Dakar remembered, thirty years on

Hermann Giliomee looks back at the meeting with ANC in exile, from the perspective of what we know today

Exactly thirty years ago I was one of approximately sixty South Africans (half of them Afrikaners) who flew to Dakar, Senegal to engage with 17 senior ANC “cadres”, all of whom where in exile. Our common goal was finding a way out of the large-scale violence in which South Africa had been caught up in for the previous three years. Those of us who flew from South Africa soon became known as the “Dakarites”.

Like President Jacob Zuma today, President P.W. Botha had become discredited after his Rubicon speech on 16th August 1985 as a man who through a transparent, accountable government could bind South Africans together. Dr Anton Rupert warned Botha in a letter that if political suppression did not come to an end there would be the very real possibility of Afrikaner-leaders one day down the line facing Nuremberg-type trials.

In 1986 Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine established the “Institute for Democratic Alternatives for South Africa” (Idasa), a short while after both of them had walked out of parliament. Their very first large project was finding funds for a conference of mainly Afrikaans-speaking opinion makers, and members of the ANC leadership. In New York, they met the money-mogul George Soros. Slabbert told me afterwards about his response, “I think your country is doomed”, Soros said, “but I am prepared to help.”

Soros’s money was not wasted. The Idasa group was by no means united by a common political goal but the majority made it clear that the ANC did not have the means to topple the government through their armed struggle. Any escalation of violence and terror would be to the disadvantage the ANC itself. Dakar played a major role in establishing the idea of a negotiated settlement a the only real solution to South Africa’s problems.

In his opening speech at the Dakar-conference Thabo Mbeki provided a dramatic moment when he kicked-off with these words: “My name is Thabo Mbeki and I am an Afrikaner”. Later on Pallo Jordan, at that stage still falsely laying claim to a doctor’s degree, wrote an open letter to me in which he stated that those words were meant to reassure the Afrikaners that the ANC harboured no ill-will against them.

In his letter Jordan encouraged me and other Afrikaners to embrace the spirit of Mbeki’s speech and to declare from our side: “We are Africans”. According to him the only future possible for Afrikaners in Africa was for them to desist from keeping themselves apart and asking for minority rights. In the Dakar-debates he even went so far as to warn that the ANC will react with “liberatory intolerance” against Afrikaners who wanted to organise themselves around minority rights, especially language rights, or oppose affirmative action. Here scant tolerance was shown.

Mbeki, like Jordan, revealed the ANC’s Janus-face. On the one hand there was Mbeki’s Africanist-side insisting on the liberation of the African nation, with black people, as the “most oppressed section” entitled to the greatest forms of special advancement because of this. On the other hand was Mbeki’s support for “non-racialism”, which was supposed to ignore race as a salient feature in decision-making.

Mbeki himself, as a person, was also a paradox. The one side of the Janus-figure was an urbane diplomat; the other side an uncompromising, intolerant ideologue. I wondered how Mbeki reconciled his “I am an Afrikaner” declaration with statements he had previously made. His animus against Afrikaners and their history was striking in a speech he made in 1978 in Canada, called “The Historic Injustice”. This speech would be included in a volume of his speeches published during his term as deputy president of South Africa.

In “The Historic Injustice” Mbeki argues, quite similar to Jacob Zuma today, that “the Boers” stole the land and cattle from the blacks and enslaved them. With the Great Trek the Afrikaners, according to Mbeki, left behind everything that was dynamic in the history of human progress. They now adhered to a “perverse form” of Calvinism in which they proclaimed themselves to be a Chosen People.

According to Mbeki black people during the twentieth century were subjected to the most extreme form of capitalist exploitation and dehumanisation. They produced all the wealth, but white people appropriated it all.

Even after becoming president Mbeki continued in this vein. This is clear from the very graphic language he used in an ANC electronic newsletter written in late 2008 after Adriaan Vlok, a Minister of Police in the De Klerk cabinet, had washed the feet of the Reverand Frank Chikane, a high official in the presidency. During the 1980s Vlok had been an accomplice in the near-fatal poisoning of Chikane, who was then an ANC activist. In Mbeki’s words Vlok washed the feet of a black man, whom he had been brought up to see as belonging to a ‘sub-human species’, and whom he had wanted dead as he represented the ‘anti-Christ’.

At the Dakar conference of 1987. Mbeki preferred to emphasize the non-racial nature of the ANC movement. However, affirmative action would remain the law until the ANC had judged the structure of society to be non-racial. Many of Idasa’s “Dakar-gangers” provided no resistance to this argument. They were afraid of being accused of still secretly supporting apartheid.

Like all the other leaders of the organization, Mbeki displayed a deep belief in the ANC’s moral virtue. The key words in his vocabulary were ‘non-racial democracy’. But these were slippery terms, as Lawrence Schlemmer, a member of the Idasa group, pointed out:

“The ANC has perfected a code in responding to the issue of race. It invariably starts off from the position of non-racism, and it then qualifies this with a commitment to closing racial gaps in order to achieve a legitimate basis for non-racialism, and from there it proposes a range of race-based affirmative action and empowerment policies to give effect to this. In the latter aspect it is able to assure its African or black supporters that, although ‘non-racial’, it is ‘on their side’.”[1]

After 1994 the ANC adopted the view that the races to be represented in demographic proportions as the ‘logical’ end product of non-racialism. But in 1987 not many of us had any idea of the ANC’s future plans. Chris Louw, a journalist who after 1994 would nearly be “transformed out” his job at the SABC, had this recollection of Dakar:

“Only much later did I realise how naïve I was in Dakar. There was a type of bravado amongst the younger Afrikaners. They were tired of the rigid, racist stereotype of the Afrikaner…..We wanted to show that we were even more African than the ANC; in that sense the conference for us was more a matter of show than substance. We were so ashamed of our government, ashamed of P.W. Botha’s boorish behaviour, of the hodgepodge NP – policy, that we succumbed to the temptation of taking sides with the ANC and their ideology. In that spirit we rejected any reference to minority or group rights as code-language for NP support. We wanted to create as much distance as possible between ourselves and the NP”.

In the same way the ANC’s conception of democracy needed to be deconstructed. From the 1960s members of the South African Communist Party had begun moving the ANC Alliance ever further towards the democratic centralism of Eastern European dictatorships. A tight and unaccountable party elite allowed free discussion among the party elite until a decision was taken, which the leadership then rigidly enforced. The legislature was largely reduced to a rubber stamp. A fusion of the ruling party and the state occurred that left little room for an opposition. In Eastern Europe centralism was the dominant feature and the democratic aspect largely cosmetic.[2]

Initially Africa countries that became independent during the late 1950s and 1960s did not take the Easter European route. The great moral alibi of African nationalism was the main liberal principle, namely majority rule. This was very evident in the way the ANC delegates approached the subject in the debates at Dakar. People like Mbeki and Jordan, who posed as the leading members of the ANC’s intelligentsia, proposed a fairly unqualified form of majoritarianism. They tried to dismiss the entire literature on the importance of ethnicity in deeply divided societies and the dangers its neglect poses to the consolidation of a democracy.  

Majority rule in divided society like ours, however, means something radically different than in a homogeneous society, where social class interests and beliefs rather than racial or ethnic identity determine voters’ choices. In societies deeply divided by race and ethnicity, by contrast, the ascribed identity strongly shapes the voters’ affiliation. Invariably this results in the largest racial or ethnic group in the electorate forming a ‘permanent majority’, using democratic terminology and mechanisms to exclude minorities as participants in decision-making.[3]

An open letter by Jordan to me after the conference Jordan asked ‘Why won’t the Afrikaners rely on democracy?’ He dismissed calls for minority rights as a refusal to ‘seek forms of mutuality’ with the African majority in a democracy. He mocked any anxiety over possible discrimination against whites under black rule by waxing lyrical over the non-racial tradition of the ANC. In the open letter Jordan wrote: ‘The very fact that we had to struggle to maintain non-racialism has drilled it into the average member so that it was almost second nature.’[4] What he was saying, in short, was that the ANC could be trusted to take the interests of the minorities into account.

At Dakar the ANC delegation even rejected a bill of rights seeking to safeguard individual rights and assuage minority fears, arguing that the Freedom Charter offered enough guarantees. It refused to concede that speakers of a minority language should be entitled to enforceable language rights. Jordan stated: ‘The future of Afrikaans is assured – if for no other reason than that it is the language of many black people’.[5]

This was hardly a firm assurance. Several members of the Idasa group proposed a fairly lengthy period of power-sharing after apartheid had been abolished , but both ANC delegates and several members of the Idasa group dismissed this as a way of resuscitating apartheid.[6]

Eli Kedourie, one of the most respected experts on nationalism, wrote after a visit to South Africa in the mid-1980s that “the worst manifestation of the tyranny of the majority occur when the undiluted Western model is implemented in countries divided by religion, language or race.” [7]

But many member of the Idasa group were simply determined to believe that individual rights would be sufficient to protect the interested and cultural values of the minority communities. I was one of those whose views were dismissed as archaic, perhaps even racist. Mark Gevisser, Mbeki’s biographer, later wrote: “Hermann Giliomee became the Boer in the woodpile in the Idasa delegation”.

Dakar was meant to be the place where we would think deeply, reflect and

argue over a democratic dispensation that could work for South Africa, and strive for a type of consensus on various issues. This did not happen. Mike Robertson, an experienced journalist who attended the conference, later wrote that the Idasa-delegation failed in convincing the ANC to make a single concession.

This piece was first published in Afrikaans in Die Burger. A conference commemorating the historic Dakar meeting will take place this week-end in Stellenbosch. Hermann Giliomee’s book Historian: An Autobiography (Tafelberg) was recently published.


[1] Hermann Giliomee, James Myburgh and Lawrence Schlemmer, ‘Dominant Party Rule, Opposition Parties and Minorities in South Africa’ in Roger Southall, ed., Opposition and Democracy in South Africa (London: Frank Cass, 2001), p. 179.

[2] Vernon Bogdanor, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 169.

[3] Pierre L. van den Berghe, ‘Introduction’ in Van den Berghe (ed.), The Liberal Dilemma in South Africa, London: Croom Helm, 1979, p. 7.

[4] Pallo Jordan, ‘Why won’t the Afrikaners rely on democracy?’, Die Suid-Afrikaan, February, 1988, p. 25.

[5] ANC, Paris-Dakar meeting, pp. 26-27. Alex Boraine, a co-organiser of the conference, later recorded his displeasure with the focus on language rights: ‘Hermann Giliomee, Lawrie Schlemmer and others kept raising the issue of the future of the Afrikaans language.’ In his view Pallo Jordan put these people in their place when he replied in fluent Afrikaans that they should not worry only about Afrikaans but about Xhosa and Zulu as well. He continued: ‘They had not been reassured about the position of Afrikaans in a democratic society’. Alex Boraine, A Life in Transition (Cape Town: Zebra, 2008) p. 154.

[6] For further discussion see Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer, From Apartheid to Nation-building (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[7] Eli Kedourie, ‘One-Man, One-Vote’, South Africa International, Vol. 18, No 7, 1987, p. 1.