First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The extent of Crocker’s role in Namibian independence is somewhat controversial; some claim his role has been overstated. My personal view is that his role has been massively understated by historians and politicians, who have all kinds of reasons, political and otherwise, to minimise the remarkable and delicate diplomacy involved.
I’m somewhat bolstered in my view by the fact that Crocker himself tends to minimise the role he played, which is what exceptional negotiators always do. Negotiators’ ability to sublimate their egos is a sine qua non of successful negotiations. And the awareness of the need of politicians to claim success when things turn out well is a crucial tool in the negotiations process, and one Crocker himself utilised with great dexterity.
If you think for a moment what Crocker had to do, the extent of the challenge becomes clear. He had to bring together apartheid apparatchiks, Angolan Marxist revolutionaries, Cuban military commanders and Soviet power brokers. The Russian part was especially tricky given that the official position of the Soviet authorities at the time was that they were not in fact involved in the Namibian border war at all.
In the end, Crocker managed a piece of remarkable diplomacy. Namibia became independent, the Cuban forces left Angola and the apartheid government relinquished its Namibian mandate. None of those things was inevitable in 1985.
How did he do it? Crocker was interesting in so many ways, but one of the points he made has always stuck with me: he distinguished between overt and subterranean currents in the miasma of positions adopted, and views held, and particularly in information flows. And, he said, the subterranean currents are by far the most important.
What we read on the official level is so often only a partial reflection of the truth. Call it, if you will, the Schrödinger’s cat syndrome – the very fact of looking at something changes its complexion. Public views are designed and geared towards public consumption, and are changed by that fact. Virtue signalling, personal interests and individual experiences all play a role in how we present ourselves publicly.
So where do you find these iconoclastic subterranean currents? The short answer is, with difficulty. By definition, they present themselves poorly, if at all. It takes instinct and intuition.
With all that in mind, I was recently reading the South African subreddit on the website Reddit, which is an open forum for views of many kinds, and on which people pose questions for anyone to answer. Someone asked an odd question: Was there anyone who had emigrated from South Africa to Botswana, and what was their experience? A discussion followed, with lots of people chipping in. Canada came up, and was summarily dismissed as too cold. Canadians then joined in, defending Canada and inviting South Africans to emigrate there.
It was an absorbing exchange, and it had that crucial thing – a ring of honesty, that ephemeral sense you can’t define but recognise instantly. But think about the broader question: is it truly possible that young South Africans are so worried about the future of this country that they are honestly thinking about emigrating to Botswana? Apparently so.
This is not to denigrate Botswana, a fabulous country, which has managed its post-independence period with extraordinary aplomb. But the overt view is that most emigrants are essentially racist, and are leaving to avoid a “black” government. If Botswana is the target, that caricature cannot apply.
This all confirms my suspicion that South Africa’s youth of all races feel they are overlooked, ignored and denigrated. No doubt the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated this sense, and it’s not just an SA issue. The World Economic Forum recently published a huge survey of young people around the world, which discovered, among other things, that incredibly young people tend to trust algorithms more than they trust politicians.
If young people can’t see a future, a fundamental strut in the superstructure of society is threatened. It’s been said so often before but it bears saying again: bridges are officially burning. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.