Has Tea With Mandela Paved Way to ‘Talks About Talks’?


Nelson Mandela, the shadowy figure who haunts South Africa, has been thrust to the forefront of the political stage by meeting with state President P.W. Botha.

Seventy-year-old Mandela’s release after many years in prison now seems imminent. The best bet is after the South African general elections Sept. 6.

The consequences of the meeting between the jailed and world-famous black nationalist and the leader of white South Africans could be very far-reaching.

The meeting will certainly have an effect on the general elections, with right-wing parties renewing their attacks on the government for allegedly giving into black nationalism and “communism.”


Newspaper readers in Cape Town were given a glimpse of something totally different Monday when they saw the faces of both Mandela and Botha staring out at them from the front pages under the headline “The men who made history.”

Because it is an offense to publish a picture of a prisoner in South Africa without authorization, newspaper readers here are totally unused to seeing photographs of Mandela, but at least one newspaper published his picture. This could be an indication of the atmosphere of hope and liberation unleashed by the meeting.

Exactly why the aging, soon-to-retire Botha chose this moment to meet Mandela is not clear. The meeting at Botha’s plush Cape Town residence Tuynhuys was held in total secrecy and took the country by surprise when it was confirmed three days later.

The meeting took place against a bizarre power struggle in the ruling National Party. Botha is reluctant to leave the presidency, but, following his mid-January stroke, his party has already chosen his successor, F.W. de Klerk. Botha is therefore seeking every available opportunity to show the party, and the country, that he is still in charge and doing important things.


There has been some black skepticism, branding the meeting a Botha “publicity stunt.” Former opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert picturesquely described it as “part of the sulking bull syndrome.” Yet it would be totally wrong to write it off as a matter of presidential pique aimed at scoring points in a party fight.

There is a new urgency in the air over a negotiated settlement in South Africa. With Namibia about to become independent, South Africa will soon be the last remaining white-ruled territory south of the Sahara. Pressure on the white minority will grow enormously in coming years.

Whites are increasingly becoming aware of the need to negotiate with blacks to avoid heavy bloodshed. Blacks are realizing that the whole region will crumble, economically and socially, if things are not settled in South Africa.

Non-government groups of various types have been visiting the African National Congress at its exile headquarters in Zambia for talks on the future; even the government has laid heavy emphasis on what Winston Churchill would call “jaw, not war.” Significantly, the government has not withdrawn passports of those making the visits. Though angry, it tolerates them.


The United States and the Soviet Union, backed by their allies, have been, in varying degrees, putting pressure on both the African National Congress and the South African government to reach a settlement. This push could offer South Africa an end to world isolation and sanctions.

What is the block? Simply that it is difficult to see whites agreeing to an early turnover of power to blacks. Yet, the existence of people like Mandela, respected older-generation figures whose political views were formed in the 1930s and ‘40s, provides a unique (but rapidly fading) chance for whites to deal with “moderates.”

Whites would feel safer dealing with Mandela than with some younger militant who was nurtured in the township mayhem of 1976 or 1984-86, and who would drive a more extremist bargain. From Mandela, whites might secure a tolerable future; from the militants, a Cambodia.

There is a strong belief in quarters close to Mandela that he sees his role, increasingly, as the “facilitator” of negotiations between the government and the ANC, and not necessarily as the chief negotiator. He has been in prison for nearly three decades and must, in some respects, be out of touch. His stature is what counts.


Mandela is ideally placed to facilitate talks to end the impasse. Because of the huge gap between black and white aspirations, “talks about talks” would leave him a freer hand, even to sup with the devil, with less risk of repudiation by his movement. He has a credibility and status that go way beyond the ANC or any other political group in the land. There is ironic luck for whites in the fact that he has been kept in prison for so long, unable to make the mistakes of free men. He is politically clean. Whites should take the chance now.

The National Party, for its part, has made it clear that its tough line on negotiations, requiring blacks first to renounce violence, has been softened. Now it is simply necessary for those taking part to commit themselves to peace--a shade more helpful than the previous position.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu observed that the Tuynhuys meeting was a chance for the outgoing president to meet someone who was going to succeed him. Farfetched optimism? Or possibly a grain of truth? One thing I know is that white South Africans should get used to thoughts like that.