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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

08 Nov 1999: Barnard, Niel

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM     Dr Barnard, I will begin with the conclusions arrived at in a book called Comrades in Arms by Van Zyl Slabbert and Heribut Adam and it says:

     Mandela never wavered for one moment in what he wanted. A simple majority democracy. For that he would compromise on economic policy, the Civil Service and transitional arrangements. His negotiating team were never in doubt as to what they had to do. They may sometimes have doubted whether they would achieve it but never what they had to achieve. De Klerk on the other hand lost it early on; it became increasingly difficult to understand what De Klerk thought he could pull off. Right to the end he refused to recognise the inevitability of majority rule and yet his chief negotiator, Roelf Meyer, (and here they're quoting from Patti Waldmeir) 'once morality and ambition had led him on the road to majority rule, pursued it with a vigour and commitment not shared by anyone else in the National Party'. To a large extent the key negotiators (this is Van Zyl Slabbert) Van der Merwe and Wessels did the same. What Waldmeir clearly shows is how De Klerk's chief negotiators were already part of Mandela's team in facilitating the transition to majority rule. In the end it was a pushover. Through it all De Klerk was convinced that he could unleash and manage a process with which he refused to come to terms.

     Would you regard that as a fair assessment in hindsight?

NB     No I would not. Can I kick off by saying that the opening paragraph indicating that Mr Mandela, now President Mandela, at the time had a clear vision about what he was going to achieve and that he very determinedly pushed his whole negotiation in that direction. That's right. The fact that Mr de Klerk and the NP didn't have the clear strategic goal, that's also correct. I think I've talked quite substantially on my views on that matter previously. I indicated, if I remember correctly, that in my view Mr de Klerk was never really a person involved in long term strategic thinking about this whole issue. Now in all fairness one should say what facts did you have on the table? You have a disenfranchised majority which was obviously working for a very single and very clear and very simple goal and that's to get political power. It's as easy as that. I think the one issue which I think is wrong is that Mr de Klerk until the end, if I understood you correctly, didn't necessarily accept majority political authority. That is wrong. I think he did accept that although he thought, in my view and that I clearly indicated, that he could in such a way manipulate negotiations that he could at least get a much better deal than somebody would give him, might get in the end.

     I wouldn't necessarily agree with Patti Waldmeir's assessment of Roelf Meyer. I think it's wrong. I think under the existing circumstances, let me put it this way, I'm not going to react and you will not get me so far to react on Fanie van der Merwe and others, but the point is Roelf Meyer never had the opportunity to pull through these things on his own. He worked within a certain structure. There was certain managerial capacity within which he had to tackle this whole issue. Roelf Meyer is not by nature, that's the word Patti Waldmeir likes to use, he's not by nature an aggressive kind of personality, that's not his typical behaviour, whereas Ramaphosa, being an old union man, that's his typical kind of behaviour. I think it would be wrong, and it's the one thing I would like to say about Roelf Meyer, because later on you find this as well that Roelf Meyer has been a pushover and he's been manipulated and Ramaphosa turned him around his little finger and things like that. I think that's wrong. I think it's wrong, it's not my experience. Maybe I can regard myself as one of the few who can certainly assess that.

POM     Yet you were part of the three on the national government side who were in the 'channel', so you would be –

NB     I would certainly not agree with that. I think under the circumstances he did quite well. He stood his point when it was needed to. My line is Roelf Meyer is not PW Botha, he's not that kind of man, it's not his way of working. You will never get him to do it that way.  Leon Wessels, some people might believe, but in my experience he was never a main player in this whole process. He was part of a big Cabinet Committee which met once in a week but in the day-to-day running of the mill, taking the process forward, in my view he wasn't an important player by any stretch of imagination. Many people believe, they would all like to be seen as that by history, but I would disagree with that. So all in all the critical point is not the one made by Patti Waldmeir, in my view the critical point has been made by Slabbert and Adam. You've been working against the strategic backdrop of the one side knowing exactly what they want to achieve, which was quite easy and simple, and working everything that they had in reaching that goal. On the other hand be fair enough and also state the fact that was the other side's main objective, to negotiate to get yourself out of power. It's rather tough to put it that way but in the end that's what it boils down to. I'll answer that a little bit later on. That's a very interesting question.

     The moment when the first discussion with Mr Mandela, when I was involved, took place in Pollsmoor in Cape Town, the end of the road should have been quite clear. It was a matter of time before so-called democracy, black majoritarianism, whatever you would like to call that, would become part and parcel of the South African situation. I think the South African government at the time and specifically at the time of Mr FW de Klerk was strategically not capable of understanding that will be the end result. If that is going to be the end result, are we going to do to do it in such a way that we minimise risks and we do it in such a way that after the end result the whole South African population can be taken forward in such a way that we can all benefit from that?

     And that brings me to two points which I have also previously indicated, I believe they are fundamental points. Mr de Klerk, and Roelf Meyer in this regard I must say, and some of the other advisors believed very strongly in this new wonderful idea which they found out in Europe of the so-called 'rechtstaat', checks and balances and so forth. A rechtstaat with all the so-called checks and balances, a constitutional state, will not in a developing country like SA necessarily guarantee all the things that Mr de Klerk and his people have been looking for at the time. I think it stands to reason, many people now accuse Mr de Klerk – what has happened to all these balances and checks which you've been talking about? It has not happened because it's a developmental stage which one has to work in when you work in the political realms, so to speak. That's the one point.

POM     Just to clarify that, my understanding is that you were saying that he looked at a model that was the product of a mature democracy and he said, "OK let me take this and superimpose it on what is essentially an emerging democracy at best", and he said "OK, if it works well there it's going to work well here." And of course the underlying foundations were entirely different.

NB     Absolutely. I think that was a strategic blunder on his side all the time and it's one of the difficulties which we certainly have. But the point is, there's no mistake about it, make no mistake about it, the one side through history had a very clear goal and the other side, even if you and me were today to inform people and tell them that is exactly what you're going to do because the choice was, once again, between a wasteland in this country, fighting each other until doomsday, or finding a settlement and take the process forward. Now you can be very critical about decisions, etc., etc., but let me stop with that. I think that's more or less my answer.

POM     Was there also an element at play, the day you began talking with Mr Mandela was the beginning of the unfolding of a process that had an inevitable end but the nature of the process was such that no-one could openly say the inevitable end of this process is that there is going to be majority rule because then everybody would say, "Oh, no, no, no, we're going to get something in between, we're going to get …" In other words no-one could face or articulate that reality of the end would in itself become an inhibitor of the process.

NB     It's a very important point you make, it is an important point. You can never deny that. The point boils down, in my view, to the following: how did the leadership on both sides and all the other sides as well, how were they prepared to take their constituencies along. And I cannot shoot myself in the foot now and don't accept the fact that if you played that card, that's the end of the road too early on. You might have had, and that would possibly be the argument from De Klerk and others, they would argue, "I had to constantly look over my right shoulder what Viljoen and the Defence Force and the security forces would have been up to." So it had to be a process of eventually convincing people. It is a strong argument. In my experience this argument has never surfaced I must say, but I was not in politics so maybe in the inner corridors of political power that might have been a very strong point but, yes, I think it's important, it's critical and it might have been one of the main reasons, that is true.

POM     When I look at the process and I look at Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela, and I'm not using them just really as people who were – not as personalities but as A and B, Mr de Klerk had to juggle a number of balls simultaneously, he had to juggle bringing his constituency with him, he had to juggle bringing his party with him, he had to juggle bringing his colleagues with him, he had to juggle keeping the security forces on board of the process, not alienate them to a degree where they became antithetical to it. He had to at the same time negotiate with the ANC and the IFP and juggle both of those, whereas Mr Mandela, it would appear to me, had many less balls in the air to juggle at the same time. He had to keep his radical wing, bring them into the centre, the exiles and the internal movement to keep them in balance. But which of them had the more difficult task? In one sense it's more obvious –

NB     It all depends. I would like to answer, it's very interesting, I must say that as always you ask some very intriguing questions, I don't think that I in any way have all the answers. I don't think you must try to make a comparison between the choices and the difficulties and the ball-juggling and whatever more of Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk. I don't think it's the correct way to approach it. Rather approach it from the other way, as an old hand understanding politics. If politics is about power then what are you doing? You're talking about the one politician knowing full well that he's in the end, after all these long years, going to achieve political power. It's easy, it's clear, it's very simple, straightforward. He has difficulties with Buthelezi and Zulus and everybody else but it's a very clear message. What does the other one do? He has to abandon the very essence of what politics is all about and I still to this day cannot understand that there is not much more understanding of the difficulty, even to this day, with a lot of respect to the British government, it's not going to accept certain developments with all their song and dance about that over Scotland and Ireland and Wales and whatever. But what is that in the end? You're talking about the core of the Anglo-Saxon civilisation so to speak. Are the old lords in their smoke-filled rooms in London pubs going to understand that very serious difficulty? You are negotiating to finally not having the essence of politics, power, you're going to give it away? It's very difficult, it's a psychological mindset. Specifically, being an Afrikaner, your people are going to tell to everyone else, "He's the man who has sold us down the drain", they've always told you that.

     Having said that, my view is extremely critical, I've told you before about Mr de Klerk, I've always told you basically that he was not a man with all the best efforts in which I, Barnard, was personally many times involved, to getting into a set of mind to get a strategic plan, if that is where we're going to let's identify the following fifteen juggling balls and let's tackle them and try to find a solution to each of them and take the process forward. I've told you before that whereas the old man, as I call him, had a clear view, they were pushing very hard for that, they were used to being in the opposition, they were used to struggle, you've had a government who had to do these critical things and the leader, who by the way, my view about Mr de Klerk is that it was very, very difficult to get him into a strategic mindset to say this is what it is all about. I think he, to a certain extent, believed, because intellectually he is a very sharp individual, about that there can be no doubt whatever, Patti Waldmeir and whoever say he's a very sharp intellect, and he thought that he would be capable of juggling the balls all the time and there's no politician, or for that reason any human being on earth who is clever enough to juggle all the balls all the time.

POM     Was he, again, because this was leading up to, I think it's probably in here, the question I've asked others: had the government a strategy? On the day that President de Klerk released President Mandela had he already sat down and said with his advisors, "OK, the sequence is going to be like the following."

NB     I can very quickly answer that. The answer is most certainly, not as far as I know of, no, absolutely no, but that's not the tragedy. The tragedy was that even for the ensuing four, five years he was not capable of doing that. There is something which you must also understand in this regard. Remember it was Mr de Klerk following in the footsteps of Mr PW Botha, Mr Botha was a good manager. The way in which he managed things was according to broad strategic plans and so forth and so on and I think Mr de Klerk even developed the kind of (you know English is not my mother tongue and I don't want to use the wrong words), but even almost resentment against grand schemes and big strategic plans. "We will be clever enough to juggle the balls as we go ahead", which in the end, which should surprise nobody, didn't give the best results although, and the last point I must make, if you write your book, finalise it, I don't think it would be unfair to also take the view that you had a people, party, civilisation in power for forty-plus years and like anybody who has been in power for forty-plus years they have been lazy, they have lost their appetite, they have grown some fat around the tummy, the have lost some of their known skills, they have lost their fitness, etc., etc. That's a very important point which you must never lose sight of. To a certain extent how small is it in history terms? Compare it to the last days of the Roman Empire. What were people doing in Rome at the time? Drinking wine.

POM     It's very funny that you say that because I was doing a comparison between the peace process in Northern Ireland and the peace process in SA that began as a chapter for a book and now has developed a life of its own. I said if you want to really know about the transition in SA read Edward Gibbons. You will learn more if you read Gibbons about what happened. So it's ironic that you bring his name up. I don't know any two people anywhere who probably mentioned Gibbons name in the last kind of week and a half. He will be giving himself a small pat on the back.

     I want to go back to a point. Was De Klerk's dilemma that he couldn't formulate a strategy because he couldn't formulate the end? He couldn't go before his Cabinet and say, "We all know where this is leading to, it's leading to majority rule." There would have been rebellion in the ranks and saying, "This is not leading, it's really power-sharing, it's going to be entrenched power sharing, it's going to be a rotating presidency, we're not giving up or abandoning power like that, we're not surrendering." So he couldn't be honest with them and in not being honest with them – did he ever turn to you? You would be one of his strategic thinkers, advisors.

NB     It's a strong argument you're making. Even if that's true and even if that has been the situation, which I think you're right, that should never have prohibited Mr de Klerk to have his so-called 'Kitchen Cabinet', his inner circle of trusted confidantes together and work out that strategic plan. Now as far as I know, other people may have been involved, but I, until this day, have never been informed or know about these kind of grand strategic designs. No, not at all. And that is not the responsible way of a leader even if he understands that in terms of political realities at this moment in time. Tony Blair cannot tell the British public what in the end is his vision for European unity or whatever, still at least I believe he must have an inner corridor of people with whom he talks and exactly know what he's driving for. My considered view is that, as far as I know, that has never been true of Mr de Klerk and that I think has been absolutely wrong.

POM     That he should have had an inner circle in which he could confide.

NB     He had an inner circle but perhaps nobody in that, I was not part of that inner circle of his in that specific regard. He was certainly not – well I was never informed about what those real and true goals of his were.

POM     Was there something called the Blue Book?

NB     I think the best you can do with the Blue Book is to consult Francois Venter in Potchefstroom, he's a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Potchefstoom. In my view nobody from the academic perspective, and inter alia you will find this whole 'rechtstaat' concept, he's a professor in Constitutional Law, very strongly embedded within the views of Francois Venter. Yes there was something called the Blue Book. What was the Blue Book? The Blue Book was the concept of a constitution being drawn up by the government to at least have the basis on which to negotiate in terms of the new constitution of the ANC. That was also Delport and Tertius Delport will have certain views of that if you contact him from time to time. We were just unable to convince Mr de Klerk on the fact that we should finalise the so-called Blue Book which was an interim concept constitution used as a basic document in terms of further discussions with the ANC. I remember once in Cape Town in Tuynhuys there was an effort to try to work through the Blue Book and that's one of the things which is extremely interesting to me. Mr de Klerk would be paging word for word, sentence for sentence through that bloody thick document. Now what a full Cabinet knows about a chapter on human rights or the rights of provinces still to this day astonishes me. In my view that's not something on which you should take strategic direction. It's another issue. The issue was not necessarily the contents of the Blue Book, the issue was do we need a concept constitution for the process of transformation?

POM     Sorry, do we need?

NB     Do we need a concept constitution for the process of transformation? What shall we do, how shall it look like? Will it be this, that and the other? Those questions, strategic matters, in my view, were not discussed to the extent that it should have been discussed.

POM     Again, I'm quoting from our last interview unless I say otherwise, and you say that :

     At the time President Botha and Mr Mandela met and before the time Mr de Klerk took over, the more difficult and tough issues had been settled to a large extent. The difficult things had been settled prior to Mr Mandela's release. He (PW Botha) played a pivotal role.

     What were those tough and difficult issues that had been settled prior to his release?

NB     I've taken that view and I will always be convinced about that view. The tough and difficult decision was to pass the Rubicon and understand the future of this country, one cannot talk it out. In hindsight today it looks like eating cake and having tea for two. At the time it was a tremendously difficult decision to take, to understand political solution is the only one. The second one is –

POM     That's on both sides? So you had to convince your colleagues of that?

NB     Well we had to convince –

POM     You had to convince Nelson Mandela of that?

NB     We had to convince Mr Botha and we had to convince this very influential South African military and security apparatus at the time. Mr Mandela, I must say in my view and talking from remembrance, there was never much need, the way I remember it for me, to convince Mr Mandela, "Don't go the way of the armed struggle." Because, with a lot of respect, whatever Jacob Zuma, now Deputy President, and other commanders of MK tell you, militarily the ANC has never been a real threat to this country. That's not the point of pressure which eventually brought the leadership of this country in a situation that we're now with our backs against the wall and all the AK47s. That's not true, it's absolutely not true.

POM     There's a question on the list you may have missed, which is that I asked you to evaluate the effectiveness and capacity of the MK and how as a guerrilla movement they would stand up against other such movements either past or present?

NB     I must confess that, unfortunately, I've not been a keen student in the last ten years, fifteen years almost, of what has been happening in the world. But if you compare it to the known history of all the so-called insurrections and starting from Ché Guevara and Mao Zedong and everybody else, in my considered view, against that historical background there is just no way in which MK was a very professional irregular army of really threatening the very core of the SA government. That was one of the reasons why it was so difficult to convince the military and the police, let's try to find a political settlement, because what was happening at the time – there was urban terror and that is true, there were certain places within the black townships which were under constant threat. That's true, that were constantly in a state of disarray and in chaos and one can almost say, to use the typical phrase of Ché Guevara, that certain foci have been created within the black community where the so-called liberation struggle people at the time were, I would hesitate to call it as being in command, but that again was not flowing from military capacity, that was flowing from sheer numbers, civil disobedience and very, very, I think, successfully, using labour, using international isolation and using international economic pressure to pressurise SA all the time but from a pure military perspective I would certainly not rank MK as a very capable and professional fighting machine. The answer to that is no.

POM     So your job was then to go to the SADF or whatever and say, "Listen, the way forward is a negotiated solution", whereas their position would be,  "Why the hell should we have a negotiated solution? These guys are no threat to us whatsoever."

NB     It's a little bit over-simplified but basically that's true, yes. Why should we talk peace when we're having difficulties, we had a state of emergency and we had another state of emergency but there's really on the purely military side no real threat. The threat was effectively mobilising civil society in terms of disruption of schools, etc., etc., the whole civil disobedience campaign was quite successful. There is no doubt about that. What the French and others would call 'total war'. Whatever people talk about total war and total onslaught of PW Botha he's absolutely correct. If you know strategic writing after the 2nd World War, you would know that the typical line from (Vietnam) and everybody else –

POM     From who?

NB     The Vietnam General, People's war and People's army. You would be interested to find that this is one of the books which you will find constantly on my table because it's a very interesting book.

POM     I'll take down the title before I go.

NB     It's called People's War, People's Army. He was the man who played a critical military role during the struggle not only against the French, he was successful in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, but also against the Americans and to a certain extent he is, in my view, my own view perhaps, even more influential than Ho Chi Minh. It's a book which ranks in revolutionary warfare almost equal I believe to whatever writings of Mao Zedong or Ché Guevara or whoever. Well they've been capable of organising mass mobilisation to the extent that they have been quite successful.

POM     Did the SADF have a counter-strategy at that point?

NB     The counter-strategy has been what PW Botha has been accused of, of the so-called total onslaught and they argue the total onslaught means that you struggle against the government in power not only by military means, you use the economy, you use pop isolation, you use mass mobilisation, you use churches, you use whatever.

POM     Every front.

NB     There was a total front against SA. Now how the hell do you counter that? By contra-mobilising in all those various fronts and you certainly must know that the French had people like General Andre Bouffret, who has written a book essentially of total war and many others. Even Kissinger himself and many Americans whom I can mention but it's not important now, people like to call it a fallacy, PW Botha's total onslaught theory. It was no fallacy at all. It was a total 'onslaught' on all fronts to try to bring down the SA government. Now in that total commitment and all the spheres the military has perhaps been the weakest one of all whereas I will certainly argue that on many of the other fronts they have been extremely successful. Look at the isolation of SA in terms of international economy, international sport, etc., etc., That has been, if you look at the mad way in which my people treat sport, still to this day the people of this country, that has been quite successful. I would like one day to see a scientific evaluation taking all these different spheres of putting pressure on the SA government in the seventies and eighties, whether not allowing us to play rugby and cricket like we've been doing for a long time, did not in the end do more to change the mindset of South Africans than the struggle of MK. I'm deadly bloody serious now, strange as it might sound to you. The military were never that serious at all.

POM     That's the MK. In terms of the state's response where the security forces would have been at the forefront of that response, were they adequately equipped and trained to deal with this kind of onslaught?

NB     To a large extent I think so but there is one point which you must bear in mind because that's a fundamental fact. Never in the world, I think, can any minority of let's say 20% for how many years impose their will even through the strongest capacity on 80% of the population. It's not possible. As a matter of fact, just as a matter of fact, I believe what we're witnessing now is the crumbling not of the Soviet Empire, of Soviet Russia, because if in history you overextend your capacity, like the Romans and the British and who the hell more have all been doing, let me take this rather broad philosophical line, the weird and wonderful British Empire at the beginning of this century, it has gradually, until even India and Pakistan, had to realise one must never overextend your capacity to maintain authority. But that's another argument to a certain extent. The point I'm really making is that –

POM     But you're making that point within almost a due context, (i) is that 20% can't dominate the other 80% indefinitely becomes even more of a consideration when that 20% over time is going to keep diminishing.

NB     Well obviously.

POM     So you're down to 10% to 90%.

NB     If you were in our situation, quite obviously, I think I've mentioned this before, one of the main reasons why we were pushing so hard in the eighties for this was that personally I took the line for quite a long time, don't wait to negotiate a settlement in this country when we are like the people in the old Rhodesia or the Portuguese colonies with your backs against the wall. Because if you're doing that you're not going to negotiate, you're not going to negotiate or talk about terms of surrender. Start talking while you're not on your bloody back, when you still have something to say.

POM     You had made a strong point in both of our last interviews in saying that the critical role of PW has been neglected, it's passed the popular accounts given of the role he did in facilitating this. You have been close –

NB     Can I try to – I think what you're after – can I try to explain it this way and maybe you would then grasp the essence of what I am saying much better. Can you imagine Stalin being a younger man eventually to be convinced by anybody? Stalin, Josef Stalin, "Listen Mr Stalin, this so-called endless bloody cold war with the arch enemy, the capitalists, is not what the world is all about. You now start negotiating with the west to find a settlement." In that same mindset, you must understand Mr Botha cut his political teeth as a youngster during the years of the 2nd World War, he had to move through 1948, his party taking power, and now after 35, 40 odd years you must convince this man against his background that you must eventually decide that we will have a black government. Would he accept it? I believe to take the process over that bridge which he did, and meeting Mr Mandela was of absolute critical importance, even talking to him about the issue of communism and of will Mr Mandela in the end accept. That's an interesting question I would like to ask him some day, that using force, violence, military power is not the answer in the end. All those difficult issues Mr Botha had to convince himself of and talk about this whole issue. I think what I am saying in essence is that he has done more than one can expect from any man looking against the background which he came from.

     Mr de Klerk when he arrived on the scene the whole negotiation process has been up and running. Mr Mandela has been talked to for over two years, he was knowing exactly what was going on. Talks have started in Europe to bring in Thabo Mbeki and the others. He didn't have to go through this whole process of preparing people and convincing them that this and that has to be done. In my view history will one day testify that Mr Botha played a very substantial role. Even if he would be sitting there right now, Mr Botha, he would possibly say that, "Well Barnard, you're now putting more into what I've been doing", because he would be saying, "Some people would think that I've betrayed this and that and the other." I don't want to go into that. The point I'm making is Mr Botha played a very substantial role.

     Then lastly, once again I don't have the slightest doubt that if Mr Botha would have been the leader, because somehow you hinted that as well, yes we would have had a stronger federal constitution without any doubt in my view, and interestingly enough the relationship between Mr Botha and Mr Mandela has, in my experience, always been much warmer than the experience between him and Mr de Klerk. You will understand that as everywhere, but specifically also in an African culture, age makes a difference. If you read what Mr Mandela to a certain extent has been saying over Barnard, he was saying, "This bloody near youngster, why the hell should I talk to this young boy?" Forget that, the point is it's part of a culture. How do you explain that? I believe we might even have had fewer hiccups because PW was a straightforward man, as the old man. He would have clearly said no, yes, we can do this, we cannot do that, I'm prepared to do this. That's the reason for the, I would hate to call it distrust, but the uneasiness, the uneasiness which one sensed, you clearly must know, at the end of the process from Mr Mandela to Mr de Klerk was perhaps because Mr de Klerk has not always been very straightforward to a certain extent with Mr Mandela. You know that there was an uneasiness in their relationship, that's no secret at all.

POM     This is apropos, maybe I want your views on this for my own sake, in Anthony Sampson's biography of Mandela he mentions that there was a secret agreement between Mandela and FW de Klerk in February of 1991 I guess, that the MK would not be disbanded and arms caches revealed until after a new government took over. To your knowledge was there that understanding between the two?

NB     I cannot comment on that. What I know was that whole issue of the arms caches and MK was a point which, in my view, has been in dispute until the very last moment. There have always been differences about that and on that one Mr de Klerk always took quite a strong line. Make no mistake about it. One can now in retrospect ask the question whether it shouldn't have been an absolute view from the SA government at the time telling Mandela and the ANC, well unfortunately we'll just have to stop the whole process now if you're not going to – but then again if you start to think realistically about it, how many arms caches were there? Some of them were in Mozambique, some were in Botswana, some were in other places.

POM     Did it really matter in the sense that you have already discounted and said the military had discounted the military capacity of the MK anyway?

NB     If I remember correctly, why was it not settled as an absolute from the government side? The main argument has been if we now stopped the process because of this we will have a kind of resurgence of mass action, mobilisation once again and in the end we will be pressurised into once again starting to talk but then not from a position, or let me put it this way, from a position of less influence than we're in now. Don't start and pick a fight when you're not sure you're going to win. If you don't know you're going to win a fight leave it alone, argue about it but don't push it to breaking point. That I must say has been consistent in my view and I would have certainly on this very point taken this line and pushed it forward, yes. I was constantly trying to push the line, let's talk and take the process forward in such a way that all South Africans can reap benefit from that, etc., etc.

POM     Mr de Klerk states in his autobiography that it was understood throughout the process that there would be a blanket amnesty for perpetrators of gross violations of human rights on all sides, that that was one of the underlying, understood principles.

NB     I wouldn't agree with that. There is no doubt that Mr de Klerk and others put tremendous pressure on Mr Mandela on this whole issue of amnesty.

POM     Amnesty for?

NB     Everybody across the board. But in that regard the ball has been dropped by one Kobie Coetsee, the Minister, at the time, of Justice. During the Pretoria Minute agreement was reached on amnesty across the board. I've told you before that the Pretoria Minute was basically written when we agreed broadly in the room in the Pretoria Minute in the Old Presidency, this is more or less what we agreed upon. Four people were instructed, it's not interesting, to write the Pretoria Minute. Who was that? Thabo Mbeki and Joe Slovo and Fanie van der Merwe and Niel Barnard. So out the four of us went towards the snooker room and there we start writing the Pretoria Minute and bring it back for final approval. During that time FW de Klerk sent out Kobie Coetsee and Gerrit Viljoen to check whether these young public servants were not selling out the country and so forth and so on and we had a furious argument with Kobie Coetsee on this whole issue of amnesty. We, not before the others, took him into a corner and told him, "We now have a chance to sort out this issue of amnesty. Let's bloody take the ball and get it over and done with." And the way in which he eventually went about that, each and every ANC ex-compatriot coming in had to first confess and write down, etc., etc., brought a resentment within the old man and the ANC which they never forgave and which they pushed through in the end assisted by, with a lot of respect, people of the likes of Boraine and others who were really trying to do difficult things. And thirdly, I've told you before, I am to this day convinced that one of the worst things that hit this country was this so-called Truth & Reconciliation Commission, I've told you that very clearly. Maybe my words are now more true than a few months before but be that as it may.

POM     So when you were in the process of drawing up the draft of the Pretoria Minute that provided for blanket amnesty on all sides, agreed to by – ?

NB     But we were overruled by Kobie Coetsee convincing De Klerk that that shouldn't be the way and the final formulation of the Pretoria Minute did not make provision for blanket amnesty as Fanie van der Merwe and Barnard had been able to agree and find agreement with Thabo Mbeki and Slovo. That's a very critical historical point. If you read the Afrikaans press you might have seen that here and there that point has surfaced many times. To a certain extent though all the difficulties that we to this day have with amnesty were the responsibility of one Kobie Coetsee who thought that he could think about weird and wonderful ideas. I think when you're in a process like this and you get an opportunity you must have a big mind and move as quickly as possible.

POM     What were his objections? This was like wiping the slate clean.

NB     I think that's one of the issues which one must ask him. He's a very strange man.

POM     I have asked him and he has an entirely different take on his own role.

NB     Well I tell you he's wrong and I hope that one day I will have the necessary written documentation to prove that he's wrong and I'm right, but be that as it may that will come one day. He's wrong.

POM     So this could have been settled early on?

NB     Absolutely, it could have been settled at the Pretoria Minute, it would have been over. Well it would have had certain problems.

POM     So the ANC in fact were prepared to go along with blanket amnesty and the opposition to blanket amnesty came from the government not from the ANC?

NB     Certainly. There's no doubt about it, that is what happened. That's what happened. All efforts to even after that convince Kobie Coetsee that that's not the correct way to go were just not successful. That's another strategic blunder which we unfortunately made.

POM     Again this is going backwards, well it's not going backwards, you had almost said it as a reflection to yourself, "I'm often asked why did we begin negotiating with Mandela and it's a good question, it's something I haven't reflected on a lot."

     It's been a year since we talked. Have your reflected any more why Mandela rather than making overtures to Oliver Tambo, going that route?

NB     I hope that I've answered it the same way but I think I have. Let me try to be as brief as possible. The point is the advice was if we're going to negotiate, let's negotiate with the core of power. It is no use starting running around talking in circles. If we start this whole thing let's start with the centre of power in the ANC and according, as I've said, to the NIS assessments by all intelligence and by all that we knew at the time, and I think we knew quite a lot, Mandela was the undisputed leader of the ANC. It was only later that we realised more fully that we might have under-estimated the role of Tambo in the external wing. I say we may have under-estimated it. It was never a situation that we didn't understand the role to be played by Tambo. We understood it quite well. But I don't think it's a serious question. The point rather is, if you now really start to negotiate in earnest and you do it during the end of the 2nd World War in France, you negotiate with Charles de Gaulle, you negotiate in Britain with Winston Churchill, I still find it a little bit awkward even that so many people ask me, "Why have you negotiated with Mandela?" Well, he was the undisputed pinnacle of power. There is no doubt about that. Now why should you start negotiations, let's be practical, with Oliver Tambo or with Walter Sisulu, the external and the internal wing? You start talking with Walter Sisulu and he will tell you, "Listen, SA government, I'm not the leader, I have to get permission from Mandela to negotiate", or Mandela turning around and saying, "If you're really interested in talking to us why the hell are you talking to my lieutenants or whatever?" And the third point which historically must be said is it was the old man who through the period took the initiative from his side to at least make contact with the SA government. He was the man who tried to make contact with Dr Verwoerd and as he tells us also with Mr Vorster. He would certainly have told you that he had all these efforts to talk to the government. He was not successful and so forth and so on. It was very natural. I find it difficult to understand why somebody should doubt that one should be talking to Mr Mandela.

POM     The channel, I just want to go to the Record of Understanding.

NB     We have three minutes.

POM     OK, three minutes to deal with the Record of Understanding. It's an Irish three minutes. Again Patti Waldmeir quotes Joe Slovo as saying after the agreement was signed, saying gleefully, "They've caved in on everything." What did the government gain from the Record of Understanding? When she asked Roelf Meyer he said in three words, according to her, "Resumption of negotiations."

NB     If your question is what did we gain from that, I was personally –

POM     Or what concessions did the ANC make?

NB     At least – that would be interesting. Why don't you consider the very critical point. The major concession from the ANC was to stop so-called rolling mass action and come back to the conference table, which is in essence what Meyer has been saying as well. I think that's basically correct. I think that's what it has been all about. I would hate to see it the other way around. I think that's basic. The facts, I'm not going to disclose now what my personal viewpoint has been on the Record of Understanding until the very end because there have been some serious differences even at the day of the signing of the Record of Understanding, because the final round of discussion on the Record of Understanding took place on the political level between Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela.

POM     Thank you very much.

NB     When is this book going to appear?

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.