Author Niel Barnard. Picture: SUPPLIED
Author Niel Barnard. Picture: SUPPLIED

It became an article of faith during the FeesMustFall protests and the radical economic transformation campaign that the 1994 "miracle" of racial reconciliation was a selling out of black people to the forces of reaction and economic re-exploitation.

Conspiracy theorists recasting Mandela as the villain of the piece would find evidence in an anecdote at the beginning of apartheid spy boss Niel Barnard’s latest memoir, Peaceful Revolution. Mandela, Barnard claimed, walked up to him at the start of the Codesa talks in 1991 and shook his hand, saying: "Doctor, the two of us should never forget we made this historical meeting possible."

Of course, Barnard could simply be blowing his own horn, or Mandela could have said that to everybody he shook hands with. Barnard’s ego is certainly on display in the book, and one cannot be sure he is telling all and telling it right, not when he brazenly suggests the National Intelligence Service had 40 tonnes of documents destroyed in army furnaces merely in order to protect the identities of agents.

There is also a picture of him with other members of the president’s council of the secret Ruiterwag, the youth league of the Broederbond including Roelf Meyer, but very little is said about the latter organisation, of which he must have been a member to be made head of the intelligence service.

But after having finished the book, I will profess myself open to a more sober reading of the vignette: Mandela was not speaking of Barnard the spymaster, but the behind-the-scenes range of ad hoc, shape-shifting bureaucratic formations that had one aim in mind: to make the transition work.

And if you want to know what went so wrong that today the statistician-general implies tertiary education was better under apartheid, and that poverty seems to be deepening and spreading especially among black people, the answer lies right there — but not in Barnard having too much of a say in the way things went post-94, rather that he might have had too little.

Old strugglistas and people of a liberation ideological bent would need some willing suspension of disbelief to read past Barnard’s unapologetic bias and self-justificatory tone. He makes no bones that his first loyalty was towards the governments of PW Botha and FW de Klerk. When his chest swells about successes, it is those by his side, and when he slags off members of his own side, it is not because they supported apartheid.

Still, it is an important book, and I agree with Hermann Giliomee that it will prove to be indispensable for historians. In fact, I have to reluctantly admit that I could not put it down.

One reason is also the reason the youngsters of today are at a disadvantage to make the right judgment call on the transition. The urgency of those times today is all but forgotten but comes through in Barnard’s account of his thousand days — the time he knew from the start he had to steer matters home. And perhaps his is the only bird’s eye view of the multiplicity of factors that forcefully impinged on the transition, either devastatingly in the form of evil-minded passenger train attacks or the necklacings that continued in the "black-on-black violence" as ANC supporters refused to call it, or through the many individuals and organisations that wanted to get on board with their doorstopper submissions.

After leaving the spy service to become director-general of the department of constitutional development, Barnard was head of a committee of 11 top bureaucrats, unironically called the AK11. But he was also part of a labyrinth of committees, "policy groups", "nucleus groups" and caucuses of the ruling Nats, all dealing with the impossible problems of an exiled leftist liberation movement trying to merge with the chief polecat police state of the world.

The key to any assessment of the outcomes has to be the military balance during the transition. Today, with our pathetic defence force and police as reference points, it is probably hard to understand just what role the powerful apartheid forces played, many of whose members belonged to some of the 80 right-wing organisations claiming to be privately armed. The other crucial factor in the military dynamic was that the ANC forces were no factor at all. Barnard notes wryly how the ANC negotiators eventually just stopped mentioning Umkhonto we Sizwe in order not to embarrass themselves any longer.

Rescuing SA from the prospect of a fascist laager and making it a liberal rule-of-law state was a major feat. One realises it only succeeded because a core of committed public servants had undergone their Damascus conversions and worked 24 hours a day to tackle myriad practical tasks.

One other failure was the relative absence of white monopoly capital, going by Barnard’s account. Far from calling the shots, business was practically ignored

It is their can-do attitude that revived the talks when they seemed to have been dashed on the rocks of intransigence from politicians on all sides, for many of whom Barnard does not hide his contempt, as they could only see opportunities for self-advancement. The top bureaucrats’ flexibility allowed the decisive informal channels between Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa, and between Mac Maharaj and the unsung hero bureaucrat Fanie van der Merwe to develop.

The ANC is today lauded as being extra magnanimous with Joe Slovo’s "sunset clause", which allowed white public servants to stay on for five years before affirmative action kicked in. Barnard recalls how Trevor Manuel, the erstwhile UDF firebrand, tried to warn against the extremism of the likes of Kader Asmal, who wanted immediate transformation: "The political change … must be seen as a normal development and not a disruptive intervention against officials.…" Manuel, claims Barnard, believed continuity was indispensable.

But the ANC started sacking highly trained Afrikaners — of whose deficiencies in English the comrades made fun behind their backs, Barnard writes — with racist glee. According to some estimates close to a million South Africans left the country in the 1990s, to be replaced with what Maharaj saw as "a reservoir of capable people who could serve as capable future public servants".

We now know what the ANC means with "capable" as the bloated public service succumbs to one disaster after another, to be saved by their purged predecessors-turned-consultants, those former officials who remained in SA and exchanged their willingness to build a new country for a typically African attitude of "it’s our turn to eat".

One other failure was the relative absence of white monopoly capital, going by Barnard’s account. Far from calling the shots, business was practically ignored. Barnard laments the main negotiators’ cold shoulder to the official opposition, as he believed its highly creative and well-informed members could have made policy contributions that the Nat politicians failed to make because they were strategically underprepared and too incompetent on certain matters.

One can imagine that through the parliamentary opposition, business leaders might have been able to submit creative input to transform the economic space, but in the end, it was the antibusiness strategists of the SACP who had captured the ANC who prevailed.

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