By 1985 the struggle for democracy in South Africa had intensified, and the country found itself on the brink of a potentially devastating civil war. The conflict threatened the very fabric of society, for the economy was in shock and the country was isolated by the international community. While the liberation movements were not in a position to defeat the government by armed force, the government was also not able to continue governing as it had been.' It was a stalemate, in effect, and change was inevitable.

However, negotiation does not take place merely because political conditions make it a viable alternative, and this was especially so in the South African situation. The contending parties were not only ideological opponents, but were at war with one another. Why should the government listen to calls for negotiation? After all, they had the military means to stay in power. Furthermore, years of negative perceptions of one another did not make it easier for the parties to negotiate.

Experience has shown that in addition to these conditions it is also necessary for contending parties to realize that negotiation is the only viable option. Moreover, there must also be a catalyst to initiate this process. South Africa had a unique catalyst to the process of negotiation in Nelson Mandela, speaking from his prison cell. The key to unlock peace in South Africa came from within the very depths of apartheid's dungeons. In many other countries the/ international community played this role, as it did in Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. In fact, the vision contained in the ANC's Harare Declaration in 1989 included a prominent role for the international community. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) supported a prominent role for the international community as well. South Africa was also unique, therefore, in that the international community played no direct role in the process.

Ironically, Mandela's imprisonment also gave parties the opportunity to explore the feasibility of negotiation, for prison conditions provided the secrecy required in the event that the exercise misfired.

Realizing the option of negotiation

There is little consensus about when negotiations began and who initiated them. Did it start with the 1990 speech in Parliament by F. W. de Klerk? With the first meeting of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA I) in December 1991? Or in 1985 when Mandela initiated discussions with P. W Botha's government? It is generally accepted that the latter view is most accurate.

At a meeting in Nassau in October 1985, the British Commonwealth discussed a proposal for further international sanctions against South Africa. Only Margaret Thatcher opposed them. As a compromise, a delegation composed of 'eminent persons' was sent to South Africa, to investigate whether sanctions would be helpful in bringing an end to apartheid. The delegation came to be referred to as the 'Eminent Persons Group' (EPG). The EPG sought discussions with key role-players, but on the day that the delegation was to meet with cabinet ministers, the South African Defence Force launched an attack on the ANC in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, under the direct orders of P. W Botha.

Reaction to this naked act of aggression was immediate. The EPG left the country in disgust and the ANC called on its supporters to render the country ungovernable. The ensuing resistance was followed by even greater repression than before, and in turn the Botha government came under tremendous pressure from the international community. All in all, the government was finding it more and more difficult to govern.

In the same year Mandela wrote to the government expressing his concerns about developments and asking for a meeting. Kobie Coetsee, the Minister of Justice, responded positively, and a meeting between the two took place in November 1985 in a hospital room in the Volks Hospital in Cape Town. The meeting was a success and the government wanted to hear more.

Mandela was transferred after his hospitalization to a single cell at Pollsmoor Prison, which afforded government negotiators direct access to Mandela as an individual. Kobie Coetsee, Neil Barnard, S. S. van der Merwe, and the Commissioner of Prisons represented the government in the meetings that followed. These discussions were no more than exploratory talks to explore the feasibility of negotiation. Mandela made it clear that he regarded the ANC to be under the leadership of Oliver Tambo, who was in exile, but the government became confident that Mandela was the person it could do business with. However, it was not so sure about the ANC itself. Its next step would be to organize clandestine exchanges with the ANC in exile.

It was important for Mandela to win the confidence of the government, for in his view it had to believe that it could negotiate with the ANC. For this reason he wrote again to President P. W. Botha and tried to convince him that the ANC 'were not wild-eyed terrorists, but reasonable men'. In his memorandum, Mandela stated, 'I am disturbed as many other South Africans no doubt are, by the spectre of a South Africa split into two hostile camps - blacks on one side ... and whites on the other, slaughtering one another.... Majority rule and internal peace are like 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'.

At the end of the letter, Mandela offered a very rough framework for negotiation: 'Two political issues will have to be addressed; firstly, the demand for majority rule in a unitary state; secondly, the concern of white South Africa 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 tasks, which will face the government and the ANC, will be to reconcile these two positions'.

Mandela was successful in his mission, and the discussions he started with Coetsee continued in as many as forty-seven meetings. These discussions were of fundamental importance, for they allowed both the government and Mandela to realize that the option of negotiation was not only real, but that it was a valid strategy through which both parties could realize their respective objectives.

For the ANC, armed struggle was a tactic rather than a strategy, and since its inception the organization had tirelessly demanded an opportunity to discuss the future of the country with the government. So for the ANC it was not too difficult to accept the value of negotiation. Of primary importance among its leaders was Oliver Tambo, a long-time associate and partner of Mandela. Both leaders were cut from the same political cloth.

There were also powerful indicators of the kind of change that was sweeping the subcontinent, such as social, political, and economic developments within the southern African region, changes in the Soviet Union, and the rising tide of international pressure for reform in South Africa. Tambo, an ingenious strategist, lost no time in recognizing this, and initiated widespread debate within the leadership of the ANC to consider the option of negotiation. Hence, in 1988, for the first time since it was banned the ANC formally considered the option of a negotiated settlement.

It was different for the NP, for discussion with the genuine leadership of the black majority had been a taboo of which it had no experience. The leaders of the majority were perceived as too radical, and the only black people the government ever spoke to were those regarded as 'moderates'.

The first meeting between Mandela and the Botha government took place at a leadership level. This was followed by meetings between functionaries (at least on the side of the government), which became a trend throughout negotiation. Meetings at leadership level dealt essentially with principles rather than substance, while functionaries attended to the latter. Representatives from the intelligence and security establishment invariably became involved during the initial stages of negotiation. Another characteristic of these meetings was the veil of secrecy that surrounded them, for very few leaders on either side were made aware of what was happening. Considering the context within which these talks took place, it is understandable that neither side wanted anything to jeopardize them. Similarly, there was also no guarantee of the outcome of the discussions, so both sides felt it necessary to ensure that the talks did not appear as a sign of weakness. As for Mandela, he did not even inform his closest colleagues in prison about these discussions, and was intent on presenting them with a fait accompli.

While both sides were keen to commence negotiations, the politics of the government made this difficult. The government was uncomfortable negotiating with the ANC before it renounced violence or severed its relationship with the Communist Party, which the ANC refused to do. There were also several other obstacles in the way of negotiation. Senior negotiators and decision-makers from the liberation movements were either in prison or in exile, wanted by the security forces of the country. There was a barrage of security legislation in place that would have made it impossible for negotiation to take place without the negotiators courting arrest or harm. The most graphic illustration of this is in the only statement released by Mandela while he was still in prison:

What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area?... What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?

Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.

It was therefore necessary to create the conditions conducive for negotiation to take place, and this too had to be negotiated. It meant identifying the obstacles and negotiating their removal before substantive negotiation could take place; hence, the idea of' talks about talks'.

A commitment to negotiation

The second half of 1989 proved to be an important period in the history of the negotiations. In early July 1989 the exploratory discussions held between the government and Mandela resulted in a meeting with P. W. Botha that took place only because Botha was convinced that a negotiated settlement was feasible, or he would not have risked such a meeting." However, Botha resigned a month later to be succeeded by F. W. de Klerk.

By this time Operation Vula was active: senior ANC operatives were infiltrating the country to establish a political and military presence, and to facilitate efficient and direct lines of communication between Mandela and Tambo. The ANC was spurred on by Mandela's initiatives, and under Tambo's leadership it sought to prepare itself for negotiation by successfully lobbying African governments in 1989 to adopt the Harare Declaration, a document drafted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU)." Tambo was keen to seize the initiative in preparing for negotiation, for he was aware that unless the ANC did this, the international community would happily play this role. To lose this initiative would have meant losing the ability to determine the agenda of the process, which was what had happened in Zimbabwe and Namibia. Tambo's efforts were ingenious, for at the time many did not fully realize the importance of the Harare Declaration, when in fact it proved to be prophetic.

The declaration contained the first real vision of a transition to democracy. It set out a basis for negotiation to take place and spoke of a climate conducive to such negotiation. Such a climate, it was argued, could be created by the unconditional release of political prisoners and detainees, the lifting of bans on restricted organizations, the removal of troops from the townships, the ending of the state of emergency, the repeal of repressive legislation, and the cessation of political trials and executions. Once this climate existed, the representatives of all parties could sit down to negotiate a new constitutional dispensation, which would have to be based on universally agreed constitutional principles.

According to the declaration, the process of negotiation had to take account of several priorities. The process had to commence with initial discussions designed to achieve a suspension of hostilities, which would then facilitate agreement on basic constitutional principles to underpin the new dispensation. The parties could then define the forum that would draft the new constitution; the participation of the international community could be taken into account here. An interim government could be formed which was to supervise the drafting and adoption of the new constitution and govern the country in the interim period. Once the new constitution was adopted, all armed hostilities would be formally terminated. For its part, the international community would then lift sanctions and South Africa would qualify for membership of the Organization of African Unity.

The United Nations also discussed the Harare Declaration, which must have made an impact on the government. The change from earlier NP strategy was evident in the immediate action taken after the assumption of office by De Klerk, for where Botha dithered, De Klerk was prepared to cross the Rubicon. The request by Mandela for the release of political prisoners was accepted, and in October 1989 the first group of political prisoners was unconditionally released. This was the first tangible result of Mandela's endeavours and he was clearly gaining the confidence of the government.

Mandela met the new incumbent on 13 December of that year to discuss the question of the creation by the government of a climate conducive to negotiation. During this period, Mandela lived in a prison warden's house at Victor Verster Prison, where he had unlimited access to anyone he wanted to see, including the recently released political prisoners. This was important for him, for it allowed him to ensure that his efforts conformed to the thinking of both the ANC in exile and the anti-apartheid structures within the country.

The meetings between Mandela and the two leaders of the National Party and the release of the political prisoners served as an important indication of the change of heart in government. There was a growing realization that negotiation was a feasible option. However, there was still no agreement on the process of negotiation, for De Klerk ruled out the possibility of forming a transitional government or an elected constituent assembly.

The meeting between Mandela and De Klerk was fortuitous for another reason: it took place while the United Nations was debating a resolution that mirrored the Harare Declaration. The government publicly reported the meeting with Mandela, and the office of US President George Bush consequently applauded De Klerk's efforts, stating that 'the commencement of dialogue between the South African government and credible representatives of the black majority was the most important first step in the process of change'. Sir Crispin Tickell, Britain's UN representative, adopted a similar approach. Therefore, the meeting provided the major powers in the UN with an excuse to water down the impact of the resolution. They could argue that by its patience with the De Klerk government the international community would retain its influence over South Africa.

The momentum gathers

For De Klerk, his first hundred days in office, until 28 December 1989, produced major changes. The significance of these changes lay not so much in what they achieved but in the action they triggered. But De Klerk's next hundred days in office produced events that were even more dramatic. South Africa teetered precariously on the verge of constitutional negotiation that would transform the country into a non-racial democracy. Never before did South Africa end a year, let alone a decade, with so much expectation as it did in the December of 1989. The opening paragraphs of the Sunday Times editorial of 14 January 1990 described the mood succinctly and profoundly. Appro­priately entitled 'Enter Mandela: now let the show begin', it read:

The stage is set. All the main players are in position except for one towering figure waiting in the wings. When Nelson Mandela takes his rightful place on the South African political stage, an entrance that now seems certain within weeks rather than months, the curtain will rise.

What happens next is the unwritten script of South Africa's future. It will be an ad lib creation, beset by countless disputes and setbacks, haunted by many ghosts from the past. But there is a mood of optimism, a climate of hope, among both the players and the audience, which should engender sufficient common purpose and goodwill to produce a reasonably happy ending.

President F. W. de Klerk, as the man who will release Mr. Mandela, has the initiative. He is fully aware of the accelerating momentum of the reform process he has skillfully directed for the past six months. Having gone this far, one must assume he is prepared to fulfill the expectations his Government has created. President de Klerk can no longer fudge on key issues such as the removal of Group Areas.

The release of Nelson Mandela, and the concomitant unbanning of the ANC and lifting of the state of emergency are opening gambits. Ahead lies the politically intricate and emotive task of dismantling the apartheid structure, and establishing a platform for negotiation.

It would be unrealistic to expect all this to happen in one shattering reformist sweep. The release of Mr. Mandela will be the beginning of a long series of quid pro quos.

With these high expectations came increased fear among white South Africans, and frantic attempts were made in response to ensure that the process of reform slowed down. There was a great deal of speculation in the media on 17 January 1990 about how negotiation would take place. To many it was still an area of doubt and concern.

Nonetheless, the government resolutely continued its preparations for negotiation. The Minister of Constitutional Development and Planning, Gerrit Viljoen, responded to the Harare Declaration at the end of January 1990, arguing that the negotiations should be both inclusive and comprehensive. A chairperson or panel of chairpersons would have to be neutral and designated by the negotiating conference. Two fundamental issues required some compromise: these were first, the demand for majority rule in a unitary state, and second, structural guarantees for the protection of minorities. Significantly, both of these issues were raised in the document Mandela prepared for his meeting with Botha in July 1989.

At the opening of Parliament on 2 February 1990, F. W. de Klerk made a dramatic speech in which he announced the unbanning of liberation movements, the release of political prisoners, and a series of measures intended to address obstacles to the process of negotiation. This unlocked a chain of events that changed the course of the history of South Africa. By positively responding to a number of the demands made in the Harare Declaration, De Klerk signalled his commitment to negotiate. It also established his bona fides because he went further than any other minority party leader had ever been prepared to go before.

Preparations for the first formal talks

The measures put in place by De Klerk went some way to creating conditions for negotiation to take place. Mandela was released the week following this speech, and the view of the media was that substantive negotiation on a new constitutional dispensation could now commence. The ANC hastily convened its National Executive Committee (NEC) to consider its response," confirming that a dele­gation would meet De Klerk in what was to be the first meeting between the ANC's exiled leaders and a South African head of state. The ANC made it clear, however, that this did not signal the start of substantive negotiations, since it was prepared to enter into such negotiations only after the preconditions set out in the Harare Declaration had been met. According to Mandela, 'everyone who takes part in negotiation must be properly mandated and the only way of giving authority to the people who will sit at the negotiating table is through democratic elections'.

The government was keen to ensure that the ANC renounced violence in exchange for lifting the state of emergency. In addition, it would release only those prisoners jailed solely because the organization to which they belonged was banned. The implications of complying with the ANC's demand to the letter, they warned, would be unwelcome; for instance, it would mean the release of convicted right-wing murderer Barend Strydom, the end of the Harms Commission investigation into police and army hit squads, as well as the release of ANC cadres convicted of murder. This presented the first major problem. To avoid the impasse, it was agreed that the category of political prisoners to be released be precisely defined. The response of the right wing was to convene their largest political gath­erings since the creation of the republic to protest against these developments.

It was only at the end of March 1990 that an agreement to hold formal discussions was reached. These discussions were scheduled to take place on 11 April, and ANC members Jacob Zuma, Matthews Phosa, and Penuel Maduna were secretly allowed to enter the country from exile to prepare for them. Together with Curnick Ndlovu, Ahmed Kathrada, and other ANC members, a steering committee that included government representatives was formed to prepare for the meeting, which was held under a veil of secrecy. The steering committee dealt with the details of possible agreements that would clear the remaining obstacles in the way of negotiation. Some of the issues that required immediate attention related to the definition of the term 'political prisoners' and the basis for granting indemnities to returning exiles.

The position adopted by the NP at the time was that any negotiated constitution would have to be approved first by the white electorate. The negotiations would only then include other organizations and parties. However, only those who committed themselves to peaceful solutions would be able to take part. Leaders working within-system should have seats 'reserved' for them at the negotiating table; it would also have to be determined who had substantial enough support to participate. A neutral chairperson could be appointed, though no international intervention would be sought.

Setting trends

The preparations for this meeting provided an early glimpse of trends that were to follow In the first instance, it was recognized that the NP and the ANC were not the only role-players in settling the South African conflict, and the outcome of the negotiations would also depend on the alliances that each major role-player was able to develop. Secondly, the process of negotiations would not continue unin­terrupted, for political violence flared up regularly to set the process back,

In preparation for the meeting, De Klerk arranged to meet with the chief ministers of the six non-independent homelands and the three chairpersons of the Ministers' Councils. This was a significant development, for one of the major political role-players was now competing to win the confidence of smaller parties. In fact, both the ANC and the NP recognized that various political formations would be role-players in negotiation. According to Mandela, the ANC consulted with other black political organizations in a drive for a 'unity of the oppressed'.

The government was developing two important themes. Firstly, it intended to ensure that it had allies in the negotiation process. As a result of this, the ANC feared that the NP wanted to 'pack' the negotiating line-up. Secondly, it wanted to seize the initiative by immediately dealing with substantive constitutional negotiation.

On 1 April 1990 the ANC suspended all negotiation with the government in protest against the shooting of unarmed demonstrators in Sebokeng only seven days after the thirtieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. The shooting resulted in the loss of sixteen lives, and was the third time in as many weeks that the police or army had killed demonstrators. The stop-start nature of negotiations was to become a pattern, but, as would happen time and again, Mandela and De Klerk agreed to meet to bring negotiations back on track. Their meeting was successful and a formal meeting was rescheduled for 2 May. Mandela was satisfied with De Klerk's assurance that the Sebokeng incident would be investigated, possibly even by a judicial inquiry.

A group of the most senior ANC leaders arrived in South Africa on 27 April 1990, exactly four years short of the first democratic election the country was to experience. They included Joe Slovo (General Secretary of the South African Communist Party), Joe Modise (commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe), Alfred Nzo (Secretary-General of the ANC), Ruth Mompati (ANC National Executive Committee member), and Thabo Mbeki (ANC Department of International Affairs).

The arrival of these negotiators in the country symbolized the changes taking place. Slovo occupied a special place as a bogeyman of the old white politics. He was a communist, a military strategist, and an influential leader in the ANC, and for nearly thirty years had been branded apartheid's 'public enemy number one'. Casually dressed and wearing the red socks that would become part of his dress code, he expressed the emotion he felt on returning to South Africa through the 'front door', after having had to leave it many years before through the 'back door'. As for Joe Modise, he had left the country with a mission to destroy apartheid through armed struggle, and was now returning to the country to sit down and talk to his former adversaries to create a new South Africa.