This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
4 Mar 2006: Wills, Ashley
POM Hello, Ambassador Wills?
POM It's Padraig O'Malley.
AW Hi, how are you?
POM Is this a convenient time for you?
AW It is although I've only got a few minutes because I've had some appointments added to my schedule.
POM I'm sorry, I just got re-connected. You were saying that this woman – again, her name was?
AW Mrs Dorothy Ryersbach. She owned the house although I think she was even then living in the Cape but she owned this gorgeous home up on the Berea in Durban. Shortly after we moved in she called us and said she had this gorgeous garden there and she wanted to make sure it was well cared for and would we mind hiring a gardener who was a friend of hers and who had just been released from Robben Island. We said, sure. I checked around a little bit about Mac and found out just a little bit about him and had no objection at all to his working there and he came to work for us and he actually didn't work as a gardener, he spent a lot of time educating my wife and me about the history of South Africa and I remember long conversations over coffee in the kitchen as he recounted experiences from his own life and his association with Mandela and so on. We found this highly educational and we became good friends. As I say, calling him a gardener is a joke, that was his nominal title, and it was clear to us that Dorothy was herself an ANC supporter although not known to be that, at least not to our knowledge, by the South African authorities.
So anyway it was clear that she had arranged this so that he could be close to the Swazi border or Mozambique and one morning we woke up and read a newspaper story that Mac Maharaj had fled South Africa. I think he worked, as I say, so to speak, for us for – I don't remember when he left South Africa, I think it was in the summer of 1977.
POM Yes, it would have been around then. July I think.
AW So it was about four or five months that he was with us. As I say, we became quite friendly and we became much more knowledgeable as a result of his tutorials, very friendly and informative tutorials, and that was that until eight or nine years later at which point I was Officer in Charge of the South Africa Desk in the State Department and my boss, Assistant Secretary Chet Crocker, was musing one day about how it would be useful for us to establish contact with the ANC and I piped up and said well I happen to know a senior person in the ANC. There was astonishment all around and then through our – I can't remember how we found out, it might have been through our intelligence agencies, a couple of months after that conversation with Crocker I learned – I guess what I did was I sent out work to the intelligence agencies that someone should let me know if Mac Maharaj was coming to the United States and not long thereafter I got word that he was coming to New York for a meeting and so I arranged to go up there and marched into his hotel and rang him on the hotel phone. He was very surprised. We had a lovely reunion downstairs in the lobby and spent two or three hours chatting about what he had been doing in the intervening years and what the ANC's view was and I communicated to him the Reagan Administration's wish to establish an informal contact with the ANC which he duly, I guess, reported to Oliver Tambo or somebody in the leadership and one thing led to another and contact was established and a few months after that we invited Oliver Tambo to Washington to meet with Secretary of State George Schultz. One of the photographs I have on my so-called 'me wall' is my introducing Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC, to Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Schultz. That contact led eventually to all kinds of positive developments both in our relations with the ANC and the ANC's relations with the South African government and eventually to Mr Mandela's release.
POM As a result of these meetings with Tambo and the positive attitude being taken by the Reagan Administration, was the US government able to independently exert pressure on P W Botha or on, more simply, De Klerk for the release of –
AW It was more De Klerk.
POM Yes. Now when you talk –
AW We obviously talked with PW quite a lot about what we were learning and also with Pik Botha but the instrumental figure there was De Klerk a little later on. By that time I had left South African affairs and was living in Yugoslavia in the Balkans but I stayed in touch with my colleagues back in the South African office.
POM Now when you met with Mac in New York did you find him at that time open to some intervention from the United States, open to the question of negotiations, or was he adopting a militant posture?
AW No he was not – he was cautious. It was a great surprise to him that I showed up and that I was in the policy position that I was in and that I was communicating something, quite a significant signal, and he as a good ANC official didn't quite know how to interpret this and wasn't sure how his colleagues in Lusaka or wherever would react. So he took a reserved position, said he understood what I was saying to him and that he would pass it on and we would hear back. We did hear back.
POM Did that hearing back come from Lusaka?
AW It came through our Embassy in Lusaka, back to me.
POM That would have been Oliver Tambo conveying to the Embassy –
AW One of our officers in our Embassy there at the time, I'm sorry I don't remember who it was, it might have been our Ambassador for all I know, anyway I got a message from Lusaka saying the ANC is willing to talk.
POM To the US government?
AW Yes, as long as we do it in a discreet way and that's what we did until we announced, to everyone's surprise, that Oliver Tambo was coming to Washington to meet with George Schultz. That was many months later after many, many different conversations and exchanges of views and so forth. It would have been 1987 maybe.
POM I can look it up.
AW I can't remember exactly when it was but it was all initiated by this conversation between Mac and me and that was possible because of our relationship going back several years earlier.
POM OK, The Constant Gardener!
AW Yes, The Constant Gardener. I'll be honest with you, I don't think Mac knew a goddamn thing about gardening.
POM You know what he did because he used to pose as a gardener, one of the ways when he was making bombs or getting sulphur for his bombs in Johannesburg in 1963 and 1964, he would dress as a gardener and he would go to stores so that he could buy – he had studied stuff knowing that sulphur was good for some plants, so that he could go in there posing as a gardener and asking for materials that were relevant to gardening so he could get sulphur.
AW So maybe he knew more than I thought.
POM Maybe. Well, listen, thank you ever so much. I will fax you – if you give me a fax number I will fax a transcript of this to you and I will send you an electronic version as well of the transcript and then I will show you the excerpts that I'm using and where I'm placing them in the manuscript so you can review them. OK?
AW OK. That would be great and I look forward to reading your book. I read the introduction that you sent me and it's quite well written and informative.
AW The fax number is 202 663 6363.
POM I've been calling you Ashley White for so many years, I hope I don't make a mistake.
AW No, no, Ashley Wills.
POM Don't worry. Thank you ever so much. I appreciate it.
AW My pleasure.
POM Bye bye.
AW Bye bye.