANC president Oliver Tambo's stay in a nursing home in Surrey during his recovery from a stroke. He was assured that appropriate arrangements were being made for Tambo.
At De Klerk's inauguration as President, as I and the other guests waited in the courtyard of the Union Buildings for the new President to make his speech, Kobie Coetsee rushed up to me. âIs he going to announce the release of Mandela?' he asked. I said that I did not think
so, as that would require preparation, and De Klerk anyway was not the man to take great initiatives without consulting his cabinet.
De Klerk's speech promising negotiations on a new constitution was highly reformist in tone, but non-specific. Patti Waldmeir of the
recorded it in her diary as âblah, blah, blah'.
I called on De Klerk in his office in the Union Buildings the following day. He had received the Prime Minister's message. He hoped that we understood that it had not been possible for him to announce specific decisions at his inauguration, with half of his ministers not yet sworn in. He added that his talk with the Prime Minister at Chequers in June had been much tougher than those with other European leaders or with the African presidents. This was because she talked bluntly but frankly and he appreciated that.
I said that we realised that change was going to take time. But the Prime Minister hoped that he would take some practical steps in the near future that would enable us to show, as his decision over the demonstrations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and other centres had done, that real change was going to take place, not just declarations of intent. De Klerk asked about the dates for the upcoming Commonwealth conference, to be held in Kuala Lumpur, which I gave him, while making clear that it was our view that such steps needed to be taken anyway.
I was glad to find that, rather than being alarmed at the advance of the Conservative Party, De Klerk was reaching the opposite conclusion, namely, that 70 per cent of the white population had voted for reform.
The Prime Minister agreed to my suggestion that she should give an interview to Aggrey Klaaste, the outstanding editor of the
(one of South Africa's largest-circulation newspapers), Khulu Sibiya of
and two other black South African journalists to explain what Britain was trying to achieve in South Africa, namely, the release of Mandela and agreement on a new constitution. She also agreed to see Enos Mabuza again, knowing perfectly well that he was in close touch with the ANC.
The Prime Minister saw Mabuza in Downing Street together with Helen Suzman and Van Zyl Slabbert. All three urged her to seek some positive steps from the South African government before the Commonwealth conference. Helen Suzman did not believe that De Klerk would agree simply to hand over power. But, for the first time, he had aligned the National Party on the liberal side of South African politics. Mabuza said that Thabo Mbeki was ready for negotiations.
I pressed Neil van Heerden for a response to the Prime Minister's message, at the time of De Klerk's inauguration, about the need to release the main ANC leaders and draw them into negotiations. I said that I knew all about the resistance, firstly, to doing almost anything, and secondly, to being seen to do anything under foreign pressure, but there was a need to demonstrate that all this
(openness) was not just words. Van Heerden said that in permitting the demonstrations in Cape Town and elsewhere, De Klerk had overruled the security establishment. South Africa was pressing ahead with the Namibia agreement. There was no prospect of the early release of Mandela, but
we discussed the possible release of the other long-term prisoners, though this would be opposed by General Malan and the police. He added that the Namibia agreement would never have been achieved without our efforts and those of Chester Crocker.
Van Heerden promised that Pik Botha would argue forcefully in the SSC for the release of Walter Sisulu and the other long-term Robben Islanders, but the security establishment would continue to resist. As it was well known that we were pressing for the release of long-term prisoners, the right-wing press were arguing against supposedly giving way to a foreign government on an issue of this kind. I said that, if the South African government wanted to get negotiations under way, the prisoners were going to have to be released. De Klerk had spoken to me of not being able to release Mandela until a climate had been created into which he could be released. This would be a vital step in that direction.
On the evening of 10 October, De Klerk telephoned the Prime Minister to tell her that he was about to announce the release of Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and five other companions of Mandela on Robben Island. Mandela had been told about this, and that his own release was not at present on the agenda. The Prime Minister was pleased at the news, though she naturally hoped that it would be followed in due course by the release of Mandela.
We were now on the eve of the Commonwealth conference in Kuala Lumpur. I had used its proximity, unashamedly, to accelerate the release of Walter Sisulu and his companions. Given these positive moves by De Klerk, Margaret Thatcher was determined to support him and more than ever disposed to resist further sanctions. In this,
she was fully justified; if the release of the senior ANC leaders had been followed by more punitive actions, this would have played into the hands of De Klerk's conservative opponents within the Afrikaner community.
She enjoyed the ensuing fracas with most of the other Commonwealth heads of government, determined to ignore what actually was happening in South Africa, rather more than her new Foreign Secretary, John Major. The Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, Kenneth Kaunda and others all argued for more sanctions. The assembled foreign ministers came up with a communiquÃ© John Major and the Foreign Office officials felt they could âlive with'. Considering that it paid no regard whatever to the positive developments in South Africa, Margaret Thatcher proceeded to issue a statement of her own, paying tribute to those changes and suggesting that the Commonwealth should concentrate on encouraging them, rather than on further punishment.