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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
02 Feb 1999: Van Der Merwe, CJ (Stoffel)
POM Dr van der Merwe, let me start first with the most obvious thing I felt that struck me and that was reading Richard Rosenthal's book on the initiative he attempted to start, or started, trying to bring the ANC and the government to some starting point and you figure very prominently in the book as being really not only the go-between between him and PW Botha but running the process in a way from the government's side. My first question would be: why would PW Botha, being the man he is, take an offer from a private citizen who was closely associated with the Van Zyl Slabbert part and say, go ahead, try to make contact with the ANC, while at the same time he had a different group of people talking to Mandela in jail?
SVM I think it was a question that PW trusted my judgement in this case. It was very, very low profile. It was another string to the bow. In those days all this was very tentative and one was looking for a beginning in some ways and I don't think that the position of Mandela as the I mean Mandela was at that stage not the de facto leader of the ANC in the sense that he didn't have the opportunity to be so and so the ANC was more than just Mandela and there were other people that one wanted to reach. So I think those were probably the considerations and Richard Rosenthal impressed me as a person with huge integrity and a real sense of duty and someone that wanted to do something and was capable of doing so. So for that reason I think the initiative got as far as it did.
POM Now the only people aware of it were you, Rosenthal and PW Botha?
SVM Yes, very few people outside the circle.
POM Was Niel Barnard ever brought into it?
SVM At a later stage yes, and then he had some dealings with Rosenthal but I think that is where the process almost stopped because at a later stage Niel Barnard and his people had an initiative going and then Rosenthal reported to him and that is more or less where the whole thing fizzled out again.
POM One gets the impression from reading his book that Barnard more or less said you're an amateur, go home and leave it to the professionals, you're just getting in our way. Were you aware at the time that Barnard and Fanie van der Merwe and Kobie Coetsee were talking to Mandela?
SVM No not really, not really, because that was also very secret, and I don't think that at the stage when the Rosenthal initiative started that they had then at that stage really gotten anywhere substantial. I think that is something that started out a bit later.
POM How seriously did PW Botha take Rosenthal's effort?
SVM I don't think that he pinned a lot of hope on it. This was not as if he had clutched onto this as the hope of the future but that he thought it was a useful, what would you call it? I don't want to say experiment, but exploration. So I don't think that he attached huge significance to it. In other words, as I say, it's not as if he saw this as the lifeboat or anything like that.
POM Rosenthal, it's the book of course that I left in Boston when I came so I've been scratching around for another copy, but as I recall there was a meeting between PW and a diplomat from the Swiss government.
SVM That's right.
POM At which the diplomat said something which PW took rather as undiplomatic. It turned out that he more or less walked out. Was that the end of the initiative?
SVM Yes that was the beginning of the end of the initiative yes.
POM Van Zyl Slabbert says it was the beginning of the end of your career.
SVM No, no, that wasn't. Well if that was the beginning of the end then it took quite a long time to come to the end.
POM But after that it kind of petered out?
SVM Yes, the whole thing petered out after that.
POM Did you have more hope in it, would you have said, than PW?
SVM I thought that this was important. Again, I did not think that this was going to you should bear in mind that at the time the official stance was that we do not negotiate with terrorists. That was the official stance and this was basically an exploration of the possibilities, it was not a negotiation initiative and one shouldn't see it as that, but it was a question of making contact and I thought that it was important in that sense. It was important to get some messages through to the ANC in a quiet but credible manner and I think Rosenthal was well placed for that and to get an objective assessment from him again of what the reaction is to certain thoughts and things like those. So I thought that was important as part of many other important things that were going on.
POM Where did the Swiss government fit into the equation?
SVM Rosenthal had to have some financial sponsorship and he went to them and got the sponsorship from them.
POM But it wasn't a case of the Swiss government acting or volunteering to act as some kind of facilitator between the ANC and South Africa?
SVM Not at all, not at all. That was not my understanding of the thing ever. My understanding was that they listened to his request and that they regarded this as a useful initiative and that they decided to give him some money to do it with. The role of the Swiss government was not supposed to go any further than that.
POM But he did not report to them?
SVM No, not, not that I am aware of. There was no understanding that he would report to them. Obviously he would have to persuade them that it was a useful exercise but it was not a question of them being required to take any action more than supplying him with money.
POM They weren't pushing the process, they simply funded him or said 'Go loose'. So what is the context of the incident between PW and the Swiss diplomat? Did that happen in Pretoria?
SVM No it was in Switzerland.
POM Switzerland. So PW had gone to Switzerland independently, he hadn't gone to Switzerland for that purpose?
SVM No not at all. He went there for a totally different reason and then I don't know exactly what the content of the discussion between the two was but obviously PW did not expect to be confronted by a Swiss diplomat on this issue. I think that is where the whole thing got unstuck, the fact that this was supposed to be so hush-hush that no-one else was really supposed to know what it was all about, so I think the Swiss diplomat spoke out of turn and did some damage in the process.
POM So Rosenthal would report to you and then you would report to PW? Did Rosenthal meet with PW on his own ever?
SVM No. I can't remember, I think they met, yes, but I can't remember exactly when and where. Can't remember even whether they did. There was no reporting by Rosenthal directly to PW either.
POM At any point during the discussions Rosenthal had with the ANC, was there any point at which you though this might go, this might fly or were you always rather sceptical? Or did you see it more as a way of exchanging messages and were the messages coming from PW Botha to the ANC, was he sending them messages?
SVM No, it was messages from me basically to the ANC about what the SA government was up to, if I can say it that way. OK that may sound strange if you put it in those words but rather to give them should I say there was no other communication between the government and the ANC at that stage and the perception of the ANC about the government was about as distorted as the government's perception about the ANC. This was an attempt to send a message that, look this is actually what the government is aiming at and that was why it was important to send a message via a channel that would be credible and on the other hand to get messages again from them in order to correct our own perception and get some more information from them as to what would be possible and what would not be possible, again by a credible channel because I knew that Rosenthal would not only listen to the words, he would even look beyond the words, he would bring me the words and he would bring me a very objective assessment of those same words, and the same thing in the other direction. He wouldn't simply carry my words but he would also give them an assessment of how true these words were. I thought that it was a useful exercise at that stage in the game to share some thoughts through such a channel with the ANC. So it was never a direct message from PW Botha but rather a message from me saying that, look, this is what we are trying to achieve, this is where we really actually want to be going.
POM You were one of the leading verligtes?
SVM That whole verligte/verkrampte issue, it's like all simplifications, it's a very useful tool up to a certain point and beyond that point it becomes an obstacle. Even though I would, I suppose, technically fall into the side of the verligtes one had one's own problems with the process and you had your own fears about the process and all that sort of thing, so it is not as if you were just an unthinking liberal or anything like that. That's not what it was all about so that classification verlig and verkramp can sometimes be an obstacle in itself. But, yes, I was one of the guys that saw the need for reform and not only from a practical point of view but also from the point of view of principles. If I may put that into a nutshell, in my early days I was a supporter not of apartheid but of separate development which is technically slightly different.
POM Would you just give me this so that I can understand the distinction that you make between the two?
SVD If I can explain the distinction, in my view apartheid, as it was conceived in 1948 and before, was a dividing line that ran horizontally with the white man being at the top and the black man being at the bottom and the floor of the white man was the ceiling of the black man, because it was inspired to a large degree by a feeling of racial superiority or something like that. But that changed in time to a dividing line that ran vertically with the whites on the one side and the blacks on the other side, separate but equal if you wish, and that may have been a discredited idea, the idea of separate but equal, but that was basically it. My concept of it, at the time when I embraced this, was that this would eliminate the then existing injustices in the country because it would give equal opportunities to people even though in separate areas of the country and that is why I supported it. But then as time went by and the injustices increased and you saw that the resources to create equal opportunities, if separate, were just not materialising, then for those same reasons I stopped supporting separate development and I started looking for alternatives. So the move towards reform was not just a pragmatic thing but it was also inspired by disillusionment on our side that the policy which we had embraced did not produce that which we thought it would produce. Now this is a very simplified view. That realisation is not something that you pick up overnight, it is something, because the whole situation is so complicated, a little thing goes wrong here, a little thing goes wrong there, a little thing goes wrong there, and it takes time before you realise that this is just not going to work, no patching and mending is going to make this work. Then, once you've realised that, you start looking for alternatives and then you start persuading your own people in that direction. This takes a long time and it takes a lot of effort. I'm sorry, this whole sermon was now prompted by the fact that you wanted to know where I stood.
POM Well in the context of separate development, in the very beginning if you had 87% of the population consigned to 13% of the land, of the poorest land in a way, it could never be equal.
SVM You see that again is an over-simplification because at the time when separate development was formulated it was not 87% of the population. At that time it was a much smaller part of the population and furthermore it is not all the poorest land in the country. Even if you look at the Transkei for instance, Natal, that is very fertile land in fact. Granted some of the parts of the country were barren, like Bophuthatswana. There are so many 'what ifs' if one enters that area that it's very difficult to really speculate sensibly. So I don't know. The only thing is, as you say, wasn't it all inevitable? The one thing that was inevitable was that the black people had to be made part of the decision making process in SA. What form was another argument but that was accepted by the NP as early as 1984/85 and the question was, what form should it take. Whether the outcome that we have, that we've got, was the best that was available, the best that was possible, is an area for speculation, whether nothing else was possible is an area for speculation. I don't know.
POM But the international community would have accepted nothing less than one person one vote.
SVM Yes, you see there again one can start making arguments. Yes, one person one vote, that was also accepted at a very early stage, long before negotiations had started, but whether you had to have it in a winner takes all type of situation, that is another argument you see because if you look at the way in which mature political systems function then you see that although it technically may mean winner takes all, in practice there are very many informal but very effective breaks on that apparently unlimited power of the government. If you take the British political system then apparently the Prime Minister has got all the power in the world but in practice there are limitations on his power. Now some of the younger political systems, like even the American political system, has formalised some of those limitations more than they are formalised in the British political system but even there in the American system there are some informal things that also operate. If you just look at the situation in Europe where virtually every government there is a coalition government, because of the way people vote if one party gets too strong they will start voting for another party. So the effective political systems don't have a winner takes all basis or in essence, and that was one of the arguments, is to what extent can you build limitations on the one man one vote. So that was part of the argument. (Break in recording.)
I was recounting a situation in my childhood when my father who was a church Minister had this black person who was an evangelist of the church in the black area and he was coming to visit my father and now you see this evangelist at home for consultations or whatever and the general wisdom then was that you don't invite a black into your living room, you don't give a black a cup to drink from and that sort of thing. But although my father was an NP supporter, I don't want to say a hard-line supporter, but he was a very core NP supporter, he felt that this was inappropriate and he went against the wisdom of the time in treating this man differently, which made a big impression on me because I was a child then. This is just one practical little example but I can take many examples from literature where this unease was expressed. Then separate development was devised, or you say OK, if each nation has its own territory and that nation, those people, can then do whatever they like in there, they can develop without any ceiling, they can have a full life there, but if they live intermingled with us that will create too many problems and the example of Europe was very prominent where you had, if you take western Europe, with how many nations living in it, western Europe had about the same surface area as SA and Namibia, or SWA as it was then, combined, so the analogy was very strong and why did nations live separately in Europe is because it created too much friction if people just intermingled freely. A German has his rights in Germany and so forth.
So the analogy was that and the idea was that if you do create these separate opportunities then the injustices of apartheid would actually disappear. So pursuing separate development was principally a way to get away from the injustices of apartheid and when that did not succeed, when separate development did not succeed to deliver on eliminating injustice you see it was a pernicious sort of situation in the sense that this ideal of separate development which we were working on now legitimises the temporarily lack of rights of black people here, because you have to have a pull/push situation to get this separation. You have to create the opportunities there and then deny them the opportunities here so the injustice which you created was actually functional for the big ideal. So in that way separate development in an unintended manner actually legitimised the aspects of apartheid which existed in the so-called white areas, which was a very pernicious thing and it was difficult to rid our people of that when we ran up to reform. It took all one had to try and persuade your own people.
I said many times to my people, look at our history, what did you do when you thought that you were being denied your rights by the British? You committed sedition, you made war, you made rebellion, planted bombs, you committed terrorism. Now how can we expect other people to behave better than we do? So if we deny them their rights in the country of their birth and the city of their birth how can you expect these things not to happen? That was the sort of tenor in which I had to argue with my people because I said to them, look I'm a first generation person in Gauteng, my parents came from elsewhere, or I'm second generation but I was not even born here, where there are black people that were born in Gauteng and their fathers and their grandfathers were born in Gauteng, now we want to send them back to Bophuthatswana where they have never been, where they don't want to be, where there's no work for them. So that is the sort of tenor in which one had to argue and you had to try and retain the vote of the people at the same time.
POM To go back to the issue of reform, at that point was there a consensus in the government as to the direction in which reform should be moving or whether in fact two different camps of the reformers and the people who felt that reform had gone far enough? What were you conveying to Rosenthal to tell the ANC what the mood of the government was as regards reform?
SVM In any situation such as that you will get some people that are more enthusiastic and some people that are less enthusiastic about things. If you know what Machiavelli had said about reform, I don't know if you ever ran across that, where he said something more or less like, 'reform is a thankless occupation because you get only lukewarm support from those that stand to gain and very intense opposition from those that stand to lose'. So Machiavelli already had known that. So any reform situation is difficult and you will find some people that are more enthusiastic about it, some people that are less, some people that are really wary, some people they are scared, even if they know that this is the way to go they are still scared. So one gets that on a spectrum but after 1982 the preponderance in the NP was to move ahead with reform.
In other words, and as I say, the first impulse was to get away from the injustices of apartheid even though you did not really know yet what a new system should look like because we were not very enthusiastic about one man one vote because of the experience elsewhere in Africa, South America, all sorts of places. There were many arguments why SA was not ready for a one man one vote democracy. Also one must not forget that today, in today's world, the big powers, big countries, America, the USA, on the leading point, attached a great deal of importance onto the democratisation of countries whereas even ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago, that emphasis was not there. They wanted to get rid of the obvious injustice of apartheid in SA, sure, they wanted to get that out of the way, but they were not really worried whether it was succeeded by a democratic government or not. Ten years, twenty years ago, at the time that I'm really talking about, this was not clear at all where you should go, if not this then what? And there was just no answer to 'then what' which made it all the more difficult to persuade your people to change course. If you say to them that used to be the goal but that's not the goal any more, and they ask you where is the goal, and you can't answer them, then it's difficult. We had to do it anyway. Yes, surely, there are people that are more enthusiastic. The emphasis was on getting away from the injustice rather than arriving at a different vision because a different vision was not quite there yet. Then PW actually introduced a great deal of reform, especially after 1982.
POM The tricameral parliament?
SVD Yes, not only the tricameral parliament but even if you take all the discriminatory legislation that was removed in his time, the abolition of the pass laws, the abolition of discriminatory labour legislation, which are very fundamental things, or used to be very fundamental things of the previous system. That was all done under PW Botha. It was quite interesting at some stage I came across a book called The Handbook of Apartheid, a little book like that in which the author tried to explain to people what does apartheid actually mean and all these laws, this law that has this implication and that law that has that implication. This was by about 1986/87 when I got hold of this but obviously it was written a few years before and if you took that book as a yardstick then by 1986/87 about 80% or 90% of the things that he had complained about were already removed. This was under PW Botha but the problem was where to go and this is where FW came in. You asked whether he was just releasing Mandela, not knowing where it will lead to, and certainly he did not foresee exactly ten years ago this day what would be the sequence of events. He would have liked to have seen a much quicker transition. He would have liked to have seen something like a much more closely structured government of national unity, something like that. He would have liked to see a much larger stake for white South Africans in the government.
POM Did he still see himself as State President?
SVM Perhaps and perhaps not.
POM The day he released Mandela did he realise - I'm looking at the next President of SA, or do you think he thought he could strike a deal?
SVM I think he thought at the time that he was going to give this man a go in the race for the next presidency. I think he knew that this was going to be his opponent but I think he thought that he still had a chance of winning the battle, winning the race for the presidency. But on the other hand I don't think that had he known what SA would look like today, I think he would have done the same as he did then.
POM That he would have done the same?
SVM He would have done the same, I'm pretty sure. I would have. I was very much involved in the writing of that speech. I was sitting there on the evening of 1st February.
POM He mentions that here.
SVM He does? OK. I think I know what I'm talking about if I say you know the difference between, or should I say how the thing developed is PW made his Adapt or Die speech and, yes, he pushed the tricameral through against opposition but the breakaway of the Conservative Party had irked him a lot. Then the next thing on the agenda, you can go and look in his opening of parliament speech of 1984 or 1985 where he had put the political rights of black people at the top of the agenda and then we got bogged down by violence, internal violence, sanctions, that sort of thing, so that the best initiatives, the best talent and most of the energy, the primary energy, was used to contain the situation and not much was left and that went particularly for PW Botha, not much was left to push ahead with reform. He actually got bogged down and one of the reasons why he got bogged down was because there was not a consensus in the cabinet as to which way to go. Some people would say this way, some would say that way and PW would sit in the middle and nothing would happen. One of the problems was a vision into the future, whereas when FW took over he said, "Look if we release Mandela but we don't unban the ANC " The way he argued it was to say, "The thing is that we have to release Mandela but all these other things are inevitable consequences to that." And the negotiation process was foreseen and all that sort of thing, not necessarily the exact outcome of it. Then he said, "OK, so why don't we do it all now? Let's get it over and done with." And that is why ten years ago the whole package was put on the table except for instead of trying to get Mandela out of jail and then having to succumb to pressure to unban the ANC and then pressure to unban the Communist Party and that sort of thing. In that sense he had the vision and he knew what he was doing and that's why he did it that way.
POM But he says here, he's talking about when Chris Heunis was the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, he said: -
"I was often involved in arguments with him, I did not hesitate to confront Heunis on his tendency on occasion to adopt too much of a piecemeal approach to constitutional reform. While I could appreciate his need to deliver tangible and visible results I insisted on looking at the full picture. As with the case of the coloureds and the Indians I was looking for a fully principled motivation, a reform proposal, than a thorough analysis of all the logical consequences of such proposals. Accordingly I often felt that I had to play the role of devil's advocate, not to slow down reform but from my perspective to ensure that what we did was part of a clear vision and that we were aware of where it would lead us. This unfortunately reinforced my image as a conservative. My position was succinctly described by the American journalist Patti Waldmeir in her book, The Anatomy of a Miracle, she wrote that it was my 'relentless pursuit of logic which caused me to oppose PW Botha's piecemeal reforms and which sealed my reputation as a reactionary.' She quoted Stoffel van der Merwe, a verligte, a member of PW's cabinet as saying that I inexorably pressured my colleagues into thinking through the full implications of the piecemeal reforms that they were considering. When I spelt out the implications in this manner 'everybody shrunk from their own proposals'. Then, according to Dr van der Merwe, I was seen as the spoiler."
SVM I stand by that.
POM Throughout the book there's the almost subliminal suggestion, sometimes not so subliminal, he says here, "This unfortunately reinforced my image as a conservative", he's kind of saying I wasn't really a conservative but I knew that if I had to climb the tree of power to be seen as a conservative it was better to keep one's mouth either shut or take a hard line but that when I was in a position of power I could then reveal my true self as the reformer I was. Was he a true reformer?
SVM It's a difficult question to answer adequately. I would expect that his process of changing his mindset went probably fairly similar to mine in the sense that this was a slow growth from a supporter of separate development to a disillusionment with the results of separate development, to a supporter of the notion of reform. He has also said it was not a Damascus type conversion but you should bear in mind what his position was before he came into power himself in the sense that constitutional reform was the function of someone else, it was not his task or his privilege to initiate reforms. He could quietly initiate them, he could stimulate, but everybody was very jealous of their own portfolios. In other words FW, even if he wanted, he could not get up in parliament and make a speech on constitutional reform because that's not his line function. You had to tread very carefully that you don't exceed your line function. He was to a large extent limited to reaction to the initiatives that Heunis put on the table. He could of course quietly argue with Heunis on that sort of thing but in the end he could only comment or react to what Heunis put on the table. So that already goes some way as to say, yes, even if he were very reform inclined he was not in a position to do much about it. So that's the one point that one should bear in mind.
Secondly, he was under the tricameral system the chairman of the white Ministers' Council. In other words it was part of his line function to protect the interests of white voters. So whenever anybody had to say, look boys we won't get this past the white voters, then it was his duty to say so which had further contributed to his image as a conservative or reactionary or whatever.
There is even a third part to that and that is he was leader of the NP in Transvaal where the Conservative Party was strongest and where it had its origin and so whenever he had to warn that this will play into the hands of the Conservative Party, or when anybody had to warn, it was his duty to do so.
So you see on those three counts it was difficult for him to act the reformer but what he quoted me on there, and obviously he quoted me because he agreed with me, that was my assessment of him that when other people were in the leadership position and they would come, Heunis especially would come with a certain proposal to do something, then he would say, "OK, now but - ", and then Heunis would be inclined to try and camouflage this as something innocuous in order to get it through, whereas De Klerk would then say, but now look if you do this you will be forced to do that and then you will be forced to do that. Are you ready for point C and not just point A? Are you read for point C? And then people would say, no, now wait a minute, and then it would be the end of that initiative. I am again simplifying but this is more or less the way it went.
POM This is when he assumed the leadership?
SVM No this was before he was in the leadership position. Then if Heunis would put something on the table then he would say
POM He would comment on it.
SVM Do you know what the implications of this are because this is going to lead to that, point A to point B and to point C? Are you ready for point C? Whereas when he was in the leadership he said if we release Mandela we will have to unban the ANC, we will have to unban the SACP, we will have to unban so many other organisations. Let's do it all together. Let's go to point C directly.
POM Was he not in a sense violating the principle of cabinet decision making that you were talking about earlier in terms of - you were saying PW couldn't get up and say a pronouncement about constitutional reforms because
SVM No, this was when he was still a minister. Now one minister can't really take initiatives on the area of another minister, but of course the President has free play. The President can do what he likes in the sense that he is not limited because all the portfolios are also his portfolio. So he is free to dig into your portfolio whenever he feels like it. And of course by then Heunis was no longer the Minister of Constitutional Development and the minister was then Gerrit Viljoen who was a good friend and not only a friend but a kindred spirit, so to speak, of De Klerk. So they could easily, without treading on toes, they could easily between them and between us argue the thing through and say well this will lead to that and you can't avoid this and you'll have to do that and this is the way to do that and that sort of thing without the jealousies, because he was the boss then.
POM After he released Mandela, I'm not talking about beforehand, and after he made that decision and thought through if I do this I've got to unban the ANC and I've got to unban the SACP and then we'll enter into negotiations, but on entering into negotiations had he a strategic plan for the negotiations? The ANC from the beginning, some commentators have said and those I have talked to have said from the beginning we knew exactly what we wanted and that was majority rule and we never took our eye off that ball. We were prepared to make all kinds of concessions along the way but one concession we were never going to make. That was one. Two, we were going to have an elected Constitutional Assembly. There was no way there was going to be an appointed one. We never took our eye off that ball, there was never a question of their ever going to be a compromise on that. On all other issues around those things there could be compromises but those two things were untouchables, just simply non-negotiable. We would negotiate everything else.
POM Did the NP have a similar game plan in terms of these are some absolutes that we will not trade on but everything else we can reach agreement on?
SVM The protection of the rights of minorities was such a principle. Then there was the argument whether need to protect the rights of minorities as groups or as individuals, whether the protection of individual rights is an adequate protection of the rights of groups of people. I think that was one of the things actually, the adequate protection for minorities which was a non-negotiable with the NP, that you had to have a majority of black people in the government. That was not really an issue, but whether you would have a minority veto and that sort of thing, that was a different story again. Now it's easy for the ANC, let me put it to you this way, there was a lot of planning and a lot of preparation put into the negotiation process. I don't want to comment too much on the way in which the negotiating process developed once one was there, once one had arrived at that point. I don't want to comment too much on that.
POM Because? Nothing is going to appear before the year 2002.
SVM I don't want to begin arguments about saying this guy, this negotiator overpowered that negotiator and that sort of thing. The only thing that I want to point out is that right from the start the government was in a weak position and the ANC was in a strong position. The government was internationally discredited as an illegal government or an illegitimate government and the only legitimacy that it had was the fact that it had initiated reform and the negotiation process. That was only a temporary thing, that was only for so long as the negotiating process had momentum whereas the ANC because they were unbanned, because they had free play and that sort of thing, because the government was not as draconian as it used to be 20 years before, the ANC whenever they didn't like something in the negotiating process could stop the process and see the remaining legitimacy of the government wither away because the process was stopped. So they could stop the process and thereby force your hand. So they were in a very strong position but that's just the way it is and there was no escaping from that situation once you had decided that you had to change. It was like being on a bicycle without brakes on a downhill slope and you just hoped the wheels don't come off before you start slowing down the other side again and you have to do what you can while you can.
POM In that vein, again a number of commentators and I think Patti Waldmeir subtitled her book A Study in the Psychology of Capitulation, then you have the revisionist theories that FW had given it all away, that in fact Van Zyl Slabbert and Heribert Adam in their book Comrades in Business say that the best negotiators the ANC had were Roelf Meyer and I think Leon Wessels or somebody else, that they saw the inevitability of majority rule from the beginning and accepted it whereas De Klerk didn't see the inevitability of majority rule, which if true would mean that he sent in the wrong team of negotiators because they weren't negotiating the mandate from the leader but their own personal convictions had already moved in the direction of the opponent. It's like playing chess, you had conceded the game before you moved your first pawn.
SVM As I said, you're entering into the area where I would like to withhold my comment until much later but the only thing that I can say is that FW had put great faith in Roelf Meyer and he continued to put great faith in Roelf Meyer so I can't think that I mean he never lost his faith in Roelf Meyer until much, much later, so I can't say that he was taken along unwillingly or anything like that. I don't want to comment and say if we had a different set of negotiators what would have been the outcome. The only thing that I can say, again, is that the NP government was in a weak and steadily deteriorating position.
POM But in the long run was the result not inevitable, that you might have negotiated a different kind of interim settlement, a different form of government of national unity, different form of decision making but that it would be temporary in the sense that the day would come when - and would it have made a difference?
SVM One enters the area of pure speculation.
POM You were saying about who was the winner. A very good example of that, which was in 1992, I did a conference in Boston and brought 12 people from Northern Ireland and 12 people from SA to talk about the role of a bill of rights in a divided society and the team from here was half from the Constitutional Court and half were ministers but the starting point for the ANC delegation was that majority rule was democratic rule. Well in Northern Ireland since 1972, agreed to by both governments, the Irish government and the British government, is that majority rule is not democratic rule because of the divisions between the two communities it perpetuated one section of the community in power in perpetuity, therefore you had to have a power sharing arrangement. So you have the odd situation of where hard line Unionists, who believe that majority rule is democratic rule, were lining up with the ANC and you had got a complete reversal of natural alignment. You had Sinn Fein supporters lining up with the NP and everyone was getting confused because their natural inclinations of who they would be aligned with were contrary to the arguments they themselves were making.
SVM There are any number of horrors that have been committed in the name of majority rule, or by majority governments. Minority governments are not the only ones that have committed all sorts of atrocities and so majority rule in itself is not in itself a guarantee for a fair and just and good government. But we're now entering the area of political philosophy.
POM I want to go back to PW Botha. There are two views out there, one that he was a downright criminal, that he led SA from being a repressive state to being a criminal state, which is more or less the finding of the TRC, and you've a second view which is that he was the instrument of reform and that had he not been there and taken the actions that he had taken, FW would never have been able to take the actions that he took, and that he deserves a lot more credit for the changes that have occurred in SA than to be just castigated as a bullying old crocodile who wanted to maintain power and control until the very end.
SVM I was one of the guys in the cabinet who looked PW in the eye and said to him, "I think it's time that you now resign." I was part of that cabinet meeting and in PW's book you can read what I said.
POM Well I can't because it's in Afrikaans.
SVM The point is that I just want to say this as a prelude to what I really want to say, that there was a time when I thought PW's time had passed but I'm very strongly convinced that FW would not have been able to do what he did had his predecessor not been PW Botha. PW Botha in his time introduced some reforms that were previously unthinkable, things like the labour legislation, the pass laws, property rights. Property rights was a huge issue. He had brought non-white people into parliament which was the sin of all sins in the view of the real right wingers and that sort of thing, and he did it relentlessly and it had to be done relentlessly at that stage. FW, with his much more moderate and pleasing attitude and approach, would never have been able to swing those things and had those things not been done he would not have been able to do what he did ten years ago. Unfortunately, in my view, PW just stayed on a little bit too long. It was clear at the beginning of mind you this is not ten years, it is nine years today, it was 1990 not 1989, 2nd February 1989 that FW was elected as leader of the NP, so that is ten years ago that he was elected as leader of the NP. If PW, after his illness had just resigned he would have gone down in history as a very good president and if you take him up to there he was a very good president. It is so that in his later years he got bogged down, as I said before, with the process of maintaining law and order, fighting sanctions and all that sort of thing and his last year of reign, 1988 was a very difficult year because he had already run out of steam. Some people say that he had a minor stroke in early 1988 and that he had then a major one in 1989, but a minor one that was kept quiet. That has some credence in my view, I don't know, it's speculation, it's a story, but already in 1988 he had run out of steam and then it was necessary for someone else to come along because he had run out of steam.
POM What in your view, because this has fascinated me and I've asked a number of people, accounts for the difference in the relationship between President Mandela and PW and his relationship with FW? He seems to harbour a residual affection almost for PW and he's downright unkind, to say the least, to FW. A significant portion in his book, or you may have read in reviews, was Mandela's attack on him at CODESA 1 which he said irreparably harmed their relationship; it never recovered from that. What do you think accounted for that?
SVM PW had met Mandela once or twice but that was not a business meeting, that was a how-do-you-do meeting and a get-to-know-you meeting and it never went on to business. PW is a charming old man. He can be very charming and he can be very gentle and I can imagine that the two of them at that level, at that moment, had a very good session together. Then PW disappeared from the scene, he was no longer an opponent and all the fighting had to be done with FW. Knowing both of them I can quite see that they did not take a liking to one another. They are to some extent clashing personalities, not that I want to say the one is a better person than the other or anything like that, but I can see why their personalities clash, I can see why they are not friends despite all. I think both of them suffered from the same problem and that is rough edges and thin skin at the same time in the sense that they can be a little bit insensitive perhaps as to what they are doing to the other guy and over-sensitive as to what the other guy is doing to them. So I think both of them have that I don't want to say major weakness, not at all.
SVM A characteristic and not a major fault or anything like that. If you just take how both of them reacted to situations away from each other and you look at them and you put the thing together then it's not surprising that they didn't get on very well in the long run. Both of them are charming people but they were opponents and they were serious opponents, serious opponents, and it's difficult to be friends with a real serious opponent. That is so, whereas PW and Mandela were opponents in a totally different sort of situation. They were never personal opponents, they were positional opponents.
POM I think Niel Barnard told me that at that meeting that they had in Tuynhuys and the photograph of them was taken together, distributed to the cabinet, that PW had the meeting recorded, so he would have been on his best behaviour anyway. Barnard destroyed the tape.
SVM But PW had everything recorded, you just simply knew it would be recorded whatever you say in that office. But apart from that, the photograph was not distributed, it was shown around and he was quite proud of himself having been photographed with Mandela, that sort of thing. It was almost a little bit like a child who visited his Grandma or something.
POM So what went wrong from what the TRC would say had been a repressive state but a state that still operated within the rule of its laws, even though many of its laws were unjust, to what it called a criminal state where the state targeted individuals for assassination and elimination and moved from imprisoning or banning its political opponents to torturing and murdering them? How could, the question that comes up again and again, I would just like to hear another perspective, how could nobody have been aware in the entire cabinet, or different cabinets, both PW's and FW's, that a lot of dirty things were going on behind the scenes?
SVM It's very difficult you see because now it comes so close to home that I can with difficulty maintain objectivity. Firstly, I wrote my doctoral thesis on revolutionary theory and how the Black Consciousness Movement's actions fitted into the theory of revolution, because that was the time, early seventies, Biko, when the BCM was very prominent and the ANC was far away, inactive and that sort of thing. In fact I said there that even if the laws are harsh it is better to have laws that can maintain the situation rather than have laws that are not able to contain the situation and then to go over to hit squads and that sort of thing, kangaroo courts and whatever. So my inclination was, even before I went into politics, that I was very much aware of the struggle. I had spent many, many hours reading literature from the struggle and that sort of thing. OK. I can go into that. My view was (a) that you cannot ask a state to assume its own illegitimacy, you cannot expect that the state would view itself as illegitimate. So it is logical that when it is attacked it will respond, it will not just sit and say, OK, I'm guilty, shoot me dead. That's just the way things happen. So you must expect that the state will defend itself. And there were draconian laws with which you could hold people for a long time but there were things in place that were supposed to avoid the misuse of power and people were brought to court, they were found guilty, they were sentenced and that sort of thing.
POM But was it in a legal framework?
SVM That was within a legal framework. Then came 1986 and the state of emergency where they had extraordinary powers, which was brought on by the growing political violence and then what you do is you create, you give extraordinary powers with the assumption that people would use those powers responsibly and then things like those do happen. For what it's worth I can just say that maybe I was naïve but there was never I attended I think all the meetings of the Security Council between 1986 and 1992 except one or two perhaps that I missed, and in my presence there was never anything that told me yes, now you're in the kangaroo court situation that you wanted to avoid, now you're in the hit squad situation that you wanted to avoid. There was never anything said in those meetings that made that thought pass through my head.
Surely the motto was that if you have an unconventional onslaught then you have to use unconventional methods but with unconventional methods one had not included at any time the use of murder or torture, that was never included in my view, never as I understood it under unconventional methods. What was included were such things as sponsoring organisations, spreading disinformation, that sort of thing, yes because that was what the other side was doing anyway.
The other side used murder and torture but of course those things were never brought to book by the TRC. It was a dirty struggle and the dirt is not all on one side. I had a friend who was a prominent councillor in Alexandra, a black friend who was not an ANC member and his daughter was caught and publicly violated, gang-raped in front of his house in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street without anybody ever being held responsible for that, and that was just to teach him a lesson. That was the level at which the struggle was. Now I don't say that that sort of thing in the least justifies some of the atrocities that came out, it does not justify it. The only thing that I want to say is it was never, ever official government policy to murder or to torture. That's on the one hand. On the other hand that it was a dirty business all in all and it is a little bit of an abomination to hold the NP government responsible as the great villain. It was a dirty business and the dirt was equally on both sides and equally I don't think that the ANC leadership sanctioned necklacing. It took them a long, long time to come out against it, whereas it was committed fairly openly, regularly in the name of the ANC by people unknown, but they don't take responsibility for it. So in that sense this TRC process is again serving one purpose and that is it made me more modest because some of those things happened while I was supposed to be in a position to know about it and to prevent it and I didn't know about it and I didn't prevent it. So it made me a bit more modest and it saddened me a great deal to think that while I was preaching high morals and high ideals these things went on in the name of the same cause that I was fighting for. It saddens one.
POM I've read a lot of the report. I actually down-loaded it in Boston at night at the university because they wondered where all the paper was disappearing to. But a couple of things struck me, one was the commission's recognition of the fact that violations had been committed on all sides, and it emphasised 'all sides'. But, two, it pointed out that despite the huge volume of information the crucial thing I sense is the lack of information. They said most of the presentations from the political parties, including the ANC, were more rhetoric or self-justifying than trying to establish the reasons why things were done and actions taken and establish some kind of historical pattern, that few individuals in leadership positions came forward, that fewer still from the rank and file even in the MK ever came forward or in the ANC, no-one from the exiles ever came forward and just said how they lived, how they survived or whatever. There were huge gaps. The SANDF they said didn't really understand was no good at protecting itself, it had to make three different submissions before the TRC even marginally pierced what was going on. Even then General Viljoen took strong exception to it having to make a presentation at all, the professional army and that was that. The SAP submission listed the atrocities of the ANC and that was it, it didn't pay any attention to irregularities going on in its own ranks and in a way it says this report is brought to you through the kindness and generosity of Eugene de Kock who opened the lid on everything and without him all these applications for amnesty from the security forces would never have happened.
I suppose my questions are: (i) do you think it has been an instrument of reconciliation or, imperfect as it was, was it necessary as something that would open the gateway to eventual reconciliation that might take a generation; (ii) that one must distinguish very clearly between reconciliation between individuals, of which there were some very moving moments of forgiveness recorded on television where the victim would forgive the perpetrator and the perpetrator would genuinely say sorry, but one must differentiate between what it takes to reconcile two individuals and two groups: (iii) that after the brouhaha and the really stupid action of the ANC in going to court to have references to its gross violations taken out after they themselves had admitted in two reports they commissioned to look into what happened in the Quatro camps which came to the conclusions that indeed people had been tortured and murdered and the ANC said, "We will look after that, we will look into it and those who are responsible will be dealt with", which never happened, and now that the same thing was repeated in the TRC they suddenly say you can't print that! Has that distracted public attention from what the report was saying, that people in the white community had distanced themselves from the whole process in the sense of either seeing it as being a pro-ANC propaganda exercise or saying well if I had known that was going on of course I would have objected, I wouldn't have tolerated that for a moment, so they distanced themselves from what had been done on their behalf and therefore took no collective responsibility or felt no guilt; and lastly that after the report was published, I think it lasted in the paper for about three days before it disappeared from the headlines.
SVM It's difficult, I haven't had time to sit down and evaluate the whole thing but unless you do the whole thing very differently it's going to make a big difference who is in government at the time of this happening of the TRC because can you imagine my friend from Alexandra going to the TRC and saying - my daughter was violated publicly in the middle of the street in the name of the ANC and I want those people prosecuted. Can you imagine him doing that? What's going to happen if he goes there? If he's lucky he's just going to be ignored. If he's not so lucky his daughter gets violated again. So merely by virtue of the fact that the ANC is the government it's just logical that people are going to be much more cautious to bring things that can implicate the ANC to the fore. So from the beginning it is structurally a biased exercise. Yes, it's true as you say, many people have just distanced from it and say, well I didn't do that and I never told anybody to do that and I would never have told anybody to do that. Then for many of those people the fact of this never-ending story going on day after day, it brings a feeling of the other party just being mean. In other words they just want to get us back for everything we did to them, sort of thing, and so then it is not conducive for reconciliation. I think if one had handled the whole thing of reconciliation much more dramatically and short and so forth it could have helped. Whether it is going to help I don't know, I'm too much part of the process, I can't really judge fully. I have my misgivings about it. Surely it has, as I say, sobered me a little bit.
POM In the social circles you move in, whether business or otherwise, has it ever been a topic of soul-searching conversation or do people just prefer to talk about cricket and how the Springboks are doing?
SVM You would get the odd comment, people knowing where I came from, saying did you know about this? I would have to say I'm sorry, you believe me or you don't believe me but I didn't know about it and the guys would say this is very terrible all these things that happen, and I say yes it's terrible these things happen and then you go on to the cricket. So it wasn't really a big issue of conversation and probably if they hadn't known that I was in politics at the time they wouldn't even have commented. It wasn't really a big issue of conversation except, especially when you get to the older generation people, in this firm here I'm one of the granddaddies in this firm, I'm one of the old ones. This whole firm consists of people 40 and below.
POM We're both granddaddies then.
SVM The older people that I would meet outside, they would feel a feeling of distaste but a feeling of distaste mainly at this unnecessary business going on and they just don't want to look at the TV any more because they don't need to know about this. It's the same old story every day and they can't get an end to it. We know this all by now, that sort of thing, it's just more and more and more of it. What the hell is the government trying to achieve by this? Is this just brainwashing or what is it trying to achieve by this and they're not understanding the process properly but that would be their attitude.
POM And among younger people?
SVM Younger people basically say well this has got nothing to do with us, I couldn't even vote then.
POM Just a couple more questions, and really thank you for the time that you've taken especially if you're in the middle of a crisis. Again this is speculative, but could Barend du Plessis if he had been elected leader do what FW had done?
SVM No. Barend didn't have the maturity or the analytical facility of FW. No he couldn't have done it. There were a lot of fortunate circumstances also around the whole thing. The one fortunate circumstance was that FW was seen as a conservative whereas Barend was seen as the verligte, as the more reform oriented person. Had Barend done exactly the same things he wouldn't have succeeded, I doubt very seriously whether he would have succeeded in rallying the people around him like that.
POM Or even the party, would the party have supported him?
SVM I'm talking about the party and the party supporters.
POM This is like Nixon going to China.
SVM Yes, that's exactly the same scenario.
POM A Democrat couldn't do it, or Nixon ending the Vietnam war, a Democrat couldn't do it.
SVM Exactly the same thing. I don't think Barend had the ability either. He would have tried.
POM At CODESA, this is an issue that I have talked with Kobie Coetsee at length about. It took him about five years before he decided that I was trustable and I spent days with him. He, of course, like everyone else is trying to justify his place in history which is human, understandable. But the big issue which in fact was repeated by Van Zyl Slabbert, according to the conventional wisdom that's been published, was that in the early stages of the negotiations the ANC offered a blanket amnesty and Kobie turned it down, both amnesty for ANC and amnesty for everyone. Kobie turned it down because he thought it was a card that could be played against the ANC, not seeing that it might turn around and work the other way later on. Now he vehemently denies that. He in fact says that he and Jacob Zuma, whom I've talked to as well, had worked out a deal at CODESA 1 on amnesty and that would have involved amnesty for everybody and that in the second round at Kempton Park he was further removed from the process and it fell through or was dropped or whatever, but in fact he and Zuma had reached agreement on what would have been a general amnesty. Can you recall what discussions of amnesty went on at that time, or what the government's position was?
SVM I don't want to become involved in controversy as to say the one that says yes he did, the other one says no he didn't and that sort of thing. I don't want to get involved in that, it serves no purpose.
POM Zuma told me he would review his notes because the last time I saw Zuma I spent two days with Kobie and I said I'm seeing Zuma and I'm going to bring up the questions that you raised in our conversation and he said, "Let me speak to Jacob before you see him", which he did. He called him on his cell phone and when I went in and talked to Zuma I said I want to talk about amnesty and he said, "No, I would like to review my notes and when you come back the next time we will talk about it", but he didn't give any indication.
SVM If he was happy with Kobie's version he wouldn't have had to go and consult his notes would he? I didn't keep adequate notes about many things but I just seem to recollect Kobie sitting there and arguing the case of not giving blanket amnesty but forcing people to admit to what they have done and all that sort of thing. In other words I remember him arguing the case against a blanket amnesty in the early days and whether he was then convinced by somebody to take that position or whether that was his natural position I wouldn't know, but I remember him arguing the case against general amnesty. I'm inclined to think, as I say I didn't keep notes, didn't nearly keep enough notes, but I'm inclined to think that that was a mistake on the side of the NP government to have insisted on particularised amnesty because that's what we did at that stage.
POM That was for people coming back into the country?
POM In fact it's the very same procedure that's being used at the TRC. If you leave something out you're liable for prosecution for what you leave out.
SVM You can't get these guys, you can't let these guys get away with this so we have to make them repent a bit, put us in a very much stronger position.
POM The way history works. Do you find it painful to remember and talk about these things?
SVM Sometimes yes, but all that links up to what I wanted to say actually and that is I'm very thankful that SA is where it is at the moment because it could have been much worse and the prognosis was much worse, whatever we did, whether we would go this way or that way the prognosis was bad. I never shared that pessimism, I was always optimistic about the future of SA and I've got many journalists that can bear me out that I was optimistic all the time about averting a big disaster in SA. From that point of view if I had known what SA would be today I would have done the same, I would have perhaps done it a little bit differently but I would have pushed ahead nonetheless because I think the outcome that we got is about as favourable an outcome as one could have expected, which does not mean that I support the ANC government or that I don't have problems with the way in which the ANC does many things or anything like that. But if you just think back where we were and look where we are today.
POM In five years.
SVM Yes, four years or nine years since 1990. Eight, nine, ten years is a long time in politics, sometimes a week is a long time. I'm fairly happy about the outcome of things and I'm fairly optimistic about the future. I never thought of emigrating, neither have I encouraged my children to emigrate or anything like that. I think we're going to make this place work.
POM Two quick last questions. One is, how do you think a Mbeki presidency will differ from a Mandela presidency?
SVM It's difficult to say. Mbeki obviously hasn't got the stature or the charm of Mandela or the charisma of Mandela. He's a remarkable person in his own right but he hasn't got that high profile. I mean Mandela got away with a lot of things because of his high profile, because of his almost legendary status, which Mbeki won't. Mbeki on the other hand will not some of Mandela's mistakes he won't make.
POM Like? If you could just give me an example.
SVM Mandela can sometimes say things on the spur of the moment that can raise people's hackles.
POM His aides say that when he takes off his glasses they say, "Oh my God! What's going to come out of his mouth."
SVM That's so and I think Mbeki, he's a politician, he's not a thoroughbred Mr Nice Guy, but I think he is competent and I think he will make a good president. The problem is whether he will be able to survive 2004.
POM Do you ever see Cyril coming back into the picture?
SVM You never know. Maybe sometime he will find that he's got enough money. He's got a problem in the sense that he hasn't got the right parentage being a Venda. That makes life difficult for a person, almost as bad as being white. But he's a competent person.
POM Would he have made, this is pure speculation I'm biased because I know Cyril quite well and he got involved in Ireland and all that and I was always a Cyril person do you think he would have made a better president than Mbeki? Again I'm going to the fact that he has the common touch, he has charisma, he's undoubtedly got competence, or do you need somebody with - Mbeki might have a managerial style.
SVM It's difficult to compare the two because my knowledge of Cyril is on a different level than my knowledge of Mbeki so I haven't seen them in comparable positions and it's difficult to judge. The only thing that I know is that if he had pitched for the Vice Presidency he wouldn't have made it, not against Mbeki, in the environment that they operate in. So I think he was wise to go when he did because that left him the option of perhaps coming back again some time and perhaps playing a significant role towards 2004. That's a possibility, he's well placed to do so.
POM He did end up number one in the voting for the NEC which means that he's got a foot in the business camp and a foot firmly in the governing camp the National Working Group.
SVM Yes, yes, so he's well placed but I think he was wise not to push his luck too much at this point. Remember he's still a young man, he's much younger than Mbeki.
POM Mbeki could serve out two terms and he would be still younger if he were elected President than Mbeki will be when he assumes the presidency.
SVM That's right. He's got time on his side.
POM The last one, again it's like a betting question, do you think that the ANC will offer Buthelezi a Deputy Presidency after the next election?
SVM It's quite possible. I don't know. I'm not so in touch, but whether it's important I don't know.
POM Would it be smart politics on their part in terms of it's a form of co-option of the IFP, it stabilises KZN?
SVM I wonder whether all that will make such a big difference in the relationship between the ANC and the IFP. It's difficult because politics in SA are fairly fluid at the moment and it's going to become more so after the coming election, after the departure of Mandela you will see a greater fluidity in SA politics. Under such circumstances it becomes very difficult to make accurate predictions. It's almost like asking me what's going to be the price of gold next year this time. I don't think it's going to make so much difference but it may be a wise move to do so because I think Mbeki is going to need allies in the years to come.
POM And the New National Party? Is it simply slipping away or will it stabilise and rebound for the elections?
SVM I think it will stabilise and I think it will come back a little for the elections, maybe not to the same point as it was the previous time. It will have to settle for a bit less than the previous time but it will still be there and I think it will still be the official opposition.
POM It will still get more than the DP?
SVM Still be the official opposition.
POM Sheila was telling me that they got a briefing from Laurie Schlemmer, I guess he'd done some poll for them and there was 'Who is the most popular Nat?' and FW won hands down.