Mandela and Botha: The crocodile & the saint

PW Botha and Nelson Mandela's unlikely friendship
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The Independent Online

Nelson Mandela's moving response to the death of PW Botha may have surprised observers of South Africa's troubled history. But the great conciliator's message of appreciation towards his former jailer was as sincere as it was unlikely. John Carlin, who witnessed the end of apartheid for 'The Independent', reveals how the two men made history together

Viewed from outside South Africa, and by a large number of people inside too, PW Botha was the closest thing the world had during the 1980s to Adolf Hitler. As president of South Africa, Botha exercised almost tyrannical rule over the one country in the world whose system of racial oppression everybody - no matter what side of the Cold War they were on - agreed on defining as "a crime against humanity".

And yet Nelson Mandela, who has described apartheid as the second-worst crime of the 20th century after the Holocaust, responded to the news of the death of his former jailer not only with a message of condolence to his family, but expressing his recognition of the contribution Botha had made to peace. This was not just good manners, nor some sort of perverse variation on the death-bed conversion. Mandela really meant it. He has always spoken warmly of Botha, the man who was in effect his jailer for 11 of the 27 years he spent behind bars; who was famously unmoved by the global outcry for Mandela's release between 1978, when he took power, and 1989, when illness - and disgruntled colleagues - forced him out.

It is hard, in fact, to imagine two individuals more different - more utterly black and white - in every way. Mandela is tall; Botha was squat. Mandela is the world's great reconciler; Botha was the arch-divider. Mandela is by temperament a democrat; Botha was a dictator. Mandela is the most charming politician alive; Botha was the most unlovely. Known as "the big crocodile", South Africa's last unapologetic apartheid ruler was a stubborn ogre of a man who treated most of his cabinet ministers with scorn and presided over a state security apparatus responsible for numerous political killings, for torture on a massive scale and for the jailing of tens of thousands without trial.

By a strange irony, often remarked upon in South Africa, Mandela always seemed to hold Botha in higher esteem than FW de Klerk, the president who handed over power to the black majority and with whom Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Partly it was a question of personal chemistry. Mandela saw in Botha a reflection of qualities he wished to see in himself. Botha was a tough leader, a man clear in his principles, honest in his own way. Partly it was also that Mandela perceived in Botha a degree of political courage that he chose, perhaps unfairly, not to see in de Klerk.

He saw Botha as the man who kick-started the process that would eventually lead to negotiations, a political settlement and he - Mandela - installed, in 1994, as South Africa's first black president. He saw de Klerk, meanwhile, as someone who had fallen into Botha's slipstream, who was more at the mercy of events.

Botha never liked de Klerk. He saw him as a traitor (indeed, de Klerk did play Brutus to Botha's Caesar in the end), but he also saw him as a weak man; as - in the worst insult Botha knew - "a jellyfish". Mandela may have nuanced that view over time, as his African National Congress has done, but during the four years in which the two negotiated the transfer of power, he largely agreed with Botha's assessment.

The odd couple's love affair began over tea on 5 July 1989. It was their first meeting and it happened in the most unlikely of circumstances, in secret. Mandela was still in jail, seven months away from his release. The venue was the stately presidential office known as Tuynhuys, an 18th-century monument to white supremacy, which Mandela himself would find himself occupying fewer than five years later.

This was the meeting that set him on his way. It would turn out to be one of the most remarkable, most politically significant teas in history. And it established a bond that proved perplexingly resilient, even though they rarely met again, right up until Botha's death two days ago.

It is in almost breathless prose that Mandela describes the moment he met Botha in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: "From the opposite side of his grand office PW Botha walked towards me. He had planned his march perfectly, for we met exactly half way. He had his hand out and was smiling broadly, and in fact from that very first moment he completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly."

If Mandela entered the meeting with the man who ought to have been his nemesis in obviously good spirits, disposed to get on with him, it was because the old crocodile had in fact reached out to him, tended a tentative hand of peace, a year earlier. All this was done in secret. Had it been made public, Mandela's worldwide cohort of supporters would have struggled to believe it. Botha was not only on the face it the most inflexible racist alive; but as supreme head of the infamous State Security Council he had devised a strategy of no quarter against the black liberation movement known as "Total Onslaught".

What this amounted to was that he supported the creation of security police death squads; he had encouraged mass detentions without trial; he had sanctioned military raids on African National Congress bases in neighbouring countries; he had given his blessing to dastardly conspiracies by his "securocrats" to divide the Zulu population between rural conservatives and urban progressives and pit one side bloodily against the other, leading to the death of many thousands. And yet, unbeknownst to all but a tiny handful of individuals, he was exploring peace.

One of those individuals was Botha's head of intelligence Niel Barnard, who had a reputation as the coldest, most sinister man imaginable. Botha instructed Barnard to go and meet Mandela in jail, which he did for the first time - the first of more than 60 such meetings - in May 1988.

This is Barnard's recollection of what happened, in an interview I did with him a decade later: "Mr Botha, a few weeks before that, during a discussion, told me, 'Dr Barnard, we want you to... meet Mr Mandela now. Try to find out what are his views on Communism... and then try to find out if Mr Mandela and the ANC are interested in a peaceful settlement...'"

From early on in his meetings with Barnard, who succumbed so entirely to the Mandela charm that he spoke of him all the time with filial affection as "the old man", Mandela stressed the need for him to meet Botha. Barnard recalled Mandela saying to him: "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."

A year later, Botha, pressed by Barnard, encouraged to believe in Mandela's bona fides, succumbed. It was a huge concession. However much of a tyrant he may have been, the reality was that he and most of his people had been reared in the belief that Mandela was to them as Osama bin Laden is to Americans; or worse, as bin Laden does not pose as fundamental a threat to America's way of life as Mandela did to white South Africa's.

"I think the general idea in this country, but specifically internationally, is that Mr PW Botha was this very difficult old man, etcetera," Barnard correctly observed. "Now, yes, 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 set out the way to go, and who tackled the more difficult issues. I differ fundamentally from the notion that it was Mr de Klerk who was instrumental in this whole process in the country... The tough decisions, at the time, to start this whole process had been taken by Mr Botha."

In arguing before Botha the reasons for meeting Mandela, Barnard made the following points: "I remember telling him that the time was 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. 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. In my concerned opinion there is only a win-win situation.'"

Barnard, a man who has not received the historical due he deserves (both for good and evil), is a unique individual. He is the only man to have got to know both Botha and Mandela very well, to have spent long hours in private discussion with them. And to have earnt the trust of both. It is quite likely, for example, that Mandela's opinions of Botha and de Klerk were to a degree shaped by his exposure to Barnard, the man who offered Mandela his own, remarkably privileged, window into the white South African power establishment.

Mandela, in his youth and up to his arrest in 1962, had always been a dandy, a snappy dresser. But until the day he met Botha he'd gone 26 years in, at best, casual clothes supplied by the prisons department. Mandela judged, and Barnard agreed, that for his meeting with the president he ought to recover some of his old sartorial elegance. Barnard said it was his own National Intelligence Service - the dreaded "NIS" - that measured Mandela for his clothes and bought them.

Thus it was that Mandela was spirited out of Victor Verster prison, 40 minutes from central Cape Town, and driven in a suit and tie to the presidential office at Tuynhuys. But not before the prison head, one of few people in on the secret, lent a hand tying his tie; Mandela had lost the knack. Just before Mandela stepped into Botha's office. Barnard, eager for his charge to make a good impression, stooped before him to retie his laces, a task Mandela had also forgotten how to do.

Barnard also issued Mandela with a warning prior to entering the great crocodile's company. He said to him: "Listen, this is an ice-breaker meeting. It is not about fundamental issues. Come to learn about 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."

Walter Sisulu, Mandela's oldest friend and comrade in the struggle, had been in prison almost as long as he had. It was of deep importance to Mandela, both for political and personal reasons, that Sisulu, whose health was not perfect, should be released. Mandela made to Barnard as if he would abide by his instructions, but in the end he did not. He did, however, endeavour to get on with Botha as well as he could at first.

Mandela was taken by Botha's solicitousness, his friendly and courteous manner; and Botha was taken by the same qualities in Mandela. And by the fact that Mandela spoke to him in his native tongue - known by many black South Africans as "the oppressor's tongue" - Afrikaans. Mandela also sought to reach out to Botha by drawing some of the analogies between black people's struggle for liberation and the Afrikaners' similar endeavour to rid themselves of the British imperial yoke in the Boer War.

Botha, some of whose relatives fought the British in that war, was impressed by Mandela's knowledge of his people's history, and not unaffected by his arguments. In Anatomy of a Miracle, an excellent book on the South African democratic transition, the author Patti Waldmeir quotes Botha telling an opposition politician of Mandela: "I can understand the old man." Faced with a similar predicament, said Botha: "I don't know what I would have done."

It was perhaps because Mandela had softened him up so successfully that Mandela went ahead and disobeyed Barnard's instructions, mentioning the subject of his friend Sisulu's release. "Strangely enough," Barnard, still puzzled, recalled, "Mr Botha listened, and he said, '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."

Breezy as Mandela's recollection is of the encounter in his autobiography, neither man gave much quarter on fundamentals. Another person present at the meeting was the minister of justice Kobie Coetsee, who had also met Mandela a number of times in prison, though not as often as Barnard. "There were moments of great sincerity and both parties were very serious in their position," Coetsee was to tell me long after the event.

Botha must have tested Mandela's patience in that, as Coetsee recalled it, he brought up some of the hoary old chestnuts - racism very thinly disguised - of Afrikaner propaganda. "Mr Botha brought up religion, standards and norms, the fact that civilisation goes hand in hand with the scriptures." As for Mandela, Coetsee recalled him being adamant on his relationship with the Communist Party, "restating his point of view that he was not going to shed partners who had been with the ANC throughout the struggle".

And yet, as Coetsee judged it, the chemistry between the two men was palpable. "I would say there was almost relief as they approached each other for the first time. 'How are you?' 'How are you?' There was almost relief on both sides, yes. For both it was a great occasion, no matter what differences there were... 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."

Yet within a month of that remarkable encounter Botha was no longer in office, driven out by his own party, too many of whose senior members he had antagonised too often. More important, there was a feeling that while Botha might have broken the ice, he was not the man to steer the country towards its new political destination.

The odd thing is that FW de Klerk, who took over, had no clearer idea in his mind where he was going than Botha had done. They both had come to the view that things had to change; that after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the light of massive international and domestic pressure on the regime, apartheid could no longer continue as it had done. Where de Klerk and Botha were also in agreement at that point was in their abhorrence of the notion of full-on, one-man-one-vote, majority-rule democracy in South Africa. That would be the outcome four-and-a-half years later, but it was far from their thoughts.

They thought, as did the ruling National Party as a whole, that they would be able to sell the black majority some sort of package that modernised apartheid, that would somehow be acceptable to them and to the world, while still preserving the basic divide between the races. If things unfolded the way they did, it was because de Klerk and his people were swept away by political circumstances beyond their control, and were basically outwitted by the African National Congress, whom the white powers-that-be had misguidedly (but perhaps not surprisingly, given their racist ideology) underestimated.

Thus it was that the important thing in what has been called South Africa's "negotiated revolution" was not the final goal the white government had in mind, but the process itself. The decisive moment in the entire transition, the moment when the Afrikaners finally pulled the finger out of the dyke, was when Botha gave Barnard the go-ahead to speak with Mandela. There it was that Mandela put in place the plot that marked the beginning of the end of white rule.

The meeting with Botha was the dam-burst itself. Mandela would write in his autobiography: "While the meeting was not a breakthrough in terms of negotiations, it was in another sense. Mr Botha had long talked about the need to cross the Rubicon, but he never did it himself until that morning in Tuynhuys. Now, I felt, there was no turning back."

Botha was a killer. Mandela knew that, but he found it in him to forgive him. As he forgave the whole of white South Africa. As if accepting somewhere in his heart that all was fair in love and war. If Mandela went beyond forgiveness to respect, and maybe even something approaching admiration, it is because he understood better than anybody the importance of that tea at Tuynhuys; because he believed, with his no less unlikely friend Niel Barnard, that it was Botha and not de Klerk who had carried out the greatest act of political courage; who, for all his sins, had given Mandela the opportunity to explore the route of peaceful negotiations, to meet on a level political playing-field.

What Botha never imagined that fateful day in Cape Town was how brilliantly Mandela would play the game, nor how soundly Mandela would beat him. If Mandela remained unfailingly generous towards him down the years, it was because he won, and PW Botha - a growler to the end - lost.

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