Warning: This synopsis contains plot spoilers
South Africa in the 1980s.
Civil unrest is mounting. Labor strikes threaten the economy. Black South Africans are locked up or murdered by police. The African National Congress (ANC) plants bombs in public places. Prime Minister P.W. Botha declares a state of emergency.
The racist apartheid regime that has ruled for nearly forty years and stripped the majority of the nation of its rights appears to be in its final throes. But will the nation go up in flames?
Against this backdrop, British business executive Michael Young, charged with shoring up the South African assets of a mining company amid the turmoil, makes a bold move. Following failed attempts to work with black South Africans in the townships to try to smooth simmering tensions, he takes his chances at the top.
In London, Young approaches Thabo Mbeki, deputy to ANC president Oliver Tambo, with a simple plea. "What can we do?" Mbeki takes a chance, and Young takes it upon himself to play the role of mediator, arranging secret face-to-face talks between ANC representatives and powerful Afrikaners.
Mbeki is on board, but finding Afrikaners willing to participate is difficult. Young finally recruits a reluctant Willie Esterhuyse, an academic who detests the violent tactics of the ANC as much as the immorality of apartheid.
Players in place, Young takes the plan to his boss, Rudolph Agnew. The corporate chairman agrees to hold the discussions at the company's country mansion in England. But if anything becomes public, he vows to deny everything.
Esterhuyse suspects he is being watched. Indeed, everyone involved in Young's plan is. Phones are tapped. Cars are chased. Death threats are issued.
Dr. Neil Barnard, the sinister but savvy state head of intelligence who begins clandestine meetings with Nelson Mandela, has his fingers into many pots. He strong-arms Esterhuyse into reporting back on the meetings in London. He can use the information to pit Mandela, who has become the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, against the ANC's actual leadership in exile — all the better for Botha's government to control the endgame of apartheid.
Violence in South Africa increases as the players head to England for their first sit-down. The stately environs belie boiling tensions inside. As these "talks about talks" continue — not the official negotiations between the government and the ANC but a potential prelude to them — it becomes clear that reform is not an option, abolition is the only choice. But common ground is elusive.
In the quieter evenings at the estate, Young leaves the opposing sides to mingle, in what is later referred to as "Glenfiddich diplomacy," away from the light of day. They start slowly to see each other as something other than mortal enemies.
Returning to their homes, Mbeki and Esterhuyse find the fragile relationship forming between the sides threatened by their own constituencies. It's clear that very powerful people on both sides would prefer the secret talks cease. Their lives are at risk.
Barnard continues his clandestine talks with Mandela, but the plan to divide and conquer is not working. The spy chief decides the time has come to initiate direct talks with the ANC in exile. President Botha stands firm, but loses power.
As Young's furtive talks recommence in England, bitterness and anger give way to trust. A new player enters the discussions — Willem de Klerk, the liberal older brother of F.W. de Klerk, Botha's successor as president. Initially, the elder de Klerk is tightlipped about his brother's perspective on future negotiations. His silence distresses Mbeki and others.
Suddenly the elder de Klerk stumbles to the conference room with a game changing message — the new administration is open to negotiations.
Against the odds and at great personal risk to all involved, the plan hatched by that lone business executive helps to pave the way for official discussions between the white government and the ANC. Those unofficial players in apartheid's endgame watch the television in amazement as Mandela is finally released from prison, sitting together one last time in that English manor so far away.
Note: Endgame is a political thriller inspired by actual events. To find out more about the facts behind the film, read an interview with the real-life Michael Young.