'Peaceful Revolution' Niël Barnard with Tobie Wiese (Tafelberg)

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” – John F. Kennedy. 

When political supremo Niël Barnard was at the Cape Town launch of his book, Peaceful Revolution – Inside the war room at the negotiations (with Tobie Wiese), he told his interviewer, John Maytham: “Must we have an election on nuclear strategy? 

“There are some issues in life for which democracy is not the answer…” That has come back to haunt South Africa and the R1 trillion nuclear deal with Russia. But, as UCT Professor Emeritus David Welsh writes in the prologue: “… An excellent book that explores aspects of the transition not previously described… 

“The book breaks new ground in our understanding of what happened…” (at the Codesa transition talks in the early 1990s). And one of South Africa’s most eminent historians, Professor Hermann Gillomee, said: “… No further scholarly work about the transition of South Africa should be written without first consulting this book…” 

Barnard, head of the National Intelligence Service during the apartheid era and then selected as the chief “way forward” man at the brittle talks, offers an honest opinion, even criticising his own role at times. 

He sees what he did as a public service that changed the course of history, sharing the opinions that led him to persuade then-president PW Botha to seek an internal settlement to the country’s troubles and to begin a secret dialogue with Nelson Mandela. 

When Botha (then prime minister) approached Barnard in 1979 while he was still a junior lecturer with an interest in international affairs, he was far from being the most obvious person for the job. Barnard speculated about why he had been chosen. 

“At that time there was a very tough bureaucratic turf battle in the intelligence community.” “Lang Hendrik” van den Bergh, founder of the Bureau of State Security (Boss) was in control of intelligence in the country. 

Barnard said the appointment of an unknown youngster from the Free State – possibly through the influence of politicians Kobie Coetsee and Alwyn Schlebusch – enabled them to downgrade Boss and clip its operational wings, replacing it with a kind of research institute. 

“I had the right kind of background as an Afrikaner, as a member of the Broederbond, which I think was crucial.” Barnard’s wife, Engela (30 at the time), was not in favour of him taking the position. She was against his being in charge of Boss, “which in some minds was killing and conducting paramilitary operations”. 

She expressed her anxiety, warning him: “They’re going to break you; you’re too young.” 

While many campaigns of civil resistance are intended for much more limited goals than revolution, generally a non-violent revolution is characterised by simultaneous advocacy of democracy, human right and national independence in the country concerned. 

In some cases a campaign of civil resistance with a revolutionary purpose may be able to bring about the defeat of a dictatorial regime only if it obtains a degree of support from the armed forces, or at least their benevolent neutrality. 

Non-violent revolutions in the 20th century became more successful and more common, especially in the 1980s, as Cold War political alliances, which supported status quo governance, waned. If student and other protests take a further unconstitutional turn, those who still believe may well be pushed to the side. 

Only time will determine whether new South African civic movements for social justice will achieve their objectives within constitutional bounds. That South Africa peacefully morphed from a brutal oligarchy – the rarest of occurrences – is in no small way due to the intervention and savvy of Barnard and those with their heads screwed on among the Afrikaner elite. 

Read it, you’ll find yourself saying “Ah ha!” from time to time. I did, and I was close to all the comings and goings as a front-line journalist.