frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Dr. Neil Barnard continue

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I think what we need is your explanation and ... some understanding of the tensions in those Security Council meetings ...

The important point is it would have been downright stupid of anybody to try to not include Mr. Mandela, and that's perhaps the second argument which I used earlier on, as the kingpin in this whole process, because otherwise our advice would have been: How are you going to maintain unity in this whole development of the so-called struggle if you don't have the unifying towering personality of Mr. Mandela keeping the whole process together? So it would have been absolutely stupid to argue that he shouldn't be in the center stage taking this whole process along.

And you must allow me this ... it must have been like the argument of the Americans before entering W.W.I or before entering W.W.II and what happened in that room after the attack of Pearl Harbor, etc. I think what I am trying to say is you might even find documentation, you might even find people who still today believe that it would have been in I don't know whose interest that Mr. Mandela would have been ... not in a healthy, fit mind and body. I've clearly indicated that as from the first meeting, we had the total opposite view ...

... we were talking about the meeting between Mandela and Botha ... it seems to me that when you took along Mandela to meet Botha ... it is almost as if ... you are the teacher taking your favorite pupil to the headmaster. There was a certain amount of investment that you had in that ... Can you talk about that?

Yes. From both sides, ja ... Let me clarify one issue. In this country, and I grew up in a typical atmosphere of, whether one likes it or not, the old South African civil service, which has a certain ethos ... that the public servant is not there for public acclaim and whatever. And I must ask you to respect that ... because I am still a serving public servant ...

I was ... I believe ... jittery or something like that, to a certain extent. Because I know Mr. Botha quite well. I still believe him to be a very, very competent man, but he had a quick temper ... Mr. Mandela himself is a man of a considerable personality and can you imagine if they kicked off shouting and arguing. It would have been extremely stupid. So yes, I tried on both sides to prepare them in such way. [To Mandela], "Understand that Mr. Botha has a quick temper. Don't fight it out now. In any event, you two will not solve the fighting in any way whatsoever. Do it just to come to learn each other and so on." And to Mr. Botha, who strangely enough has a very kind way of going along with people. Make no mistake about it. He can be very courteous. If you challenge him, he can be tough. That's perhaps typical of Afrikaner people. We are more used to fighting than making peace for that matter because of our history But ja, it was an important event, and in the interests of this country, it was of the extreme importance that the two leaders meet, understand, lay the foundation to take the process forward. That was crucial.

Can you remember what advice you gave Botha about how to deal with Mandela?

Ja, I told him that I think he is man of quite a personality with a very firm understanding of what was going on in terms of politics. And that he should be handled in such a way that he can, with honor, take the whole process forward. "Listen to him with a lot of respect ... If you don't mind [don't] do the talking, listen to him to what he has to say. He has a lot on him mind, and then agree that we will take the process forward, if I can advise that, Mr. President," which broadly, to a large extent, happened. I think it was a good meeting. Ja.

You talked before, something that is very interesting about Botha and de Klerk and their different relationship with Mandela. On the one hand Botha is a kind of caricature image ... the tough guy and the incarnation of everything that was worse about apartheid ... On the other hand, you have de Klerk, Nobel Peace Prize winner ... Botha and Mandela have an awful lot more in common as characters, as personalities, than Mandela and de Klerk. Tell me a little bit about that.

One would, perhaps, never be able to get to the real core of that, but in my experience being present at the meeting, and being present at meetings between Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk, it was never the same kind of warmth ... on the same kind of level and understanding and so forth. It's very difficult to try to explain it.

... In my view, and I think we are on a very sensitive matter now, Mr. de Klerk is still living, and so are Mr. Botha and Mr. Mandela as well. But let me put two points. Specifically in the culture of Mr. Mandela and broadly speaking the so-called black culture of the continent, age is important. It will always be important. You can be as bright, [but] when you are a youngster you are still a youngster. You listen to elder people, they have wisdom in life. One of my problems is that that's one of the quintessential wisdoms of Africa, which we've lost over the past few decades ... There was a huge age difference between Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk.

Secondly, and I'll try to put this as diplomatically as possible, Mr. Botha is known to be a very straight talker. I think Mr. de Klerk, from time to time, creates the impression that he is using words and ideas in a cumbersome way, sometimes intellectually trying to outwit other people. And the old man, with a very deep sense of human dignity, of life (he has never told me that, I'm speculating) sensed rather very early on, he can do some straight talking with anybody who differs fundamentally with him, but if somebody is trying to be manipulative here and there, it's not for him, because the stakes are too high. I'm saying a very sensitive ... I've never talked to either Mr. Mandela or Mr. de Klerk on that ...

Tell me about the day of the release ... February 11th 1990 ... What do you recall about your day?

Ja, broadly speaking, a feeling of relief and of anxiety. The anxiety being, will it be possible for us to go through the next 24, 48, 72 hours without a major people's uprising ... It had been a very, very critical few days but fortunately it passed. It was quite a well managed situation. We had our problems here and there. People breaking into shops and whatever, looting here and there. But all in all, it was quite remarkable. So yes, that was the anxiety at the time.

What were your feelings at that very moment when you saw him come out of that prison, and the whole world was watching this live on TV and you had been such an architect of this ...

I would certainly prefer not being indicated as an architect. No, it was an important moment. I was, how shall I put it? It was a proud moment, I must confess. There was this interesting story about the possibility of some of the South African people involved there. It was even mentioned at the time from the old man himself, that we very clearly, from the very word start, said this is a marriage on which we should not in any way be in a million miles so to speak. This is your opportunity. Make the most of it. I think in the end he handled it quite well, under tremendous pressure. He handled it quite well, in my view ...

On the day of the release, security measures were taken ... were you aware of any particular threats?

No. I can put it quite categorically, there was no hard intelligence from any quarters, whatsoever, at the time, that there might be some planned disruption of the process. But on this continent and in a process like that, we had to be extremely cautious. So we had to prepare for the worst case scenario, and from the very start we discussed this whole process with Mr. Mandela. I am not talking about the week before, I am talking the way the process leading up to that. I had many discussions with him on the release .. How is it going? Will the ANC be involved in some way? That's the reason why Valli Moosa [ANC] and others became involved in this whole process, so it was discussed and obviously physical stability, security, was not by any way the responsibility of the NIS ...

... the reaction to Mandela's release. Mandela went on this sort of regal progress around the country. It was extraordinary, vast filled stadiums ... Did that response he had from the people ... that went for that month or so after his release, did that surprise you? Did it fall into the sort of pattern that you had anticipated?

Ja. I think broadly speaking, the answer is yes. Perhaps it was a little bit more stable and orderly than we expected it to be. Remember the climate of the time. And remember the anxiety on our side if things get out of hand in Soweto or in Durban ... or wherever, and you have to bring in security forces and shooting starts ... It could have been disastrous for the whole process. All in all, it was more stable than ... I expected it to be. I was, all the time, anxious and then fortunately, as one could have expected, it scaled down and the whole process could move on again. We had to prepare for the prolonged management of a revolution ...

I was in my office ... sitting there with some of the close advisors with the NIS, watching the whole process quite closely, in connection with the police and the defense force, not in any way trying to do their work, but just to watch as the whole process was progressing ... perhaps proud that we've been able to achieve this moment. Perhaps knowing that the most difficult time was now ahead, trying to find the process in which to eventually prepare for democratic election in the country. And perhaps knowing [that] this will be a most difficult situation. The last point was trying to stay out of the public eye and convincing people to do that as far as possible ... and that's a typical example of Mr. Botha. Mr. Botha ... always has the saying ... "Don't be the bride in every wedding and the corpse in every funeral." Stay away. I think it was not our day. We had to give people the opportunity. Their main leader has now been released. We are in a peaceful process. Give them the opportunity. Let them enjoy and try to keep it within a stable limits as would be possible. I think that was broadly speaking the line.

Did you raise a glass that day perhaps on the occasion of the release?

Oh yes, certainly. That you can be sure about.


We talked a great deal about Botha, and some on de Klerk. Let's talk a little bit more on that whole phase. You said the chemistry between them wasn't as good for reasons we have discussed. Was there a level at which Mandela and de Klerk did have a good working relationship ...

On that platform never lose sight of the fact that whatever he did say in public, Mr. de Klerk deep down must have known that he is negotiating the people he represented and the system he represented and the government he represented out of power. I think Mr. Mandela understood that all along ... I am now talking about end of '92, '93 to a certain extent, beginning of '94. I was no longer involved in personal discussions between Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela. I was always in the vicinity with the team, but I was not in the office present when they were discussing some issues...

I believe that there never was a lot of warmth in my view between Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk ... it was never a relationship which had the same kind of perhaps personal understanding and commitment which one could have expected from Mr. Botha.

Do you remember the televised debate that they had? Mandela and de Klerk ... they were sort of at loggerheads, and at the end of it Mandela reached out and shook de Klerk's hand ... What did that debate tell you about Mandela and the way he dealt with de Klerk?

... Shaking Mr. de Klerk's hand is one of the typical diplomatic mannerisms of the old man, which he uses quite frequently and with a lot of effect. Portraying himself as a caring human being, understanding the fears and the anxieties of the possibly outgoing incumbent president. In that way, he's always been quite remarkable, trying to be a nation builder, so to speak. That brings me to the important part. If you look at him traveling around in the world, the way in which he handles [everyone] from the Queen to President Clinton. There is always this kind of personal touch, being a warm human being, caring about children and caring about the underprivileged so to speak.

On the other hand, he can be as tough as nails, make no mistake about it, and he can, like all human beings, sometimes be very unreasonable. Like all human beings, I don't believe that he likes to be challenged on certain matters ... when he firmly believes in something, he believes in that and it's extremely difficult to change his mindset on certain matters. But the core of your question is that Mr. Mandela has a very disarming way of going about with people ...

... Let me ask you an easier [question] now ... Where were you on the inauguration?

I was at the Union Building, sitting in the amphitheater, not that very far away, and perhaps was more proud listening to what was going on. It was a wonderful occasion. The spirits were very high that morning. We were all looking forward to a wonderful new development in the country ... There were some very good speeches ... Yes, I think it was a wonderful opportunity. The sad reality is after more or less five years now, a lot of that optimism unfortunately have lapsed. I believe it's all South Africans responsibility to see to it or to try to take that process forward once again.

Mandela as president, it seems to me, that his historic role always was and will be seen as being to usher in the transition.


What do you think his job as president has been ... what is your evaluation? Has he been a disappointment to you ...

No, let me answer this very fundamental question the other way round. There cannot be any doubt in my mind that President Mandela has been an extremely successful leader of our country. Nobody can deny that he tried his level best, achieving a lot of success in that. In building a kind of common nationhood, in its broadest terms. His appearance in the Number 7 jersey, in rugby ... understand, he's done those kind of gestures extremely well ... traveling around in the country, talking to the wife of the late Dr. Verwoerd, talking to agricultural leaders and many others, he clearly illustrated that he was willing to find a kind of way of accommodation. And that one appreciates.

Secondly, he opened up this country once again, opened up this country's place in the world at large, by way of his very charismatic way of going around ... the very difficulty with maintaining liaison with the Cubans and with Yasar Arafat and with Gaddafi and with other people. I don't necessarily agree with that. But I understand it. There's a difference between understanding and agreement. The president is one man whom I believe has a very strong ethical moral kind of line. If somebody has been assisting you some time in life, you have a moral obligation to assist him, and to be friends. Friends stay with friends. Friends don't leave friends when they are ... in trouble.

His movement on the world stage, touring around wherever in the world, was critically important. Maybe the president wouldn't mind me saying that unfortunately some people, specifically in the media, has used this to put the president on a kind of pedestal, something between mere mortals and somewhere higher up in heaven. I think it's wrong. The reason is that that president, in the end, still remains a mere mortal human being. He has been extremely capable. He has restored the dignity of the African continent in its broadest terms on the world stage. He has done so, may I even use the word, magnificently, here and there. He has made some blunders as well. He wouldn't mind me saying that, unfortunately in my view, he is making more and more blunders increasingly, and I tend to think about the famous English proverb that says that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I am not in any way suggesting that the president is corrupted by power. I am saying that in my view, the latest developments in Lesotho, some of the issues in the world economy, some of the way in which he has handling the media ... etc. I am increasingly becoming a little bit worried about that. It is as if he doesn't completely understand that all power, in the end, has to be contained in some way or another.

You mentioned his handling of the media ... what are you referring to in particular?

I used that to come to my second point, which also worries me. More and more, it seems to me, that people who are critical of the present government and the system, are just not being listened to. Unfortunately, I must take myself as an example. For all that we've been doing, if I appear at the national parliament over there on some issue, let's say for instance there is a new public service act ... The moment you appear before the so-called portfolio committee and start arguments, then you would almost find this kind of attitude, "If he doesn't agree with us, cut him out. We have decided it will be this and that way and the other." I am worried about that. But what I'm saying is that South Africa remains a very difficult country to govern ... and I can understand the problem of Mr. Mandela, the internal ideological direction has still not been sorted out. And that's a tough one which lies ahead. I have no doubt about that.

... To what degree has Mandela ...

... I don't think he always sets the right example. He should be more defensive of the right of people to differ when they should differ. Recall ... when Mr. de Klerk left parliament, finally. It was really a circus. Instead of people acknowledging here was a man under difficult circumstances, trying to make his contribution, he was being jeered almost out of the hall. I was not there, but that's what I have read and I have been told.

It shouldn't be done that way. It's not the way in which we should take the country forward. What I am saying ... is Mr. Mandela, deep down, believes in building this nation and he has, at the cost of very high personal sacrifices, done more than anybody else in trying to achieve that. I am not so certain that he's been equally forceful in disciplining his own organization to stay away and keep away from humiliating experiences here and there ... That's not what is important here in our country right now ... he has done a magnificent job in person to build this whole culture. I believe he was not successful in internal discipline, in disciplining his own people ...

The day of the rugby match ... Try and capture that day as you read it.

... that was brilliant to go down and take on the Number 7 jersey ... he became part of the ordinary man on the street, enjoying rugby, like other Afrikaners ... he became part of a unifying symbol. The problem is, the challenge is, you don't have World Cups all the time in which to build on the momentum ...

... You talked of how he portrays himself as being courteous to people. He is at one level a consummate politician. But unlike someone like President Clinton, with Mandela you can't see the cracks. The personality and the politician seem extraordinarily fused to one ...

... Is it not true that he has reached wisdom through hardship and understanding ... He has not acquired his leadership through an MBA at an important American university ... he's earned his leadership through the MBA of life, so to speak. He knows it. He knows power. If you've been through hardship yourself, hardships don't humiliate people - it enables them to understand other people's fears much better. Is that not what you have in Mr. Mandela? A man where wisdom, experience, a strong personality, a strange charisma, not at all the typical charisma which the TV has created.

With a lot of respect, he is like somebody from another planet if you watch him in front of the TV cameras. He's not the trained polished kind of ... he knows what to say when and he will be jiving and doing whatever funny kind of things he's doing. But still, if you look at him, there's a sincerity ... You will experience the man as being sincere. If he is angry, he is sincere, whatever he is doing. He creates the impression that he is sincere about what he is doing ...

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