My top secret talks with Mandela
Share this article:
Former head of National Intelligence Niël Barnard started top-secret talks with Nelson Mandela in prison in the late 1980s. In this edited extract from his book Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss he reveals, for the first time, the details of these meetings.
“President, we just have to realise fully what we are in for when we begin to negotiate with Nelson Mandela. The eventual outcome is inevitable and will be a majority government, with him as the president.”
These were more or less my words to President PW Botha in May 1988 when he asked me to head up a small government team to conduct exploratory talks with this symbol of the black liberation movement.
“I understand that very well,” was Botha’s clipped response. He was apparently somewhat irritated by my uncalled-for prediction. “There is no need to preach to me.”
What I, and no one at NIS, knew at that stage was that Kobie Coetsee, the Minister of Justice under whom prisons also fell, had already held a few talks with Mandela. The preamble to these was that in 1985, on a flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town, Coetsee had met Winnie Mandela who was on her way to visit her husband in the Volkshospital in Cape Town. Coetsee used the chance to extend a gesture of goodwill and also went to visit Mandela at the hospital.
This was followed by sporadic meetings between the two men over the next three years – for the most part at the Coetsee home – while Mandela was serving a life sentence in Pollsmoor. I saw Coetsee regularly, especially at the State Security Council, but he did not utter a word about his early talks with Mandela. Why he handed this task over – or had it taken away from him – we will certainly never know.
Botha’s instruction was that I should report back to him directly on the talks with Mandela. He demanded that these meetings be conducted in the strictest secrecy. Not even the cabinet was to know about them.
The other members of the team were Fanie van der Merwe, Director General of Justice, under whom the Department of Prisons resorted; Mike Louw, Deputy Director General of NIS; and General Willie Willemse, Commissioner of Prisons (later Correctional Services), the only member of our group who was known to Mandela.
Van der Merwe possessed remarkable expertise in conducting negotiations; Louw was a likeable man with wise insight and balanced judgement; and General Willemse was an outstanding administrator whose competence was to prove invaluable in the time ahead.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, on May 25 1988, the four of us found ourselves in the cramped, grey office of the commander of the Pollsmoor prison outside Cape Town. The office furniture was typical of that of many a senior state official: a settee, Morris chairs, a bookcase and an oversized desk.
We were tense, aware of the enormity of the moment, but also inwardly elated about the prospect of being part of it all. Then the statuesque, imposing figure of the world’s best-known prisoner appeared in the doorway flanked by two warders.
Nelson Mandela wore the standard blue overall and boots of the prison service, yet emanated a dignified and firm but friendly presence. With a gallantry that one hardly expected from someone who had been sitting in jail for 24 years, he extended his hand to each of us in turn.
Although we did not know one another, he was at ease, joining the exchange of pleasantries about the weather and the difference in our ages.
Meanwhile, the coffee and tea appeared, and Mike Louw took the opportunity to tell the joke about the “tea boy” who was confronted by a lion at the Union Buildings. Thereafter the officials refused to go to work – not because they were afraid of the lion, but because they were no longer given any tea!
Together with the coffee and tea, tasty sandwiches were served on one of those oval stainless steel trays so characteristic of the civil service. Unusually, the sandwiches were cut into savoury triangles and shredded lettuce leaves had been scattered over them. Mandela applied himself with enthusiasm to the snacks, enjoying them immensely; it was almost heart-rending to see and I immediately made a mental note of this.
I tried to put myself in his “political” shoes. In his head I was probably the big boss of a bunch of apartheid spies who had been responsible for the murders of prominent ANC cadres. But now he had to sit and talk to this “Boer spy”. Actually he didn’t want to do this at all, because he distrusted me, and he would soon make no secret of this. Furthermore, as a venerable man of almost 70 who set great store by his culture, it was difficult, almost insulting, to have to negotiate with a young whippersnapper of 38.
He probably said to himself: “I asked to talk to the president and this is who I get instead!”
For this reason, Willemse’s presence was of great importance. He didn’t talk much, nor was it expected of him to do so, but he made Mandela feel at ease; hopefully Mandela was also aware that here was a man who would hold a protective hand over him.
Everyone did their bit to try to create a relaxed, congenial atmosphere – something that does not come easily to me, particularly with strangers. Despite the relative geniality, we all knew that we had not come together to drink tea and chat about the weather. The elephant in the room – the burning issues about the country’s future – could no longer be ignored.
I began by saying that the government saw this discussion, and hopefully more that would follow, as a matter of great significance. We were gathered there on the express instructions of the president. We were all aware that the country was on the brink of a violent revolution and we had to try to avert this by reaching an understanding. As far as the government was concerned, I explained, the search for a peaceful political solution rested on two points of departure: on the one hand, the acceptance of black people’s reasonable and realistic demand for a one-man-one-vote system in a unitary state; on the other, the acceptance of white people’s legitimate concerns about a majority government that had unbridled power in a constitutional dispensation in which their interests and those of other minority groups could be disregarded and overridden.
I said we regarded the meeting at Pollsmoor as an opportunity to clarify matters on the highest level, and to find out whether the two parties, the government and the ANC, were prepared to reach an agreement on these cardinal issues.
I explained that as far as we were concerned, there were three stumbling blocks in the way of a political agreement: the ANC’s use of violence in their effort to come to power; the influence of the South African Communist Party (SACP) within the ANC; and the fears about the abuse of power and the constitutional guarantees that would be necessary to allay these fears.
We did not elaborate on these. The plan was to get Mandela talking so we could get a sense of his thinking and what his plan of action was.
Prisoner 46664 was well prepared.
He gave us a clear picture of his own views and those of the ANC. According to him the ANC was also against violence, but had been left with no alternative because over decades the request to talk to the authorities about black people’s political rights had been turned down time and again. On communism and its influence on the ANC, Mandela said that he was not a communist himself and that the Freedom Charter was by no means a blueprint for communism. He claimed once the negotiations on a new constitutional dispensation had begun, the relationship between the ANC and the SACP would become irrelevant.
Finally, he said the discussions would have to be held without any preconditions because the goal of honest negotiations was precisely to find solutions to differences of opinion. We did not resort to splitting hairs; the main task was to collect information. The time for serious debate would soon follow.
The two and a half hours that were available flew past.
We then parted company – I felt that everyone seemed reasonably satisfied with this first meeting. There were no serious confrontations and no derailment. We agreed to meet again as soon as possible.
At the same time, we became aware once again of the vast differences between us.
We realised that what lay ahead was not going to be a Sunday school picnic.
* Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss is published by Tafelberg. Recommended retail price: R250.