In the 1980s, Michael Young was head of communications for Consolidated Gold Fields, a British mining company with significant assets in South Africa. At the behest of African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo, Young initiated a series of covert talks between representatives of the exiled ANC and powerful Afrikaner elite — more than a dozen meetings over five years — at an English mansion. Today, Young runs his own company advising businesses and governmental organizations around the world on strategic change management.
In the middle of a seemingly irreconcilable situation, business executive Michael Young thought he could make a difference in South Africa to end apartheid by quietly bringing together the leaders of the Afrikaner ruling class and the African National Congress (ANC) for secret talks. In an interview with MASTERPIECE's Stephanie Overby, Young shares his recollections of those five years of secret talks and the most important, if improbable, role of his life — as a behind-the-scenes peace broker.
Select a topic from the list below to see Young's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Putting Together The Talks
What was your actual role at Consolidated Gold Fields at the time of the talks?
My role was to look forward in the various geographies where we operating with a view to anticipating what sorts of political and economic changes might occur. It's a pretty mighty crystal ball you have to use, and you don't always get it right.
At the time we had huge interests in the South African gold industry. As such, I had to have a view into what was happening in the country, what changes were likely to occur, and what was in the best interests of the company.
As an individual, I had the professional view that the status quo [in South Africa] was not maintainable politically or economically. I also happened to hold the view that it was unacceptable. But I could not wear that too clearly on my sleeve. Part of my job was to work with people of different political views.
But the central question, whatever your value system, is, "What can I do to actually make a difference?" I took the view that we needed to engage with the ANC in exile...we had to engage with the people who actually represented the grass roots, the people on the ground.
What made you think that you could put together these talks and make a difference in a seemingly impossible situation?
I decided I needed to get closer to the ANC. Oliver Tambo was head of ANC at the time, even above Nelson Mandela. I knew he lived in London as well as Lusaka. It was to him that I made my pitch, as it were. The late Anthony Sampson [the best-selling British writer who had previously served as editor of South Africa's Drum magazine and would later write a biography of Nelson Mandela] was trying very hard to bring in British business leaders to meet with the ANC, and I was a junior member of that group.
I met Oliver Tambo and listened to what he had to say. After his second speech to our group, I approached him afterward and said, "We're a British company with big interest in South Africa. What can we do?" It was an extraordinary exchange. He held my hand and looked off into the distance, pausing for a very long period of time. Then he looked back to me and said, "I want you to help me build a bridge to Pretoria."
The signals between Pretoria and the rest of the world were so mixed and confused that the ANC may have been misunderstanding them.
So why did I think I could do this? I was asked to do it by Tambo. I still had to persuade my company to fund it. And I had to persuade the Afrikaners to participate. But I knew I could call about Tambo and his people to join the party.
How did you get those other pieces of the puzzle in place — the support of your company's chairman and the involvement of the Afrikaners?
I had to sell the idea to my chairman, Rudolf Agnew. He's a delightful man, but we're very different politically. It took quite a while to persuade him that this was worth doing. But he finally indicated that he would go with it provided that I talk to no one else about it, and, if found out, I would be dismissed for my trouble. That the exercise was kept secret was very important.
I had a long run to try to find Afrikaners who were prepared to engage at this level. They had to be serious and extremely close to the president of [South Africa], but they also needed to be intellectually flexible. It took a while to find them.
How did you envision these talks being different from others that may have been attempted around that time? And why did you think it would work?
I don't know what made them different. I know that other people were talking at the time. The difference with this was this was secret, it was strategic, and it was long term. I wasn't a politician so I didn't have to play to a parliamentary or political timetable. I didn't have to seek election in two years time or justify myself to the electorate. I was a businessman with a commitment from my company and it was going to take as long as it took. And it would take that more hard-edged business perspective to drive this process forward.
Why did I think it would work? Well, for one thing, I was a younger man then. But to anyone with half an eye, it was clear that the existing South Africa regime could only end in tears.
The Logistics of the Talks
How many talks actually took place and over what period of time?
What you see in the film of two hours represents five years of work. There were probably about 14 meetings in all.
I knew it would take time because we were dealing with a changing environment. For example, P.W. Botha, who had very fixed views, was the president when we started. It was clear that the world was clamoring for change but it's another thing to exert pressure. When we started there was no appetite for such pressure. We were dealing with an evolving situation so our talks had to reflect that.
Was it always the same group of people participating in the talks?
We had a set call group and, as a manager, I think smaller groups are best. But I tried to broaden the coterie as deliberations went on.
I took the view that we needed to start to look at what a post-apartheid economy would look like. It was not that I wanted to start that debate, but there needed to be a discussion of and understanding of the nature of trade in the 20th century — why inward investment was important, what GDP growth rates mean, how the black population could be involved in the economy.
However bright the Afrikaners were, they lived in this cocoon of the apartheid state for years. They had lived in an unreal environment. So there was a learning curve for them too.
So as we developed the agenda, we brought in different people.
I brought in business people from the Afrikaner community who were eager to speak to the ANC. Unlike the British who had passports and could go back to England if things got tough, these Afrikaners had nowhere else to go. They were ready to hunker down and take some pain for a position in the future South Africa.
I also brought in one or two religious figures.
I brought in Jacob Zuma, then head of the ANC intelligence organization — a euphemism for the guerilla movement, because it was important to address the tension between the armed wing and political wing of the ANC. The guerilla movement needed to see that this exercise had momentum and why it was worth supporting. He was there for three meetings and was very involved.
What sort of role did you actually take in these talks? Were you a moderator or did you have a louder voice? How did that change as they progressed?
Initially I had to be very directional in my chairmanship. "Tell us what you mean by cessation of violence. That's not clear enough. Does that mean banning all arms? Destroying all arms?" I had to draw issues out of them in a highly directional and chairman-like fashion.
The important trick was to get them to behave as South Africans together. This was a South African problem. It wasn't a British problem. It wasn't my problem. I could go home at the end of the day and, whatever happened, it didn't hurt me.
But it was a distancing exercise on my part as well as an attempt to bring them together. I had to make sure I was distanced enough from it to help broker any obstacles.
I knew they were acting like South Africans again when I saw them embrace for the first time at the end of a meeting. Then I was the outsider; I was the Brit. Then it was a more intellectually rewarding process than when I had to drive the discussion.
Experiencing the Talks
How did you manage all those egos, personalities and emotions?
Occasionally Thabo (Mbeki) pushed to see how far he could go with me. He was so conspicuously above the rest of the team in terms of his capacity. He was extremely cosmopolitan. He knew what Beijing wanted. He knew what the Russians wanted. If he had his way, he would have had his guys send information back to Pretoria that would have blown things out of the water. So he railed sometimes. But I reminded him that everything was by agreement.
Equally, there were times when the colleagues from Afrikaner community felt that I was pushing the process too hard too fast.
Again, part of my trick was to keep a distance between myself and the team. Not that I wanted to be seen as ambivalent or unapproachable, but it was their show. My job was made easier by there being space around me. If I had to make a call, I could do it. I had to be as balanced as I possibly could be. Of course, I had my views and my subjectivity but it wasn't my show. It was their show. We would have lost the game quickly if it became my show. It is and was about them, and I was a very privileged guy to be able to help that process on as the honest John. A person knew they could have private words with me.
What was it like on the estate after a heated debate? Did parties stay in their cliques or was there intermingling? What was the dynamic of the estate in general while they were there for a long stay?
At first it was hugely tense and my job was just to keep driving the conversation on. I constantly kept moving them together. I didn't let them stay in cliques. I mixed them all up and didn't give them opportunity to become cliquish.
Once they started behaving as South Africans, I never had to do that again.
At the end of every meeting, I tried always to leave on a positive note that we had achieved something. I made it a point never to leave with any big issues that were unresolved or seemed irresolvable.
The process really gained momentum, I think, when they started to begin to give confidence to each other. When Thabo described the [flawed] command and control process of the ANC, how effectively everything coming from Lusaka had to be passed on by word of mouth, it was a big step for him to take. When Willie [Esterhuyse] told Thabo that Neil Barnard asked him to be his Trojan horse, he was confiding in Thabo. Those were hugely important trust building exercises. They started gradually in early days and as more and more trust was built, it was self-feeding and we eventually formed a cohesive team.
After the talks, there were informal gatherings at night. What were these like and do you think they were crucial to the ultimate outcome?
From time to time, I would leave them with a bottle of Glenfiddich. They didn't do business. What they did do was get to know each other. What their real tolerances were, why this or that was not acceptable. I knew once we got that bonding we were on to something that began to reflect in the agenda.
As time went on, I was able to take a much less directional role and became more a facilitator. This whole thing was developing a momentum. And developing an agenda became very easy job. It was just a matter of trying to put a structure around their show. This was not my game, this was their game. The facilitator always has to remember that. They had to go back and brave the elements, not me.
What was it like for your family while you were engaged in this work?
It was very serious for my family and my partner. I sat down with my parents and told them what I was going to do and why. They were wonderfully supportive of me. They saw that it was an exercise I was committed to doing. That was true of my partner as well. The only thing that mattered to me was that I was not putting them in danger, too.
Not all of those in the South African intelligence and security community were as tutored as Neil Barnard. Some of them were pretty redneck and they did have operations in London. I worried they could do something to my family.
My phone was tapped. People followed me. They chased me around from hotel to hotel to South Africa. They called my home in the middle of the night with threats
In the film, the scene where you all watch Nelson Mandela being released is so powerful. What was this experience actually like?
We were altogether. It was hugely emotional. It is hard to imagine a man as big as Nelson Mandela, with all the compassion he has shown then and now, being released after this amazing amount of time being incarcerated, the generosity of spirit he had, that same generosity of spirit present in the African makeup generally.
For all of us who worked hard on the logistics of his release and the unbanning of the ANC, it was a hugely emotional time. There on the television screen we saw the very direct product of our endeavors. I asked the staff, who had worked so hard on this process for five years, to be there to witness it too.
It was breathtaking. Breathtaking. We were all profoundly moved.