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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

'A document to create a climate of understanding'; Nelson Mandela to F. W. de Klerk 12 December 1989

Mr President,

I hope that Ministers Kobie Coetsee and Gerrit Viljoen have informed you that I deeply appreciate your decision in terms of which eight fellow-prisoners were freed on 15 October 1989, and for advising me of the fact in advance. The release was dearly a major development which rightly evoked praise here and abroad.

In my view it has now become urgent to take other measures to end the present deadlock, and this will certainly be achieved if the government first creates a proper climate for negotiation, followed by a meeting with the ANC. The conflict which is presently draining South Africa's life blood, either in the form of peaceful demonstrations, acts of violence or external pressure, will never be settled until there is an agreement with the ANC. To this end I have spent more than three years urging the Government to negotiate with the ANC. I hope I will not leave this place with empty hands.

The Government insists on the ANC making an honest commitment to peace before it will talk to the organisation. This is the precondition we are required to meet before the Government will negotiate with us. It must be made clear at the outset that the ANC will never make such a commitment at the instance of the Government, or any other source for that matter. We would have thought that the history of this country's liberation movement, especially during the last 41 years, would have made that point perfectly clear.

The whole approach of the Government to the question of negotiation with the ANC is totally unacceptable, and requires to be drastically changed. No serious political organisation will ever talk peace when an aggressive war is being waged against it. No proud people will ever obey orders from those who have humiliated and dishonoured them for so long.

Besides, the pre-condition that we should commit ourselves to peace is inconsistent with the statement you made in Nigel shortly before the last general election, in which you appealed to black leaders to come forward to negotiate with the government, and to refrain from setting pre-conditions for such negotiations. It was generally assumed that the appeal was addressed to blacks as a whole and not, as now appears, only to those who work in apartheid structures.

In the light of subsequent Government policy statements, the perception has deepened that the Nigel statement was no more than mere rhetoric. Although the government called on blacks to set no preconditions, it considers itself free to do exactly that.

That is the reason why it prescribes to us to make a commitment to peace before we can talk.

The Government ought to be aware that readiness to negotiate is in itself an honest commitment to peace. In this regard, the ANC is far ahead of the Government. It has repeatedly declared its willingness to negotiate, provided a proper climate for such negotiations exists. The organisation has recently published a clear and detailed plan to this effect, which has already been approved by the Frontline States, the Organisation of African Unity, the Non-Aligned Movement and by almost all the members of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Equally relevant is the fact that on many occasions in the past, the ANC has explicitly acknowledged its commitment to peaceful solutions, if channels for doing so are available. As recently as 24 October 1989, the Star reported as follows:

The ANC says it is committed to a peaceful solution in South Africa but accuses the Government of rhetoric. ... At present there is really no serious indication from the Government itself about a peaceful solution to the political crisis.... Five years ago, President P. W Botha spoke virtually the same words but nothing happened.

It is history now that the ANC has made impassioned overtures to every single Government of South Africa in vain. Every manoeuvre was met with a negative response, and at times violence.

This and similar other previous statements dearly show that the ANC has an established record of commitment to peace, and that its armed struggle is a purely defensive measure against the violence of the Government. This point was stressed by Mr Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC, during an interview with Cape Times editor, Anthony Heard on 4 November 1985, when he said: 'The unfortunate thing is that people tend to be worried about the violence that comes from the oppressed. ... Really, there would be no violence at all if we did not have the violence of the apartheid system'.

There is neither logic nor common sense in asking the ANC to do now what it has consistently done on countless occasions before. It is the Government, not the ANC, that started civil war in this country, and that does not want reconciliation and peace. How does one work for reconciliation and peace? How does one work for reconciliation and peace under a State of Emergency, with black areas under military occupation, when people's organisations are banned, leaders are either in exile, prison or restricted, when the policy of apartheid with its violence is still being enforced, and when no conditions for free political expression exist?

Serious doubts have also been expressed as to whether the Government would be prepared to meet the ANC even when it fully complied with your demand. Political commentators point out that, during the series of discussion you and other Government members held recendy with the 'homeland' leaders and their urban counterparts, you avoided meeting the very organisation which, together with the ANC, holds the key to peace in this country. The United Democratic Front and its main affiliates, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress, are all non-violent and peaceful organisations. Why then did the Government ignore them if commitment to peace is the only qualification for participation in negotiations?

In your inaugural address on 20 September 1989, you made an important statement which must have had a formidable impact inside and outside the country. You said: There is but one way to peace, to justice for all, that is the way of reconciliation, of together seeking mutually acceptable solutions, of together discussing what the new South Africa should look like, of constitutional negotiation with a view to a permanent understanding'.

The cornerstone of that address was the idea of reconciliation, in which you pleaded for a new spirit and approach. By reconciliation, in this context, was understood the situation where opponents, and even enemies for that matter, would sink their differences and lay down their arms for the purpose of working out a peaceful solution, where the injustices and grievances of the past would be buried and forgotten, and a fresh start made. That is the spirit in which the people of South Africa would like to work together for peace; those are the principles which should guide those who love their country and its people, who want to turn South Africa into a land of hope. In highlighting this theme in your address, you sparked off a groundswell of expectations from far and wide. Many people felt that, at last, the South Africa of their dreams was about to be born.

We understood your appeal for reconciliation and justice for all not to be directed to those blacks who operate apartheid structures. Apart from a few notable exceptions, these blacks are the creation of the National Party and, throughout the years, they have served as its loyal agents in its various strategies to cling to minority rule. Their principal role has been, and still is, to make the struggle for majority rule in a unitary state far more difficult to achieve. For the last three decades, they have been used to defend the NP's policy of group domination -now referred to as group rights - and they have no tradition of militant resistance against racial discrimination. There is thus no conflict to be reconciled between the NP and these people.

The appeal could not have been directed to any of the opposition parties in Parliament either. Although the NP has made positive initiatives here and there, its public image is still tarnished by a cloud of distrust and suspicion, and by an inherent vagueness and indecision as far as the really basic issues are concerned. Many people see no fundamental difference between its policies and those of the Conservative Party. Both are regarded as apartheid parties, the only difference being that one is more blunt than the other in its defence of white privilege.

Although the Democratic Party is the most progressive parliamentary party, and despite the existence of important policy differences between that party and the NP, the relations between the two parties are not so bitter as to justify a call for reconciliation and peace by a head of state. The fairly even relation between the two parties is clearly illustrated by the fact that the DP is not banned, none of its leaders are restricted, imprisoned, driven into exile or executed for purely political offences, as is happening to our people.

The conflict which we believe you wanted to settle was that between the Government, on the one hand, and the ANC and other extra-parliamentary organisations, on the other. It is the activities of these organisations which have turned South Africa into a land of acute tension and fear. It is on this level that the country desperately yearns for reconciliation and justice for all. As pointed out on other occasions, dialogue with the ANC and the mass democratic movement is the only way of stopping violence and bringing peace to the country. It is, therefore, ironical that it is precisely these organisations with whom the Government is not at all prepared to talk.

It is common knowledge that the Government has been sharply criticised, and even condemned, in the past, for squandering precious resources, and for wasting much energy and time discussing with people who can play no significant role in the resolution of the current conflict in the country. Past experience shows that the Government would prefer to make peace with those who accept its policies, rather than those who reject them, with its friends rather than its opponents. It is to be hoped that this time, the Government will not repeat that costly mistake. To continue to ignore this criticism, and to confine consultations on the political crisis almost entirely to those individuals and organisations which help the Government to maintain the status quo, will certainly deepen the distrust and suspicion which impede real progress on negotiations.

In my lengthy discussions with the team of Government officials, I repeatedly urged that negotiation between the ANC and the Government should preferably be in two stages; the first being where the Government and the ANC would together work out the preconditions for negotiations. The second stage would consist of the actual negotiations themselves when the climate for doing so was ripe. These were my personal views and not those of the ANC, which sees the problem quite differently. It seems to me that now that I am aware of the attitude of the ANC on the matter, an attitude which is perfectly sound, we should work on the formula indicated by the organisation for the resolution of the present obstacles to negotiation.

The principal source of almost all our problems in this country is undoubtedly the policy of apartheid, which the Government now admits is an unjust system, and from which it claims to be moving away. This means that organisations and people who were banned, restricted, driven into exile, imprisoned or executed for their anti-apartheid activities were unjustly condemned. The very first step on the way to reconciliation is obviously the dismantling of apartheid, and all measures used to enforce it. To talk of reconciliation before this major step is taken is totally unrealistic.

The five year plan of the NP, with its outdated concept of group rights, has aggravated the position almost beyond repair. It is yet another example of the Government's attempt 'to modernise apartheid without abandoning it'. What the plan means, in effect, is that after resisting racial oppression for so many years, and after making such heavy sacrifices during which countless lives were lost, we should at the height of that heroic struggle, yield to a disguised form of minority rule.

In a nutshell, the plan means that blacks will taste real freedom in the world to come. In this one, whites will go on preaching reconciliation and peace, but continue to hold firmly and defiantly to power and to enforce racial separation, the very issues which have caused so much agony and bitterness in the country. Insistence on such a plan will render meaningless all talk of 'reconciliation and justice for all; of together seeking mutually acceptable solutions, of together discussing what the new South Africa should look like, of constitutional negotiation with a view to a permanent understanding'.

We equally reject, out of hand, the Government's plan to hold racially based elections to determine those who should take part in negotiations. Commentators of different political views consider it absurd for the Government to advocate essentially racist procedures, where the overwhelming majority of the population is striving for a non-racial system of government.

The government argues that our situation is a complex one, and that a lasting solution will only be found after years of consultation and planning. We totally reject that view. There is nothing complicated in replacing minority rule with majority rule, group domination with a non-racial social order. The position if complicated is complicated simply because the Government itself is not yet ready to accept the most obvious solution which the majority demands, and believes that a racial solution can still be imposed on the country.

The Government claims that the ANC is not the sole representative of black aspirations in this country; therefore, it (the Government) cannot be expected to have separate discussion with the organisation. It can only do so in the presence of other organisations. We reject this argument as yet another example of the Government's intransigence. All those who resort to such an argument make themselves wide open to the charge of using double standards.

It is now public knowledge that the Government has on numerous occasions held separate discussions with each of the 'homeland' leaders and with their urban counterparts. For the Government now to refuse us this privilege would not only be inconsistent with its own actions, but would seriously undermine the confidence-building exercises on which we have embarked, compelling all those involved to seek mutually acceptable solutions under very grave difficulties. Equally important is the fact that there is a war between the ANC and the Government, and a cease-fire to end hostilities will have to be negotiated first, before talks to normalise the situation can begin. Only Government and the ANC and its allies can take part in such talks, and no third party would be needed.

I must now refer to a different but related matter, which I hope will receive your urgent attention, that is the release of four fellow-prisoners who were sentenced to life imprisonment by a Natal court in 1978, and who are presently held in Robben Island. They are: Mr Matthew Meyiwa (66 years) Mr Elphas Mdlalose (66 years) Mr Anthony Xaba (56 Years) Mr John Nene (± 56 years)

They were first sentenced in 1964, Mr Mdlalose to 10 years' imprisonment and the rest to eight years. In 1978 they were again convicted and sentenced, this time to life imprisonment. For reasons which were carefully explained to Ministers Gerrit Viljoen and Kobie Coetsee on 10 October 1989, and to the Government team on 16 November 1989, I had expected Messrs Mdlalose and Meyiwa to be freed together with the eight fellow-prisoners mentioned above. I was indeed extremely distressed when the two were not included. Bearing in mind all the surrounding circumstances to the case, the fact that these four persons are not first offenders should be regarded as a mitigating, and not as an aggravating factor.

I would like to believe that my exploratory efforts during the last three years have not been in vain, that I have an important role still to play in helping to bring about a peaceful settlement, that the initiatives you have already taken will soon be followed by other developments on the really fundamental issues that are agitating our people, and that in our life-time our country will rid itself of the pestilence of racialism in all its forms.

In conclusion, Mr President, I should add that, in helping to promote dialogue between the ANC and the Government, I hope to be able to avoid any act which may be interpreted as an attempt on my part to drive a wedge between you and the NP, or to portray you in a manner not consistent with your public image. I trust that you and other members of the Government will fully reciprocate.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.