frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Dr. Neil Barnard INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

He is the former head of the South African Intelligence Service and helped arrange secret talks with Mandela on behalf of the government.
You were in your early 20s about the time of the Rivonia trial ... Do you have any recollections of Mandela in that phase of your life?

dr. neil barnardAt the time of Rivonia ... I was still at school. I cannot recollect, at that time, that he made an impression on myself. It's much better to say that the man and the myth, Mandela, was already created, to a very large extent, even prior to Rivonia. He being a man who was intensely interested in freeing his people as he saw it, at the time ...

My first real acknowledgment of the man and the leader, Mandela, was actually formed during my 12 years at the National Intelligence Service (NIS) ... Obviously, this man was a leader ... Fairly early on, one had to realize that this man, this leader, will have to play a very fundamental role in the future of our country in some way or another ...

One of the more critical issues at the start of the '80s, when I was at the NIS, was we should find a way of almost demystifying this man ... How should we defuse a very critical and difficult situation? ... At the time, I was head of the NIS. This is a critical and a very fundamental point--we were very much convinced that there was, in the long run, only one solution for our country, and that was to find political settlement within the country. The important point is there was a lot of difference within the South African bureaucracy between the so-called security establishment, on the one hand (consisting of defense, the police, National Intelligence Service) and on the other hand, some people, specifically in the military ... the police as well, who deep down believed that we have to fight it out in some way or another. Which [we] at the NIS believed was the wrong approach and the wrong way to go about that. From very early on, we took the view that a political settlement is the only answer to the problems of this country.

There was, in our minds, never the slightest doubt. This is the man--if you cannot find settlement with him, any settlement will be out.
It was not an easy message at the time within the South African bureaucracy, let me be very straightforward about that. We all know another important personality of the time, Mr. P.W. Botha, who was more or less born and bred within the security establishment, and who firmly believed that in some way or another we have to ... stabilize the South African situation, and then from there try to find some kind of political solution. Against this background, knowing deep down, personally and as an intelligence service, there is no other option. We more and more came to the conclusion that the only answer would be to talk to the real leaders of this country. Obviously in our mind, from an intelligence perspective looking at the history, looking at the whole development of Mr. Mandela ... it was quite clear that he had to play a pivotal role. The only way to tackle that was to start talking in some way or another with Mr. Mandela. I cannot recall the exact date ... but I would say as early as 1982-1983. In person, I started discussions at the time with President Botha, the prime minister at the time, that we have to find a negotiated settlement. We have to find a way out of increasing civil conflict ...

You first broached the idea of a negotiated settlement in '82 or '83. When was the notion of perhaps releasing Mandela first raised with some kind of government?

I believe that's, perhaps, one of the most critical questions to answer. If I can take a little bit of time to give you some background ... The historical divide, not only within the country, not only within our bureaucracy, but also within government, was so fundamental at the time ... it would have been almost impossible to have a kind of public knowledge of about what was going on ... At the beginning of the '80s, it was almost impossible in certain circles, in government circles, even to start to discuss the possibility of finding a negotiated settlement. Obviously, you would have to talk to the real leaders, the real leaders being those who have been arrested in the Rivonia trial, etc. Obviously, Mr. Mandela playing a very pivotal role.

To the best of my recollection, on a kind of informal way, the release of Mr. Mandela was never discussed formally, officially, until after the meeting between Mr. P.W. Botha and Mr. Mandela took place in Tuynhuys. I, myself, was perhaps partly responsible for that. I remember many times Mr. P.W. Botha discussing with me, "When should I inform even the state security council, and when should I inform cabinet about this secret negotiations which are taking place." I can remember myself telling Mr. Botha, "Well, Mr. President, if you inform the state security council, and if you inform cabinet, you can be sure that you have some members in your cabinet who [will talk] ... I can see the headlines of The New York Times and The Washington Post the next morning, 'South African government secretly negotiating with the world's most famous prisoner.'"

... You can never, in my view, start real negotiations between people in a situation like we've been in, and from the word go, make it public knowledge. It will just never work ... I wouldn't say from the very first meeting but very early on, Mr. Mandela himself also took the [same] line ... Each and every side had to give so much that you can never do it under the public eye. So there was very deliberate attempt, not only from our side, but very strongly supported by Mr. Mandela, himself, "Let's try to solve the main critical difficult issues, at least get a framework within which to take the process forward" ...

You have said that Mandela played a pivotal role ... Why was it so clear that Mandela was the pivotal man?

... From the perspective of the NIS, I must put it very bluntly that we ... had one of the best intelligence evaluation capacities on the globe. Make no mistake, whatever the old man, as I sometimes fondly call him, might write in his book about our knowledge, or non-knowledge about the ANC, we were absolutely well-informed about what was going on within the ANC, what leadership was all about, what the personalities were all about, what the real power base within the inner corridors of power were.

According to our assessment, there was just no question whatsoever that the towering ... personality at the time [was Mandela] ... he was the symbol of keeping on with this whole process, of not giving up, of being a leader on the island, and taking the process forward. People released from the island like Mac Maharaj and others ... and the way in which they viewed the leadership of Mr. Mandela was quite clear from a real intelligence perspective ... Mr. Mandela was by any real evaluation of the facts, by far the most important leader.

Let me say that we also were very much impressed by Mr. Oliver Tambo ... many top leaders in the ANC very clearly indicated that outside the country, Tambo was a very strong force, keeping them together, motivating them all the time, telling them there is only one way to go, etc. He must have been a brilliant administrator. Not necessarily somebody interested in being a public figure. Possibly, he didn't have the kind of charisma, and ja, Mr. Mandela is one of those strange individuals ... He certainly is not the most charismatic public speaker that anybody has ever seen. He can be quite dreary, I would even say. But still, he has this strange charisma, being a man who people want to listen to, even if you drone on for endless hours ... so there was, in our minds, looking from an intelligence perspective, never the slightest doubt. This is the man--if you cannot find settlement with him, any settlement will be out.

Let's get down to specifics. Your very first meeting with Mandela. I think it was in May [1988].

That's right.

Before you went into this meeting ... what were your expectations of the man ... How did those expectations differ from the reality?

I think it will be historically unwise for me to take the line that [I] expected too much from the first meeting ... The important point is that Mr. Botha, a few week before that, during a discussion, told me, "Dr. Barnard, we want you to ... meet Mr. Mandela now. There will be a team ... Try to find out what you have been advocating for some time. Is it possible to find a peaceful settlement with the ANC, with this man Mandela? Try to find out what are his views on communism ... and then try to find out is Mr. Mandela and the ANC interested in a peaceful settlement. For we also have deep suspicions about what they would be interested in ..."

The first meeting with Mr. Mandela where I was present took place in the office of the commanding officer in Pollsmoor. It was a typical public servant's office ... that you would find in any government office in South Africa. Very typical of our bureaucracy. Mr. Mandela came in, in an overall and boots. Even in an overall and boots, he has a commanding kind of presence and personality. We were introduced, and he sat down, and we both understood that the real purpose of that meeting was just to become acquainted on a personal level, so as to enable us to take the fundamental issues about negotiations, the role of communism, the role of force in future, etc. To take that further. He was not, in any way, demanding anything. He was not stating any clear perspective of views on certain matters. I think I had some small talk ... We set out the agenda and agreed that in future we'll have to meet again.

But perhaps, I must recall my own experience of the meeting of this man, whom I, at that stage, certainly expected to become a top leader in the country, most certainly the president of the country, sitting in a overall and in boots, talking about the future of his country. Which obviously is not acceptable. And afterwards we arranged with Willie Willemse that at any future meeting, that he would be clothed in such a way that it serves his dignity and his [pride] as a human being ... and it happened from then on in such a way

Willie played a very fundamental role in having available the kind of clothes etc, so that Mr. Mandela, could be at a par on an equal in any future meeting ... I remember us talking that we can never again meet Mr. Mandela in a typical office within the prison building. That would not create an equal situation. So we arranged with Willie Willemse, who had a house on the premises of Pollsmoor, and many meetings after that took place within Willie Willemse's house.

I gather that the second meeting took place at Willie Willemse's house ...

... Yes, he was a wonderful guest. He was sitting at the table, Willie Willemse's wife was serving very nice dinners, we were drinking wine ... We had long and endless hours at the table of the Willemse's in Pollsmoor ... starting in all earnest to discuss the real fundamental issues.

You used the word that you were "developing" him. This is an interesting word to use. One expression of that was your decision that you had to dress him in a certain way and give him a certain environment where he would feel comfortable. Now, into those calculations of ... grooming him ... Mrs. Mandela must have come into the equation ... Can you offer me any thoughts on that?

You touched once again a very fundamental point. Remember, Mr. Mandela was in prison for 27 years. In a matter of time he would be released. There would be a process leading up to a democratic election. It was quite clear at the time, he would become the next leader of this country, the next president. There shouldn't be any doubt about that, even at that time, although many politicians in power differed from me, but that's not the point now.

How do you prepare him for a role on the world stage, for traveling around? I recall that many times I told him, "Mr. Mandela, governing a country is a tough job. It's not like, with a lot of respect, sitting in London in a hotel and drinking Castle beer from South Africa and talking about government. Government is a tough job, you must understand that it is difficult." We had to prepare him for that whole exercise.

... Kobie Coetsee ... had been critically involved in the view that we have to prepare Mr. Mandela for life after prison, being the leader of our country, being a man, a myth, who is now free and who can, perhaps, create a new image of an Africa ... So Kobie Coetsee was responsible as far as I can recollect. Let's now move Mr. Mandela from Pollsmoor to Victor Verster. Why? So that he can live in a normal house, so that he can gradually prepare himself for life after prison ... so we were busy creating a kind of atmosphere where Mr. Mandela could stay and live in at least as normal a surrounding as possible.

Against that background, remember that Mrs. Mandela was visiting Mr. Mandela from time to time. We made a proposal to him ... that we believe that it will be fitting if she could come and stay with him so that he could gradually become accustomed to a new and a normal and a proper way of life. I think Mr. Mandela was really looking forward to that. As far as I recall, the reason why it never happened, was because Mrs. Mandela was just not willing to do that, using the argument that it would not be proper for him to have his wife in a house at Victor Verster, while the other people still in prison ... were not allowed the same kind of opportunity.

We tried to do the best we could ... to gradually introduce Mr. Mandela into a normal way of life, because that would have been important for the development of a man who was destined to become a very important political role player in the country and outside as well ...

... you had these one-on-one meetings with Mr. Mandela about his state of mind towards his wife, at that time.

Most of the discussions on Mrs. Mandela between Mr. Mandela and myself took place in private between the two of ourselves. I must say that I honor him for even being informed by me that there is a lot of difficulties with Winnie, with the soccer club, with Stompie, with the security police, and other matters as well.

He always very strongly took the line, "Dr. Barnard, remember, she is my wife. I married her. I have a responsibility towards her. And like any good husband, I have to fulfill my duty as a husband towards her." That was very impressive in my mind. It was always a very difficult conversation.

Gradually, I think Mr. Mandela came to at least honor my views, and still to this day he knows that when he talks to me he will get non-political answers. Perhaps some very straight answers, which politicians don't like. I see that as the important role of somebody not involved in politics--to tell the king when the king is naked from time to time ...

But the more we talked about that, I got the impression that he believed that I was trying to help him in a difficult situation against the background once again of Mr. Mandela certainly becoming the leader of this country. And of his wife going through a very tough and a very difficult time, but she was also at the time destined to become the mother of the nation. All South Africans, I believe, would have liked to be proud of her. And certain irresponsibilities from her side, let me put it that way, were not in the interest of Mandela himself, or the coming process itself ... So without pretending to be angels or anything like that, there was never by any stretch of the imagination, an effort from our side to try to use this rather sensitive and difficult issue to the detriment of Mr. Mandela in any way whatsoever. We were, in actual fact, trying to handle it is such a way that it could be supportive of the whole idea.

Why wasn't Mrs. Mandela charged? ... Clearly the state had access to a great deal of information, and that there were a number of people ... who were being arrested on ... less information than the state had on Mrs. Mandela ...

The best way to answer that is ... how can you negotiate with a man, Mr. Mandela, becoming the leader of the country, on the one hand, and on the other hand, act, in such a way, against his wife ... he would become distrustful of what we were trying to do. So the line you're taking is quite correct. There was not necessarily a way of manipulating the law or whatever. It's one of those curious historical inevitabilities, if I can put it that way. You just have no other option. So yes, I wouldn't like to go further at this stage than to say that the government was extremely careful in the way in which we handled this situation with Mrs. Mandela, because of the reason which I've explained.

You were very much at the gestation of a negotiated settlement, what perils did Winnie pose to the success of the process unfolding the way you would have liked to seen it?

I've met Mrs. Mandela only very briefly. Without a shadow of doubt, she has a lot of charisma and a lot of political acumen. I am certain that she can play a very important role in this country's history. She has done that already, but she certainly can do that in future as well. Obviously, the view would have been to bring her into the equation in such a way that she could play a stabilizing role ... it would have been better for the whole process to keep her within the process in some way or another.

You must never forget that as difficult as it has been on the South African government side [during] the '80s to convince the so-called security forces that there is only one way now, and that is try to find a negotiated settlement. The same difficulties the ANC had at the time, convincing MK and others. Perhaps, more difficult even ... they had to convince these people living under very harsh circumstances in so-called frontline states ... and the so-called camps of the ANC. How do you convince these people that the struggle is over ... We had to find a negotiated settlement. So yes, it was quite a difficult issue to handle it both ways.

You developed quite a personal rapport [with] Mandela ... When the divorce happened, indeed, when Nelson Mandela had that very dramatic press conference when he announced the separation and the divorce ...

... On the issue of the divorce, it was a pity, I thought at the time, and I sensed a man who had a difficult relationship with a woman whom he quite clearly loved. It must have been extremely difficult for him. I still, to this day, believe that maybe in the future we will come to realize that it might have been better if the two of them could have stayed together in the interest of our country. I am talking a long term view. I am not looking one year and three years and five years ahead ... But it happened. I think it was handled quite professionally from both sides ...

The meeting with Botha and Mandela ... How did that come about, at whose instigation? ...

That obviously is a long and a perhaps most interesting story ... Although I cannot recall exactly when, it must have been within the first few months, [Mandela] raised the issue that, "It is good to have preliminary discussion with you on the fundamental issues, but you will understand that you are not a politician. You don't have the authority and the power ... I must have a discussion with Mr. Botha himself, as quickly as possible." That was always at the back of our minds, and we had to prepare both sides for that meeting ...

The discussions between Mr. Mandela and myself ... already started in May 1988, and after almost a year or so, Mr. Mandela became increasingly a little bit aggressive on not being allowed the opportunity of discussing with Mr. Botha. On the other hand, the issue of violence and the stop of the violence, had not been, in any way, agreed upon, as Mr. Botha always had this view that [until] Mr. Mandela accepts the fact that violence will not be used in any way whatsoever, he will not be prepared to go along the route of finding a negotiated settlement. That was in essence the very important fundamental point at the time.

Remember, that at that time, as a part of this whole process, Mr. Govan Mbeki was released. That was quite an interesting exercise, and if you look back at it now, it was quite a wise development in trying to test the water on what will eventually happen. But then the second ... we all know very fundamental strategic brain/thinker/planner on the ANC side was Walter Sisulu ... he was the next one to be released. At that time, already an agreement on this process has been reached, to a certain extent. One day I informed Mr. Mandela that, in due course, Mr. Sisulu will be released. (That's now before his meeting with Mr. Botha.) He was pressing us for quite some time for the release of Mr. Sisulu. Then there was a meeting of the state security council where I was present, and the security establishment took a very strong view that the time was not right for the release of Mr. Sisulu ... I had to go back to [Mandela] again, and tell him that he will not be released ... I must say that Mr. Mandela was furious, as he is when, with all due respect, I had to carry the bad messages ... and we had quite some harsh words and he was saying, "Well, it's typical like the old government. They give you an undertaking and when they have some pressure ... they renege ... on their word. You are not to be trusted." He was quite emotional about it.

... At that time, Mr. Botha had the strokes. It was not possible [for him] to meet with Mr. Mandela. [Mandela] was becoming increasingly restless again, sensing, which I believe is historically very important, that if he could not find agreement with Mr. P.W. Botha fairly quickly, he will have to start the process all over again with new role players ...

I think the general idea in this country, but specifically internationally, is that Mr. P.W. Botha was this very difficult old man, etc. Now, he was a man of very strong views in life. [However], you would never find me taking the line that Mr. Botha was not, in essence, the man who have given the way to go, and who have tackled the more difficult issues. I differ fundamentally from the notion that it was Mr. de Klerk, in essence, who had been instrumental in this whole process in the country ... The tough decisions, at the time, to start this whole process has been taken by Mr. Botha ... Always bear in mind that he is a politician of four, five decades ago. He was on the political scene just after the Second World War. It would be like bringing Eisenhower in or bringing Churchill in the politics of the late '80s. He has moved quite a lot since '48. I am not trying to explain Mr. P.W. Botha, but I think it's historically wrong to have him as the man who have been against this whole process.

So [Botha] had two strokes; it was a difficult period. But then in the end, the meeting had to take place ... I remember ... telling him that the time is absolutely right to meet Mr. Mandela, as quickly as possible. If not, we are going to slip, perhaps, one of the most important opportunities in our history ... Many people tried to influence him, of course, at the time .... My views with Mr. Botha were the following, "Mr. President, if you meet him and it becomes the basis, the foundation for future development in our country, history will always acknowledge you as the man who started this due process. If it's the beginning of going forward, it would always say that you have taken each and every step, and so in my concerned opinion there is only a win-win situation ... " So approval was finally given ...

I cannot remember the date exactly ... we fetched him at Victor Verster ... in my view it was important that Mr. Mandela was dressed like a future political leader ... I cannot even remember, but I am absolutely sure that it was NIS who bought the suit, the tie and the shoes ... to see to it that he was well dressed for the occasion, for obvious reasons.

So we were driving on to Tuynhuys in the car, and it was a very interesting discussion. Obviously, Mr. Mandela was in high spirits ... he was finally going to see Mr. Botha. I tried to convince him, "Listen, this is an ice-breaker meeting. It is not about fundamental issues. Come to learn the man. Talk about all those easy things in life. And don't mention the issue of Walter Sisulu. ... if you mention the release again of Walter Sisulu, Mr. Botha will say no. I know him. And if he says no, it's no ... Leave that aside. There's another way to tackle the issue. Furthermore don't tackle difficult issues, that's not the reason for the first meeting."

... and so we were waiting and Mr. Botha ... was always a punctual man. And they went in and the discussion took place with Willemse and minister Kobie Coetsee present, as well ... It was quite an interesting conversation ... It was typical of Mr. Botha asking him about his family and about his children and he was talking at length about that, and he was touching on the Boer War ... and so on. Eventually they were discussing very, very briefly, touching on it, more or less like two heavy weights circling in the ring. Here and there giving a little glimpse, but knowing ... there is something which is still going to be settled, because, make no mistake, my view was that Mr. Botha and Mr. Mandela always were very ... well, even warm ...

It started off quite well, and then Mr. Mandela raised the issue of Sisulu. Obviously not listening to the advice in that regard. Strangely enough, Mr. Botha listened, and he said, "I remember quite well. Dr. Barnard, you know the problems we have. I take it that you've explained to Mr. Mandela, but I think we must help him. I think it must be done. You will give some attention to that." I said, "All right, Mr. President," not arguing in front of them.

According to my memory, nothing fundamentally did happen at the meeting, more than the Sisulu issue. So we were driving back, having had some tea, photographs had been taken, and Mr. Mandela was in high spirits. I remember us traveling ... and he was telling me, "Listen Barnard, now the issue of Sisulu. I want it to be settled as quickly as possible." I said, "Listen Mr. Mandela, it will not be settled that quickly ... it cannot be done." The old man became quite furious and he said, "Listen, you got an instruction from your president. Are you going to execute that or what are you telling me?" And so I said, "Well Mr. Mandela, quite clearly you have a lot to learn, with a lot of respect, even presidents of countries cannot make decisions on their own ... it will not be possible for him to make that decision for the security council ..." So I explained to him it's not possible to get that through the state security council now

Obviously, after that [meeting], Mr. Mandela was very upbeat and then the whole process started once again. In the meantime, you must bear in mind that while discussing with him, discussing with the so-called external wing of Mr. Thabo Mbeki has also taken place ... We reached the stage where we knew that planning the process forward was becoming important. Mr. Mandela and Mr. Botha will have to meet. We will have to bring in the external wing, we will have to convince the bureaucracy within South Africa, the so-called "electorate," the people will have to be convinced but the process with have to start. Obviously, Mr. Mandela himself cannot start the process alone, and the people from the so-called external wing will have to come aboard, become part of this whole process. And against that background, there was, if I remember correctly, four secret meetings with the ANC in Switzerland ...

We got hold of this document from ... a meeting of the State Security Council in March 1986 ... in which the possibility of Mandela being released is discussed ... it sets out a list of possible conditions and one of them, which is very striking was ... "Mandela must be in a relatively weakened state of physical health so he must not remain a leader for long" ...

[Barnard looking at document]

... This document, I cannot recall, but might have been served before the State Security Council. But it never became an official document. Otherwise it would have been in the official minutes of the State Security Council. I have to point that out. So what do we have with us? We have with us a document, which has been prepared by the secretariat of the State Security Council consisting of public servants, of military police, national intelligence service and some other departments as well, preparing documentation obviously at the time strategic advice as to regard the possible release of Mr. Mandela. So the first very fundamental point is ... I am saying this in your own interest and the interest of your program, this is not official State Security Council documentation. Blatantly, patently is not. What it is, is a document prepared by people fed into the process, like military intelligence or CIA ... it doesn't necessarily, in the end, mean approved or not approved or whatever. The important point is issues had been discussed at that moment in time.

[The document] makes a very important assumption saying four points. Time and the circumstances must be in such a way that it is in favor of the South African government is the first point. The second point, which must have been stupid advice ... Mandela must be released outside the Southern African region. Third one, he must be in a relatively physical bad situation, and then a so-called proactive communications action must be launched in that regard. I think each and every thing which I have said this morning until now gives you exactly the opposite. Let me be straightforward, just as you would have in any part of the world struggling through this enormous development, was people seeing the process of negotiation as you want to finally bring to conclusion the so-called struggle between various groups ...

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