The African National Congress (ANC) in exile developed strategies to influence public opinion within South Africa with the view to rebuilding its clandestine structures, countering government propaganda to presenting its policies. The tactics it employed to meet its objectives changed over time. This article sets out to look at the contact with government representatives, homeland representatives, anti apartheid movements and white business groupings particularly in the 1980s.

From late 1984 onwards, a series of meetings between the exiled ANC and groupings from within South Africa began to take place, a process that was unprecedented, especially since the ANC had been banned since 1960 and was prohibited in any form inside the country. The process saw white groupings, including prominent Afrikaners and big businessmen, but also representatives of anti-apartheid organisations, for the first time initiating contact with the liberation movement. The meetings led to the eventual dissolution of the forms of prohibition placed on the liberation movements, and their eventual return and democratic elections in 1994.

With the apartheid state facing mounting protests and economic and other sanctions in the early 1980s, the fall of apartheid began for the first time to look possible, and even immanent. The representation of the ANC by government and Afrikaner and other media since its banning in 1960 had created a picture of the organization as a demon in league with the communists waiting to destroy whites, their property rights and culture, and all they believed in.

With the loosening of the ties that had effectively bound Afrikaners together into an ineluctable bloc, many in the Afrikaner intelligentsia began to question the National Party’s vision of what South African society should be. Fundamental questions were being asked about the necessity of apartheid, and its possibilities for survival.

It was not only white Afrikaners who were questioning the system. The liberal tradition, constituted by a range of groupings, had always had a critical view of apartheid, although many of these had a horror of socialism and communism, and saw the ANC as sympathetic to these ideologies. Nevertheless, many White people who had rejected apartheid, and even some who had colluded with it, began to consider ways in which to bring the system to an end. The fact that formerly staunch supporters of apartheid within the Afrikaner community began to question the system meant that a previously unified bloc was slowly dissolving, and some even within government began to consider, and indeed even initiate, talks with the ANC.

A prime mover in the process of initiating talks with the ANC was both a liberal and an Afrikaner. Frederik van zyl Slabbert, a sociologist and the leader of the Progressive Federal Party until April 1986?, resigned from the party because, he declared, there was no chance of achieving meaningful reforms through the institutions of parliament and government.

Big business, more in touch with the structural problems of an economy, run on apartheid principals, was at the forefront of moves to dismantle job reservation and all the laws in support of what they saw as an economically shortsighted ideology.

However, it was not only these formerly hostile forces that met with the ANC. Anti-apartheid groupings within South Africa began to hold talks and consult with the ANC, a process that, when it happened earlier, was always under conditions of heavy state scrutiny and vulnerable to state censure. Now the UDF, unions, churches, sports bodies, civil society groupings, among many others, were able to co-ordinate their struggles with the agenda of the ANC, under conditions that the government was unable to control.

Thus, a series of delegations left the country to talk to the ANC. A move that would once have drawn the wrath of the state was now tolerated or ignored, especially since prosecution of prominent figures within white society and politics would have split the white community even further.

More than a hundred such delegations took place from early 1985 until the ANC was unbanned in 1990. Many of these were not publicised and the facts about them have not yet emerged in the historical literature.

1984 to 1985: First Contacts

The first talks occurred when conflict resolution expert Professor HV ‘Harvey’ van der Merwe, based at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Intergroup Studies, flew to Harare and ‘presented himself’ to the ANC in October 1984. Van der Merwe told Thabo Mbeki, the then-head of the ANC’s Department of Publicity, that many South African government leaders wanted a negotiated settlement but were unable to declare this in public. He mooted the idea of bringing a delegation of National Party Members of Parliament (MPs) to Lusaka in Zambia, but the ANC rejected the idea. Nevertheless, Mbeki agreed to be interviewed by Beeld’s deputy editor, Piet Muller.

The five-hour interview took place in December 1984, and Beeld published an editorial urging the government to hold talks with the ANC, ‘even if it has to be done secretly’. Muller wrote: ‘There are people within the ANC who would like to conduct a dialogue with the SA government. It is also just as clear that they must be very careful not to lose their credibility with the ANC’s militants.’

Indeed, the ANC’s response to Mbeki when he reported back was hostile. In April 1985, the publisher of Leadership magazine, Hugh Murray, met Mbeki at the Pamodzi Hotel in Lusaka. He communicated his plan to bring a delegation of businessmen, including Anglo American head Gavin Relly, to Zambia. But soon after, the businessmen qualified their offer: they would not meet with the ANC if its delegation included the SACP’s Joe Slovo. Mbeki decided to go ahead with the meeting, and two sides met on 13 September 1985.

Relly defied Harry Oppenheimer, who had ordered him to cancel the trip, and led a delegation of seven Whites, including Tony Bloom of the Premier Group; Harald Pakendorf, editor of Die Vaderland; Tertius Myburgh, editor of the Sunday Times; Hugh Murray, editor of Leadership SA; and some opposition leaders. The ANC delegation included Oliver Tambo, Mbeki, Chris Hani, Mac Maharaj, Pallo Jordan and James Stuart. The meeting, hosted by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, took place at Mfuwe, Kaunda’s presidential game lodge.

Relly returned to SA amid criticism from PW Botha and Anglo American, and he never met with the ANC again during the period. Mbeki later told historian Thomas Karis: ‘Relly came because he was sensitive to the depth of the crisis and needed the ANC to get out of it.’

The next major delegation came in October 1985, when Frederik van Zyl Slabbert led a Progressive Federal Party delegation to Lusaka. The history of the PFP, in its various incarnations and transformations, had always maintained a critical stance in relation to the ANC’s economic policies, so their decision to meet with the ANC reflected a kind of realism on their part. They recognised that the ANC was likely to become the key to a new dispensation.

December saw an acceleration of the process, and reveals the extent to which, increasingly, the ANC was being recognised as the principal organisation representing the interests of the majority of South Africans, and as a force that had to be negotiated with for a future dispensation acceptable to the majority.

This notion that the ANC was the leading representative of the majority irked the other liberation groupings, especially the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Indeed, by 1987, Azapo’s Muntu Myeza lamented the notion that the ANC was considered the leader of the liberation movements and sole representative of the Black majority. Thereafter, the number of delegations increased, more than a hundred taking place over the next few years, including groupings from political parties, the church, student and sports organisations, trade unions and homeland leaders, among others. The range of organisations highlights the fact that a process of reconfiguring the state was beginning, and that every sector needed to engage with a future government to secure the conditions for its flourishing in a new dispensation.

Media Interest and the ‘De-demonisation’ of the ANC

In September 1985, soon after the meeting between the ANC and Relly delegation, the editor of Die Vaderland, Dries van Heerden, flew to Lusaka to meet with the ANC. Two years later, in September 1987, Richard Steyn, editor of the Natal Witness, as part of a delegation including opposition leader Dennis Worral and rugby player Tommy Bedford, also met with the ANC.

Figures from the media played a particularly important role in dissolving the stereotype of the ANC that had been put out by the government throughout the period of apartheid. These stereotypes were disseminated by the media, and the Afrikaner press in particular, with its links to the Broederbond and the government, reinforced the image of the ANC as an irrational, destructive organisation. The talks from 1985 onwards saw the ANC begin to be presented as an organisation that was different from the stereotype, one that was amenable to rational discussion and even compromise.

Afrikaner delegations

In a sign of Afrikaner fragmentation, JP de Lange, the leader of the Afrikaner Broederbond who was also the Rector of Rand Afrikaans University, met with the ANC in New York in May 1986. De Lange was a verligte (liberal), a proponent of reform, who was close to PW Botha. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, eager for the two men to talk, arranged for De Lange and Mbeki to meet at a conference on education organised by the Ford Foundation.

The two men engaged in a five-hour session at De Lange’s hotel. De Lange communicated his sense that Afrikaners were ‘more anxious about losing their cultural identity than their economic or political power in a democratic South Africa’ (Gevisser, pg 506). Mbeki, in turn, said that the release of Nelson Mandela was a precondition for any talks, and convinced De Lange that the ANC’s leaders were reasonable and people that the Afrikaners could ‘do business with’.

De Lange impressed on Mbeki the need to prepare Afrikaners for a new dispensation, and proposed that this could be done by the scrapping of laws such as the Group Areas Act and the Mixed Marriages Act. While ANC strategists were inclined to see these measures as meaningless reforms, De Lange argued that such moves would make for a more gradual process that would be better digested by Afrikaners, and open the way for more significant structural reforms.
De Lange returned to South Africa and resigned his position as Rector of Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), told the Broederbond that ‘the greatest risk for us as Afrikaners is to take no risk at all’, and tried to convince PW Botha to release Mandela.

In July 1987, at the initiative of Van Zyl and the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (of which Van Zyl was the head), a large delegation of 62 people, mainly Afrikaners, met with the ANC in Dakar, Senegal. Thorough-going discussions were held on strategies for change, the creation of national unity, and the nature of post-apartheid South Africa. The talks took place in Dakar, and continued in Ghana and Burkina Faso.

In an attempt to set the delegation at ease, Mbeki declared, to loud applause, that he was an Afrikaner. He embraced Van Zyl and Breyten Breytenbach, the radical poet who was also one of the main organisers of the meeting. However, the talks began with anxiety, and members of the Idasa delegation were especially concerned about the question of violence. When, during the ten-day talks, uMkonto weSizwe (MK) planted a bomb in central Johannesburg, the issue took on added significance. Mbeki set out the ANC and MK’s policy on the armed struggle, and impressed the delegates with his honesty and reasonableness.

Breyten Breytenbach, one of the organisers of the ANC and Idasa meeting in Senegal in July 1987. Source:

The Idasa delegation was not a unified group, and was made up of various tendencies. It included church radical Beyers Naude, liberal historian Herman Giliomee and journalist Max du Preez. The ANC delegation of 17 included Mac Maharaj, Steve Tshwete, and Pallo Jordan.

Hailed by an appreciative ANC as the ‘New Voortrekers’, the delegation returned to South Africa to be mocked as ‘useful idiots’ on a ‘journey to nowhere’. Nevertheless, the ‘Dakar Communique’, ratified by all the participants, saw the Idasa delegates accepting the ‘historical reality’ of the armed struggle, while the ANC expressed a ‘preference for a negotiated settlement of the South African question’ (Gevisser, pg 513).

COSATU meets the ANC

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which was launched in 1985, sent a delegation to a meeting of the World Council of Churches in Harare in December 1985. Jay Naidoo recalls in his biography, Fighting for Justice: ‘I also wanted a direct line to the ANC in exile unmediated by internal structures. I wanted to connect to what I believed was the most serious liberation movement and to send a message to sectors and groups which felt they had a monopoly on contact with the ANC in exile.

The meeting was attended by Mac Maharaj and Joe Slovo, both from the ANC’s Revolutionary Council. After the meeting, they issued a press statement saying that COSATU had met with the ANC. At Cosatu’s first Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting in February 1986, Naidoo reported to the federation the discussions he had had with the ANC. The CEC passed a resolution affirming Cosatu’s independence, but agreed to further talks with the ANC.

COSATU sent another delegation in March 1986, which included the National Union of Mineworkers' (NUM’s) Cyril Ramaphosa, Sydney Mufamadi and Jay Naidoo. They met with Oliver Tambo, John Nkadimeng (General Secretary of SACTU), Kay Moonsamy, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani and Mac Maharaj. In a discussion with Tambo after the formal talks, Naidoo says: ‘I was able to plot the challenges that faced Cosatu, particularly in relation to the principle of one union per industry. This, I argued, was a prerequisite to building a powerful federation capable of engaging the bosses on the factory floor I our fight for a living wage but also of engaging in the broader struggle for political freedom. I left that discussion assured of his fullest support for the democratic structures of Cosatu.

Jay Naidoo, the founding General Secretary of Cosatu was part of that organisation’s delegation to the ANC in March 1986. Source:

Naidoo’s account reveals that there were tensions between the federation and other liberation organisations, that COSATU was keen to maintain a certain level of independence from the anti-apartheid bloc inside the country.

UDF consultations

While a string of formerly hostile political groupings met with the ANC in exile, meetings with organisations aligned to ANC policies also became possible, and had a significant effect on the course of the struggle within the country. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was probably the most important of these. While there had been contact between the ANC and UDF after the formation of the latter, these encounters were intermittent.

The UDF met with the ANC in Stockholm in January 1986. UDF delegates included Arnold Stofile, Valli Moosa, Cheryl Carolus and Raymond Suttner. The ANC delegation included Oliver Tambo, Alfred Nzo, Thomas Nkobi, Thabo Mbeki, Aziz Pahad and Mac Maharaj. The meeting came at a time when the UDF, having largely achieved its objectives in ensuring that the Tricameral Parliament received little support from Indians and Coloureds, was facing a lack of direction.

The ANC set out its analysis of the political situation: the state was in disarray, and the time was ripe to mount a people’s war and to force the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. The ANC wanted to intensify political pressure on the regime, and there needed to be more effective regional and national coordination of struggles within the country. It suggested that the UDF employ full-time organisers, especially in the rural areas.

The ANC also urged that the UDF: formulate a Programme of Action based on demands for non-racial local government, mount a national rent strike, demand the freeing of political prisoners and initiate a campaign to reject reforms to influx control. It further recommended co-ordination with Cosatu, and efforts to intensify White involvement in democratic structures.

Cheryl Carolus became part of the UDF delegation which met the ANC in Stockholm in January 1986. Photograph by Gille de Vlieg, supplied by Africamediaonline)

The UDF was rejuvenated by the meeting, and on the return of the delegation began to put the various recommendations into motion. It had also received funding through the ANC from the Swedish government and various agencies, and was able to employ rural organisers and put other plans into motion. Above all, the project of establishing people’s power became the overall framework to conduct anti-apartheid activities.

In March 1986, UDF leaders attended the funeral of Moses Mabhida in Maputo, Mozambique, and met with the ANC after the funeral, and in January 1989 a joint delegation of UDF and COSATU officials again flew to Lusaka for further consultations.

Political Parties and Organisations

In October 1988, members of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) and Natal Indian Congress (NIC), together with 52 members of the Indian community, held discussions with the ANC on a post-apartheid South Africa. The NIC and TIC sent another delegation in February 1989.

Civil Society Groupings

Various organisations aligned to the UDF met with ANC to cement ties. The Soweto Parents’ Crisis Committee flew to Harare to hold talks about the education crisis in 1985. Members of the National Education Crisis Committee met with the ANC in Lusaka in March 1986. Members of the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses, together with 52 members of the Indian community, met with the ANC in October 1988, and again in February 1989.

Jules Browde, convener of the National Convention Movement, met with Oliver Tambo in Lusaka in 1986. Dr F van zyl Slabbert of Idasa once again met with the ANC, this time with fellow Idasa member Dr Alex Boraine. Members of South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were also present at the meeting, reflecting the various parties’ concerns about the region and not just South Africa.

Women’s groups were represented in a number of delegations. In December 1987 members of the Federation of SA Women flew to Lusaka. In January 1989 the National Organisation of Women met with the ANC in Lusaka, followed in April by a delegation led by Jenny Boraine for talks in Harare, under the theme ‘Women and the Challenge for Peace’.

Churches and Religious Organisations

Churches in the country had become radicalised from the 1970s, and played an important role in the struggle against apartheid, and a number of church leaders eventually took up leadership positions in organisations such as the UDF. The ANC met with many church delegations, including: the Anglican Church in 1985, led by Rev Philip Russell; the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) – Dutch Reformed Church in Afrika, also in 1985; the SA Catholic Bishops’ Conference in December 1985 and again in 1986; and the SA Council of Churches, led by Dr Manas Buthelezi; the Lutheran Church, led by Dean Simon Farisani in November 1986.

Rev Alan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches held talks with ANC in Lusaka in August 1987. Source

Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) ministers attended a World Council of Churches (WCC) conference in Lusaka in May 1987, and met with ANC leaders. In August Rev Alan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and University of Cape Town (UCT) theologian, Dr Charles Villa Vicencio held talks with the ANC. The South African Council of Churches' (SACC) leaders, Dr CF Beyers Naude and Rev Frank Chikane, also met with the ANC in 1987.

Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg Desmond Tutu became a frequent visitor, first in 1986, then again in March 1987, when he met with the ANC national executive committee in Lusaka to discuss violence, armed struggle, and strategies to achieve a non-racial democracy. Tutu was also part of an interfaith delegation that went to Lusaka in September 1987, which included Imam Solomon (Muslim), and Yasmin Sooka (Hindu). In November 1988, Tutu led a delegation from the World Council of Churches to Harare.

Business: Big, Small, Black and White

The business sectors sent a series of delegations to meet with the ANC. Besides the meetings with Big Business – the meeting with Gavin Rely and Tony Bloom – the ANC also met with black business groups. The National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc) sent a delegation to Lusaka in May 1986. Soweto businessman Richard Maponya and Nafcoc leader Gabriel Mokgoko told the ANC that black businessmen in Soweto were seen as collaborators by the townships, radical youth, and many shops had been burned or looted.

Dr Sam Motsuenyane led a Nafcoc delegation sent to Lusaka to meet the ANC in May 1986.Source

The delegation was hostile to the nationalisation clauses in the Freedom Charter, and ANC leaders had to convince them that they needed to support the liberation organisation, while Mbeki assured them that the ANC was a friend to black business. The ANC, Mbeki said, would expand the market and not stifle it, and ‘create the possibility of free competition’ by ending monopoly capitalism (Gevisser, pg 538).

Further Nafcoc delegations, led by its president, Dr Sam Motsuenyane, met with the ANC in Europe in 1986 and January 1987.

In June 1986, a delegation of South African (SA) businessmen and academics held a debate in London with members of the ANC, and the event was recorded and screened by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom (UK).  The businessmen included Chris Ball, managing director of First National Bank, and Neil Chapman of Southern Life. Businessmen from South Africa, the United States (US) and Britain also held talks with Oliver Tambo.

Academics and Students

Students from Christian societies at the universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town went to Harare when the ANC and the World Council of Churches met to discuss the education crisis in the country.

In April 1986 members of National Union of South African Students (Nusas) went to Harare to meet with the ANC. Nusas, which throughout its history maintained anti-apartheid positions of varying intensity, had a significant influence among white students, and had many contacts with trade union and other organisations, and their consultations would filter into these allied organisations.

Academics from the universities of Cape Town and the Western Cape, led by UCT vice chancellor Stuart Saunders and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) rector Prof Jakes Gerwel, met with the ANC in September 1986. In October 1987 academics from UWC and members of the Western Cape Teachers’ Union met with the ANC in Lusaka. Academics and political leaders attended a conference in Leverkusen in West Germany in October 1988.

Homeland leaders

In March 1986, a delegation from the Inyandza movement from the Kangwane homeland met with the ANC in Lusaka. Led by Chief Minister Enos Mabuza, the meeting saw the homeland leader forge definitive relations with the liberation organisation. Mabuza’s relations with the ANC were an exception from those of other homeland leaders. He had always operated a kind of balancing act, using his position within an apartheid-created platform and at the same time fostering cordial relations with the ANC. The ANC, according to David Welsh, ‘accepted Inyandza’s bona fides as “part of the forces fighting for a democratic South Africa”’.

Another homeland delegation, members of Transkei’s Democratic Progressive Party, met the ANC in January 1988.
Despite tensions between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), IFP general secretary Oscar Dhlomo met with the ANC in May 1988.

Sports bodies

When the ANC met with the Idasa delegation in July 1987, they were ‘astounded’, according to Mark Gevisser, by the White South Africans’ passion for rugby and e Springboks. Springbok rugby player Tommy Bedford, who had given up white rugby to focus on black rugby, was part of the delegation, and together with Slabbert, he convinced the ANC that facilitating SA’s re-entry into the international arena would boost the image of the organisation in the eyes of White South Africans. Mbeki set about trying to broker the unification of white and black rugby, and the ANC made contact with Dr Danie Craven, the chair of the SA Rugby Board, and Louis Luyt, who played a powerful role in Transvaal rugby.

Craven sent Luyt to London in February 1988 to meet with the Pahad brothers, which led to a meeting with Mbeki in Frankfurt three months later.

In October 1988 Dr Danie Craven led a delegation from the SA Rugby Board and the SA Rugby Union to Harare to discuss the sports boycott and the formation of a single rugby body. The ANC team was led by Alfred Nzo, and included Mbeki and an official from the UDF-affiliated rugby union. They issued a joint statement saying SA rugby should come under the control of a non-racial body. The agreement saw the ANC reap kudos in the South African press.

Other sporting codes also got in on the act when a joint delegation from the National Soccer League and the SA Soccer Association met with the ANC in Maputo in the same month. In November, The SA Soccer Federation also sent a delegation to meet with the ANC.

Legal Dealings

A number of groups from the legal fraternity met with the ANC. In September 1987 a delegation included a group of lawyers from Natal, and two delegations of Black lawyers met with the ANC in Lusaka in November 1987. In May 1988, legal academics, attorneys and lawyers flew to Lusaka to meet with the ANC. In February 1989, legal academics from seven universities attended a conference in Harare on human rights, the law and constitutional issues.

The Five Freedoms Forum

Probably the largest delegation came in 1989, some eight months before the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela released. Among the delegation of 115 South Africans were 23 academics, 20 businessmen, 16 journalists and authors, 10 people from NGOs, 23 politicians, and various people from churches, universities, trade unions and city councils. The meeting ranged over a wide variety of issues, such as the role of Whites, violence, sanctions, economic models, constitutional matters, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, local government, education, business, media, and women’s issues, among others.


The series of delegations paved the way for negotiations to begin between the principal antagonists, the ANC and the Nationalist Party government. Indeed, these were intermittently underway while these delegations were flying to Lusaka and Harare, and the regime’s security chief Neil Barnard and Kobie Coetzee were talking to Mandela, while Mbeki began to have talks with Willie Esterhuyse and the brother of FW de Klerk, Willem de Klerk. These ‘talks about talks’ would not have been possible were it not for the unloosening of the process of contact with the ANC initiated by key individuals and organisations from White South Africa.


Gevisser, M, (2007), Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, (Jonathan Ball), Chapters 32 and 33)|Naidoo, J, (2010), Fighting for Justice, (Picador Africa)|Four Days in Lusaka, Whites from ‘Home’ in talks with the ANC, edited by Raymond Louw, 1989. Published by Five Freedoms Forum.|Welsh, D, (2009), The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, (Jonathan Ball)

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