The South African Talks: A Template for Peace

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Young Mediator in the talks that ended apartheid in South Africa

1985 began as a dreadful year for South Africa. Months earlier the Sharpeville riots led to six people dead in clashes with the police. In response, 7,000 troops searched 20,000 houses in Sebokeng township, heightening the tension and the prospect that even worse riots would follow.

But 1985 also proved to be a decisive year, when white South Africans finally had to confront an organized black opposition that they could not control. Strikes on May Day 1985 saw 2.5 million people stay away from work. In July President P. W. Botha declared a state of emergency, and mass arrests followed.

Overseas, the international business community became restless as pressure mounted for economic disengagement, which in turn, threatened the very economy of the republic.

By 1986, the government of South Africa had lost control of many of the townships, and the nation was becoming ungovernable.

Against this backdrop, I responded to the President of the African National Congress (ANC), Oliver Tambo's request to help build a bridge between his organization and the government in Pretoria. As a young Englishman working for a British mining company in South Africa, I ventured into the heart of Afrikanerdom in search of as-yet-unknown partners who would help bridge that gap.

The search was long and complex. However at Stellenbosch University I found brave Afrikaners who were prepared to risk life and livelihood to join me in the United Kingdom to meet with the ANC in exile.

The ensuing five-year discussion was crucial because it showed each of the players that the members of the other side were human and had their own perspective that needed to be understood. I believe the ultimate success of these talks stemmed from four factors:

First, it was a private business initiative, not engineered and conducted by government. This ensured that there was minimal intrusion of external political factors into the process. My only concern was that there be an ordered progression from the status quo to a point decided, not by me, but by those participating in the process.

Second, the talks were held in secret, and kept well away from political and media attention. Political figures have a propensity to play to the gallery when the media is present, and I wanted there to be no such distractions. Indeed, I made it a condition of my involvement that this should remain the case.

Third, the participants genuinely represented their respective constituencies. No group was deemed politically unacceptable, and all relevant constituencies were included. Further, the participants were not at the heart of their respective organizations and therefore their absences would not be noticed. Their position meant that they had an incentive to play the longer game rather than to look for short term benefit.

Finally, the discussions were organized so that the participants owned and managed the process. The agenda was theirs, as was the pace and depth of discussion.

This template can serve as a model for facilitating peace efforts around the world today, from the Middle East, to Afghanistan, to Iran, to the Basque area of Spain.

My belief is that in all cases, the facilitator must keep a distance from the participants, so that if a dispute arises, his or her neutrality can be used in arbitration.

Further, the facilitator should carry as little political baggage as is humanly possible. Unfortunately, this can present a problem when a prominent individual from an external government attempts to facilitate talks, since his or her very prominence necessarily reflects that government's agenda, making it almost impossible for the participants themselves to own and manage the talks.

So let me close by stressing the great importance of a detached and invisible facilitator--an arrangement that worked so well in bringing peace to South Africa.

Michael Young was the mediator in the talks that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela. The dramatic, little known story of these secret negotiations is told in Endgame, a political thriller airing on MASTERPIECE Contemporary on Sunday, October 25 at 9pm on PBS.