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The unsung hero who changed the course of SA history


Sello Lediga is an author and the Chairperson of ActionSA in Limpopo. His latest book, South Africa’s Transition from Apartheid to Democracy, will be available in September.

The ‘Great Man’ theory of history teaches us that cometh the hour, cometh the man. But behind the legendary figures who enter the history books, are the unsung heroes. Niel Barnard was one of them.

In an obscure small town in the Western Cape lives a man whose influence on the course of South African history has not been acknowledged, even as FW de Klerk gets all the credit for his historic February 1990 speech in Parliament.

In the background, far from the madding crowd, is an unassuming mastermind of South Africa’s negotiated settlement. His name is Niel Barnard, the forgotten spy chief who led a secret mission to avoid civil war in South Africa. Today, only a few South Africans remember his name. As we celebrate 30 years of the unbanning of people’s organisations by the last apartheid president, FW De Klerk, on red Friday, 2 February 1990, Barnard is quietly observing matters in his living room as De Klerk basks in glory for the “miracle” that changed the course of South African history.

Frankly, there was no miracle. De Klerk’s speech was the culmination of roughly five years of secret talks between the South African government and the African National Congress to break the logjam in the South African conflict. De Klerk’s historic speech on 2 February was essentially a script written by Barnard. What De Klerk must be credited with was the courage to cross the Rubicon that PW Botha talked about, but failed to cross.

Pieter Willem Botha, popularly known as PW, in his capacity as president of apartheid South Africa, was the real architect of the secret talks that ultimately led to De Klerk’s historic announcement in February 1990. As early as 1979, a year after Oliver Tambo had led a high-level ANC delegation to Vietnam to seek guidance on how to prosecute the South African Struggle, Botha summoned Barnard from the then University of the Orange Free State (UOFS) to Pretoria for an unusual chat.

As a security and military man, Botha had realised that his “skiet and donder” security chief, General Hendrik van den Bergh, of the Bureau of State Security (Boss) was not equal to the task of dealing with the challenges facing the apartheid state as the 1980s beckoned. He wanted a clever and educated Afrikaner intellectual with the capacity to carry out his plan. A young Afrikaner PhD, teaching at UOFS, was the man he was looking for. Out of the blue, Dr Niel Barnard was invited to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to meet with “die Groot Krokodil”, a terrifying prospect by any means. For over a decade after this meeting, Barnard was to be Botha’s key man in engaging the “terrorist” ANC via Nelson Mandela in prison and Thabo Mbeki in exile.

Legend has it that the beginning of the secret talks between the SA government and the ANC is traced to a chance meeting between Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and then-Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee at Bloemfontein airport. Madikizela-Mandela was travelling to Cape Town to visit her husband who was receiving medical treatment in a Cape Town hospital and when Coetsee heard that, he promised Winnie he would visit Mandela. He kept his promise and that’s when Nelson Mandela started the process of persuading Coetsee that the time was ripe for the government to talk to the ANC, and that he was prepared to lead the initiative in prison even before consulting Lusaka.

Immediately thereafter, in his personal capacity, Mandela followed up with a letter to Coetsee. Apparently, Coetsee did not respond to the letter but persuaded Botha that the time was ripe to talk to the ANC. Botha’s response was to instruct his director-general for intelligence, Dr Niel Barnard, to commence secret talks with the ANC to explore possible negotiations with the enemy.

From 1987 until De Klerk’s February 1990 announcement, Barnard pursued a two-pronged strategy: first, he led a small committee of senior civil servants and held 48 secret meetings with Nelson Mandela in prison exploring possibilities for a breakthrough; Mandela, alone against Barnard’s formidable team, had no mandate from ANC president Oliver Tambo to engage the regime but later sent an emissary to Tambo to update him about his engagement with Barnard and the government. Second, he assembled a team of verligte Afrikaner academics from Stellenbosch, led by Professor Willie Esterhuyse, to engage Thabo Mbeki and his team in secret talks in exile for the same purpose.

It is important to put into context circumstances under which these secret talks were held in the late 1980s. After 18 years in exile, the ANC’s armed struggle was going nowhere until Tambo led a delegation to Vietnam to seek advice on how to defeat the apartheid regime. General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose tiny guerilla army had defeated both France and the US, explained to Tambo that the ANC strategy was wrong and unlikely to yield the desired results in South African conditions.

After this historic visit, the ANC adopted a new liberation strategy popularly known as the Four Pillars. This entailed mass mobilisation, underground work, armed struggle and international isolation of the regime. By 1985, with this new strategy, the Struggle had escalated to unprecedented levels, the regime was on the retreat, the economy was collapsing, and the world had turned against the racist minority regime in Pretoria. Of course, there was no chance in hell that Umkhonto weSizwe would march to Pretoria guns blazing for a “seizure of power”. The South African conflict had reached a stalemate. There was no possibility of victory for either side. The only thing confronting South Africa was a descent into total civil war.

It was in this toxic environment that Mandela and Botha rose to the occasion, both without a mandate. Mandela defied the ANC and engaged the enemy without a mandate because he knew that the hawks in the ANC would have stopped his initiative. Botha instructed Barnard to secretly talk to Mandela in prison and Thabo Mbeki in the UK without informing his Cabinet because it was too risky to do so. Tambo authorised Mbeki to engage the Afrikaner academics without informing the NEC. The die was cast.

These secret talks were risky for both sides. Botha told Barnard unequivocally that should the media report about these talks, he would disown him. Tambo, on the other hand, warned Mbeki that should the talks leak, he would not defend him against ANC hawks like Joe Slovo and Chris Hani in the NEC. Any leak would have compromised Botha severely. White voters still viewed the ANC as terrorists controlled by Moscow in the context of the Cold War. Reports of Botha talking to the ANC would have sunk him as leader of the National Party and president of South Africa. This explains why senior Nats like FW de Klerk, Pik Botha and Magnus Malan were not informed about this initiative. It therefore fell upon the tiny shoulders of Niel Barnard to navigate these treacherous waters.

The director-general of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) was the man given the responsibility by the president of South Africa to ensure that the secret talks remained secret. This was a nightmare for any man, and the good doctor from the Free State passed with distinction when for over three years of intense clandestine activity, the two parties found each other, leading to De Klerk’s masterstroke on 2 February 1990.

It is now opportune to explain my thesis that it was Niel Barnard, on the side of the regime, rather than FW de Klerk, who changed the course of history. I am deliberately ignoring the ANC side at this juncture as the liberation movement and all its surrogates had called for the unbanning of liberation movements since their prohibition in 1960.

De Klerk replaced PW Botha as president in September 1989 and just four months later made his historic speech. He was not part of the secret talks that Botha authorised and Barnard led. For a long time, he had no idea what Botha and Barnard were up to. In fact, when he chaired his first state security council meeting as president, Barnard got him to sign a document he did not understand which empowered Barnard to continue the secret talks with the ANC.

Of all the players in this risky drama, it was Barnard who was most involved and led the way. For example, while Mbeki did not fully know what Barnard was discussing with Mandela, Mandela was also not privy to discussions between Mbeki and the Stellenbosch group. Only Barnard knew what was happening in both engagements.

It would be a crime of historic proportions not to give De Klerk credit for his courage and boldness when he unbanned the liberation movements in 1990. Unlike Botha, he was not intimidated by the shallow Rubicon River.

Despite the fact that Botha understood very well that the only way to avoid an economic wasteland and to secure the future of whites in South Africa was to unban liberation movements, release Mandela and accept universal franchise, he failed dismally when the opportunity presented itself for decisive action. He was a reformist at heart and believed that his piecemeal abolition of petty apartheid was sufficient to stem the tide of revolution. He failed dismally in this regard.

It took a new leader, more discerning, courageous and bold to cross the Rubicon. After ousting Botha in 1989, De Klerk read the mood of South Africa well and realised that only decisive action would save the country. Taking advantage of the work already done by Botha and Barnard, he surprised South Africa and the world by going all the way to dismantle apartheid and laid a solid foundation for negotiations and the end of apartheid. For that, he must be commended and even deserves the glory of a joint Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.

However, the real workhorse that guided South Africa away from the destructive route of civil war was Niel Barnard. Unfortunately for him, he was never president and couldn’t have taken the podium on 2 February 1990.

That is the cruelty of history. DM


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