In Drama of the Peace Process in South Africa: I Look Back 30 Years, Sylvia Neame writes both as an insider (ANC and SACP member) and an outsider (historian) about the political settlement to end apartheid
Lekgantshi Console Tleane
There is a growing list of books written by those with inside information on how the talks about negotiations and subsequently the negotiations proper which led to the 1994 political settlement, that ushered in the current liberal democratic dispensation originated and were conducted.
The list can loosely be divided into two broad categories. The first is by politicians who were close to the happenings within either the African National Congress or the National Party at the time, and therefore speak with authority on what happened within and between these parties as they engaged in negotiations.
Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan share rare insights into dynamics within the ANC in their offering, Breakthrough: The Struggles and Secret Talks that Brought Apartheid South Africa to the Negotiating Table (2021).
The book sheds light on what happened between 1984 as the apartheid state faced imminent collapse and 1990 when the secret talks between the ANC and the NP began to come to light.
The second category of books written about that era is by those who were behind the scenes. Willie Esterhuyse’s revealing, Endgame: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid (2012), and Niël Barnard’s Secret Revolution:
Memoirs of a Spy Boss (2015), provides valuable data on the secret negotiations, this time from the perspective of those who effectively ensured the safeguarding of white interests and the capitalist class that shaped the architecture of the current political landscape.
In Drama of the Peace Process in South Africa: I Look Back 30 Years Sylvia Neame provides what may be termed apologia for some of the debates within the ANC and its ally the South African Communist Party, relating to the build-up to and during the negotiations.
Writing both as an insider (ANC and SACP member) and an outsider (historian) Neame draws from documents that she wrote as a contribution to debates within the two organisations, as well as reflecting on what transpired following the negotiations.
The book is divided into three parts. The first and main section is a reflection on the events that unfolded starting with the relocation of Nelson Mandela in 1985 from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, what both Esterhuyse and Barnard describe in their books mentioned earlier as the grand strategy to initiate the negotiations.
Neame reflects on the turn of events until 1990 when the exiles had no choice but to return home as the negotiations were starting in earnest. Key events and thought processes that shaped the ANC’s approach to negotiations are reflected upon, including some of the strategic documents and major events such as the 1985 Kabwe Conference and the 1989 Harare Declaration. These events and documents shaped the ANC’s approach to negotiations.
Neame’s situatedness during the 1980s and early 1980s provides a rich context against which to understand her reflections and contributions. Based in East Germany during the late 1980s, Neame experienced first-hand the devastation of the capitulation by Mikhail Gorbachev as he gave in to the pressure exerted by western capitals to “tear down this wall” - a 1987 appeal by US president Ronald Reagan which Gorbachev would follow by dismantling the power of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, symbolised by the 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall.
Even before the turmoil of the 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall, Neame had begun to reflect on possible political solutions that had to be considered, to get the country out of what some consider having been a ‘stalemate’ between the apartheid regime and the forces of liberation during the middle 1980s.
What comes out in this section is Neame’s strenuous attempt to demonstrate that while there was no consensus within the ANC and its alliance partners on the need to negotiate with the apartheid regime, such negotiations were inevitable. Also, Neame tries to portray an ANC that, despite its evident weaknesses and lack of experience in negotiations, remained focused on the ‘bottom line’ to achieve freedom for South Africa.
The second part of the book, which is the second largest after the reflections, contains diary entries by Neame from 1985 until 1989. Here the reader is taken into the mind of an activist in East Germany, agonising over debates and developments within her movement. Clearly favouring a political solution, she is faced with what appeared at the time to be hard-line attitudes adopted by some of her comrades. Whether it was the pragmatic posture adopted by those like Neame towards possible negotiations, or it was unfolding material conditions inside and outside the country that forced the ANC to make some of the many concessions that it ultimately made should continue to occupy scholars as we try to understand how the current dispensation was shaped.
The third part of the book contains some of the internal papers that Neame wrote in response to or contributing to key debates taking place within the ANC and SACP. Again, the period covered is between 1989 and 1990. Once more, Neame adopted a pragmatic approach to negotiations, at times sailing against some of the hardliners within the SACP.
The approach that scholars and other readers will and should adopt when going through this book must not be limited to agreeing or disagreeing with Neame’s views. The main contribution that this book makes to scholarship is in helping us to understand the internal dynamics, both in thought and with regards to some of the internal developments that shaped the ANC and SACP’s approaches to negotiations.
Key to this approach is how the past has shaped the present, which is now associated with the ANC’s inability to address the plight of the very people in whose name it defended the need to enter negotiations to ‘end apartheid’ – the black people.
Drama of the Peace Process in South Africa: I Look Back 30 Years is published by Best Red, an imprint of the HSRC Press. It retails for R470 and can be bought in bookstores or from online outlets.