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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

01 Dec 1999: Sachs, Albie

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POM     Albie, I was  going to ask you just a couple of questions referring to the negotiating period and then I'd like to talk a bit about Oliver Tambo for two reasons: number one, in the interviews that I've done over the years I've rarely heard his name mentioned, he's like an invisible presence but the due regard that I feel he should have you never hear it expressed. Patricia was telling me you gave an address recently where you concentrated on Tambo and made an absolutely moving and wonderful address and perhaps in some anecdotes you could recover the spirit of the man.

     I will start with what I call the Natal question. If you recall when Mandela was released from prison one of the first telephone calls he made was to Buthelezi thanking him for the support he had received, not negotiating with the government, etc., and he asked to come and see Buthelezi and the King and Buthelezi replied, "Certainly", at least on his own behalf and the King subsequently said he would be glad to receive Mandela and Mandela was to go and lay a wreath at the grave of King Shaka. Then he went to Lusaka and put the idea to the NEC and the NEC voted it down. Were you part of the NEC at that time?

AS     No I was on the Constitutional Committee of the ANC, I wasn't on the NEC. The only time I worked with the NEC was on constitutional matters so I wasn't party to that at all. I was in Lusaka when Mandela arrived with a lot of other ex-prisoners. It was a very emotional and moving occasion. I'm not sure about the hard politics that were discussed. It was very much a symbolic occasion, it was a re-connecting of the movement and that was certainly the highlight of the visit.

POM     Subsequent to that a delegation of the ANC went to Durban to meet with the IFP and they decided that it would be a good idea if Buthelezi and Mandela made joint appearances at rallies and this was when Harry Gwala stepped in and said, "Absolutely no way", and at the first rally which everybody was supposed to be at, at the King's Stadium, Taylor's Stadium (I don't know which), Mandela never showed up and afterwards he would say that, "If I had gone they (whoever they were) would have throttled me." Again, Buthelezi felt insulted, the King felt insulted, there was always insult rigmarole. Do you think it was a mistake on the part of the NEC in not saying go ahead and see him as quickly as possible, in fact the sooner this war between blacks can be brought to an end and Zulus stop killing Zulus the better and if you still have a close relationship with Buthelezi, which he had at that point, Buthelezi always pointed to the fact that Mandela and he kept up a correspondence throughout his 27 years in jail, do you believe (i) that if there had been a meeting between them at that time, a rapprochement, that they had gone around and visited town after town in KZN saying the war is over between us. We have now a common enemy. As a united front we will face the government together as partners in negotiations, that it might have had a large impact on the subsequent level of violence in KZN? I think close to 4000 people were killed between 1990 and 1994. And (ii) that there could have been a realignment at that point of South African politics in a way which would have not made the outcome of negotiations different but would have skewed it in a different direction?

AS     There are lots of ifs in that.

POM     Oh the last part is - had this whole thing gained a momentum of its own at the grassroots that was so beyond anybody's capacity to control that nobody was about to listen to anybody?

AS     Well there are so many ifs in that equation and I think there's a bit of circular reasoning. If the trust had existed to enable the leaders to meet, if the trust had existed to enable the followers to listen to the leaders, if the trust had been there which meant everybody would simply listen to what the leaders said and throw away their arms, clearly many lives would have been saved. But it wasn't just a question of lack of subjective trust. First of all there was a question of process and it took until 1991 for what I would call a coherent procedure to be developed for relating Nelson Mandela, the person, individual, with his immense capacity and prestige to the ANC as a structure and organisation and it wasn't something that was automatic and immediate. The question of process, the style that had been started with Albert Luthuli and very strongly developed by Oliver Tambo, of intense consultation and working out strategic positions through maximum consensus in advance and not relying on purely personal contacts and chemistry and so on, I think that was something that had to emerge and as I say it took until the ANC conference in Durban in 1991 when there were proper elections, everything was newly structured and what turned out afterwards to be an outstanding relationship between Mandela and the National Executive Committee to emerge. He never lost that pizzazz, that flair that he had and it didn't stop his personal contacts and so on but he developed the style of consultation and also people felt much warmer towards him. He would allow himself to be over-ridden on a number of important questions and it created a much more dynamic, much more active leadership. Until then there had been lots of incongruencies and sometimes the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing, partly because, if you like, that institutional arrangement hadn't been made. So that would have been one of the factors.

     Another factor was it's quite clear that the ANC didn't have in KZN a united position and as far as I can recall there were basically three groupings to a certain extent with personalised and regional followings involved and there was the midlands grouping, Harry Gwala, Nkabinde, very, very militant, very hostile to rapprochement with South African government as well as with Buthelezi, seeing them all as part and parcel of a combined reactionary front. Then Jacob Zuma was very strongly in favour of negotiation, conciliation and I'm sure he was heavily influenced by his experience in Mozambique where Renamo had been dismissed as a small force that couldn't survive without South African and Rhodesian backing but in the end a bitter civil war emerged that was very destructive to the whole country and I think the lesson that he would have learnt was that if you can talk, talk, it's worth doing it even at the expense of possibly losing some of your followers rather than to feel there can be a military solution.

     Then there was another section based on prominent figures who would have been Jeff Radebe and others who were strongly based in Durban with a big following from the trade union movement and others who were cautious about negotiations but far less hostile than the Gwala group. I suspect that on the Inkatha front as well there were many different factions and groups and personalities and so on. There was one moment when the two top leaders did get together, they did call upon their followers to throw their weapons into the sea and it had no impact at all, so I am rather sceptical that simply having the leaders together embracing each other on its own would have worked.

     Then there were many others, I'm thinking back now as I'm talking, who said that if you try and do it purely at the top and you don't solve the intense vendettas and almost now decades long hatreds on the ground you're not going to get anywhere. If you going to have a plausible rapprochement, and the way they said it, you're going to have to start on the ground and establish local peace negotiations on the ground and end up with an agreement at the top and not the other way around.

     I think this would be a very multi-faceted kind of an area. Another very important factor is, and evidence has emerged quite strongly now, that the third force were extremely active in that situation, stirring up sections of Inkatha, providing them with information, disinformation, arms, money. I have no doubt that from the broad evidence available that Mangosuthu Buthelezi had strong ambitions to be President of SA at that stage, that he wasn't inclined to accept a junior role, a role as junior partner either to Mandela personally or to the ANC. So I think the situation was far more fluid, far more complex. Do I personally regret the fact that intransigent positions in sections of the ANC minimised these possibilities? The answer is yes I do, I do, but I wouldn't see that as being decisive or critical. I would see it as one of about five or six major elements that played a role and I really don't think it could have been done simply by a sort of sweethearts at the top as it were.

POM     Second, I want to go back to the days of the total onslaught and what I want to get some perspective on is the cold war and slowly being enclosed, surrounded by communist regimes and moving in on SA and the propaganda that went with that, part of the propaganda of the west spurred in large part by the United States. Were white South Africans genuinely afraid of the communist take-over? Did they associate ANC, SACP equals communism and not make any differentiation between communism and black nationalist aspirations?

AS     I think generally speaking white South Africans were not very sophisticated politically. They didn't have to think seriously. They had power, they had their internal squabbles and fights and they could be quite smart in relation to these little nuances but in terms of the world, what's happening to the world, and the nature of their own society there was no depth there at all. Blacks were forced to think. The oppressed have to understand the oppressors, the oppressors don't have to understand the oppressed. I heard Pallo Jordan make this point very strongly once, In terms of culture, language he said, "We black people had to know the languages of the whites, we had to understand their culture to survive, to thrive, to get on. They didn't have to know anything about us, we were just boys and girls, people out there, natives." And that applied to politics as well.

POM     Well I'm talking more on the man in the street.

AS     Yes, I'm speaking about the ordinary people didn't know, they just saw servants, they saw blacks, they saw things out there. They couldn't humanise and personalise black politics. They could only see agitators, stone throwers and this concept of 'infant' blacks, unsophisticated, lent itself to conspiracy theories. It was always agitators. There have been white agitators, communist agitators, the blacks they knew were really quite happy, all they wanted was a full stomach, they weren't interested in things like freedom and so on. That was a very common white attitude and it was from President Botha down to the lift operator, it was very much part and parcel of white culture and you could hear it expressed by university professors and by ordinary unskilled workers. It was part and parcel of white culture. The anti-communist concept was extremely handy not only in terms of getting international support, it deflected attention from apartheid. The issue in SA wasn't oppression of a black majority by a white minority. The issue was saving the country from communism and so it was useful as an internal justification and to get external support. The fact is that communists, black and white, played a very big role in the liberation struggle. The communist aspect hardly came through as a specifically identifiable form. The theme was national liberation, it was overthrowing white supremacy to the extent that it was theorised, there was talk about the two-stage revolutionary programme, the first stage was to get rid of white supremacy. So from that point of view there was very little ideological distinction between ANC members who were communists and those who weren't communists. So it didn't have a very important practical, even programmatic, even organisational significance to the extent that the Soviet Union and China were far away, that there was no scope for their Secret Services, Intelligence Services, military operatives to come in and take over and dominate things. The practical input was very marginal. I think some of looking back now, there's no doubt about it, the socialist countries as they were called gave a lot of material support to the liberation struggle in terms of weapons, in terms of training doctors, lawyers and so on which I think overall was rather positive and helpful. But the people who studied in these countries saw at first hand what was good and what wasn't good and that was a very valuable political lesson.

POM     Were whites kind of brainwashed by the government propaganda machine into believing that a communist threat was imminent and that the only thing that stood between all of Africa going communist and SA losing its western values, so to speak, was that SA was the bulwark in that sense between east and west?

AS     What happened, it started off with the divide was Christians and non-Christians, that's going back to the Dutch settlement. Christians were superior because they were Christians and the heathens were the rest. Then the rationalisation changed, the civilised and the uncivilised. As more and more blacks became Christians it was difficult to sustain that division. So then it became the civilised, the uncivilised and the mass of blacks were seen as the uncivilised. That was long before there was even communism in the world. Then with the cold war playing such a big role that same justification domination now took on a new skin, if you like, and the skin was anti-communism, the cloak was anti-communism but I don't think that was the heart of it. To some extent it was intensified by the ministers of religion, the others, it was atheist communism. To some extent though it was very much the communists were in favour of miscegenation, breaking down the colour taboos, were internationalists, non-racial, and there was some measure of truth in all that. The real core, the gut thing, the passion didn't come through anti-communism, it wasn't ideological, it was racism but racism now taking on the mask or the cloak or being intensified by the anti-communism and that was very comforting, ideologically it gave them a place in the world. They kept saying we are part of the free world. Can you imagine? SA was part of the free world with the ghettos and locations, 90-day detention, executions and tortures, they claimed they were part of the free world and they were accepted by many people in the so-called free world as such. I've heard from many people when I came back afterwards who were in the army, they were brainwashed. That was part of their courses. It was an actual deliberate act of training, watch out for the terrorists, communist terrorists. It was all part and parcel of a kind of a bland, homogenised threat.

POM     The third thing is, I don't know whether you've read The Truth About the Truth Commission, Anthea Jeffery's book? Have you read it?

AS     I've read it. I've read every line in it. It's attracted a lot of attention and interest. I think she just missed the whole thing because she started off with such scepticism, even antagonism to the whole project and she was clearly so emotionally identified with Inkatha and so hostile to the TRC as such that she lost what I would call the magic, the revelatory character, the immense symbolism, the drama that was being played out, the huge, if you like, South African theatrical effect of it completely and she tried to reduce it to an ordinary due process of law scenario. In so doing she was doubly at fault because she lost its great character and its great impact didn't come from that. The kind of truth that emerged wasn't the truth that you get in a court of law through rigorous cross-examination and testing and so on, it was an experiential truth. I've written about this. It was the truth of the nation watching on TV and seeing the security police crying; it was people speaking of untold suffering and harm; it was the discovery of the bodies; it was allied to the De Kock trial and the hearing about the Generals dishing out awards at a braaivleis, at a barbecue when the bodies of people who had just been assassinated were burning 50 metres away. All these things had a huge impact on the South African psyche, far greater than any ordinary due process of law investigation could have. So on the one hand she missed the full value, the resonance, the meaning for South African society by applying very narrow and straight technical assessments and, secondly, she applied the wrong techniques, the wrong forensic critical lenses, if you like. If you say that the findings are not the kind of findings in terms of which you can send someone to jail she's absolutely right. They don't have that proof beyond reasonable doubt after proper rigorous cross-examination. If you say the findings are not the findings that historians can make, then I think she's wrong.

POM     Sorry, if you say they're not the kinds of truths that - ?

AS     The kind of findings that historians can properly make. Historians don't cross-examine testimony in the way that lawyers do. Historians don't require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Historians don't frame indictments and charges in the same narrow kind of a way and historians don't send people to jail. It's a very different kind of an enquiry. So the Amnesty Commission was far more rigorous in terms of its due process but even then it was a rigour related to its particular function and that's being tested in the courts at the moment so I'm not commenting on that at all. I underline that. I'm not commenting on the Amnesty Commission. But the other commission, the truth-telling commission had a totally different function and it would have been destroyed if lawyers had been there, the spontaneity it wasn't that kind of a proceeding, it wasn't that kind of a function and because there were no accused in the dock at the time, although the lawyers, the persons whose names were going to be mentioned had a right to have lawyers there who could have cross-examined, it was introduced later, these weren't enunciations of people in the dark. The opportunity was there really for people to speak their pain, to tell their stories. That was its function and if she had compared it with other Truth Commissions elsewhere in the world I think she would have found it was spectacularly successful in terms of the kind of truth coming out. It was done in public, it was done in the context of legality, of a law passed by parliament. The law itself had constitutional sanction so the framework was one of legality and the processes were processes adapted to its particular function.

     So I think her book is an intelligent book, I think it's a book that has to be taken seriously but I think it misses the point grievously. That in itself is part of the story and that's the last point I want to make. There is no final story. The least important part of the Truth Commission are the findings in the five volumes. You had to end somewhere. The most important part was the process and her comment on it now becomes part of that process, if you like. It's part of the dialogue, it's part of the pluralism of the controversy and I don't think one should dismiss it simply because she has a particular political philosophy or particular allegiances. As I say, it's a sharply written book. It's thoroughly researched within its own frame, intellectual frame. I think the intellectual frame is completely wrong.

POM     And Oliver Tambo?

AS     That's another whole, whole, whole story.

POM     OK, then I'll have to have a second another book, just on Oliver.

AS     I've written something, in fact I gave a talk in Dublin at the Oliver Tambo Memorial Lecture which you can take as an appendage to this.

POM     Patricia said you told some wonderful anecdotes, it was just the anecdotal.

AS     Let's leave it for another time, another setting.

POM     I'll be back in January anyway and I would like to do a session on him because I feel that with everybody I've interviewed it's Mandela, Mandela, Mandela, and I say there was some man who held this organisation together, built it, kept its different wings, anyone who talks about him talks about him with they jump immediately and say he was such a wonderful person, such an intelligent man, brilliant and inspirational leader.

AS     Quietly brilliant, he would be softly inspirational. Very much part of his character. He faded out because of illness at the actual hard negotiation stage. That's why his profile is so much reduced but in terms of the basic strategy and approach, in terms of ensuring that the ANC in its heart and soul adopted political pluralism and a bill of rights his role was absolutely incalculable and it was a role over a number of years and I am sure I've spoken to you about it. So you've got the main story. What you haven't got are those little anecdotes.

POM     I know you have to go, and I said I was looking for my half an hour which I got. I know you have a lot of work to do so I'll let you get back to it but if you are around after Christmas I will see you.

AS     I'll be in Cape Town and middle of February I come back here.

POM     OK I'll be back here on 10th January until probably beginning of February.

AS     Then you'll probably miss me.

POM     OK. I'll definitely be in Cape Town.

AS     All right, the last week of January I'm in Cape Town. We're travelling, we're going to Sri Lanka.

POM     OK from 1985 to 1990, every year, because my triangular relationship at that point was Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Cyprus because if you look at them they all share a very similar structural character in terms of their divisions internally and in terms of their being 'mother country' off shore which they all share. So they're like a sovereign outside nation also involved in the thing. The three of them made a study of the three would that's the next project when I get rid of my obsession with this country.

     Have a lovely and wonderful holiday and relax and read, catch up on all the things you haven't had time to do.

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.