About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

07 Sep 1998: Barnard, Neil

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM     Dr Barnard, perhaps we could begin with you just telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and educated, how you entered the public service, how you entered the NIS and then the first, I suppose, important question I will ask is when did you realise, yourself personally, that the time had come for drastic change, that the incremental changes taking place in the country would be insufficient to solve the problem and that unless the problem was solved catastrophe faced the country down the line?

NB     I think I must be as brief as possible on my own personal background. I was born in 1949 in a small town by the name of Otjiwarongo in the northern part of South West Africa/Namibia. My father originated from the old Cape Colony, they were farmers and they moved to SWA in the year 1928. I studied at the local schools in Otjiwarongo, then I moved to the University of the Orange Free State where I studied in History and what we called Political Science at the time. I finished what we call an Honours degree and a Master's degree and eventually in 1975 I completed a Doctorate specialising in International Politics. I did my Doctorate on what is called, it's an Afrikaans title but it would translate literally, 'The Role of Power in International Politics', which is in essence the core of what world politics is all about.

POM     What was the core of your thesis?

NB     I also specialised in what one could call Strategic Studies, specialising in various forms of conflict, specifically in world politics, and then I started more or less as a hobby concentrating on what we called nuclear strategy at the time.

POM     Nuclear strategy?

NB     Yes. And still to this day it's kind of a personal and academic hobby for myself. I studied in the United States at the Georgetown Centre for Strategic and International Studies in 1979 for about six months on this very specific issue. I still today have quite strong views on issues in relation to nuclear strategy. Obviously I haven't been reading lately as much as one should keep doing. Yes, that's basically the academic career. I started lecturing at the University of the OFS at the beginning of 1972 and through events the head of the department suddenly died, another senior lecturer joined politics, the old head of the Department of Political Science, quite a famous one, a man by the name of Professor Herman Strauss, joined the President's Council, so very suddenly I was promoted and became head of the Department of Political Science in 1975 if I remember correctly at the University of the OFS.

     Then in 1979 I was offered the position of becoming head of what was then called the Department of National Security which in essence is the central civilian intelligence agency of South Africa. It cannot be compared to the CIA or the FBI or MI6 or MI5, and one cannot go into detail in any way, but South Africa has never been the same kind of intelligence structure as the rest of the so-called western world. In 1979 I became the head of the NIS.

POM     The NIS, the difference between the two agencies?

NB     Well the classic formula which you would find, I'm not talking about typical countries with a socialist or a communist origin, it's important to understand that. When you're working in a kind of dictatorial political situation, central intelligence agencies take care of the well-being and of the safety and security of be it the President or the Prime Minister or whoever. In a typical democracy you get two kinds of services, the one is a so-called internal counter-intelligence service, that's what the FBI is doing or MI5 is doing, and I can mention various others. Their main role is to identify in a typical system of sovereign national states the activities of foreign agents on your own soil. That's basically the idea behind the set-up. Whereas in world politics you should be forewarned as to what the enemies are doing against your own sovereignty so you send your own spies, very popularly speaking, abroad to ascertain what enemies are planning and what they are doing and not doing. In the case of SA there is no clear cut distinction between so-called external and internal enemies. It's as easy as that. SA is a total unique classical example in modern statecraft. There is no clear-cut line between those who at the time one could have called enemies of the government and the state of SA externally and internally. There might have been some differences but it flowed very strongly across the border, so to speak. And because of that the NIS both had external and internal responsibilities. Obviously we were mainly responsible externally but we were internally responsible as well. Be that as it may, I was in the NIS for 12 years until the end of January 1992.

     Then I became Director General of Constitution Development where Louis Buys is still serving and then I became, not became - because of differences of opinion with Mr Valli Moosa when he became the Minister of that Department and we possibly shouldn't go into that - strangely enough one of the reasons he mentioned was that he couldn't accept having an ex-head of an intelligence agency as head of a Department of Constitutional Affairs, which is a rather thin argument but be that as it may. I come from a certain classical school. The school where I come from learns that a public servant never serves with a minister who doesn't like him. It's as easy as that. If a minister and a public servant cannot see eye to eye upon a fundamental issue it's always the responsibility of the public servant to inform the minister. I feel very strongly about this very matter and I am going to go, I cannot serve in this capacity. That's the way I think about public service.

     Then I was appointed as Director General of the Western Cape and I am still serving here now after about 20 odd months.

     That's basically my background. I have always been very much interested in politics. I have always been very much interested in strategic matters and let me put one thing very, very straight right from the very outset, I am a very typical Afrikaner, a Boer. I am not trying to be anything else. I find in my experience that many people somehow become something different.

POM     When you say typical Afrikaner?

NB     Well I am a typical Afrikaner. I believe in God. I believe in my language. I believe in my culture. I believe in the destiny of our people in this part of the world.

POM     When you say 'destiny'?

NB     I believe we have a role to play to develop this very difficult continent. It's one thing for my colleague to sit in Boston or even in Dublin, as you would call that, it's another thing to maintain a certain level of development in this very, very wonderful continent. It's a tough continent where even for all the miracles that people have been talking about there still are centuries of development ahead of us in this continent of Africa and you can only look around yourself at the rest of the continent to see what is going on. I believe we have a role to play, I believe we have a level of development in the interests of the people of this continent and a responsibility which we must take, not in any way a so-called paternalistic line, not in any way, not by any stretch of the imagination, but because we've been here for - my family are on this continent for nine generations.

     You see my problem is that we more or less only have 15 minutes left but let me also tell you an anecdote which is very interesting. When the late Bill Casey, whom you would remember as head of the CIA, once visited this country, it was more or less in 1986/87, the first night at the official dinner his wife was very clearly very worried about what was going on in this country and so she asked me, I remember quite vividly, "Young man, tell me from which country in Europe did your father and mother come?" And I said I really don't follow the question: my father and mother came from Europe or what did you say? And so I told her in the end I am the second son of the ninth generation of a German soldier of fortune by the name of a certain Johannes Barnard at the time who left the city of Cologne. And I asked her, "Now would you mind, Ms Casey, telling me how many generations are the Casey's in America?" So she said, "Well I don't exactly know." You see that's one issue which people must understand. We have been living here for quite some time.

     I think you asked a very critical question. I am really not very much interested in my own personal background for that matter, there are a lot of stories which are not important. Your question was, when did you realise that incremental change is not the answer and one should really push the issue of transformation? It's a very difficult question to answer. It's a very difficult one. Let me kick off by saying, and I think this is a very fundamental point, I reject in toto (I didn't say you said that but some people say it's so), I say I reject in toto the notion that my people, the Afrikaner people, are by nature very, very conservative, they don't want to change, they resist change. I think it's wrong. I think the history of my people would clearly illustrate that over 300 years we were perhaps more adaptable to the realities of this continent than any other European power but it can be a point of discussion. To put it the other way round, how on earth is it possible for a small number of people in a developing society to survive in a hostile world for over 300 years if they have not been able to be much more adaptable, to be much more prone to transformation, whatever you would like to call that? Afrikaner people are much more reformist than many people believe they are, much more.

     I come from a typical Afrikaner background, basically conservative, and then the real development in my own thinking started because, I think I must put it this way, I think I try to be very clear with my own conscience and reading good intelligence services factual reports as to what the real situation on the ground was in SA. Even before I joined the NIS but from the very moment, from 1980 onwards, we on a yearly basis, there is a yearly intelligence factual report which we call in Afrikaans Nasionale Inligtings Waardering, that might translate into the National Intelligence Yearly Assessment, and if you read that you would see that from as early on as 1981, 1982, yearly we looked at the situation and finally then given the view that in the end there is only one solution in this country and that will be a political solution. There is no way to fight it out. We will have to find a political solution. Inside this country there are a number of people, many of them who don't enjoy fundamental political rights. We will have to change that and we will have to find a political answer.

POM     You will have to change that and you will have to - ?

NB     You will have to find a political answer. There is only one answer in the long run and that's a political one.

POM     Why did you come to that conclusion?

NB     Because quite obviously there is no way in which a minority of people, for endless decades to come, can impose their will on the majority of people in the country. It's as easy as that. I don't think one should differ on that, I think that's the basic point of departure. The question is how do you get there? Against the background of very strong political powers, bureaucratic and political powers in this country, we really believed that the real threat of this country was a so-called communist menace from outside.

POM     When you say 'we' you are talking about?

NB     I am broadly speaking about the South African bureaucracy. I am talking about the people who have been shaping, who have been doing the thinking, who have been preparing the speeches, who have been instrumental in taking the whole process forward. That's the 'we' I'm talking about.

POM     So it's not the government?

NB     Well the government to a large extent, yes. I am talking I think in your understanding, yes I think government as a whole, but bear in mind there were a lot of differences, that's the point I'm trying to make, within government as to what the way ahead, the road ahead, should be. I gradually and more and more was convinced that that is the only way out and that's the reason why from as early as 1984/85/86 in government in interaction between ourselves and the government at the time we clearly indicated there is only one way out and that is to find a political settlement. Some way or another we will have to find that and in the long run a final settlement including the leadership core of the strongest political forces, at that moment not represented in government circles, will be of absolute importance. Without that it will never work. And against that background started the whole issue of starting discussions with Mr Mandela when he was in prison. Many people tell many different stories. I recall, or count, 48 meetings in toto lasting I don't know how many hundred hours between me and Mr Mandela since May of 1988 until the time of his release.

POM     Let's now backtrack a little bit. Kobie Coetsee visited Mr Mandela in hospital when he was there for prostate cancer. Subsequently Mr Mandela wrote to Mr Coetsee, some time passed, then he was invited to his office or to his home and I don't know how many meetings they had but then a team was formed under the direction of the then State President, PW Botha, and you headed that team. Could you go through the circumstances of how you were brought in, how this team was formed, what President Botha's objective was in forming the team, how the team was chosen and what your frame of reference was?

NB     You realise of course that to answer each one of those questions would take us a little bit more than an hour or two and we only have five minutes left according to the schedule which we've been preparing. Let me try to be as brief about that - I would rather try to touch on the issue of Ireland also which you've mentioned. Think about the year 1986 in SA. It's not 1998. A rather active war of typical urban and here and there so-called rural, as we called it, revolution, terrorism. Other people would call it a freedom fight or a freedom struggle or whatever. People were dying. With the pipe bomb which exploded a few days ago on the Waterfront all of a sudden the President himself, Mr Mandela, has a lot of sympathy. When bomber McBride plants bombs those years ago in Durban it's all of a sudden a different moral equation. I find it difficult to follow, but be that as it may. Against that background what do you do? How do you take the country forward.

     I was never privy to and I never tried to find out exactly what happened between Minister Coetsee and Mr Mandela. That you will have to ask them. Let me be as courteous as I can and say that I think the role which Minister Kobie Coetsee has played is hugely exaggerated. Be that as it may. President Botha at the time asked me that you've been talking a lot about political solutions, you've clearly indicated that Mr Mandela has a critical role to play, somebody will have to find out is it possible to find a lasting chord of stability with Mr Mandela. He will have to be involved with somebody and it will have to be ascertained from three points: what is Mr Mandela's view about the role of so-called violence; how does he see the struggle and the future of the struggle; is he prepared to accept a kind of cease-fire agreement before one can move into a period of discussion, negotiation? Broadly speaking the first point. Secondly what kind of political future does Mr Mandela see for the country? Is it a democratic one, what kind of a political future does he see?

POM     Political future in terms of whether it be a capitalistic society, a socialist society?

NB     Broadly speaking the kind of model, the constitutional model. And then coupled to that the third critical point, what role does the so-called communist ideology play in his mind-set, you must ascertain that? Three points very, very briefly, obviously the head of the Intelligence, Civilian Intelligence National Agency, from a logical point of view would have been the best equipped to try to ascertain that. Secondly, there was and still is to this day, a very close relationship between President Botha and myself, and I think there existed between him and myself a very close level of confidence which should exist between a head of an intelligence agency and a head of government, head of a country.

     But the third point is perhaps the most fundamental and that is what not even the Irish and not even the people in the Middle East until this day completely understand, and that brings me to my story about Ireland. Still with all your efforts at Arniston, and I wish you well, I still don't think that the route you've taken was the correct one. I firmly believe that if you have such a divided country there is just no way in which you can take the initial steps forward if you don't do that in total secrecy. I am absolutely convinced about that. You certainly know the history of diplomacy and you would know that one Woodrow Wilson, the American President at the time of the first world war, has taken the line in his famous so-called fourteen points of open covenants of peace openly arrived at. If you look at SA in the middle of the eighties there was just no way in which you could involve from the New York Times to the Washington Post and whoever more becoming involved in a process of negotiations in this country for two very, very obvious reasons. You would know that it was certainly not only President Botha who was under tremendous pressure, Mr Mandela himself was under tremendous pressure, a hell of a lot of pressure, even from within his own party at the time and he must have contemplated, will I be trusted by my own people if I start negotiations with the so-called Boers in some way or another? Will they in the end believe that I was still fighting for the struggle and for the cause which we say we all did the fighting for? That first initial period in such a deeply divided society can never be done without the slightest outside pressure because then everybody will have to say to his or her constituents, "Don't do it this way, we'll do it that way."

     The main reason for the success of the SA process has been the fact that the South Africans involved were prepared to at least do the groundwork without any public kind of knowledge. There is also a basic reason for this let me say very certainly, President Botha had members in his Cabinet who were genetically unable to keep news like that for themselves and Mr Pik Botha whom you've interviewed is a very classic example. Can you think that Pik Botha would come to know that secret negotiations were started with Mandela that he will not in two minutes, even if you threaten him with guillotine, will not start phoning his friends in the Washington Post immediately? And that would immediately have put us under a hell of a lot of pressure, both the old government and obviously the ANC. But that's a long story. People many times asked me, how is it possible that it didn't leak out? To this day I don't necessarily know. I think the main reason was that the people who have been involved were perhaps not interested in their own careers. Perhaps that's it.

     But there's another very fundamental point and that is that at the time when President Botha saw Mr Mandela and after the time when Mr de Klerk took over, the more critical and tough and difficult issues had been settled to a large extent. The way in which people try to paint a picture of history that all of a sudden here comes a new man, Mr de Klerk, and he changes the course of history, it's untruth, it's totally untrue and I think history will be very harsh and very hard on people who are trying to take that line because they will be proven wrong. The difficult things that have been settled prior to Mr Mandela's release, it's been settled before the time. He played a critical role.

     At the time also we had to involve, but that's also another story which would take quite some time to explain, bringing in Thabo Mbeki and the so-called external wing and whatever. So that's basically what happened during that time. It was a very important phase of almost finalising a lot of these matters, finalising at least the initial stages. Remember when you kick off on a process like this you have to suddenly realise that we are all human beings and if you know a little bit, and I happen to know just a small little bit about Irish history, it must be very tough for people coming from the first world war and whoever more, all the killings which have been taking place in the Irish Republic as well, to all of a sudden start talking. It is a difficult issue. If you ask me what has been one of the main reasons for the success of the initial process of finding a political answer I think that played a very important role, yes I think so.

POM     That the talks in - ?

NB     Talks in secrecy. Absolutely. The worst thing you can do is to, knowing that you might be in - I think it's a tough view to take but the role which presently is being played by the media is making public governance almost impossible to a certain extent. If you look at the calibre of leadership one finds nowadays, but be that as it may, that's another point. That's basically the situation, then the whole process started. If we can very quickly - but obviously you would be interested in a lot of stories about that, the whole process of bringing in the people from outside, the process of negotiations and then obviously you saw a lot of people who would have given you endless hours of discussions on Kempton Park and what happened there with Working Groups 1 to 5 and Boipatong and what more. Then we had the election and now we're 4½ years down the road with, let me tell you, it's not been an easy road. In the basic responsibility of a government, and that is to serve the people of this country, we haven't been extremely successful, to put it mildly, in the past four years. That's the truth, that's the reality. We have not been because we have been incapable of understanding that governance is not about speeches in parliament; governance is about building houses, building roads and serving the people, really serving the people and that means you have to be a lot of things to a lot of people but we're struggling with that. Here and there we are making progress I can gladly say but there is still a long road ahead.

     That brings me back to my first point. I believe we have a responsibility and we should carry that through and that's what we're trying to do. But now I've moved through years of very difficult and delicate processes in which - let me make one last point and then we can see whether we can't arrange for another meeting if you would be interested. Is there any other example in world history where a group of people 'willingly negotiated themselves out of power'? I don't know of it. If you know you must tell me, I don't know. It's not what Jacob Zuma would have told you, because of the African National Congress or the MK for that matter or whoever putting unbearable physical threats against this government. That's not true, it was never true. It was a real conviction that it will not be in the interests of this country to have a wasteland.  As a country who will be interested in inheriting a wasteland, for what matter? Shall we try to fight it out so to speak? One must find another way out of this.

POM     Well what I would like to do is obviously come back and not just see you again but perhaps on a number of occasions because -

NB     I have a problem with that. I must be very straightforward with you. I am running a company of 100,000 people, it's not like Valli Moosa is running 78 people or something like that. I'm not trying to be difficult, it's a huge responsibility. The only reason Viljoen will tell you why I'm doing this is because I think from my perspective a totally wrong picture has been painted about what has been happening in certain periods. Can you imagine if I have to see each and every Master's and Doctor's degree from Harvard to Bloemfontein who want to talk to me about what happened? I can more or less for 1000 hours be involved in that. We will have to find a time slot, Van Heerden will arrange that, for two to three hours, and let's see whether we can't talk it through then.

     Broadly speaking, I would like to be only for one reason, let's at least give you another voice as well specifically as to the kick-off phase. Obviously I was intimately involved after that. I take it that Meyer and Maharaj and Slovo, even before his death, would have informed you about the so-called channel and what happened there and what didn't happen there and so forth and so on. Even during the most difficult days from 1992 onwards there was a secret confidential group on the ANC side consisting of Ramaphosa, Maharaj and Slovo, on the government side consisting of Meyer, Fanie van der Merwe and myself. I think we from time to time managed to pull some difficult issues through, specifically after Boipatong. The point I am trying to make is, there is just no way in which even the most difficult situation in Ireland, even in the Middle East, one has to understand that during negotiations, and that has been the way like that prior to the beginning of the century. If you read the books about Metternich and you read old style diplomacy it's quite clear that the more difficult fundamental issues have been solved behind closed doors. We are taking transparency too far in the modern world, we are going to pay a hell of a price for that, but be that as it may.

     I think I would like to give my views and opinions on that and specifically the difficult periods. We're not through in our country. If you look at what the so-called Truth & Reconciliation Commission are doing right now, I appeared before them twice without finding anything whatsoever. You mustn't underestimate the fact that there is growing resentment by many South Africans as to this bloody stupid thing which is going on right now and they are making the one bugger up after the other, but be that as it may.

POM     That's part of what I'm doing in the post-transitional period, I've followed the TRC, interviewed commissioners associated with it. In fact I gave a lecture in Belfast last year on truth and reconciliation at which Alex Boraine, who I've known for years, was also a participant, and I gave a lecture, of which I will supply you with a copy, in which just the conceptual contradictions of trying to take truth, justice and reconciliation and package them together was conceptually contradictory besides anything else. And from the floor I had words with Alex and he won't speak to me since.

NB     I would refrain because from my personal view you would possibly hear extremely harsh words on some individuals, but be that as it may. Patti Waldmeir writes in this book of hers that she's never been in my presence without me mentioning the Boer War. Briefly speaking, now a century ago more or less, the mighty British Empire killed 26,000 women and children in this country. Must we have another Truth & Reconciliation on the modern British government for what they've been doing or must we call in the British to explain to the Irish what the hell the have been doing in the Irish Republic in the time of Eamon de Valera and everybody else and so forth and so on? One thing you must be very wary of in Ireland specifically is that specifically people of the cloth, religious people, somehow believe that they are there to solve the world's problems. This commission has divided this country, it will take I don't know how long because if you really go into that you will find it's not black people who have been driving this, it's more or less white people of the cloth who have been trying to drive it through in some way or another. If you look back at the history of this country, unfortunately you would many times find that it's not the true real inhabitants, people living here, who don't understand each other. We understand each other. It's some people who try to make it difficult for us and that's a problem in my mind, I must tell you, but fortunately I haven't mentioned any names at least because the tape is still on. We can offer, I think, a lot of understanding, we can offer understanding. I cautioned Valli Moosa and many other people at the time. The Irish problem is a tremendous one and - be that as it may.

     Let's try to do it, if it fits with you, to find some slot of about two to three hours. Let's try to talk through the whole thing. I really cannot, with a lot of respect, spend more time. The reason is that I would like to at least be of some kind of assistance. Make no mistake I'm no angel or something like that and I will give my own subjective views. Certainly you would understand that. But at least I must give you the advantage because one man who is not treated correctly until now and that's the man by the name of PW Botha. He is a difficult man, especially lately. That does not mean that he didn't play a very, very critical role. He did play a very critical role. Remember you're talking about a man who entered this very, very tough political arena in our country. Mankind's ability to change stops after some while. You can only go as far as that. Even Mr Mandela can only go as far as that. There is a point you cannot go beyond. I'm personally worried about the fact that people only see PW as the old Groot Krokodil who resisted everything. That's just historically not true, it's not true. It's just not true. He started it, obviously he had some other political support as well. I have never seen, and I think it's one of the clever issues, I've never seen, and it's a little bit difficult for me because of the presence of Van Heerden, but a man like Chris Heunis, the Minister of Constitutional Affairs' role in this whole process. I've never seen - I must say that I'm not reading a lot about those times because it sometimes irritates me to read the way in which people put it.

     Yes, let's do that, I will try to be of some assistance if only to give another perspective as well and to, hopefully, run for the future because I usually conclude to say that well we have no option. What the hell are the options for this country other than to find a lasting solution? We must find it some way or another and we are all involved in that and we must all play our role.

POM     Let me be just self-serving. You are correct that 100,000 historians, scholars, political scientists could descend on you and you could spend your entire life talking to them and I say, well why me? If you had to make a choice it's in part because I have already devoted nine years of my life to this. I live here half the year. I do it all at my own expense. I would think I have spent half a million dollars of my own money. I sold my business last week to finance the next two years. I had a small business that allowed me the leeway, I sold it and this is my life's work. This takes me from now into the years ahead and I will have not one book, I will have two or three books. It's the rest of my life. I have sacrificed everything to do this in a way that will stand out as the authoritative and definitive work which means that I must leave no lead, most follow every point of view.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.