Extract | ‘Breakthrough’ by Mac Maharaj and Z Pallo Jordan

12 October 2021 - 14:20
Written by two ANC veterans who were close to these events, 'Breakthrough' sheds new light on the process that led to the formal negotiations.
Written by two ANC veterans who were close to these events, 'Breakthrough' sheds new light on the process that led to the formal negotiations.
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About the book:

“This book crisply and incisively documents the often slow but nevertheless inexorable political process by which the ANC gained the upper hand in its bitter contest with the National Party government. A book of nuanced analysis and a narrative that has not been available to the public until now.” — Dennis Davis

When president FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the liberation movements on February 2 1990, he opened the door to negotiations that would end apartheid and pave the way to democracy. But how did this moment come about? What power struggles and secret talks had brought the country to this point?

Written by two ANC veterans who were close to these events, Breakthrough sheds new light on the process that led to the formal negotiations. Focusing on the years before 1990, the book reveals the skirmishes that took place away from the public glare as the principal adversaries engaged in a battle of positions that carved a pathway to the negotiating table.

Drawing from material in the prison files of Nelson Mandela, minutes of the meetings of the ANC constitutional committee, the national working committee (NWC) and the national executive committee (NEC) , notes about the Mells Park talks led by Prof Willie Esterhuyse and Thabo Mbeki, communications between Oliver Tambo and Operation Vula, the Kobie Coetsee Papers, the Broederbond archives and many other sources, the authors have pieced together a definitive account of these historic developments.

While most accounts of SA’s transition deal with what happened during the formal negotiations, Breakthrough demonstrates that an account of how the opposing parties reached the negotiating table in the first place is indispensable for an understanding of how SA broke free from a spiralling war and began the journey to democracy.

About the authors: 

Mac Maharaj has been involved in the freedom struggle since 1953. After serving a 12-year sentence on Robben Island from 1965 to 1976, he was appointed secretary of the department charged with organising the ANC within SA. He served on the Revolutionary Council from 1978 and the NEC of the ANC from 1985 to 2000. He was joint secretary of Codesa, the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum and the Transitional Executive Council. He served in the first democratic cabinet and retired from active politics in 1999. Former president Jacob Zuma appointed him special envoy in 2009 and spokesperson from 2011 to 2015, when he retired from that position.

Z Pallo Jordan has been a political activist since his student days. The ANC sent him to Luanda, Angola in 1977 to revive Radio Freedom. He was elected to the NEC of the ANC in July 1985. He served on the ANC’s constitutional committee, established in 1986, and was its liaison with the NWC and the NEC. He was appointed to head the ANC’s department of information in 1988 and served as its principal spokesperson until he entered parliament in 1994. He served in different cabinet positions until 2008.


The “Mandela document” as his 1989 memo to PW Botha became known, is the most unambiguous indication of what Mandela set out to achieve when he began to engage with the regime. It adheres to the explanation he gave to a concerned Tambo when the latter smuggled a message into jail asking him what he was up to behind those prison walls. (“A meeting between the ANC and the government”, was Mandela’s curt response.)

The memo keeps to the parameters of talks about talks, focusing on the government’s reasons for refusing to meet the ANC. Mandela robustly challenges the government’s precondition that the ANC renounce violence, and defends the alliance of the ANC and the SACP. He disabuses the government of its claim that socialism was the ANC’s goal and insists that the Freedom Charter envisaged a mixed economy. Mandela also rejects the government’s condemnation of the principle of majority rule, which he insists is a necessary condition for stability and peace to prevail in South Africa.

“[M]ajority rule and internal peace,” Mandela argued, “are like the two sides of a single coin, and white South Africa simply has to accept that there will never be peace and stability in this country until the principle is fully applied”. His discussions with Coetsee and the Barnard team had led him to hone his argument, and Mandela urged that “the key to the whole situation is a negotiated settlement, and a meeting between the government and the ANC will be the first major step towards lasting peace in the country”.

He crisply set out the challenge that negotiations would have to confront:

Two political issues will have to be addressed at such a meeting: firstly, the demand for majority rule in a unitary state, secondly, the concern of white SA over this demand, as well as the insistence of whites on structural guarantees that majority rule will not mean domination of the white minority by blacks. The most crucial task which will face government and the ANC will be to reconcile these two positions. Such reconciliation will be achieved only if both parties are willing to compromise.

Any hopes that the regime may have entertained of detaching Mandela from the ANC were dashed. The country continued to hurtle towards what many began to see as its Armageddon.

The talks with Coetsee and the team led by Barnard had reached the point where both sides understood the core issues that negotiations should address. By this time, Tambo had secretly briefed Mandela about what later came to be known as the Harare Declaration.

The Harare Declaration, adopted on 21 August 1989 by the OAU subcommittee on southern Africa at its summit in Harare, Zimbabwe, urged the apartheid regime “to take measures to create a climate for negotiations, to put an end to apartheid and define a new constitutional order based on a set of democratic principles (also listed in the declaration). It also elaborated on the conditions for the negotiations to start”. Any hopes that the regime may have entertained of detaching Mandela from the ANC were dashed. The country continued to hurtle towards what many began to see as its Armageddon.

Tambo made sure he had fully canvassed the heads of the frontline states by the time the ANC NEC met on 8 August 1989 to finalise the draft of the Harare Declaration. That evening, he suffered a debilitating stroke which rendered him out of action. He had devoted all his energy to ensuring that the draft would be adopted by the frontline states, who in turn would sponsor it at the OAU, who in turn would take it to the UN for its imprimatur.

Parallel to these developments, another initiative was unfolding. The Mells Park talks had their origins in a meeting between Tambo and a group of British businesspeople in London in June 1986. Michael Young, the political advisor to Rudolph Agnew, chairman and group chief executive of Consolidated Gold Fields, had approached Tambo to ask what a company such as theirs could do. Tambo asked him to ‘“help build a bridge between the ANC and those Afrikaners close to government” as progress was impossible without some form of communication.

After securing Agnew’s approval, Young approached senior figures in the Afrikaner establishment. They included academics such as Willie Esterhuyse and Sampie Terreblanche. Both appear to have been members of the Broederbond at the time and would therefore have been privy to the June 1986 Broederbond document titled “Basic political policy conditions for the survival of the Afrikaner”. There is a correlation between the views advanced in this paper and the line of questions posed by Esterhuyse and Terreblanche at the Mells Park talks.

Esterhuyse was approached by Fleur de Villiers, a consultant for Consolidated Gold Fields, who called him from London to brief him on Young’s proposal. A few weeks later, he received a phone call from Pretoria requesting a meeting. This led to a discussion with Koos Kruger and Möller Dippenaar of the NIS at Esterhuyse’s home in Stellenbosch. Esterhuyse felt that, in light of the Consolidated Gold Fields project, cooperating with the National Intelligence Service (NIS) would give him the opportunity to advance a process of peace and democratisation. After that, he received regular, intensive briefings from the NIS in various safe houses, even meeting NIS head Niël Barnard at some stage.

In his record of the second bilateral Mells Park meeting held from 22-24 February 1988, Young states that Esterhuyse “briefed the State President following the October session. Both the State President and Dr Niel Barnard, Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency [sic], had asked Esterhuyse to ensure the continuance of the dialogue”.

In a memo dated 31 May 1988, Young adds that “since the last round of discussions held at Eastwell Manor from 13-15 February 1988 the State President has been fully briefed and is now positively in favour of further discussions. He appears to trust the forum as one in which dialogue can take place in secrecy, and he and the National Intelligence Agency accept and welcome the contribution [of] CGF [Consolidated Gold Fields] as facilitators of the dialogue”. In his book Endgame, Esterhuyse does not indicate whether he consulted PW Botha, as he did in 1984 when he was approached by Professor HW van der Merwe.

Barnard has chosen to be silent on this aspect in his two books, save for a giveaway remark that “years later, when the unrest was over and the struggle won, some of them related tales of their heroic deeds with progressive-minded friends under the oaks at Stellenbosch, but when they had to stand up and be counted in the State Security Council (SSC) and elsewhere, they were quiet as mice”.

However, according to the notes of Michael Young, “Esterhuyse tells me, in precise detail, what Thabo M’Beke [sic] reported back to his national executive and this confirms my view that the ANC is anxious to participate in the next round at the most senior level. Such precise intelligence suggests the presence of a security informer on the ANC executive.”

Three things stand out. First, President Botha was privy to the discussions at Mells Park. Second, the NIS was involved at least through Esterhuyse, if not others as well. Third, Mbeki knew of the NIS connection, but Esterhuyse did not inform him that Botha was aware of the talks. While Esterhuyse conceived of his role as a facilitator, the NIS and the ANC had their own plans. Both were using the talks to gather information about the other and to understand their respective bottom lines if and when talks between the regime and the ANC were to take place. Indeed, at least in the early stages of the meetings, the NIS was still probing to discern fault lines within the ANC. It was during 1988 that the regime realised that negotiations concerning the way out of the crisis could not exclude the ANC.

We dwell on the regime’s direct links with the talks through Esterhuyse because he privately informed Mbeki of his contact with the NIS when the two met for the first time in February 1988. This information changed the scenario from previous ANC interactions with groups from SA. Later, Esterhuyse became the conduit through which the first face-to-face meeting between the ANC and the NIS took place in Lucerne, Switzerland, in September 1989.

It is necessary to note that while Esterhuyse claimed in 2016 that the Mells Park engagement in February 1988 when he met Mbeki was the start of “talks about talks”, he did not make this claim in his book published in 2012. And Mbeki did not make any such characterisation in his report to the NWC in September 1988.

In The Thabo Mbeki I Know, published in 2016, Esterhuyse writes that on 21 February 1988, “[u]nderneath a tree in the icy grounds of Eastwell Manor, I told him [Mbeki] — in a serious tone — that our dialogue group actually amounted to ‘talks within talks’, one form of dialogue involved the whole group; the second was private and personal between him and me and related to my national intelligence connection”.

He adds: “I stressed the fact that I had no mandate and that I had no knowledge of the NIS’s game plan.”

While Esterhuyse was privately briefing both Botha and Young, Young was secretly briefing the UK government. Much as Tambo was determined to keep [British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher out of any negotiations, she was never­theless brought into the loop by Young. In the Michael Young Papers, there is a copy of a letter written by Young and headed “Note for Mr RIJ Agnew”. It states: “I attach herewith the minutes of the last Bilateral Meeting held in December. I much look forward to discuss how we progress the matter with No 10 Downing Street.”

Just as the ANC was wary of outside involvement, the regime, and Barnard in particular, was also determined to keep all outsiders away from any moves to find a solution to SA’s problems.

There is evidence that he was liaising with other ministers in the Thatcher government, too. According to Tony Trew, who was the note-taker for the ANC team during the Mells Park talks, Young raised the possibility of Thatcher’s involvement on several occasions. On each occasion, Mbeki outlined reasons why she was unsuitable as an intermediary/mediator and urged that she change her stance and attitude.

It does not appear that Esterhuyse informed the NIS that Young was sharing information with the British government. Just as the ANC was wary of outside involvement, the regime, and Barnard in particular, was also determined to keep all outsiders away from any moves to find a solution to SA’s problems.

The Mells Park talks enabled the regime and the ANC to gain a better understanding of their respective concerns and positions and graduated, like the Mandela meetings, into talks about talks by the time the NIS and the ANC met in Lucerne in September 1989. Initially, Esterhuyse described his delegations as “message bearers” and “facilitators  … developing and expanding the political dynamic of exposing key figures within the establishment to ANC thinking and vice versa”.

However, the notes taken by Tony Trew indicate that by the meeting of 21-24 April 1989, and more clearly the meeting held on 29 September 1989, an element of “talks about talks” had become a feature. Trew records explicitly that “it was noted that our meetings, with the character of informal discussion, were distinct from any official contacts between government and the ANC which might take place (quite possibly in the near future, it was said by one of the people from home)”.

It is important to note that De Klerk became leader of the National Party (NP) in February 1989 and was inaugurated president of SA on 14 September. The first direct meeting between the ANC and the NIS took place on 12 September, at a time when De Klerk was acting president. The ANC NEC had already approved of talks between Mandela and the government.

These observations should be set alongside Barnard’s reasoning for the talks taking place in the shadows. He records that: “The aim of the secret discussions was not to reach conclusive agreement on governmental issues, but rather to learn about each other’s opinions on important matters first-hand, to identify common ground and to create a climate of mutual trust and understanding.”