Building trust and playing hardball

Contrasting negotiating styles in South Africa's transition to democracy

Barry Shapiro is Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. After focusing and publishing on revolutionary justice and the impact of the emotional experience of revolution, especially with regard to the French Revolution, he has turned his attention in the past few years to a study of the South African transition to democracy.


This article examines two contrasting and complementary negotiation styles employed by the African National Congress (ANC) during the negotiation process that ended apartheid in South Africa. Taking its cue from the work of negotiation theorists who have distinguished between ‘cooperative’ and ‘adversarial’ negotiation styles, it presents the August 1991 replacement of Thabo Mbeki as chief ANC negotiator with Cyril Ramaphosa as a pivotal turning point in the ANC’s drive to secure agreement on a majoritarian constitutional settlement. Through a historical analysis of Mbeki’s efforts to build trust and alleviate ‘other-anxiety’ and Ramaphosa’s subsequent use of brinksmanship and other ‘hardball’ tactics to enhance the ANC’s bargaining position, the article suggests that the success of Ramaphosa’s ‘adversarial’ approach was largely dependent on Mbeki’s earlier success in cultivating sufficient trust and confidence between the two main parties as to enable them to come to an ultimately ‘irreversible’ understanding of their mutual interest in making peace.

Without such an understanding, Ramaphosa’s confrontational approach might easily have torpedoed the negotiation process itself. The article concludes with reflections on the possible relevance that the pattern of interaction between ‘cooperative’ and ‘adversarial’ styles revealed in this case study might have for the analysis of other ‘negotiated revolutions’.

As 30 000 protesters against the notorious pass laws gathered at the Cape Town central police station on 30 March 1960, the rally’s leader, Philip Kgosana, persuaded the crowd to disperse in return for the promise of what would have been an unprecedented meeting with South Africa’s Minister of Justice. But when Kgosana, a 23 year old university student and Pan African Congress activist, arrived back at the station that evening for his scheduled meeting with the Minister, he was immediately arrested and the meeting itself, needless to say, never took place (Lodge 1983:221–222; Dubow 2000:63–64).

Coming in the midst of nationwide unrest which was triggered by the pivotal Sharpeville Massacre and which led to the banning of both the Pan African Congress and the ultimately dominant African National Congress, this incident can be seen as a kind of bookend to a 30 year period marked not only by an almost total absence of legal African nationalist opposition to the apartheid regime and by the pursuit of armed resistance to it, but, inevitably, by a seemingly total absence of basic trust between African nationalists and the white government. Before these antagonists could even imagine the possibility of negotiating any kind of ‘solution’ to their seemingly intractable conflict, some level of confidence in the reliability of promises, especially those relating to the very safety and security of the negotiators themselves, would somehow have to materialise.

Flashing forward now to what can be thought of as a closing bookend to the aforementioned 30 year period, let us listen to the comments of Mike Louw, deputy chief of the government’s National Intelligence Service, regarding what is said to have been the first direct meeting between the regime’s intelligence operatives and their ANC counterparts. Waiting in September 1989 in a Swiss hotel room for the arrival of ANC intelligence head Jacob Zuma and chief diplomat Thabo Mbeki (both of course future presidents of post-apartheid South Africa), Louw recalls wondering: ‘How can we expect these guys to trust us? … I mean, we might have been sitting there with guns and the moment they opened the door just blown them away. So we opened the door so that they could see in, and we just stood there in full view’ (Sparks 1995:113).

Now obviously a number of factors had intervened between 1960 and 1989 to make the calculated risk that Mbeki and Zuma took in entering that hotel room a far more ‘rational’ and well-considered leap of faith than Kgosana’s naïve decision in 1960 to rely on the promise made to him by Cape Town’s police chief. Most prominent perhaps would be the fact that by the late 1980s, the apartheid regime’s international standing had fallen so low and its economy had consequently become so vulnerable to various forms of pressure being applied by various sectors of the international community that its range of options for dealing with resistance to it had clearly narrowed considerably. In particular, even if the top ANC leadership had not yet begun to rely on indications that key elements within the regime, and especially in National Intelligence Service circles, had already concluded that it was necessary to come to some kind of agreement with the ANC, the embarrassment to the South African government that would have resulted from international reaction to an assassination of Mbeki and Zuma in that Lucerne hotel would in and of itself probably have precluded such an option.

Beyond such rational calculations, however, I will argue in this article that getting negotiations between the government and the ANC off the ground also required a certain degree of personal confidence and mutual understanding, a level of personal trust that had been built up in the half decade or so before that September 1989 meeting in a series of informal meetings and encounters in which Thabo Mbeki had played a crucial role. Moreover, I will further contend that Mbeki’s historic role as chief ANC negotiator until August 1991 was to serve as the chief architect, at least from the side of the ANC, of the process through which a tacit centrist alliance between the government and the ANC against forces on both the left and the right took on more and more consistency and weight to the point where numerous commentators began to refer to the ‘irreversibility’ of the negotiations, to the idea, that is, that ‘whatever crises arise … both sides have no choice but to press ahead with negotiations. Each is stuck with the other’ (Sparks 1991).1 Finally, I will argue that once this ‘irreversibility’ was thought to be reasonably well-established, the usefulness of Mbeki’s conciliatory negotiating style had run its course, and he was therefore replaced as chief ANC negotiator by trade union leader Cyril Ramaphosa, whose more hard-nosed negotiating style would serve the ANC well in the later stages of the negotiating process.

Building trust

According to the intelligence operative Mike Louw, as he and his colleague Maritz Spaarwater waited on that September 1989 evening in their Lucerne hotel room for the arrival of Mbeki and Zuma, ‘we could hear them coming, talking, and then they came around the corner and they could see us standing there. Thabo walked in and said, “Well here we are, bloody terrorists and for all you know fucking communists as well”. That broke the ice, and we all laughed, and I must say that from that moment on there was no tension’ (Sparks 1995:113). While the statement that ‘from that moment on there was no tension’ is obviously a huge exaggeration (Mbeki himself is reported to have whispered to Zuma that ‘sitting here with the enemy I feel my stomach moving’ [Waldmeir 1997:145]), it is worth analysing how effectively Mbeki’s opening gambit worked to undermine assumptions regarding ‘otherness’ and to provide a platform on which common ground might be found.

At first glance, it might be thought that the purpose of Mbeki’s declaration was to distance himself and Zuma and the ANC in general from (and in effect deny) the conventional white identification of the ANC with terrorist violence and communist revolution, to suggest that, dressed as they undoubtedly were in their sensible business suits and quick on the draw with self-deprecating humour and small talk, they hardly fitted the conventional white stereotypes of how terrorists and communists were supposed to look and act. However, a more subtle reading of the situation would incorporate the idea that Mbeki was actually affirming rather than denying assumptions about the ANC, and, in that way, empathising with and showing respect for the thought processes of his enemies. ‘Yes’, he would seem to be saying, ‘you are right, we are terrorists and communists, but still we are only human beings just like you and we can even laugh about our differences. So maybe we can begin to talk’. Moreover, lurking behind this suggestion of human commonality is the gentle insinuation that these apartheid functionaries were, in their own way, also violent terrorists and, moreover, the functional equivalent on the political right of communists.

‘You had to start from where they were’, Mbeki would later tell journalist Patti Waldmeir (1997:69), ‘then you would understand’. For Thabo Mbeki, who, as the son of imprisoned ANC leader and Nelson Mandela co-defendant Govan Mbeki, was sent in the early 1960s to study economics at Sussex University in Britain, ‘starting from where they were’ meant cultivating a charming, erudite, and, above all, non-threatening image. Discussing the famous pipe which has always been one of Mbeki’s favourite props, Waldmeir (1997:67) comments that he ‘sported his pipe as a badge of sophistication and urbanity, and used it to suggest a cultivated reserve inconsistent with white stereotypes of primitive Africans. One of his interlocutors of the period remembers that the pipe made Mbeki look like a “black Englishman”, by which he meant, of course, that the ANC leader was a sort of “honorary white man”‘ (Waldmeir 1997:67). Now one can only imagine how virtuous and sophisticated and perhaps even touched with redemption more than a few embarrassed cogs in the apartheid system must have felt in the late 1980s when given the opportunity to drink whiskey and share ‘quality time’ with a ‘black Englishman’ like Mbeki. But whatever feelings of personal guilt may have been partially assuaged in Mbeki’s long series of meetings with numerous Afrikaner and other white journalists, businessmen, intellectuals, and other public figures, some of whom were operating with a direct pipeline to the government itself, these encounters, more importantly, helped to foster a foundation of trust and confidence between African nationalists and Afrikaner notables that eventually served to enhance the possibility of a successful negotiation process. As negotiations researchers Jenai Wu and David Laws have written (2003:330 [emphasis in original]): ‘It may not be necessary to trust to negotiate, but negotiations proceed more readily under conditions of trust than of persistent skepticism, suspicion, and doubt about the intentions and behavior of the other. It is easier to share information and jointly explore controversial issues, to understand interests, (and) invent options … when we feel we can trust the other side, even if provisionally’.

Indeed, alleviating what Wu and Laws call ‘other-anxiety’ and thereby evoking the feeling that he, and by extension the ANC, could be trusted was clearly Mbeki’s specialty as a negotiator. As a group of prominent white businessmen hosted by Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda gathered to meet an ANC delegation in September 1985, one of the white visitors stated that ‘I keep thinking of Piet Retief’ (a legendary 19th century Afrikaner martyr who had supposedly been tricked into entering a negotiation session with the Zulu leader Dingane without any weapons and had then been slaughtered along with his men). But as if to belie this primal white South African nightmare, which might serve for us as a kind of mirror image of the cynical betrayal of Kgosana in 1960 with which this article began, Anglo American Corporation chief Gavin Relly later recalled ‘one of the nicest days I’ve ever spent. A picnic among South Africans talking about their future together’, and, referring specifically to Mbeki, stated that ‘I’d be happy to have that guy as my president’. In a similar vein, corporate executive Tony Bloom reported that ‘at lunch I gravitated towards Thabo … I felt an instinctive connection’, while the journalist Hugh Murray, who had been instrumental in setting up the meeting, noted that Mbeki was ‘very direct, very funny, puffing on his pipe. A natural savoir faire. Very comforting‘ (Gevisser 2007:502–504 [emphasis mine]). Maintaining the focus on alleviating ‘other-anxiety’, Mbeki created a sensation in introducing himself to a plenary session of a well-publicised meeting in Dakar, Senegal in July 1987 between an ANC delegation and a group of Afrikaner intellectuals and media figures by stating: ‘My name is Thabo Mbeki. I am an Afrikaner’. Appropriating the hated Dutch-derived term for ‘African’, Mbeki had ‘abstracted’, as his biographer Mark Gevisser explains (2007:510–511), ‘his origins into a double entendre to harness the mood of the moment, collapsing his own identity into those of his tense and anxious interlocutors’. According to theologian Theuns Eloff, this move ‘just broke the ice … It was him saying, “I’m part of South Africa. We are the same people.” It worked’ (Gevisser 2007:511).

The success of Mbeki’s ‘seductive’ methods, to use a term that frequently recurs in commentary on this period, is perhaps most strikingly demonstrated in the testimony of two leading Afrikaner intellectuals, sociologist and reformist politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, and political philosopher and National Intelligence Service (NIS) ‘asset’ Willie Esterhuyse. ‘Shit, I’d die for that bugger’, Van Zyl Slabbert told Gevisser (2007:496) soon after several long one-on-one sessions with Mbeki during the aforementioned Dakar encounter, then reinforced the same point in a less adulatory and indeed disillusioned register years later: ‘Thabo creates a level of intimacy … You assume the solidarity’s there. It creates friendship. He is hospitable, urbane, friendly, but he uses his friendliness and urbanity to get close to the enemy’ (Gevisser 2007:522). As for Esterhuyse, he echoed Slabbert’s 1987 visceral sense of trust in Mbeki in telling Patti Waldmeir (1994) that ‘I have an admiration for Thabo that I have not even for (Minister of Constitutional Development) Gerrit Viljoen. I will entrust my life to him’.2 Asked in late 1987 by NIS head Niël Barnard to provide information regarding another series of ‘pre-negotiation’ encounters between Afrikaner notables and the ANC (the so-called ‘Mells Park meetings’) that were about to begin, Esterhuyse responded that he would do so only if he informed Mbeki that he was acting as a government intermediary, that he was ‘prepared to act as a sort of informal messenger but (wouldn’t) be an informant’ (Waldmeir 1994). As Mbeki stated, ‘he squared with me right at the beginning … I knew all along that he was talking to Barnard – and that Barnard was reporting to P. W. Botha’ (Sparks 1995:78–79; Harvey 2001:138–139). Indeed, it would be Esterhuyse, who contacted Mbeki to arrange the September 1989 meeting with NIS operatives discussed at the beginning of this paper, telling Allister Sparks that ‘I gave Thabo a personal assurance that if I picked up anything that indicated to me that it was a trap, or that something could go wrong, I would alert him’ (Sparks 1995:109–110).

In terms of substantive messages, Mbeki’s ‘personal trust offensive’ was closely linked to convincing white South Africans that they could ‘do business’ with the ANC, that whatever ‘solution’ or ‘deal’ might ultimately emerge if the nascent ‘talks about talks’ were actually to lead to successful formal negotiations, the basic interests of whites would not be seriously compromised. Thus, as he told Gevisser (2007:524), it always remained ‘uppermost’ in his mind that ‘we must understand the fact that these people are scared of us and they have educated themselves to know us as ogres … You need continuously to be saying, ‘No, no need to fear, we are perfectly OK … South Africa is not going to break apart or start slaughtering you and all that’. In the meantime, as Mbeki was spearheading efforts in the late 1980s to build trust in a wide range of Afrikaner circles, Nelson Mandela himself was engaged in parallel ‘talks about talks’ with various government officials from his prison cell. As Mandela later explained, one of his central concerns in these talks was to deal with ‘the question of allaying the fears of the whites; this was one of the questions the ANC and the government would have to address because that fear is genuine. It is mistaken but it is genuine’ (Uys 1991).

Now it is extremely difficult to decipher to what degree and at what point those elements within the ruling National Party who were most invested in pursuing the negotiation route privately understood, whatever public signals were being sent to their anxious constituents, that reaching agreement with the ANC would have to entail the ultimate acceptance of some form of majoritarian democracy, that, in other words, coming to an agreement with the ANC, which clearly enjoyed overwhelming support among Africans, would, in essence, mean the handing over of governmental power to the ANC.3 Certainly, as ‘talks about talks’ morphed into four years of formal negotiations after the February 1990 release of Mandela, the public position of the National Party and the government slowly evolved from a defence of so-called ‘group rights’ to a commitment to a variety of schemes for ‘power-sharing’ to an eventual acceptance of little more than a fig-leaf of ‘power-sharing’, a five year transitional period in which the outgoing white President F.W. de Klerk would serve as a deputy president in a Government of National Unity.4 At the same time, however prescient National Party negotiators may or may not have been regarding the eventual political outcome of the talks, it is clear that Mandela and Mbeki and their allies in the ANC were intent from the very beginning of the process on reassuring whites, and especially corporate elements, that their economic interests would be protected, that an ANC government would be prepared to operate within the general framework of global neo-liberalism and would be particularly sensitive to the economic damage that the loss of white skills and experience would entail (Harvey 2001:136–138, 149; Spitz and Chaskalon 2000:17; Terreblanche 2002:95–96; and Natrass 1994:343–346). Indeed, as American radical and Pan-Africanist Stokely Carmichael later commented, the South African ‘solution’ could be described as ‘a classic neo-colonial situation where the government changes hands but the revolution is not implemented’ (Carmichael 2003:775).

Moreover, though I have not yet found direct evidence to corroborate this point, I believe that we can assume that credible early assurances were given that whites would have little to fear from the ANC on the judicial as well as on the economic front. Surely at least the possibility of some kind of future prosecution of the agents of apartheid, including of course the government negotiators themselves, could not have been absent from the minds of these negotiators as contacts with the ANC were established. While the detailed and contentious discussions on amnesty which eventually led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would take years to complete, at least a hint that the ANC provided some manner of early assurance that it would pursue a non-punitive policy with respect to the crimes of the apartheid regime would seem to be contained in cabinet minister Gerrit Viljoen’s reflections on the Mells Park meetings: ‘The unofficial contacts worked against demonization … The ANC’s reasonableness and lack of bitterness came across. It was clear that their priority was not to destroy their opponent’ (Lieberfeld 2005:116). Spelling the point out more explicitly, though without indicating exactly how far back this ‘point of departure’ went, President De Klerk stated in his autobiography (1999:288) that ‘throughout the negotiations, it had been accepted as one of our basic points of departure that there should be a comprehensive process of amnesty for all those, on all sides, who had been involved in the conflict of the past’. In a similar vein, a statement published in March 1990 would also seem to suggest, however obliquely, that the ANC had privately made some kind of commitment to a non-punitive judicial policy: ‘Africans’, Mbeki told journalist Phillip van Niekerk (1990), ‘come from a tradition of absence of hatred and of a spirit of vengeance. Despite the damage that’s been done by the apartheid system, there’s an absence of bitterness towards white people’.5 Indeed, it might be postulated that, in the early stages of the negotiation process, the term ‘absence of bitterness’ served as a kind of code for amnesty or pardon.

In any case, if Mbeki’s central purpose in the negotiations process was to build a modicum of mutual trust with whites and to reassure them that they would be safe if they were to give up the reins of political power, it seems fair to say that he was wildly successful. So successful that F.W. de Klerk’s brother, Willem de Klerk, who attended some of the Mells Park meetings, told Allister Sparks (1995:80) that the ‘essence’ of the message that he sent back to the Broederbond, a kind of Afrikaner semi-secret ‘super think tank’, was as follows: ‘Look, boys, everything is OK. We can do business with the ANC. They are not that radical. They are willing to compromise. They see the Afrikaners as an indigenous part of the South African population. They are not that dangerous’. Indeed, it might be said that Mbeki’s efforts to reassure his interlocutors were so successful that he was, in effect, able to work himself out of a job. For once the formal negotiation process had actually gotten off the ground and the ANC had gone from an illegal revolutionary organisation with its top leadership and most of its effective operatives either imprisoned or in exile to a legal political party which could now engage in something bearing at least a resemblance to ‘normal politics’, it could focus on doing what a normal political party normally does: exert pressure on the political system for purposes of fulfilling its own interests. The coddling, the reassuring, the hand-holding of fearful whites had served its purpose in creating the political space that allowed the ANC to emerge from the shadows. Now with the broad outline of early assurances on the economic and judicial fronts largely remaining in place, the ANC could be less restrained in pushing its interest in a unitary majoritarian system of government.

Playing hardball

In this regard, it is not surprising that long-standing dissatisfaction and skepticism within the ANC with Mbeki’s approach to negotiations took on a more public and more insistent tone in the months following the February 1990 unbanning of the ANC and the May 1990 opening of formal talks at the Groote Schuur presidential palace in Cape Town and, in particular, following the signing of the August 1990 ‘Pretoria minute’ between the government and the ANC in which the ANC agreed to suspend the remnants of its armed struggle against the regime in return for the government’s promise to release all remaining political prisoners and to facilitate a more rapid return of exiles. With the government dragging its feet on its side of the bargain and with police and security forces seemingly stepping up repressive activities in the townships, a magazine with strong ties to leftist elements in the ANC noted that ‘the terror of recent weeks has taken its toll. It has left people wondering why the ANC gave so much in suspending the armed struggle and saying the police would change their ways when they haven’t. People wonder why the government was able to obtain the Pretoria minute without conceding real dates for the release of more political prisoners and the return of exiles’ (Work in Progress 1990). With Mbeki clearly in its sights, the same publication declared in its following issue that ‘currently the ANC teams leading and facilitating talks are entirely dominated by people recently returned from exile. Should the ANC not be drawing on the immense experience of union leaders in negotiating?’ (Cargill 1990:6).

The frustration among much of the ANC rank-and-file, and in particular among many trade union militants, surfaced publicly at the organisation’s Consultative Conference held in Johannesburg in December 1990, where, as one reporter recalled (Sello 1991a), ‘bitter feelings’ were on display because ‘it was felt that the ANC had conceded much, while the government expediently continued to allow violence to be waged against the townships’. As Africa Confidential reported (1991:1), ‘delegates to the December conference were particularly hard on two NEC (National Executive Committee) members, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, reproached with being over-enthusiastic for negotiations. Mbeki in particular is not helped by his elitist image. There is a growing feeling that he is more concerned with placating white fears than with articulating black aspirations’. Lurking behind this impatience with the perceived lack of progress in negotiations was a conviction that Mbeki shied away from confrontation and was reluctant to promote and unleash the popular protest and mass action that was thought to constitute the ANC’s most important source of potential leverage throughout the negotiation process. As one militant explained, ‘Thabo misread us as rejectionist, but he didn’t understand our two-tier strategy: to talk with a big stick. It seemed to us that he was scared of the big stick. He didn’t really know how to use it, so he wanted to throw it away’ (Gevisser 2007:596). Using the same metaphor, Work in progress described the government as ‘an unwilling traveler down the road towards democracy, a disobedient beast, requiring the sting of a stick on its backside to keep it moving’. Specifically identifying Mbeki as the proponent of an ‘alternative perspective’ and clearly alluding to the nature of his negotiating style, the magazine sarcastically asserted that ‘personal chemistry between the donkey and its driver may make the process more pleasant, but provides no substitute for the stick’ (Niddrie 1991:5–6).

These complaints about how the ANC was conducting negotiations became part of a full-fledged political offensive against ANC ‘moderates’ in spring 1991. Speaking for a coalition of grass roots militants, trade union activists, and leftist elements within the ANC, Communist Party luminary Joe Slovo told an April meeting of the ANC National Executive Committee that the organisation’s lethargic response to government sponsored violence was ‘creating a gap … between the ANC and the people’ (Gevisser 2007:599–600). Mandela responded to Slovo by defending Mbeki and his negotiating team at an NEC meeting in May, asserting that whatever the ‘ups and downs’ of the moment, ‘we have succeeded in forcing the regime to abandon its own basic stand and come over to ours’ (Gevisser 2007:600). However, in truth, though Mandela’s iconic status made him virtually immune to direct assault within the ANC, the attacks upon Mbeki essentially amounted to indirect attacks upon Mandela himself. Thus, it was that the 31 July decision of the NEC to replace Mbeki as lead negotiator with National Union of Mineworkers leader Cyril Ramaphosa came while Mandela was on a trip to Cuba. Indeed, Mbeki was also out of the country when the decision was made, appropriately enough at a conference in Cambridge, England (Sello 1991b; Gevisser 2007:603–604; Butler 2007:261–262).

The son of a Soweto police officer, Cyril Ramaphosa was a lawyer who had been deeply involved in the trade union movement for almost a decade and who had played a central role in steering the recently-formed Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) into a firm alliance with the ANC. Identified by Bobby Godsell, his chief opponent in mining industry negotiations, as ‘the most skilled negotiator I have ever met’ (Sparks 1995:179), and by the City Press (1991) as a man whose ‘track record as a shrewd negotiator is well-known’, Ramaphosa was depicted in the aftermath of his appointment as lead negotiator as ‘the most experienced of the ANC’s Young Turks’ and as ‘warm and charming but devastatingly efficient’ (Katzin, Qwelane and Breier 1991). More crudely, a journalist for the Star (Johnson 1991) recalled how Ramaphosa had been pictured in a well-known newspaper cartoon with a hand ‘up in between (a mining magnate’s) legs,squeezing his sensitive parts’. Like any good negotiator, Ramaphosa was always prepared to accept what, under the circumstances of the moment, seemed to be necessary compromises, and indeed, though put forward in summer 1991 as the candidate of the ANC left, the ideological distance between him and Mbeki was actually not very great. Moreover, also like most good negotiators, Ramaphosa had great expertise in using charm and, yes, personal chemistry to grease the wheels of compromise. But what appealed to the left about him at this point was his readiness, at appropriate times, to mix in a heavy dose of threat and brinksmanship with the ever-present charm.6 Operating in labour-management negotiations in accordance with the principle that, as his biographer Anthony Butler puts it (2007:154), union leaders sometimes ‘must stoke up members’ anger so as to scare the bosses into backing down’, Ramaphosa, whose negotiating style would no doubt be classified by negotiation theorists as ‘adversarial’ or ‘competitive’ (at least in comparison to Mbeki’s more ‘cooperative’ or ‘problem-solving’ style) (Nelken 2005; Williams 1983), was just the man to oversee the application of the same principle to the constitutional negotiations between the government and the ANC.

The summer 1991 replacement of Mbeki with Ramaphosa was, as already indicated, part of a general offensive against ANC moderates, one in which figures identified with the left, and in particular with policies and strategies advocated by COSATU, were appointed to several major policy-making and administrative positions. Indeed, this ‘coup’, as it was termed by many observers, amounted to what Butler (2007:261) calls ‘the first major realignment of forces in the liberation movement for decades’. With the left in the ANC now largely calling the shots, the ‘two-tier’ strategy mentioned above of talking with a big stick would now become dominant. After months of wrangling about the details of how large a majority in an elected Constituent Assembly would be necessary to enact a final constitution and with the government seemingly still dragging its feet on a number of other issues, Ramaphosa, who, according to Butler (2007:294–295), ‘had engineered a crisis’ and engaged in ‘deliberate deadlocking’, announced on 15 May 1992 that the ANC was withdrawing from the working group that had been focusing on Constituent Assembly procedures (Sparks 1995:136). This led to the immediate collapse of formal constitutional talks, and, with COSATU activists in the lead, to the launching a month later of a mammoth ANC campaign of ‘rolling mass action’.7 ‘But then’, as Patti Waldmeir commented (1997:203–204), these constitutional talks were ‘not really about doing a deal; (they were) about showing how unwilling the other side was to settle … The ANC needed to test its strength, as much to bolster its own confidence as to impress the other side. The government felt too strong to settle and its rivals felt too weak. The ANC set out to reverse that equation’.

In serving, as Allister Sparks put it (1995:140), to ‘literally paralyze the country’ and in thereby conjuring up memories of the massive insurrectionary activity of the mid-1980s, it was, as numerous analysts suggest, this campaign of mass mobilisation, with its accompanying strikes and boycotts, that ultimately turned the balance of forces in the soon-to-be resumed formal constitutional negotiations decisively in favour of the ANC (Barber 1999:294–296; Johnson and Schlemmer 1996:8–9; Sisk 1995:215–217; Marais 1992:13–15; Africa Confidential 1992b:3– 4). For this clear demonstration of the ANC’s disruptive capacity and, in its most basic sense, its overall political strength essentially left F.W. de Klerk with a choice which was not really a choice: either unleash the power of the state in an old-fashioned security crackdown or, recalling this article’s earlier reference to the ‘irreversibility’ of the negotiations process, acknowledge that, if conditions in the country were to be in any way ‘normalized’, he would indeed actually have do a deal with the ANC. Like Louis XVI in July 1789, if a scholar who has worked for many years on the French Revolution can be indulged a comparison which might seem out of place, De Klerk, for a variety of reasons the exploration of which would require a separate article, could not when push came to shove pull the trigger on a full-out employment of the state’s coercive apparatus and was thus ‘locked into’ a reluctant partnership with the ANC. Moreover, whatever expectations about the final outcome that De Klerk might have had when he made the momentous decision in February 1990 to release Mandela and legalise the ANC, it had become clear by the end of 1992 that, in such a partnership, the National Party would have to be the junior partner. When presented with the idea of a five-year transitional Government of National Unity joined to an explicit commitment to a process of amnesty and the protection of the jobs and pensions of white civil servants, De Klerk essentially handed over the reins of government to the ANC and entered the pages of history as the Gorbachev of South Africa.

Backed up as it was by the ‘big stick’ of mass protest, Ramaphosa’s brinksmanship at the negotiating table had therefore served the ANC well.8 Yet, the success of Ramaphosa’s adversarial tactics was largely dependent on the earlier success of Mbeki in helping to generate sufficient trust and confidence between the two sides as to enable them to come to a gradual and ultimately perhaps ‘irreversible’ understanding of their mutual interest in making peace. Indeed, it can be argued that brinksmanship and hardball tactics could only have succeeded in an environment in which an overarching mutual commitment to keeping the process alive already existed. Without the presence of such an overarching commitment, manifested in this case by ongoing informal contacts, confrontational behaviour would in all likelihood, have served to threaten the continuation of the process itself and, as a result, to gravely endanger the possibility of reaching a peaceful outcome. Just as a certain degree of conflict and disagreement can serve to enhance the stability of an established political system so long as this conflict and disagreement occur within the parameters of an overarching agreement on what political scientists call ‘the rules of the game’, so it would appear that appropriately timed resorts to tough negotiating tactics can contribute to the completion of a ‘negotiated revolution’, provided that sufficient trust exists between the antagonists to serve as the functional equivalent of the ‘rules’ that allow conflict to be managed in more established political systems.


If the summer 1991 replacement of Mbeki as lead negotiator with Ramaphosa was indeed ‘the first major realignment of forces in the liberation movement for decades’, it turned out to be a realignment that didn’t last very long. For whatever ascendancy that the left had acquired within the ANC soon disappeared when, after the organisation easily won control of South Africa’s parliament in the country’s first democratic election in April 1994, Mbeki was chosen over Ramaphosa to become the nation’s first deputy president, and then selected as ANC deputy president in December 1994. These appointments, to all intents and purposes, anointed Mbeki as a kind of prime minister during Mandela’s presidential term of 1994–1999 and designated him as Mandela’s successor after the election of 1999. Without going into any detail on South African post-apartheid politics, most commentators seem to agree that the trade union movement, the Communist Party, and other leftist elements in the ANC alliance have been largely marginalised since the ANC became the ruling party and, in effect, began to see the ‘big stick’ of mass mobilisation as something that potentially threatened its own hold on power rather than as something that could help it attain power (Ginsburg 1996:97–101; Duncan 2010). In the meantime, Mbeki’s nine year presidency, which made little progress in alleviating South Africa’s mind-boggling degree of economic inequality and abject poverty, was especially marred by the worldwide opprobrium he incurred through the disastrous impact of his HIV/AIDS denialism. As for the trade union veteran Ramaphosa, with his own political ambitions thwarted by Mbeki’s return to the spotlight, he turned, no doubt to the disappointment of many, to the business world. Taking advantage of various ANC programmes to facilitate the development of a black bourgeoisie and, in all likelihood, his own unique political connections, he is today probably one of the wealthiest people in South Africa.

These earthbound realities, which have certainly been difficult to digest for many of those who hold dear a kaleidoscope of heroic images and visions of the South African liberation struggle, cannot, however, erase the contributions that both Mbeki and Ramaphosa made towards achieving a relatively peaceful transition to majority rule in a society which was ‘considered for many years’, as Pierre du Toit puts it (2001:85), ‘to be a least likely case for successful peacemaking’. Perhaps a careful analysis of how agreement was reached in other ‘negotiated revolutions’, for example those that took place in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, would reveal that the pattern of interaction between Mbeki’s ‘cooperative’ and Ramaphosa’s ‘adversarial’ negotiating styles that has been brought to light in this case study has similarly impacted the outcome of negotiations in other times and places.9 More importantly, it remains to be seen whether the manner in which these complementary styles combined to produce a relatively bloodless conclusion to what had seemed to be one of the world’s most intractable conflicts might serve as a model that could have some future relevance in helping to bring other such conflicts to an end.


  1. Note: Press reports specified below from the Star, the Sunday Star, and the City Press were found in the Velickovic Collection, Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
  2. Africa Confidential 1992. South Africa: democracy deferred. Africa Confidential, 19 June, pp. 1–2.
  3. Africa Confidential 1991. South Africa: home again. Africa Confidential, 25 January, pp. 1–3.
  4. Africa Confidential 1990. South Africa I: two kings, one crown. Africa Confidential, 23 February, pp. 1–3.
  5. Barber, James 1999. South Africa in the twentieth century. Oxford, Blackwell.
  6. Butler, Anthony 2007. Cyril Ramaphosa. Johannesburg, Jacana.
  7. Cargill, Jenny 1990. The search for political direction. Work in Progress, November/December, p. 6.
  8. Carmichael, Stokely 2003. Ready for revolution: The life and struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). New York, Scribner.
  9. City Press 1991. Hat off to Hani move. City Press (Johannesburg), 4 August.
  10. Cullinan, Kerry 1992. Moving the masses. Work in Progress, September, pp. 7–10.
  11. De Klerk, F.W. 1999. The last trek – a new beginning: The autobiography. New York, St. Martin’s Press.
  12. Dubow, Saul 2000. The African National Congress. Stroud, UK, Sutton Publishing.
  13. Duncan, Jane 2010. Thabo Mbeki and dissent. In: Glaser, Daryl ed. Mbeki and after: Reflections on the legacy of Thabo Mbeki, pp. 105–127. Johannesburg, Wits University Press.
  14. Du Toit, Pierre 2001. South Africa’s brittle peace: The problem of post-settlement violence. Houndmills, UK, Palgrave.
  15. Gevisser, Mark 2007. Thabo Mbeki: The dream deferred. Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball.
  16. Giliomee, Hermann 2003. The Afrikaners: Biography of a people. Cape Town, Tafelberg.
  17. Ginsberg, David 1996. The democratization of South Africa: transition theory tested. Transformation, 29, pp. 74–102.
  18. Guelke, Adrien 2005. Rethinking the rise and fall of apartheid: South Africa and world politics. Houndmills, UK, Palgrave.
  19. Gumede, William 2007. Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC. Cape Town, Zebra Press.
  20. Harvey, Robert 2001. The fall of apartheid: The inside story from Smuts to Mbeki. New York, Palgrave.
  21. Johnson, R.W. (Bill) and Lawrence Schlemmer 1996. Introduction: the transition to democracy. In: Johnson, R.W. (Bill) and Lawrence Schlemmer eds. Launching democracy in South Africa: The first open election, April 1994, pp. 1–15. New Haven, Yale University Press.
  22. Johnson, Shaun 1991. The power behind the grin. Star (Johannesburg), 9 August.
  23. Katzin, Kitt, Jon Qwelane and David Breier 1991. Your future lies in their hands. Sunday Star (Johannesburg), 4 August.
  24. Lawson, George 2005. Negotiated revolutions: The Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile. Aldershot, UK, Ashgate.
  25. Lieberfeld, Daniel 2005. Contributions of a semi-official pre-negotiation initiative: Afrikaner-ANC meetings in England, 1987–1990. In: Fisher, Ronald J. ed. Paving the way: Contributions of interactive conflict resolution to peacemaking, pp. 105–125. Lanham, MD, Lexington Books.
  26. Lodge, Tom 1983. Black politics in South Africa since 1945. London, Longman.
  27. Marais, Hein 1992. A year of living dangerously. Work in Progress, September, pp. 13–15.
  28. Mbeki, Thabo 1990. Problems before us, the steps forward. Sechaba, November, pp. 4–7.
  29. Natrass, Nicoli 1994. Politics and economics in ANC economic policy. African Affairs, 93, pp. 343–359.
  30. Nelken, Melissa L. 2005. The myth of the gladiator and law school students’ negotiation styles. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 7 (1).
  31. Niddrie, David 1991. Outwitting the Nationalist donkey: Using the carrot or the stick. Work in Progress, June, pp. 5–6.
  32. Nyatsumba, Kaiser 1991. Suzman: Negotiations on irreversible track. Star (Johannesburg), 23 August.
  33. O’Malley, Padraig 1998. Interview of 20 August with Cyril Ramaphosa. Available from: <> [Accessed 19 January 2012].
  34. Sello, S. Alcock 1991a. Leader’s stance gets full support. City Press (Johannesburg), 7 July.
  35. Sello, S. Alcock 1991b. Hani in shock move to SACP. City Press (Johannesburg), 4 August.
  36. Sisk, Timothy D. 1995. Democratization in South Africa: The elusive social contract. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.
  37. Sparks, Allister 1991. Irony of a scandal. Sunday Star (Johannesburg), 4 August.
  38. Sparks, Allister 1995. Tomorrow is another country: The inside story of South Africa’s road to change. New York, Hill and Wang.
  39. Spitz, Richard and Matthew Chaskalon 2000. The politics of transition: A hidden history of South Africa’s negotiated settlement. Oxford, Hart Publishing.
  40. Terreblanche, Sampie 2002. A history of inequality in South Africa, 1652–2002. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press.
  41. Uys, Stanley 1991. In the words of a president. Star (Johannesburg), 18 July.
  42. Van Niekerk, Phillip 1990. Interview with Thabo Mbeki. Leadership, 2 March, pp. 25–26.
  43. Van Zyl Slabbert, Frederik 1994 Why South Africa’s transition is unique. In Kitchen, Helen and J. Coleman Kitchen, eds. South Africa: Twelve perspectives on the transition, pp. 107–118. Westport, CT, Praeger.
  44. Waldmeir, Patti 1994. Interview with Willie Esterhuyse. Hermann Giliomee Papers, University of Cape Town Archives, BC 1070.
  45. Waldmeir, Patti 1997. Anatomy of a miracle: the end of apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa. New York, Norton.
  46. Work in progress 1990. Editorial. Work in Progress, September, inside cover.
  47. Williams, Gerald R. 1983. Legal negotiation and settlement. St. Paul, MN, West Publishing.
  48. Wu, Jenai and David Laws 2003. Trust and other-anxiety in negotiations: Dynamics across boundaries of self and culture. Negotiation Journal, 19 (4), pp. 329–367.


  1. Also see Nyatsumba (1991) where a similar perspective was presented by Helen Suzman, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, and Africa Confidential (1992:1), where, even as formal constitutional talks were collapsing, knowledgeable observers were assuming that ‘both the government and the ANC, however, remain locked into a negotiation process’. On the formation of a tacit centrist alliance between the ANC and the governing National Party, see for example Van Zyl Slabbert (1994:110–111). Also see the apt reference to a ‘process alliance’ between the government and the ANC in Spitz and Chaskalon (2000:30).
  2. Also see Gevisser 2007:498), where Esterhuyse is quoted as telling NIS agents: ‘I’m prepared to entrust my life to this fellow’.
  3. Similar difficulties arise in attempting to decipher to what degree National Party proponents of negotiations with the ANC thought of them (both before and after the February 1990 release of Mandela) as a means of cultivating the appearance of ‘reasonableness’ as opposed to actually thinking of them as a means of pursuing a real agreement. In the meantime, whatever public signals were being sent to the National Party’s constituency after February 1990, at least some informed observers thought that the legalisation of the ANC and the release of Mandela meant that the outcome was obvious: ‘There can be only one ultimate consequence of President F.W. de Klerk’s unbanning of political organizations and release of Nelson Mandela – majority rule in South Africa. It is no longer possible to turn back’ (Africa Confidential 1990:1).
  4. In one of its principal ads in the run-up to the first democratic elections of April 1994, the ruling National Party proclaimed that ‘we have kept all our promises. We have got a Government of National Unity, which means that the political parties will share power’ (as cited by Giliomee 2003:643). But as Adrien Guelke points out (2005:167), this ad made no reference to ‘the fact that participation in government of minor parties did not restrict the right of the majority in the cabinet (that is, the ANC) to determine the country’s policies’. Even more importantly, as Guelke further notes (2005:173), the ‘face-saving’ provision for a Government of National Unity itself was only agreed to by the ANC ‘on the basis that it would be temporary and not part of the final constitution’.
  5. Also see Mbeki’s more explicit public statement of August 1990 (Mbeki 1990:7): ‘The ANC has no plans and no intention to carry out acts of vengeance and retribution against anybody. There is therefore no reason for anybody within the present security forces to oppose change in the belief that such change will create a situation in which their lives and livelihood will be threatened’. Though this statement is more explicit than the statement of March 1990 cited in the text, it should also be noted that it would seem much more likely to reflect developments after the legalisation of the ANC and the release of Mandela than would the earlier statement. In this regard, it could therefore be argued that it provides less compelling evidence than the earlier statement for my supposition that there was a pre-February 1990 private assurance that the ANC would pursue a non-punitive policy.
  6. See Ramaphosa’s comments on brinksmanship in an interview with Padraig O’Malley (1998): ‘I stood the risk of wrecking the talks and I know that some of my colleagues thought I had overstepped the mark and at one stage I actually thought that that would bring the talks to a halt so I took things to the precipice because it was important that we should win that battle and once and for all gain the upper hand’. On this point, also see Gumede 2007:49–51.
  7. For the key role played by COSATU in driving the ANC to implement ‘mass action’, see Cullinan 1992:8–9.
  8. As Hein Marais (1992:15) notes, the implementation of the campaign of ‘rolling mass action’ can itself be regarded as a kind of ‘brinksmanship’. Indeed, as Allister Sparks (1995:137) suggests, the COSATU activists who had spearheaded the campaign saw as ‘fundamental to shop-floor bargaining that there should be a demonstration of strength outside the negotiating forum to strengthen the hand of the negotiators within’.
  9. For a general introduction to the seemingly oxymoronic concept of ‘negotiated revolution’, see Lawson 2005.


This Issue


  • Jannie Malan

Peacekeeping operations and adjustment of soldiers in Sudan

Peace in the hearts and minds of soldiers?

  • Gideon van Dyk
  • René Koopman

Longing for home

Pre-genocide and post-genocide refugees in Rwanda

  • Cori Wielenga

A humanistic approach to divorce and family mediation in the South African context

A comparative study of Western-style mediation and African humanistic mediation

  • Amanda Boniface

Citation patterns in Peace and Conflict Studies

A case study of the African Journal on Conflict Resolution

  • Joseph Fasae Kehinde
  • Oluchi O. Okere