frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Kobie Coetsee INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

He was South Africa's Minister of Justice under apartheid. In 1986 he initiated secret talks with the imprisoned Mandela.
What did you know about Nelson Mandela before you met him?

kobie coetseeWhat I knew about Mr. Mandela was what I'd gleaned from studying the files which were submitted to me when I took office. But prior to that, I was deputy minister of National Intelligence, and in that capacity I also had to become conversant with the liberation movements, their objectives, their style, and in that way, I knew about Mr. Mandela. I didn't know him intimately; I knew about him.

What kind of a picture had you formed in your mind prior to meeting him, on the basis of that file material?

It's very difficult to give you the exact picture I had in mind, which I developed at the time, because it's influenced by my subsequent experience, naturally. So in a sense it may not be so objective, but I'll try and recapture it. He was one of the leadership. He was not the leader, but he was one of the leaders. He was also a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was a man who designed the possible destruction of many lives, which came out at the Rivonia trial. So in my mind I had the picture of a man that was determined to seize power at all costs.

That was the initial picture; yet, I had a sympathy. I had a kind of a sympathy with the ideals of the liberation movements. It was just a difference in method and it was just a different result that we foresaw, [I'm] talking of the National party and of the liberation movements.

When did you first form the idea of perhaps talking to Mandela? Why?

When I took office in ... October 1980, I was given the portfolio of prisons. Mr. Botha called me in and said to me that the numerous court cases of which he reads in the newspapers, and most of which we lost, must stop. In that sense, I experienced Mr. Mandela as one of the key figures. He became, as far as I was concerned, a target to either influence or to persuade in order to carry out my instructions. As it turned out, other factors emerged which contributed towards a total strategy on my part, to deal with the question of court cases. However, the image of Mr. Mandela that came through his various requests and the files, was that of a person very determined ... as a man who was very correct in his dealings with the prison service. Also, a man that one would like to talk to.

I studied Latin, Roman culture, and now for the first time I've met a man whose qualities have explained to me what the Romans meant with onestas gravitas dignitas.
I really started to consider going to Robben Island myself. Something held me back. What was that? I considered the people on Robben Island not ordinary prisoners. They were so-called security prisoners, to distinguish them from other prisoners. They had less privileges, but it put them in a different category altogether. I really started to consider to go and see him, and speak to the others, as other minister of justice and prisons had done in the past. I resisted the temptation. It was almost an instinctive feeling that I got. I must bide my time; this is not the right moment. I must do things differently if I want to attain results. Now, in the beginning, Robben Island was causing the government discomfort, to put it mildly. But I resisted temptation to see Mr. Mandela. He wrote a number of letters. The respective commissioners came to see me. Yet, I felt I must wait for the right moment. Now as things developed, as things turned out, the right moment did offer itself.

... So initially, the plan was to talk about prison conditions and it was only when you, over time, broadened it to include a broader political question ...

That's correct. I started that process of broadening privileges long before seeing Mr. Mandela himself. As a matter of fact, we discussed the possibility of exposing him to outside life more and more. As I said, there were other factors as well. The occasion of Breyten Breytenbach's release was perhaps the watershed event for us in the department of justice and prisons to really consider where are we going with the security prisoners, because up to then the policy was that they had to serve the entire period of their sentence. If it was a life sentence, that was it.

But when Mr. Botha wanted me to release Breyton, I considered very carefully the whole situation and came to the conclusion we can't do so unless we devise a policy, or we bring about policy changes that would have an effect on the entire group of security prisoners. A think-tank gathering amongst my officials, myself and advisors, led us to formulate the policy, which was eventually then accepted, and which had the effect of an early release of political prisoners, in general.

Now up to then, I had not seen or had not spoken to Mr. Mandela, but as I said to you, the timing then became more important, because it was no longer then a matter of improving the conditions as such, it was no longer then a matter of waiting for the right moment to discuss with Mr. Mandela the court cases, and ask him to lay off. No. Other factors came to the fore, notably the release of Breyton, and then the policy change that had to be brought about to bring that into effect.

So all these contributed then towards the need to select the right moment for interviewing or seeing Mr. Mandela, which could have the best possible effect. Because as I say, I had an instinctive feeling that this had to be dealt with very carefully. I am not dealing with an ordinary man or an ordinary prisoner.

Why him? Why did you identify him as your main interlocutor. Why not Sisulu for example, or someone else in prison? ...

He was undoubtedly the most forceful personality on the island. Even before then, throughout the Rivonia trial, he was the most forceful personality. So I don't think it was that strange to experience Mr. Mandela as the leader amongst leaders ... there is another facet of the Mandela theme and that is that everywhere and anywhere, where people choose people, you can't help choosing Nelson Mandela.

What do you mean by that?

Well, he was a natural and I realized that from the moment I met him. He was a born leader, he was affable. The very first time that I met him he was obviously well liked by the hospital personnel, and he was respected even though they knew that he was a prisoner. He was clearly in command of his immediate surroundings ... in the hospital he was sitting in a chair in the corner in hospital attire, but even that he wore with dignity. I tried my best to create the appearance of an ordinary event, and I think he also describes that as such in his book. Much later when I read his book, I realized that we both succeeded, and I am sure that members of the press were waiting outside on the lawn, but they allowed us to walk past them. [We] walked in and walked out; they didn't ask any questions. They missed the opportunity ... if they could have filmed that, that would have been of historic value.

You say, we both succeeded.

We both succeeded. ... We met as though it was not the first meeting, it was one of many other meetings. It did not bear the stamp or even appearance of a meeting between ... warder and prisoner. Perhaps, it was a meeting between friends that had known each other for a very long time. I am inquiring about his health, and the way we spoke, he would have inquired about my family ... We chatted for some time, and then I left. But I think the significance is in the event, not perhaps in the words that were exchanged.

How did you both succeed?

... we covered the past very swiftly. We almost buried the past immediately. For me it was a challenge to defuse the tension between government and security prisoners. He was number one, as I said to you, in my mind. It was the beginning of the exercise to defuse, and for him, as he indicates elsewhere, he already had in mind ... to talk, rather than to fight. For him it was, perhaps, the beginning, but it was also the beginning of something else. And that is to carry across the image of a man that was sincere in his utterance, namely to talk rather than to fight.

The first meeting you had at your house, after Mandela was back in full health, you took quite a lot of care to get the atmospherics right of the occasion. Tell me about what you did ...

... as a point of departure, I always felt that I must make him feel comfortable, get him to forget his position, get us to forget my position. At least, for that moment, be on equal footing. Now, with that as a point of departure, the preparations ... fell into place. I was asked to see him ... he wanted to discuss the possibility of talks with the government. At the time, of course, the outside world, outside my official residence, things were rather very volatile. That's something which I really admired of him ... because he got the newspapers, he was exposed to television. He could have raised daily events, daily incidents. That could have been the focus of our attention, our discussions. He did not and I didn't do it either. But it was at the back of our minds. So for me it was important to use these opportunity to defuse, and hopefully it would, perhaps, then also permeate the leadership, and eventually their following ... let me be frank ... that was at the back of my mind. But my first objective was to be on equal footing with him. So amongst other things, we prepared tea and snacks, and my liquor cabinet was also there. So towards the end I asked him whether he would have a sherry, and he had a sweet sherry. He enjoyed it.

Give us a little bit of detail ... How you wanted Mandela to look, and how you did not want him to look.

Well again, this was part of ... the strategy of government, to get Mr. Mandela to meet with the EPG [Emminent Persons Group] on an equal footing. As it turned out, it wasn't on equal footing. He turned out to be in complete charge. And he was immediately, the way they talked to him, elevated to some kind of pedestal, just slightly above their level. They may not like to hear this now, but that was the impression I got.

... Is it far fetched if I say to you, yes ... the first time I met him, I already saw him as president. Now once you've formed that kind of conclusion, that dictates many a thing that you do. It dictates your strategy, it dictates many things. I wanted them to understand that this man is highly respected by us ... that he's well cared for, that he's valuable. As I say to you, he took charge of the gathering there. He introduced them to myself and General Willemse. He took the initiative ... it went so well right from the beginning, that I felt that this is of great significance. Also because I never really saw the words or heard him say that as much, but the message they got, "We can do it ourselves. We, South Africans," meaning the government and us, could do it ourselves. From a political angle, that was important for me as well, because at the time, the whole world was gearing itself for sanctions against South Africa--complete sanctions ...

You talked about wishing to give him this respect ... yet you put him in an isolation cell at Pollsmoor, then you removed him altogether from his fellow prisoners. Is that giving him respect? Why this removal of Mandela from the rest of the comrades?

We got the green light from Mr. Botha that we could start talking to Mr. Mandela, in general. Just [keep] in mind that at the time, it was the department of prisons mostly taking initiatives. We weren't constitutionally equipped, we weren't mandated, that's why Mr. Botha also decided to form a committee a little bit later. But it was to have access to Mr. Mandela, and also to put him in a position where he could have the opportunity to impose his views, which he did, if you recall history. He used that opportunity. First there was an outcry, that we've put him in isolation. He was visited by Mrs. Suzman. Mrs. Mandela objected very seriously. Yet, he succeeded in imposing his authority, his leadership.

Did he himself ever object to your decision to put him in isolation?

No. No, he did not. I got the impression that he decided to use the opportunity and he interpreted it correctly, that it is something very special being designed.

You mentioned preparations that you were engaged in for Mr. Mandela's surgery. Tell us about that.

It illustrates the government attitude towards Mr. Mandela. Surgery was indicated, and the question was opposed immediately: Who is to do the operation? From the ANC side and especially from Mrs. Mandela's side, they immediately asked for a foreign surgeon who could be trusted. It was openly speculated in the press that they would never allow the government to appoint someone to perform the operation because they could abuse the opportunity ... We discussed it at various level of government and we decided that if Mr. Mandela agrees, a South African surgeon would perform the operation ... it was utterly and completely in his hands. He decided that he will accept someone appointed by the South African government.

Dr. Willie van Nierkerk, who was then minister of health, himself a well known academic medical man, identified the team, and he invited a Swiss surgeon specialist professor to be present, to be an observer. And afterwards to pass comments on the operation, which was done. My office was virtually turned into an operation room and we issued daily bulletins ... it was done very correctly. Now this tells a lot about Mr. Mandela. It was very calculated on his part. Some time later we discussed it, and he said he persuaded his people by saying, "I feel safer in the hands of an appointee of the South African government, because they can't afford me to die on the operation table." Apart from the medical responsibility which we carried, the political responsibility was almost overwhelming, and that's exactly what we did. I don't think that ever in history, so much care was taken to ensure that everything went well with a patient.

I find it very interesting about Mandela knowing that the government could not afford to lose him ... in those early days do you recall any exchanges ... that conveyed from him his own sense of his own importance. That is a fascinating quality to have, especially for a prisoner.

Yes, now I must say that he said so smilingly. But in the first place, it was a matter of trust. Perhaps, we've missed that point. It was a matter of trust. It was an exercise, perhaps, not designed to have that effect, but that was the ultimate effect. It started with trust, and it ended with more trust. That was important for the future.

Yet, you are talking about trust, but it is now a well known fact that when he was ... in prison ... and indeed, when he was having meetings with you, he was being monitored by agents of the state, through one-way mirrors, secret taping devices ...

... How do you know the detail? Because I wasn't aware of the detail. Yes, I was aware of the fact that he was monitored, but he also knew that. And again in lighter vein, since we both knew it, at times, at Victor Verster, we would ask ourselves, "Now where on earth is the bugging system?" So he turned on the radio and we exchanged confidentialities about family, about where do we go from here ... At times, well, we had a bit of fun about it. But there came a time when I said, "I don't want to have anything to do with this anymore."

Why did you make that decision? One can see a logic in having the things recorded.

Well, there was a lot of logic in it. Let me try and recapture the mood at the time. The mood was [that the] prison service liked this man. They came to trust this man. They came almost to the point where they were certain of what was in the future. But not all the agencies. At the same time, while Mr. Mandela was almost unconditionally trusted, what about his colleagues, what about the leaders, what about the people who have not yet given him their entire support? So there was a lot to be discovered and to be established. Somehow, as it turned out to be, the monitoring served also to give those who were exposed to it an insight to this man, who was always sincere, always dignified with the necessary gravitas, and it was his sincerity about the future and about talks about talks that did a lot of persuasion.

Mr. Mandela was a natural. He could employ all his abilities,his charm, his assertiveness. And I remember him best for arguing. He would say, 'No Mr. Minister, the point is ...' I am sure that if you speak to others they will tell you that we sometimes discussed this assertiveness
Now why did I decide that we don't want to have anything to do with this anymore? It was at the time, more or less, when I was certain he was going to be released. It wasn't through lack of decision taking that it didn't happen earlier. It was a very calculated decision on my part that we don't want to have anything to do with [this] anymore, [I'm] talking now of the prison service. The other agencies, the rear offices continued possibly. There was a lot of interest worldwide, because it was through intelligence that people could establish progress in the constitutional thinking of people, of organizations. It was also of interest, this may surprise you, to the outside world, and I am under the impression that they shared in the intelligence, and it actually contributed towards making for greater excitement all over the world.

You are saying then that South African intelligence services would have passed on ... videos or whatever ...

... No, well, I hasten to say to you, our organizations were far too professional to pass on transcripts or unconfirmed intelligence. They could pass on, as is custom amongst agencies who have connections with each other, analysis, conclusions, indicators, mostly indicators. Which way the future? What can we expect? ... It was done long before we started negotiation with the ANC. I'm sure it's being done at the moment. Because that's the way intelligence agencies work, to use the conclusions and the analysis indicators of other agencies and then discount these in their own assessments and evaluations, in order to advise their governments. That's the way it's been done, and it has got nothing to do really with spying, because most of it is based on open intelligence ... but sometimes it is also based on discreet monitoring. So it was the best thing that could have happened as far as we were concerned, but as far as the ANC was concerned, that Mr. Mandela was working with us, towards a solution, that he is informing his people, that they are contemplating his agenda, and it was a good thing, but as I say, I am not claiming that that happened. I am only suggesting to you that this could have been the operational way that it's usually done.

I was very struck when you said how Mandela would make jokes with you ... about the bugging ... but the humor, like pretty much everything that he does, seems to me to be almost an instrument to an end ... Did you devise any sort of a portrait or scheme of Mandela's technique ...

I don't think it was elements that he pulled out of a hat whenever he required that specific technique or element. No, he was too much of a natural. It all came very naturally, very affably, but underneath you sensed the ability to asset himself at the drop of a hat. It was always there. And that makes for good authority. So although there was a lot of humor, we could and he could switch to business just like that. So I would say that Mr. Mandela was a natural. He could employ all his abilities, his charm, his assertiveness, and I remember him best for arguing. He would say, "No Mr. Minister, the point is ..." and I am sure that if you speak to [other] people ... they will tell you that we sometimes discussed this assertiveness of his ...

Obviously it wasn't all affable, it wasn't all smiley smiley. There were points of tough discussion. What was the core of the debate? What were you trying to persuade him to do and vice versa ...

It is well known that the areas that were mandated to cover in our discussion with Mr. Mandela related to communism, to minorities, to violence, mostly. We were searching for solutions all the time, because ... we had painted ourselves into a corner, both sides, and we had to find a solution. In a sense, we rotated on these topics. But we also dealt with other items, procedures. For instance, the whole question of his visitors. How many and who would determine the visitors, the nature and so forth. But we never really argued or we never really experienced contradictions there. It was a matter of perhaps timing and of opportunities. Because there was a great demand from people to see [him]. They would have exhausted him. Even now people hold it against the previous regime for not exposing Mr. Mandela to them. I don't know whether they believe they could have influenced him. Be that as it may, there is a feeling of discontent as far as the previous government is concerned, that we didn't allow their side of supporters and media the opportunity. Yet, he [Mandela] was the person to allow the final list ...

... We canvassed many other topics ... Between Mr. Mandela and myself, we had occasion to discuss the role of the law in the country, and his respect for the law. His respect for the judiciary, not individuals as such but for the judiciary as an institution. His explanation of the Charter. My views on a possible Bill of Rights. We discussed these, and we interpreted our differences. But between the two of us, we identified the law, the application of the law, justice as an area where the parties could meet.

What did he try to persuade you of? Where was it that you needed persuading, and where was it that he saw that you needed persuading?

He tried to persuade me that the ANC was never really an institution that promotes violence, or actually decided on violence of their accord, but that they were forced to take that decision after their failure or not their failure as such, but before they could talk to the government. As a matter of fact, previously this [government] refused or did not even respond to him. So he wanted me to accept that the ANC is in the first instance an institutional organization that was interested in good governance, democracy, and that violence was not really on their agenda. That we must find a way of getting ourselves out of the corner as far as violence is concerned. As it turned out, that actually did hold the solution ...

Before you met Mr. Mandela, you had a chance meeting on a plane with Mrs. Mandela ...

Well, I know there are different versions. I'll try and recapture the moment ... I was working with material from my briefcase, and all of a sudden I became aware of the presence of this very interesting and imposing woman. I recognized her immediately. There she was standing and she didn't speak a word. She just indicated with her head that I must move the briefcase, she wanted to sit next to me. I did so and she sat next to me for the remainder of the flight.

Can you talk about it?

Mrs. Mandela was then very much in the center of making the country ungovernable ... and she was justifying her involvement in encouraging the youth under the slogan, "Liberation before education," to take part in the struggle ... She also spoke about things in general ... We had a discussion on Mr. Mandela ... "You must see Mr. Mandela and you must do something about it." I think there was also a deliberate strategy on her part, which she developed probably when she saw me the first time, because this conversation was not prearranged as some people tried to tell posterity. Towards the end she said she is going down to see him, and she could have mentioned to me that she thinks I should also see him, which was already then in my mind. It was arranged that I would look at the possibility. I would not say that she did not have an effect on the promptness with which it was done ...

But there was not a direct connection?

No. She was altogether, shall I say, almost too smart to do that. She didn't request, that's what I recall. She didn't request; it was a statement.

After that, the football club came into being, and people became aware of it in the public around '88. You must have been aware of developments before that ... What concerns did you and indeed Mr. Mandela have ... as what was unfolding in the football club might impinge on the broader process ...

We never discussed his family affairs as such. We discussed the education of his children. We made it possible for him to see individual academics from abroad to further the education of his children. But we never really discussed anything apart from the well-being, the health, and education of the family. He did express at one stage, his misgivings about the coincidences around Mrs. Mandela. The police being present at the airport, the police being present on the road when she was traveling, and he thought it was intended to embarrass her, and he discussed this with me ... But he didn't discuss the football club, as such. He didn't discuss the organization surrounding the football club, and the allegations against Winnie. He was concerned with the possibility of a deliberate effort to embarrass Mrs. Mandela.

Did you fear that Mrs. Mandela could in some way jeopardize this very carefully constructed exercise in which you were engaged, and dedicated so much of your secret time?

I wouldn't say that I was not concerned about either Mrs. Mandela, or members of the government or, for that matter, any politician that would have a negative effect on our programs and our project. I wouldn't say that I wasn't concerned about these. The question is what did I do about it. As far as it concerned Mrs. Mandela. I didn't, in effect, do anything. I could have expressed, it's possible, it's my nature, I could have just expressed in circles where it mattered, that we must sure that we do not deliberately embarrass people at this point of time.

Because you were concerned of the effect that might in turn have on Mr. Mandela himself?


The meeting with P.W. Botha. This was the first opportunity to have your boss meet your, you might say he was your protégé and you must have been very concerned that the meeting should pass off without any sort of combustible impact. Tell me how you prepared both sides ...

Just to take you back, in the previous year already, we started to work on the possibility of Mr. Mandela meeting with Mr. Botha, and if I remember correctly, considerable progress was already being made in that direction. But then ... Mr. Mandela fell ill ... and then Mr. Botha. These events delayed. Towards the end of June, Mr. Botha returned to his office, and our committee deliberated on the course of history. We came to the conclusion that since Mr. Botha had mandated so much of the things that had happened in respect of Mr. Mandela, over the past almost three, four years, that it is but fair and correct to ask him to use the opportunity of Mr. Mandela already then asking to see Mr. Botha, to agree to that and meet with Mr. Mandela ... Both Dr. Barnard and myself, jointly and on separate occasions, conveyed this to Mr. Botha. I believe that Niel Barnard also took great pain in persuading Mr. Botha. I did also, on one situation, my level best to persuade him. I had a special angle to convey to him and that was the angle of the politician. He agreed, not reluctantly, as some people would like us to believe ... He realized and understood the importance of such a meeting and also specially since it ... at the beginning of the tunnel as far as he was concerned. So he agreed.

Well, our preparation. The question was how did we decide to deal with the stumbling block. By then Mr. Botha realized that we had painted ourselves into a corner ... much of our discussions between Mr. Mandela and ourselves focused on this--how to get ourselves out of this corner. I developed a formula ... that would focus on the future rather than on the past. And if it works in the future, the past would be neutralized. So the formula that we devised was one of reconciliation and future development. Future development in the broader sense, which could get economic development, it could also and definitely could not exclude constitutional development. You can't imagine reconciliation and development with an armed struggle still above your head. So it was rather, if I may say, the correct formula. So both parties were persuaded before the time, that at the end of the meeting there could be a statement to that effect ... We asked both parties to try and not be controversial ... So I sat there with a draft covering the concept of reconciliation and a future development. They had talks and it focused in the concerns of Mr. Botha, addressed by Mr. Mandela, and him again saying that it would not be necessary to resort to violence had previous leaders seen him, negotiated with him. Be that as it may, in the end there was quite this jovial photo. That was concluded ... with a request to me to draft some statement, not to be offered to the media, but should there be a leak, which we considered to be inevitable, then to ... issue that statement.

Were there moments of tension at that meeting?

No. No, there were no moments of tension, but there were definitely moments of great sincerity and both parties very serious on their position. Mr. Botha didn't make any concession on his point of view. He brought up a further point of view, and that was the position of the Afrikaner. He, on the occasion, did not discuss so much the topic of minority concerns and minority interest, but the Afrikaner. He also brought up religion, standards, norm, but the fact that civilization go hand in hand with the scriptures. More or less. So it was the same text, but in a different language. Mr. Mandela again, as I say, was also very adamant on his relationship with the communist party, restating his point of view that he is not going to shed partners who had been with the ANC throughout the struggle, and that was it.

Did you see a chemistry between them?


Can you describe the encounter?

Yes. Almost relief, as they approached each other to say, "How are you?" "How are you?" There was almost relief on both sides. I always have a vivid picture of that--of the relief between the two men. That this has happened. For both it was a great occasion, no matter what differences there were ... I have no doubt about it ... there was a kind of chemistry between them which could emerge only between people who really wanted to meet and who respected each other. That was my impression.

Go forward a year and a half or so to the release itself. There was a great deal of confusion as we saw it from the outside ... Mandela apparently in a sense refused to be released ... Describe what was going on at that point ...

... There was a difference as far as the release moment was concerned. Mr. Mandela expressed his desire to have more time to prepare for the release. The first obstacle that we had to overcome was the place of release. Was it to be here in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Paarl, wherever. But eventually it was agreed that Paarl would be the place and that he would move from there to wherever. Of course, then he was a free man. The moment of release was influenced by his desire to write a speech, which would be a statesmanlike speech, which would deal with the past, the present and the future ... he definitely required more time for deliberation on his speech. Consultation as he was going to have with people that have an interest and so forth. I had a great sympathy with that. I supported that he should have the choice of the date.

... I must ... hasten to defend Mr. de Klerk's decision, by that time pressure from the outside world was mounting, and they wouldn't understand that it was Mr. Mandela's choice. No, it was reluctance on the part of Mr. de Klerk. There was so much pressure on Mr. de Klerk. I don't think he compromised him. It was just a matter of a decision taken against a global background. Not a South African background anymore, but a global background. So in the end, of course, I support Mr. de Klerk's ultimate and final decision. But I have great understanding of the fact that he did not concede on this one. But there was a bit of tension ... between the two men, Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela, and that's the one misgiving that I have in about the decision on the part of the government. We did not need that kind of tension. But as I say, Mr. de Klerk couldn't have taken any other decision. ... it was mounting, but from the media's point of view, they had gone crazy. People were being flown into South Africa daily, so we couldn't have any other occasion.

But in the end that February 11th date, that was de Klerk prevailing. If Mandela had had his way he would have waited a few more days?

A few more days, yes.

In a certain sense it was also Kobie Coetsee's release, a release of tension. It must have been a moment of relief for you, as a member of the government, maybe personally, to finally get rid of these things. There had been so much pressure for so long ... What were your emotions? How did you day unfold?

By nature, I am always concerned with detail. Not dealing with the detail myself, but just being briefed on the fact that detail is also being taken care of. So I was briefed virtually on an hourly basis, even the days before the 11th, what the arrangements were, how things were going, and the atmosphere. We got a feedback on especially the atmosphere. We didn't know how the public in Paarl would react. Would they block the way? Would they insist on him making a speech there and then addressing the people there? ... All sorts of things could happen, but then it was also a matter of his security, which rested very heavily on our shoulders. So I wanted to have clearance on that as well, with everything in place, all roads being blocked off. The high ground has been taken care of, yes. The side roads, have they all been taken care of? It was huge, huge organization. It involved many many agencies, people and the police played a very positive and a very large role. The prison service performed magnificently, as usual. So everything was in place.

The moment then arrived for Mrs. Mandela and some lawyers to meet Mr. Mandela inside his house, and then accompany him. I think they were driven by car to the entrance road, and there he was to walk some distance, also in the company of individuals ... Winnie and others, and then they were to be met by their people at the front and then driven away. So everything was in place, and had a very tight time schedule. If you know prisons as I do ... they were meticulous in their arrangements. Now this involved ... myself sitting at the television set, and General Willemse on a direct line to Victor Verster, and myself every quarter of an hour in touch with General Willemse ... and so the hour came for us to expect the Mandela couple now to start moving. But they didn't. Now the media didn't cover that area ... the physical area ... so I didn't know who was going and who was coming there ... and then when I was really getting ... not curious, but I was getting aggravated about the delay. Willemse phoned to say that the delay is caused by Mrs. Mandela not having arrived. So where is Mrs. Mandela? Try and open the roads to Victor Verster. Make it possible for her to get there. Well, he phoned me back and said, "She's at the hairdresser."

... So eventually the moment arrived, and he walked along that route, which was quite a long way from where the entrance of the road begins, up to the front entrance. And he walked there, and he waved for the warders, their wives, their families. They were going crazy, cheering him, and you couldn't see the tension on his face. That was amazing, absolutely amazing. Because he must have experienced stress and must have experienced tension, but you couldn't see it on his face. He didn't show it at all. And Mrs. Mandela was dressed for the occasion. I would say quite striking ... Yes, I experienced relief for a large number of reasons. I experienced relief.

Let us move ahead now. Mandela is out ... the whole arduous process of negotiations. Much of what has been written in books, in articles, has focused on the whole CODESA process ... At a much more private level were negotiations over the role of the security forces and ... the defense force. ... To what degree were yourself and Mr. Mandela involved ... in that very important aspect of the transition?

At CODESA 1, which terminated in May 1992, there wasn't any negotiation about the defense force, as such. Not about the police, as such. They were battling about the broader outlines of the constitution, the nature of the constitution, and so forth.

But after resumption of negotiations ... it was decided that the work in process would entail specific ministers [who] would then become involved with negotiation where it concerns their departments ... I became minister of defense towards the end of March 1990 ... I became very much involved in the drafting of a chapter on the defense force. And as such, I also became involved in the preparation for a transition and integration of the liberation movement as such ... we had to develop trust, we had to inculcate trust on the other side.

So after a discussion with Mr. de Klerk and after discussion with Mr. Mandela, the ANC leadership, most of them, were invited to attend a briefing which lasted almost all day outside Pretoria.

Describe the briefing ...

... It took all day. We had snacks together over the lunch break, and I think they [ANC] asked very penetrating questions. We had some very frank discussions. We also gave them a view of the defense force planning ... on the issue of integration. I got the impression that they were very satisfied, if not impressed. I think this accounts for the fact that after May 1994, the integration went rather smoothly, and they succeeded in having a quality upgrading of the liberation movement members on the one hand, and a development of acceptance on the part of the existing defense force.

I would have thought there would have been a particular kind of distrust between Mandela and those generals ... not least because of all the allegations Mandela was making at the time about the role of secret military intelligence units in the townships. It was a time of quite a lot of tension ...

... I found it amazing, at the time, that there was openness, and a relaxed atmosphere virtually right from the beginning. There was a lot of humor. As I say, there was a lot of penetrating questions as well, and they were frank. There weren't any questions about specific operations. We were talking about the future. We were talking about the future control of the defense force. We were briefing them so that they could go back and have their own plan, their own program established or reviewed ... But it was not the end of the exercise. It was just the beginning. And this culminated really in the control ... of the elections. May I tell you about that?


At the time the PAC were not on board. The IFP weren't on board. The right wing weren't on board. The security picture wasn't a pleasant one, especially from the far right wing. Mr. de Klerk asked me to brief Mr. Mandela from time to time on the security picture. Because at the time I was also in charge of part of national intelligence. I met with Mr. Mandela fairly often, spoke over the phone fairly often. This actually led us up to a point where we had dinner together on military ground. That evening I felt myself in a strong position to say to him, "I guarantee to you a safe and a secure election." A number of things had happened in between to enable me to do that. The defense force came out very strongly in favor of a fair, controlled, secure election. So that the end result could be legitimate and could immediately provide a departure point for the new South Africa, and they felt that they could contribute towards this ...

P.W. Botha had this chemistry with Nelson Mandela.


F.W. Klerk most apparently didn't. There always seems to be some measure of bad blood ...

Let me say that it's perhaps unfair to draw a comparison between the Mandela and P.W. Botha situation, and Mandela and F.W. situation. The first must be seen against a backdrop of a once one-on-one meeting; virtually no obligations either way. Whereas, Mr. de Klerk found himself in a working situation and Mr. Mandela, as well. They were actually political adversaries. Yet, those adversaries had decided to work together. So it was almost natural that there would be edges and it was natural that those edges would become damaged.

At CODESA 1 ... what I recollect of that is that it was based on the whole issue of a final renunciation of violence ... in the wake of the Vula incident, the ANC offered to compromise, which was accepted by government, namely that they would suspend violence, and that talks may then ensue. That was in August 1991. Now, the whole question of final renunciation was still in the air. When will the ANC renounce violence? Because at the time ... MK cadres were coming into the country ... There was caches of arms stashed away in the country, and it was bothering for people in charge of the security of this country what had happened to those arms. So it was but natural that they would consider a final renunciation of violence. Especially since the ANC was obviously about to come into the folds of the political situation in the country. So I'm just giving you the government point of view. And preparing them for the end of CODESA 1 as sort of report-back, this was identified as a very important issue. Mr. de Klerk worked on a speech and he was advised to that effect that the time had come to ask of the ANC that since we have made so much progress, and since the situation has become irreversible, the time also has come for renunciation of violence. We were in contact with the ANC the previous day ... drafting and redrafting possible statements on the part of Mr. de Klerk.

In the end it appeared that Mr. Mandela didn't get the proposed text that was eventually delivered by Mr. de Klerk. History must still judge on the question of where was the blockage to Mr. Mandela, or was it just fate that intervened. I was involved so I have to be very careful now not to be too outspoken on this issue. But Mr. de Klerk came out very strongly then, in favor of the point of view that the suspension must take place now. "Now is the time. The situation is irreversible." That was more or less the content. Mr. Mandela thought he was taken by surprise, and he reacted in the most vehement way. And that soured the situation between the two men. Perhaps, left an indelible mark on their relationship. It's possible, although I was later under the impression that a number of other issues had an effect on their relationship, but on the other hand, there was so much progress otherwise that could have compensated for the scratches ...

Let's leap forward to the Rugby World Cup ... you saw what happened?

... Yes, it was a very emotional moment for me throughout the match. One had the feeling that it was momentous, but then at the end Francois Pienaar handed his jersey to Mr. Mandela, I wept. I said to myself, now it was worth it. All the pain, anything that I have experienced, it was worth it. This endorses the miracle. That's how I felt.

Expand on that a little bit ... before the game actually began, it was a moment when Mandela appeared wearing the Springbok jersey ...

Well, yes, it's significance, of course, must not be lost of rugby really being the arena where the breakthrough towards the emotions of the people happened. Of course, there could have been other occasions but there Mr. Mandela was accepted by the people, also his adversities, especially his adversities. That also signaled the importance of sport for the new South Africa. It was to become a binding factor ... yes, I was emotional, but controlled ... and no, the significance wasn't only lost, I saw it and I experienced it throughout the final moment .... that went beyond politics. It went beyond everything else that had been accomplished. And now it become not only the presence of his supporters, but the presence of the entire country. And that's how I felt at that time.

... On that occasion, you felt that everything had been worthwhile ... what do you mean by that? ...

... everything was worth it--the criticism in parliament, the suspicion, losing seats in the Orange Free State, reducing our majority, becoming almost the equals of the conservative and the Freedom Front. Yes, all this, despite all this, it was worth it ...

Someone told us when Mandela walked out in Ellis Park wearing the Springbok jersey that Mandela was a brilliant actor ... What would be your observation on that comment?

No. My observation is that he was sincere in his ideal of creating one nation, comparable for instance to the American nation. I think he was sincere. He still is. I have my concerns about the way we are going now, whether the miracle he had achieved will hold, or whether it has not already been damaged. I have my concerns about that. I think he is equally concerned.

Do you consider yourself Mandela's friend?

Well, I think for anyone to claim that position, would be perhaps a bit presumptuous. But I do consider myself as one within the circle of people that he could relate with and that do understand him and respect him. And that, perhaps, is not the narrow circle of friends in the narrow sense of the word, but it's perhaps a wider circle ...

... You spent a lot of intimate private moments with him. You acknowledge that he is a great man. What does Mandela's greatness consist of? ...

Some years ago, long before he became president of this country, I was asked a similar question by the media. I said to them that I studied Latin, Roman culture, Roman literature and now for the first time I've met a man whose qualities have explained to me what the Romans meant with onestas gravitas dignitas.


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