Lucerne, Switzerland September 12 1989

Maritz Spaarwater on the NIS meeting with Mbeki and Zuma that preceded the unbanning of the ANC

We arrived in Lucerne on 10 September 1989, a day ahead of our appointment with Thabo Mbeki - we did not know who was to accompany him, but assumed it would probably be Jacob Zuma, who at the time was the head of the ANC's Department of Intelligence and Security and already in the loop.

On the eve of our meeting we got a call from our man in Harare, from where our visitors were to have departed, informing us that they would be a day late as their scheduled flight had encountered mechanical problems soon after take-off and had to return to the airport. He also confirmed that Zuma would be with Mbeki.

The next day Mbeki phoned with the same account of events. A day later, on 12 September, our man in Geneva confirmed their arrival at the airport there, advised that they were travelling by car to Lucerne and gave us an estimated time of arrival. He also informed us of their driver, an ANC exile living in Europe who later was appointed to a senior position in the post-apartheid civil service.

We thought the visitors would be uncertain of what awaited them. Would the racist devils be waiting with AK-47s to blow them away and blame it on a hostile faction in the ANC? This was not far-fetched, as security forces back home were still wreaking havoc in the ANC ranks and tensions were at fever pitch. Considering their mindset at the time, I thought it quite brave of Mbeki and Zuma to attend, but it later appeared that they had also done some hedging of their own bets. We left the front door of the suite open as, hopefully, a form of reassurance.

When they entered, Mbeki's first words were: ‘Well, here we are, the terrorists, and for all you know fucking communists as well.' This opening statement, together with our gift of a pack each of Rum & Maple and Boxer pipe tobacco, which we knew Mbeki favoured, broke the ice. Zuma was carrying a briefcase and I asked whether he would mind if I put it in the room next door. We all agreed that none of us wanted these initial discussions recorded. He didn't object, but neither did he notice my own briefcase next to my chair, which had slipped my mind.

Both sides expressed the sincere intentions of their principals to seek a peaceful negotiated settlement to ensure the future of the country. We agreed that neither side was authorised to negotiate and that our discussions were aimed solely at establishing whether such negotiations would be feasible.

In an extended and exhausting but friendly session that lasted into the early hours, we discussed some of the most vexed nettles between the government and the ANC - Mandela's continued incarceration; the ban on the liberation movements; the involvement of the SACP with the ANC, to which our principals had serious objections; and the ongoing ANC-inspired mass protest action in South Africa with its attendant eruptions of violence.

We strongly urged them to tone down their propagandist threats of violence and retribution, pointing out that the government was having difficulty in persuading its support base that peaceful negotiations would be a viable alternative to continued violent confrontation.

Mbeki especially took our admonishments in this regard seriously and voiced his own objections to slogans being bandied about. He recognised that the destructive real results of ‘No education before liberation' and ‘Make the country ungovernable' particularly would be difficult for any future government to reverse.

In the end we fulfilled our mandate from the State Security Council (SSC). The ANC were clearly prepared and even eager to enter into discussions with the government. We agreed to report to our respective principals and, depending on the latter's directions, meet again to more substantively discuss devising a way forward.

On returning home, our DG was unavailable and so we had to go down to Cape Town to report directly to President De Klerk. On hearing about our meeting, he was livid. Who gave us the right to talk to the ANC? Calling us ‘you people', he accused us of again doing things in our own self-willed way, accountable to no one. He really ranted on a bit, but Mike Louw produced a copy of the SSC resolution - we had anticipated that De Klerk might not have been fully informed of the intended meeting or realised the implications of the SSC resolution adopted under his chairmanship.

After all, we could not have executed our mandate to investigate the feasibility of talking directly to the ANC without talking to some of them. De Klerk calmed down in an instant and, as Mike put it, he 'took up the ball and ran with it'. The president later confided that he had been dealt a hand of cards that he could not exchange, but had to play. It again struck me that he was not an original reformer, although he must have been involved in the gestation within the Afrikaner Broederbond described in O'Malley's papers.

This exchange took place on 16 September and, new to the hot seat, one has in fairness to take into account the tremendous pressures De Klerk must have been under in the drawn-out, tortuous demise of the Botha presidency and the advent of his own. Our appointment put us second in line to see him on his first day of taking general appointments as president, we were told.

It was interesting to see who the first visitor was to emerge from the president's office. It was Alf Ries, the political guru of the more ‘liberal' southern Nasionale Pers newspaper group, and of the NP in the Cape. De Klerk was representative of the more conservative views of the Northern NP, of which he was the leader, and its press.


During January 1990 Mike Louw phoned and asked that I arrange a second meeting with the exiled ANC leadership at the same venue in Lucerne for 6 February 1990. It only later transpired that this meeting had already been scheduled to take place after De Klerk's seminal statement of 2 February that year, of which Mike was by then aware but I was not.

This time discussions were more substantive and even more congenial than at the first meeting. With Aziz Pahad now accompanying Mbeki, it was also more fun. We had prepared a draft of a possible way forward, suggesting four categories of matters for attention. After fairly strenuous consideration and some headbutting, the following priorities were identified:

a. The release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

b. he return of the exiles to South Africa, including members of MK in the field.

c. The release of other political prisoners and detainees and the question of indemnity against their possible prosecution in terms of still extant security legislation, including returning exiles.

d. Preparing the way for constitutional negotiations.

We agreed on these as points to be referred to our principals for consideration, and to set up working committees to consider each and make recommendations on further proceedings. From our side we again stressed that the ANC should tone down their extremist slogans and propaganda broadcasts.

There was consensus that Mandela's release from prison was the overriding prerequisite for progress, and that this should not take much longer. I was not involved with the further progress of these suggestions for a way forward, but Mandela's release, CODESA and the Multi-Party Negotiation Process followed a similar approach to structuring the proceedings.

The atmosphere in this meeting was again pleasant and relaxed. Aziz Pahad could be a truly entertaining man. He repeatedly used the phrase ‘What is to be done?' when we were indeed discussing what was to be done, but it was his invocation of the title of Lenin's philosophical work of 1902 on the situation in Russia that came across as quite hilarious under the circumstances. It was also confirmed that the ANC had been caught off guard by De Klerk's bold initiative.

At the first meeting, I had a feeling that the teetotal Zuma put a bit of a damper on that occasion, although he was engagingly charming throughout. With Pahad's witticisms and his enthusiastic partaking of the fruit of the ‘Scottish vine' (as long as it was halaal, which he seemed to take for granted), we ‘negotiated' deep into the night.

At one stage he sat on a couch with his legs stretched out and dozed off. Mbeki kicked his feet and said: ‘Come on, Aziz, wake up. Don't leave me alone with these Boers.' Listening to Mbeki, I was impressed by his cogent, structured argumentation and thought it would be a mistake not to look past his seductive charm at the real man behind.

This is an extract from Maritz Spaarwater's book A Spook's Progress: From Making War to Making Peace, Random House Struik, 2012 (see here)

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