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Anthony Turton is an environmental adviser, scientist, author, and ex-military man who has spent the better part of his life working in conflict resolution and brokering peace deals. He told Justin Nurse his riveting life story in this week’s edition of The Pied Piper Project.
I am the son of a detribalised white Zulu, a 12th-generation African from rural Natal. My father had an insight into Zulu culture, so he exposed me from a young age to traditional African belief systems, as well as ecosystems such as the Kalahari and the Okavango. That had an indelible impact on my thinking growing up.
As a family we migrated to Egoli where my father became a miner, just before the Sharpeville Massacre. This became an important part of my early political awareness. The mass exodus of rich white people from South Africa because of Sharpeville consequently meant that a lot of property came on to the market and we went from being inner-city urbanites moving from flat to flat, to being able to afford our own house.
I studied and trained as a horticulturist, and later became deeply entrenched in the flower farming industry. In the early ’80s the armed Struggle was hotting up, and I was increasingly called up as part of an armoured combat unit to fight in Angola. The war then came home and as part of the most combat-ready unit, I was deployed in the townships. It was a horrific, mind-boggling experience.
I was recruited into a special operations unit brought together to hunt down Umkhonto we Sizwe’s chief of staff, Joe Slovo – deemed to be the perpetrator behind the 1983 Pretoria car bomb.
I chased Slovo around the world, which was an incredible experience and one which laid the foundations for the strategic risk assessment work I did subsequently – brokering peace in countries ravaged by internal conflict. I was involved behind the scenes in the team that negotiated with Nelson Mandela and brought him off Robben Island. I was part of a team of about 70 guys “feeling out” the ANC to see if they were interested in negotiating.
Peace in Africa
From a leadership perspective, I was guided by my conscience and believed totally in the work we did. Arising from our withdrawal from Angola, Namibia was opened up to democracy and I was involved in the implementation of Resolution 435 (the ceasefire and UN-supervised elections).
As a reward for my efforts leading up to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), I was one of the few white officers promoted under Mandela. I served him with absolute loyalty, and my task then was to assist in the development of strategy, policy, and institutions to bring our intelligence operations under democratic oversight. The Cold War was over, there were no more communists, and there was a thousand years of peace – which lasted until 9/11.
I became fascinated with ecosystems and environmental security. I was tasked by the government to do a risk assessment of water as a risk to our future democracy. Before 2000, South Africa had a demand-driven economy and could continue expanding by replicating what it had done in the past.
After 2000 we became “supply constrained”, which meant we had to do things in a fundamentally different way. The “hydraulic density of population” refers to how many people can be sustained by a given unit of water. It’s a very serious issue, and can be used to determine such things as economic growth and social erosion.
Into this comes the coal-mining story. We are a coal-hungry economy, and we’ve mined most of our reserves.
The only ones we haven’t are in Limpopo, all of which are water constrained. Major conflicts have emerged in the farming and mining communities, and I’m now heavily involved in assessing and negotiating mining operations in areas such as these that are culturally sensitive and environmentally constrained.
My experience in the bush in Mozambique, and at Codesa, has helped me with what I’m doing now, and I’m convincing hardcore factions that hate each other’s guts that the current outcome is “lose-lose”. A “win-win” outcome needs to be found, otherwise shock waves will be sent into the international investment community which will result in South African no longer being regarded as a safe destination for direct investment into the mining sector. It’s emotionally intensive, and from a leadership perspective I stand alone as the parties involved believe it can’t be done. Leadership is often very lonely.
South Africa is remarkable as we are the only nuclear power in the world that has voluntarily relinquished its weapons of mass destruction. We are the only country in the world where a prisoner of conscience recognised that his jailer was as much a victim of the system as he was. That for me is the single most important beacon of hope. And if I too can provide a beacon of hope in this seething pool of misery and negativity, then I’ve done my job. We’re also the only country in the world that has had a TRC, where victim and perpetrator had the chance to draw a line under the past and move forward.
Go to: www.anthonyturton.com
* Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh it Off.