Niël Barnard, apartheid’s last spy boss, wrote in his interesting book Secret Revolution – Memoirs of a Spy Boss that seismic political change was coming. b6b9dd72d6ac486793c877201eb444a7

He describes the above words as more or less what he said to the then State President PW Botha in May 1998 after the latter asked him to head-up a small government team to conduct exploratory talks with “this symbol of the black liberation movement”, still incarcerated at the time of this exchange:

“President, we just have to realise fully what we are in for when we begin to negotiate with Nelson Mandela. The eventual outcome is inevitable and will be a majority government, with him as president”.

Now, it is unlikely that Barnard simply woke up on that morning with a brilliant idea to suggest exploratory talks between the apartheid government, his employer, and the liberation movement.

It took many months, at least, of serious macro-political environment assessment, at home and abroad, with specific focus on the deteriorating economic situation in South Africa – mindful of heightened political activism on the domestic front and, internationally, of the increasing isolation of South Africa through sanctions called for by the ANC, still in exile.

Facing the inevitable

Barnard and his invisible men and women in the world of spies were also acutely aware of the gradual melting of the iron curtain and early signs of the end of the cold war between East and West.

They knew that the slow thawing of cold war tensions would present a new set of opportunities and threats to small countries around the world that had served as fertile grounds for proxy wars between the major global powers. Only fools would miss taking advantage of the changes.

But he also knew at the time that he was dealing with a rather stubborn leader – also known as Die Groot Krokodil – who hated being pushed. But PW Botha trusted him. Elsewhere in the book, Barnard writes this of the penultimate apartheid president:

“The tragic irony is that most National Party politicians, including members of the cabinet, were not sure how verlig (enlightened, inclined towards reform) the prime minister (later president) actually was.”

“One couldn’t really blame them because at times PW Botha moved forward progressively and then suddenly became stubborn and refused to budge if he felt he was being pushed in a certain direction. His disastrous Rubicon speech in August 1985 was a case in point”.

The relevance

At this stage, many of you might be wondering where I’m going with this. Well, let me help you. Aided by information gathered by the country’s intelligence services – sometimes with a little help from foreign intelligence services – and, of course, aware of the deteriorating socio-economic situation on the ground, the National Party found itself confronted with two options.

The first one would consist of using the SADF, once described as the most formidable military in Africa, on a full-frontal war against its enemies with a chance of annihilating them. But we know that this would not be possible, as it would most likely take many more years of pain and global isolation.

The enemy they were fighting was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It was in the streets, in the townships, lurking in the bushes, towns and villages, and mostly dressed in civilian clothes and hard to identify in large crowds. It also relied heavily on guerrilla tactics that consisted of nighttime attacks on soft and strategic targets around the country.

But, apart from frustrating the SADF and giving headaches to apartheid authorities, the said enemy was also quite aware that it would never have won a conventional war against the SADF. This war option would also have been suicidal and ended with a country in economic ruins, its infrastructure near total collapse and requiring many years to rebuild. The NP didn’t see that as a desirable option.

The second option would be negotiations that would lead to a peaceful hand-over of power following open, non-racist, democratic elections. Going by the numbers alone, PW Botha and, eventually, the NP, knew that this was the only reasonable option left for them.

Having realised that and, importantly, mindful of the need to prevent the country from descending into what would no doubt be a protracted civil war from which no one would emerge a clear winner, they chose to negotiate a ‘soft landing’ for the huge, damaged, apartheid aircraft they had been piloting. This is the only country they considered their home and would not want to be party to destroying it, we were told.

Would the ANC do the same?

Now, going by all the revelations from the ongoing Commission of Inquiry into State Capture and the extent of the rot; with early indications that what we already know is just a small, visible part of a massive iceberg – the larger submerged part of which seems to be hiding in the belly of the ANC – would our governing party, for the sake of South Africa, take a leaf from the example set by the National party and relinquish power?

Is the ANC prepared to openly take stock of the socio-economic and political ramifications of the role it played when it provided Zuma with a decade-long cushion against all evidence that was placed in the public sphere to the effect that his leadership bordered on treason?

Will all party leadership structure in parliament, starting with the “everything-but-neutral-speaker-of-parliament”, across different government structures, and at Luthuli House, especially all those who were the loudest at defending the indefensible and placing the interests of our country behind those of their party, be prepared to stand up and acknowledge their betrayal of the ideals we set for ourselves at the dawn of our democracy?

A break from leadership

Going by all indications, and the continued mixed messages being sent out from party and country leadership platforms about the direction the country is headed to, it seems best for the ANC to consider taking a break from political office in order to use the time it will need to heal from within and find its soul – or a new soul and renewed raison d’être – before it can return to contribute constructively to a united South Africa.

It cannot do so while it harbours known and suspected criminals and opportunists of all kinds who are not driven by a desire to serve the people of South Africa.

The ANC is unlikely to go without a fight, of course. But it needs to be told that too many years in power have taken something fundamental from it, leaving it only an emotionally discoloured shadow of its old self. South Africa deserves much better.

Will Ramaphosa be the man to return our country to us?