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Saturday, November 10, 2012


While I suffered through the final days of the campaign and then luxuriated in the discomfiture of Karl Rove and his clueless collection of billionaire suckers, I was also slowly reading Willie Esterhuyse's dense, detail-filled account of his personal involvement in the three years of secret negotiations and private talks that led up to the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC in South Africa on February 10, 1990.  End Game: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid, is not well-written or well-organized, but it fascinated me because it deals with a period of time during which I was very deeply engaged with South Africa and the anti-apartheid struggle.  In this brief comment on the book, I will not try to summarize its contents, beyond indicating in very general terms what Esterhuyse tells us.  But I do want to relate it to things I was being told, in Durban, by South Africans very much on the left wing of the mass struggle.  Before I begin, let me again thank J. P. Smit, a reader of this blog who teaches philosophy at Stellenbosch University, for sending me the book as a gift.  It was very generous of him.

In order to keep this post within limits, I am simply going to assume that my readers possess a high level of knowledge about South Africa.  If there are questions, please pose them in the comments section and I will do my best to reply.

In 1987, South Africa was in crisis.  There were four interrelated centers of opposition to the apartheid system imposed and written into law by the Afrikaner-based National Party, which by that time had ruled South Africa for thirty-nine years.  The first was the "armed struggle," a military attack on the state based outside South Africa that carried out raids and acts of sabotage against targets inside the country.  Although it received support from the Soviet Union and created great fear in the hearts of White South Africans, it was in fact not terribly effective, and had been repeatedly penetrated and beaten down by the extremely ruthless and efficient state security system.  The second center of opposition was a significant group of exiled South Africans who had fled the country to avoid imprisonment and had, for almost thirty years, made lives for themselves in Europe while mounting a campaign of economic sanctions, boycotts, and political pressure designed to force the National Party to end the apartheid system.  Precisely because the old agricultural and mining economy of South Africa had given way to a modernizing industrial economy, the economic sanctions were seriously constraining the capacity of South Africa to establish and run an expanding capitalist economy, and by 1987 there was strong internal pressure from the [White] business community on the state to make adjustments that might suffice to bring about the cessation of the sanctions and boycotts.  The third center of opposition to apartheid was a large, racially diverse, growing movement inside the country, drawing principally on the African, Indian, Coloured, and White English-speaking populations, but including within its ranks a number of progressive Afrikaners.  Members of this movement were repeatedly harassed, arrested, "banned," condemned to house arrest, and killed by the state security forces and its operatives.  By the time I visited South Africa for the first time in 1986, this Mass Democratic Movement, as it was called, had grown very large, leaving the Afrikaner state more and more besieged and compelled to "circle the wagons."  The fourth center of opposition was a small group of men, by now getting well up in years, who had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.  These men, among them most notably Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki, had been held for decades in a prison on Robben Island off the coast near Cape Town.  It will seem strange to describe prisoners as a center of opposition, but the international fame, indeed, celebrity, that they had achieved as martyrs in the fight for liberty made their presence, and the dignity and discipline they exhibited, a dagger in the heart of the apartheid project.  It was by 1987 well understood that a resolution of the struggle, regardless on what terms, would at a minimum require the release of the Robben Island prisoners.

In 1987, a series of secret contacts and talks was initiated between members of the exile community and Afrikaners who had direct or indirect contacts with the state apparatus.  Willie Esterhuyse, then a professor of philosophy at Stellenbosch, was tapped to participate in these talks.  Among those tapped from the exile community was Thabo Mbeki, son of the imprisoned Govan and eventually destined to serve as the second President of a free South Africa.  [It was also Thabo Mbeki, I feel compelled to observe, who by denying the nature and reality of the HIV-AIDS pandemic in South Africa during his presidency condemned countless Black South Africans to unnecessary deaths.  I can never find it in my heart to forgive him for that.]

The book I am commenting on is, above all else, Esterhuyse's detailed, very personal, highly subjective account of his interactions over three years and more with Thabo Mbeki.  What I want to talk about is not the details of that interaction, although there is much that could be said about Esterhuyse's account, but rather the nature of the struggle that served as the context for the talks that eventually led to direct negotiations between Mandela and the man who served as the last President of the apartheid state, F. W. de Klerk. 

The document that had for forty years served as the manifesto of the demands issued by the African National Congress was the Freedom Charter, adopted by a large meeting of ANC members and supporters in 1955.  There is a great deal of uplifting and inspiring language in the Freedom Charter, but at its core were four demands for South Africa: (1)  A non-racial, universal one-person one-vote political democracy;  (2) A unitary state, in which there are no racial or national sub-groups of the population written into the laws and political structures of the state;  (3)  Nationalization of the mines and banks and monopoly industry;  and (4) Redistribution to the dispossessed population of the agricultural land seized by Whites [principally Afrikaners].

Democracy, no group rights, socialism, and land redistribution. 

These were the demands with which the ANC began its negotiations.  The Afrikaner state wanted to protect private ownership of the mean of production [for the English-speaking as well as for the Afrikaans-speaking capitalists] and Afrikaner control of the good agricultural land.  In addition, it wanted some form of Group Rights built into a new constitution to protect the small minority of Whites from domination by the overwhelming African, Indian, and Coloured majority of South Africans.

Furthermore, as Esterhuyse's account makes clear, contrary to what any sensible objective observer might suppose, P. W. Botha, and F. W. de Klerk after him [the two presidents during the lengthy negotiation process], believed until far into the process that the Afrikaners could somehow retain control of the state apparatus even in the face of the extension of voting rights to non-Whites.  Far-fetched as this may seem, it was desperately important to Botha and de Klerk for two reasons.  First, as already indicated, Afrikaners were terrified that the people they had been oppressing for so many years might do to them what they had been doing to their subjects.  But second, and perhaps even more important, by the 1980's, the South African state had become a vast welfare system for Whites.  An unusually large proportion of the White population worked in state jobs of one sort or another, frequently in sinecures in which they did precious little useful work but simply sucked at the state teat [if I may be a trifle vulgar.]  In the phrase that the American Right has invented to rationalize their political decline, these Whites had become takers, not makers.  The supporters of the National Party feared -- quite correctly, as it turned out -- that if Whites lost control of the state apparatus, many of those jobs would go to people of color.

At this point, I wish to interject a bit of personal narrative that may or may not be directly relevant to the course of the negotiations leading to Mandela's release and the establishment, in 1994, of a true South African democracy.  For many years after I founded University Scholarships for South African Students in 1990, I brought the money I raised to the University of Durban-Westville, the university originally established under the apartheid system for Indian students in the Natal province on the Indian ocean.  My contact there, who was my very close friend until his untimely death, was Prem Singh, a Lecturer in Politics at UDW whom I first met in 1986.  Through Prem I met and talked with members of the far-left splinter Unity Movement [who viewed Mandela as a middle-of-the-road figure who had never really embraced socialism].  Shortly before Mandela was released, Prem passed onto me what he described as a bootlegged secret document -- a revision of the original Freedom Charter.  When I read it, I was stunned to discover that omitted from it were socialism and land reform, the key economic planks in the original Charter.

Here is my interpretation of what was happening.  Mandela and his imprisoned colleagues knew that the armed struggle had failed, regardless of the hopes and exaggerated expectations of leaders of that struggle like Joe Slovo and Chris Hani.  The external economic sanctions and boycotts and the unrelenting diplomatic pressure were pushing the National Party to make some sort of deal with Mandela [if I may use him as a convenient symbol of the entire movement], but with good reason the state believed that it had the upper hand so far as military and security force were concerned.  If necessary, they could hunker down and hang onto the state by sheer force of arms for the foreseeable future, however increasingly unsatisfactory that state of affairs would be to the business interests.

So -- and this is my speculation, with only that one fugitive piece of paper as my evidence -- Mandela cut an implicit deal with de Klerk:  we will give up socialism and land reform in return for a unitary democratic state with one-person one vote.  I think the leaders of the movement recognized that that was the most they could hope to get, given their military weakness.

But this still leaves one huge question, which I puzzled over endlessly in the period between the release of Mandela in 1990 and the holding of the first democratic election in 1994:  Why would Botha and de Klerk even consider such a deal, since it would cost them their control of the state, which was not only their power base but the source of jobs for the countless Afrikaners who were their constituents and on whom they relied for their political support?  It was not hard to see why the White business community could live with such a deal.  They knew that so long as their ownership and control of the means of production went unchallenged, they could continue to make plenty of money in a Black-run state. 

I have a speculative hypothesis to offer as an answer to this question.  [This is really the reason for this entire long blog post, by the way.]   A few words of background are called for.  The Black [i.e, in South African terms the African, as opposed to Indian or Coloured] population was not unified in its opposition to apartheid.  The ANC was far and away the choice of the largest number of Africans, but in the Eastern province of KwaZulu, the ANC was opposed by a separate organization called the Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP], headed by a charismatic figure named Mangosuthu Buthelezi.  There was a long history of conflict, often very violent, between the IFP and the ANC.  The South African security forces secretly supplied weapons to the IFP and fomented violence between the IFP and ANC as a way of destabilizing the weakening the anti-apartheid struggle.  One of the touching and pathetic features of Esterhuyse's account is his slow realization that the charges of state involvement in the violence, expressed by Mbeki and other ANC participants in the talks, were true, and that the men in the government whom he repeatedly described as honorable, thoughtful, educated individuals, were directly causing and then benefiting from the violence.

In the period leading up the 1994 elections, this IFP-ANC violence continued.  Newspaper advertisements taken out by the National Party portrayed de Klerk as an honest broker capable of mediating between the IFP and the ANC.  I believe that de Klerk actually deluded himself into believing that he could win an election in which the non-white population for the first time voted, and thus could keep control of the state in White Afrikaner hands.   This would simultaneously preserve the protected and privileged position of the Afrikaners [
group rights," as the catchphrase had it] and also keep at least some of the tasty sinecures in White hands.

Well, this is, as I say, mere speculation on my part.  Perhaps my South African readers, of whom there are a few, will weigh in with their take on this question.


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