The End of Apartheid in South Africa: The U.S. and UK Policy Perspective

Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Ulli Michel/REUTERS
Chester Crocker

James R. Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, U.S. Department of State (1981-1989)

Robin Renwick

Former Ambassador to South Africa (1987-1991) and the United States (1991-1995), United Kingdom; Author, The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution 

Ann Cooper

CBS Professor Emerita of Professional Practice in International Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Introductory Remarks

Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists present firsthand accounts of the end of apartheid in South Africa, specifically the involvement of the United States and Great Britain, and the repercussions of their policies for South Africa twenty-five years later.

This meeting is held in memory of Ambassador Princeton Lyman, who passed away in August 2018. Ambassador Lyman was the first holder of the Ralph Bunche endowed chair in Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

GAVIN: Good evening. Hi, I’m Michelle Gavin. I’m a senior fellow here at the Council. And tonight’s discussion promises to be a fascinating exploration of what we can learn with the benefit of time and perspective from South Africa’ remarkable transformation from an isolated apartheid state to the democratic member of the international community it is today.  

But tonight is also an occasion to remember and to celebrate and to honor Princeton Lyman, the extraordinary diplomat and scholar who was the first Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa here at the Council and, among other roles, served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa during that critical and fraught time of transition. The current Ralph Bunche senior follow, John Campbell, is here tonight and served with Princeton in South Africa. Princeton wrote a wonderful book about his experience, Partner to History. And while I can’t channel the—such a great man, I am sure that if he were here for this event he would take pains to make it clear that the seeming miracle of a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa was an achievement of South Africans, and South African will and vision, and that partners played important supporting roles, but only supporting roles.  

He would do that because it’s true, and also because Princeton was not part of the relentless pursuit of self-promotion that sometimes characterizes the worst of Washington. Quite the opposite, right? Princeton was interested in results, not in preening. And he was always, always aware of the limits of U.S. influence. Very clear-headed about the difference between what the U.S. might wish to achieve and the subset of things that were wholly within U.S. control. 

Princeton passed away last August, and he is dearly missed by so many—of course his family, his close friends, but also scores and scores of colleagues on multiple continents who had the pleasure of working with him. Scores of incredibly talented young people—and some not-so-young, like myself—considered him a mentor, learning not just from his professional example but also from the way he conducted himself, with humor, integrity, respect for others—whether they be senior or junior—intellectual clarity, and a belief that a better and more just world is possible, but that achieving it requires listening, hard work, and forging new and sometimes unexpected coalitions. 

Princeton’s life was a great American story. The son of immigrants, whose talent, and capacity, and work ethic allowed him to rise to the top of his field. And in turn, he was a true patriot, serving his country in both Republican and Democratic administrations as a USAID mission director in Ethiopia, as an ambassador in Nigeria and South Africa, as an assistant secretary of state, and even coming out retirement to take on what may at the time have been one of the most thankless jobs in government, as U.S. envoy to Sudan. And he made real progress on hard problems in Khartoum, in Juba, and in the Situation Room, where more than once I personally witnessed his maturity and wisdom saving well-meaning officials from themselves.  

How I wish we could ask him about the current momentous events in Sudan. How I wish he were here for this event tonight. I miss his voice. Princeton had a great voice. It sounded like good sense. I can still hear that voice in my head giving me terrific advice, asking the most important questions, surfacing hard and uncomfortable truths. I know he would have enjoyed tonight’s discussion. So let’s begin. 

COOPER: Welcome to “The End of Apartheid in South Africa: The U.S. and U.K. Policy Perspective” with Chester Crocker and Lord Robin Renwick. I’m Ann Cooper. I’m going to be presiding tonight. Twenty-five years ago—I hate to think it was that long ago—I was NPR’s correspondent in South Africa, which means that twenty-five years ago this month I was covering the first all-race elections in South Africa, which I have to say was truly the most joyous story I covered in a pretty long career in journalism.  

And I also just wanted to add one thing about Michelle’s remarks, because Princeton Lyman was the ambassador. And in that period, he was deeply respected by the press corps that was working in Johannesburg at that time. Not just because he was accessible, which isn’t always the case, but he was such a fully engaged and hands-on diplomat. And he was very generous in sharing his analysis with us without spin and, I think as Michelle noted, with absolutely no ego involvement whatsoever. He really was a credit to the foreign service and to the U.S. And I’m sure he’s deeply missed in foreign policy circles.  

OK, format tonight—if you’ve been here before you know the drill. The three of us are going to have a conversation for about thirty minutes, and then we’ll take questions from members, and we’ll end promptly at 7:15. Afterwards, there will be a reception in the back in honor of Princeton Lyman, so we can continue that conversation as well as this one. 

OK, you have detailed bios of our speakers in the program, so I’m just going to very quickly remind you why they’re here tonight. Chester Crocker was the architect of the Reagan administration policy of constructive engagement with South Africa, and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs throughout the 1980s. He has written about those years in High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood. Lord Robin Renwick was U.K.’s ambassador to South Africa in 1987 to 1991, and author if The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution, a personal memoir of those years. He’s also written more recently about South Africa, which we’ll get to in a bit. 

So when we talk about the end of Apartheid, you know, South Africa’s black majority was disenfranchised and oppressed for many, many decades. The end of what we’re talking about is the—1948, the codification of the racist system in which everybody was separated, your life was defined by who you were racially. You could go to jail if you objected. Organizations that were fighting against Apartheid were banned. And that went on for close to fifty years, with many, many efforts along the way inside, outside the country, to try to end Apartheid. And both of these gentlemen were deeply involved in some of those efforts. So I want to ask you both first to talk a little bit about your personal roles in developing and carrying out policy.  

And, Chester Crocker, let’s start with you. In 1980 you wrote this seminal magazine article and said: What we’ve been doing isn’t working. We can’t—you know, just hammering, hammering on human rights. And you came up with a new plan that then became policy, constructive engagement. Tell us a little bit about that, and how your thinking gelled around that idea. 

CROCKER: Well, I think the important thing to recognize is that assistant secretaries of state don’t make policy all by themselves. But the way I was looking at it at the time, our approach was focused on South Africa kind of in a vacuum, as though South Africa was an island. And of course, what South Africa was was the leading power in a regional sub-system called southern Africa, which was involved in a number of conflicts at the time—the transition from Portuguese rule to independence in Mozambique and Angola, the transition from white minority rule in Zimbabwe to independence of that country in 1980. And then there was a cross-border conflict as well from Angola and Zambia into Namibia, which was at that time called Southwest Africa by the South Africans, but by everybody else it was called Namibia, excepting for Donald Trump who calls it Nambia (ph). (Laughter.) Yeah.  

But apart from that, the way we approached it was that we had to be—have constructive engagement with the region’s leading power, but also with all the other countries and their governments who would—who would work with us to try to end the regional wars and argue there had to be a sequence. We had to actually wind down the regional wars, get countries to live within their own boundaries, stop cross-border destabilization and cross-border infiltration by liberation groups, and get the place calmed down if you were going to have actually eventually a negotiation over the end of Apartheid in South Africa itself. 

I just want to make one point on that, which I think is so crucial. As we started developing this policy and rolling it out in our diplomacy with neighboring countries and with South Africa proper, the message we heard from African leaders was: Namibia comes first. If you can deal with Namibia, and if you can wind down those regional wars and get the South Africans back inside their boundaries—because they were charging across all the boundaries—then maybe we can get to look at the ultimate big issue, which is the issue of change away from apartheid in South Africa.  

So that was the sequence. And we focused a lot of our attention in constructive engagement on trying to end the conflict over Namibia itself. We did something quite controversial. We linked Namibian independence to Cuban troops withdrawal from Angola. It was a package deal. And at the end of the package deal in 1988 and ’89 Fidel Castro said to me: Linkage worked. I’ll never forget it. (Laughter.) Anyway. 

COOPER: Did you have that on tape? (Laughter.) So you’re saying, you know, African leaders were saying, yes, this is the sequence that is needed here. But publicly, you got pretty hammered too, hammered by the administration. 

CROCKER: Oh, we got hammered all the time, yeah. We got hammered from both sides. And Julius Nyerere said: what you’re doing is very ambitious. If you can pull it off, we’re in your camp. But I’m very skeptical. So that was the kind of interchange that we had with our African friends, yeah. 

COOPER: Yeah. So, Lord Robin Renwick, how did the U.K. feel about constructive engagement? 

RENWICK: Whether you call it constructive or not, we certainly believed in engagement. And part of this discussion is about what difference, if any, did—you know, did the United States and Britain make in Southern Africa. And I honestly think that it’s a record we can be proud of, because my first job—real job in the foreign office was to help Lord Carrington work out a way to end the war in Rhodesia, negotiate a ceasefire, hold elections, hand over to the elected government. And I remember that I hated handing over to Mugabe because I knew what he was like. But he won the elections, and we had to end the war. 

Thereafter, it’s absolutely right that in South Africa that was a negotiation between South Africans. What we had to play was a supporting role, which certainly I tried to do at the time. Princeton certainly did thereafter. But the fundamental breakthrough was made by Chet. And Chet was under fire from almost everywhere I can think of—you know, what’s this linkage all about, and so on—by people who should have known better, frankly. And you know, it was an extraordinary effort of statesmanship, tenacity, getting there in the end.  

And we played a supporting role in that when we—late in the day, when the South African military tried to upset the settlement. They produced fraudulent claims that the U.N. force and SWAPO were conspiring together. Fortunately, we controlled the U.N.’s communications in Namibia. And we were able to completely disprove this effort by the sort of bitter enders to stop it happening. So that is what we were doing, engagement. And when I was sent to South Africa, Thatcher was determined that the South Africans weren’t listening to us, and we needed to do something about it.  

COOPER: And you—yeah, go ahead. 

CROCKER: We could never have done this—we, Americans—without all of the African support we got and, crucially, without British support. This was a joint enterprise. And we worked—we worked together for eight years. For example, we had no embassy in Luanda in Angola, if you recall. We would—when I got off the plane in Luanda, your ambassador would say: You bringing carrots or sticks? Because—(laughs)—they weren’t quite sure what we had in our bag. Anyway, we relied very heavily—we worked together very effectively. But the African frontline states made critical contributions as well. And one of our jobs was to try and figure out if there were both doves and hawks in the South African administration. And of course, there were. So, yeah. 

COOPER: Lord Renwick, in your book you talk about Margaret Thatcher’s role kind of behind the scenes—you know, pressing all the time, release Mandela, end Apartheid. A lot of people were saying release Mandela, end Apartheid. What made her message more significant than others’? 

RENWICK: Right. Well, people—you know, she was tarred at the time with the brush of supposedly supporting Apartheid because she didn’t support blanket sanctions. She did support military, oil, and nuclear sanctions, which were the ones that were most effective, along with, ironically, sports sanctions, which were pretty effective too. But she didn’t like Apartheid at all. She was a meritocrat. She believed that this system was crazy—social engineering on an epic scale—and she furthermore thought that it was some kind of Dutch heresy, you know? (Laughter.) And she was right, it was. (Laughter.) 

I was told to go and stop pussyfooting. You know, we needed to set up a campaign very actively in South Africa for real change. And while other heads of government, you know, used to make statements at the U.N. and everywhere else saying release Mandela, she bombarded P.W. Botha with messages every six weeks saying: Why haven’t you released Mandela? 

COOPER: How was she delivering those messages? Picking up the phone? 

RENWICK: Well, no, through me. (Laughter.) And of course, it didn’t make me very popular with P.W. Botha. 

COOPER: I see. 

RENWICK: I used to go to see him in his study on his own. It was like visiting the führer in Berchtesgaden. (Laughter.) You know, he was a horrible thug. He was—you know, death squads were busy killing opponents of the government, and so on. And I was reduced to arguing for people’s lives. And we did save some lives, by the way, because, you know, we told him that if you execute them there are going to be consequences. And also Namibia. And I did believe, and I told her, you know, he’s never going to release Mandela, but his successor will, probably. And, you know, meanwhile we’ve got to solve Namibia. We’ve got to help Chet solve Namibia. And that will clear the way. 

I then had a stroke of huge luck, you know, because I had got to know F.W. de Klerk well before he became president. That helps a lot. And I found—you know, here he was, this supposedly very conservative figure, you know. And the first thing he said to me when I met him was: If I had my way, we won’t make the same mistake as in Rhodesia. And I said, well, that’s interesting. But what do you think the mistake was? And he said to me: Leaving it much too late to talk to the real black leaders. And from that moment on, I became a believer in de Klerk. Also, because I found he was a genuine, fully paid-up Christian. He told me, you know, the only way we can keep this system going is by shooting several thousand more people. And I’m just not prepared to do it. And he told—that was the first message he gave to the South African policy when he took over. 

So I believed when he took over that de Klerk would end Apartheid. Now, I was in a minority of about two at the time because his brother told me: He’s far too conservative to be president. And I said, well, you must know him better than I do, but I think you’ll find you’re wrong. And the night before he announced the release of Mandela he rang me at midnight to say to me: You can tell your prime minister she will not be disappointed. And I knew what that meant. It also meant that she had real influence at the time. I must tell you about her first meeting with Mandela by the way, in a moment or two. 

COOPER: OK. But let me go back. A couple of minutes ago you said something about, you know, Botha wouldn’t release him, but his successor would. Were you thinking specifically of—I mean, did you know at that point it would be de Klerk, or you just thought whoever the successor is, it’s time? 

RENWICK: Well, I thought it would be de Klerk, which is why I said that. But just to jump forward, you know, Mandela—dealing with Mandela, as Princeton found, was a lot of fun, because most people think of Mandela as some kind of a saint. And of course, he had saintly characteristics. You know, to come out of jail after twenty-seven years and not blame the people who locked you up was amazing. He also was genuinely colorblind. He didn’t care whether South Africans were black, white, colored, or Indians, OK? They were all South Africans. But his—he was the wiliest, craftiest political operator I have never known. And his technique was co-option. He started by co-opting his warder in jail, who ended up as his batman. He co-opted the minister of justice who was supposed to keep him in jail. The minister of justice kept asking me to help get him out of jail. (Laughter.) 

You know, when he came out of jail he co-opted me. You know, he said: You’re my advisor. What do you advise? And instead of fighting with Thatcher, his idea was how do I get her on my side. And when they had their meeting, I went to see her—I insisted on seeing her just before, as well as attending the meeting. And I said, please remember: He’s waited twenty-seven years to tell you his side of the story. So she glared and me and she said: You mean, I mustn’t interrupt? And I said, not for the first half-hour, please. (Laughter.) She let him talk for an hour. And the meeting went on so long that the British press queuing in Downing Street outside started chanting: Free Nelson Mandela. (Laughter.) 

COOPER: That’s great. So you’ve talked about, you know, knowing de Klerk early and sort of, you know, getting this sense. Chester, let me ask you, was there a moment, you know, before the rest of us knew Apartheid was going to end—was there a moment, something that happened where you went uh-huh, this is it? 

CROCKER: Well, as you can tell, I felt very strongly that the sequence was to stop the wars in the neighborhood, and that that was going to make a big difference, in part because everybody around the world was saying the same tying. And at a certain moment, Soviet diplomats were saying to us: Socialism will not be built in Namibia and South Africa. And you began to realize that there was something more broadly going on. Fidel Castro wanted to get out of the region. And so there was—there was a turning point strategically in the region. The other turning point for me, that was decisive, was actually the shift from P.W. Botha to de Klerk. And I agree with Robin that he was a totally different sort of person who—he got it. He understood that by liberating Mandela he was, in fact, going to be having a partner who would liberate white South Africans from the prison—the mental and ideological prisons they were living in. I think he understood that logic. 

You need a partner for peacemaking. You need a partner for reconciliation. And so de Klerk was that kind of a—and is still that kind of a person, who gets it about moving political transitions—even fundamental ones—forward. So that’s the way I would describe it. The exact moment is kind of hard to say. I want to come back to Mandela for one moment, because we all have our memories. One of mine is visiting South Africa during the negotiations to end Apartheid and sitting in my hotel room in Sandton waiting for an appointment to come through. And the phone rings. And it was Mandela. And he said: Would you come down to my office and bring a copy of your book? I’d like to have—(laughs)—that was—that was Mandela. You know, he obviously had heard all kinds of things about what we had been doing. And he may not have thought that everything we did was exactly what he would have like us to do, right, Robin? (Laughter.) But never mind. He understood how to reach out, how to co-opt, how to do all the things that Robin has described. 

COOPER: Was that the first time you met him? 

CROCKER: No, I met him at the Namibian independence celebrations when, again, the man’s facility with people and with memory was just fantastic. He could go through a receiving line of people he’d never met before, but he had seen them on TV or something, and he’d recognize them and have their name. Just extraordinary. Yeah. 

COOPER: Mmm hmm. So, Lord Renwick, in your book I think you talk about Margaret Thatcher’s message—or, one of her messages about you need to release Nelson Mandela. Her argument—or, one argument was: He can’t die in prison. So what that just, like, a practical argument? What did she think might happen? 

RENWICK: No, I mean, it’s—I told P.W. Botha, you know, if Mandela dies in prison there’s going to be an explosion in this country which will be pretty well uncontrollable. And the only way you can restore order is by precisely shooting a large number of people. But he was an absolute old tyrant. And I told her, you know, he’s not going to do it. But we have to resolve Namibia, exactly as Chet said, and so on. Dealing with Mandela was extraordinary, actually, because he was quite worried about the meeting with Thatcher. So I said, let’s have a dress rehearsal. You can be Mandela, and I’ll be Thatcher. So he was Mandela. (Laughter.) And I said: Look, Mr. Mandela, we agree with you about all of that. And stop all this nonsense about nationalizing the banks and the mines.  

So in the meeting he explained, you know, his twenty-seven-year struggle for one person one vote. And she said, we agree with you, Mr. Mandela. Now stop all this nonsense—(laughter)—he burst out laughing. (Laughter.) And he said, well, it was fashionable then. And we got it from you, meaning from the British Labour Party. (Laughter.) And she said, well, it’s not fashionable now, not even in the Soviet Union. You could have this kind of conversation with Mandela. Another time, you know, Mandela kept—Mandela didn’t always make sense, by the way. He came back from a visit to Libya. (Laughs.) And in the course of which he described Gadhafi as a great supporter of human rights. So I went to see him with my friend Helen Suzman who is the person who’d helped him when he was in jail, and he loved her.  

And I said to him as politely as I could, it wasn’t very sensible to describe Gadhafi as a great supporter of human rights. Only to be interrupted by Mrs. Suzman who said: How could you be so silly, Nelson? She said. (Laughter.) He burst out laughing. You could tell him. He was not—he was so confident in his own skin that he wasn’t—that he could take criticism. You know, and you could have a private argument with him about anything under the sun and he would not resent it at all. And he would listen, actually. And Princeton—that’s what Princeton did, playing this—he described us as playing, at the time, the principal supporting role in the negotiations.  

And in Princeton’s book, he actually talks about passing the baton. And the baton he reckoned he was taking was from me. And he said that in the earlier period we were helping to do this, and then the U.S. is a more powerful country. And by then, you had partially lifted sanctions—which was the right thing to do at the time given what de Klerk was doing, which increased your influence and leverage. And Princeton played a sort of facilitator role. And when things needed—you needed to help calm things down. At times, when there was a total deadlock in negotiations, he and I both used to get hold of the head of the Communist Party, Slovo. Because Slovo had a very good brain. And Slovo could understand.  

I mean, I said to Slovo—at the end of each lunch with Slovo I said: The only alternative to negotiations now is negotiations later. You’re not strong enough to take over. You can’t seize power. You have to negotiate. And he agreed.  

COOPER: Yeah. 

CROCKER: A two-finger on this. I think we marvel at the fact that the South African soft landing—which is still going on by the way, it’s not over yet—was as soft was it was, and there were so many people at the time who said this can only end in a bloodbath, right? But the fact is that when the negotiation took place, and it was so ably supported by you and by Princeton, Princeton understood something very fundamental, which is that diplomats get paid the same for listening as they do for talking. And he was a great listener, and so are you. But the fact is that the African majority could not take power. And the white government could no longer govern. And that’s why there was a soft landing. I just think that point needs to be made. And it’s not everywhere where that’s possible, that you can have that kind of a right moment and it really works. 

COOPER: Mmm hmm. But in that period, when the negotiations were going on—so Apartheid is dead or dying, but, you know, we still have to see how the transition comes out, there was terrible violence. ANC, Inkatha, Chris Hani’s assassination, white supremacists. You know, was there—were there moments when you thought oh no, you know, here we are, and it’s—it isn’t—it’s going to fall apart. Not fall apart not happen, but, you know, just be very messy. 

RENWICK: No, I didn’t, because Mandel each time there was some fracas with the government would read out a speech written for him by the apparatchiks saying: This is all de Klerk’s fault, you know, and it’s all Buthelezi’s fault, and so on. And then he would say to me privately: Look, I know we have to find a solution here. We’ve just—and in the end, he denounced his own—you know, there were gangsters in the ANC too at that time, you know, contributing to the violence. And in the end, he made a great speech saying: We are ourselves responsible for half the violence in this country. It took him a long time to get there, but he did it in the end. And I did not believe that this would stop the process. 

But Princeton tried to play an important role in avoiding a Buthelezi ending, Carter kind of opting out of the elections because they were sidelined in the negotiating process. And, you know, Mandela himself made a very big mistake not embracing Buthelezi, which is what he wanted to do but which his party wouldn’t let him do. And that would have gotten South Africa off to a very bad start. So that was the—that was my main worry, just at the moment you were there. 

COOPER: So this whole process did go on for decades. We had—you know, there was resistance, protests within the country, you know, led by the ANC and others. You know, there were international grassroots boycotts, international sanctions, the Cold War ended, whites in South Africa were getting weary. A lot of different factors, you know, finally began to come together. But I was trying to think today about: Are there any other comparable transitions that—you know, a lot of recent examples of, you know, uprisings that seem to come pretty spontaneously and quickly, and then a transition but not necessarily a good one. What’s a comparable situation? Or is there not one? And has anybody learned from South Africa, and applied that, you know, in making some kind of a political transition like this? 

CROCKER: Well, I would argue that the South Africans recognized the importance of what they had done and were doing, and actually shared some of their experience with other people. So that when you look at the Northern Ireland peace process leading up to the Good Friday Accord, South Africans were very much involved in that. And people— 

RENWICK: Ramaphosa personally. 

CROCKER: Yeah, and Cyril Ramaphosa personally, exactly.  

Not too many cases. I mean, there are other examples of what you might call people power or street power that has succeeded in avoiding the worst kind of outcome—like in the Philippines in the mid-1980s also. Maybe in Eastern Europe, we could look at what happened in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. But Russia—I’m not sure Russia really ever had its transition. I’ll leave that thought. (Laughter.) 

COOPER: Any thoughts? 

RENWICK: Well, you know, each one of these situations is specific. In this case, you know, some very powerful, influential Afrikaners had concluded they couldn’t go on as they were. I mean, my friends there included the head of the Broederbond, the head of the Dutch Reform Church, the head of the head of the—all the Afrikaner newspapers, and the head of the reserve bank. Those guys knew. And when somebody went to see de Klerk, an Afrikaner went to see de Klerk and said: Why are you doing this? We could have held out for another ten years. De Klerk lost his temper completely and said: Yes, and what would we do then? And that’s why it happened there. 

Now, Northern Ireland, you know, came pretty much out of the blue. I mean, we had been struggling with the IRA violence for thirty years. Suddenly there was a message from the IRA saying: We’ve decided to take the political route. Help us. You have to help us get there. Now, this—you know, this is partly because they realized they couldn’t win, and it was partly because we had declared that we wouldn’t oppose a united Ireland if that’s what the people wanted—which it isn’t, at the moment. But this, you know, required a lot of tenacity before that happened. And the Middle East is, I’m afraid—(laughs)—I remember Henry Kissinger being asked by a young lady on CNN, you know, what do you think the chances are of peace in the Middle East. And Henry said, well, there hasn’t been a peace for the last two thousand years in the Middle East. It’s not an area conductive to tranquility, he said. So not very optimistic note, I’m afraid. 

COOPER: So let’s talk about the post-Mandela era. Thabo Mbeki. Were you surprised when he became the successor? What did you think? 

RENWICK: Well, Mandela’s choice was Ramaphosa. He wanted Ramaphosa because he believed that—and he liked Cyril. Cyril was very likeable, actually. And he also a very competent negotiator. And he’d been through Apartheid inside the country, whereas the exiles, you know, actually hadn’t suffered like the internal people. But the external party and the apparatchiks insisted on Thabo. Now, Thabo is an extremely intelligent person. And he did govern well in many respects, especially his economic policy. In the Thabo period there was real economic growth in South Africa, and he deserves a lot of credit for that. 

But he then developed this crazy notions about AIDS. When he wrote to Clinton and Blair his letter saying that AIDS didn’t really exist, you know, it was all a made-up thing by the Western pharmaceutical companies, both of them—certainly Blair—thought that this was a spoof. You know, he didn’t believe it came from his intelligent friend Thabo. And, you know, he also was very paranoid and, you know, intolerant of criticism and so on. So you then end up with a total disaster when, you know, the populist Zuma takes over. And I wrote a book published a year ago called How to Steal a Country, because under Zuma $15 billion, which in rand you can imagine what that is, was stolen from the government state enterprises because of Zuma’s patronage of all the people who were stealing it. 

So to go from Mandela to Zuma, you know, in such a short space of time—from leadership at this level to leadership at that level—as a tragedy. But in South Africa, you must never give up, because there are extraordinary people. And he was overthrown by a combination of two people who helped me write the book: Thuli Madonsela, the public proctor, Pravin Gordhan, who as the finance minister, but also civil society—the most effective civil society I’ve ever seen operating anywhere—the press and the judiciary, none of whom would give any ground. And you know, thank God, Ramaphosa narrowly won that election, wafer thin. And he has huge problems now. As I said to him at the time: Your problems aren’t going to be with the opposition. They’re all going to be with your own party, unfortunately. But South Africa again has a president of whom it can be proud—all South Africans can be proud—who’s committed to the Constitution and who will try to do the right thing. 

CROCKER: I would just add to that, I think Robin has said it very well, that Cyril Ramaphosa is a born negotiator who knows how to listen to people . And even when he’s got the top job, which he now does, he will understand the importance of keeping a coalition together. He has real problems in his own ranks because under Zuma and even before Zuma, if I may say so, the ANC had become an employment agency, basically. It had become an empowerment and employment agency. And then under Zuma it became a cesspool of corruption, which leaves Ramaphosa with a difficult legacy. And he’s got to figure out how to walk through a minefield. 

Now, we have an election coming up on the 8th of May. It’s a very important election. But I think of Cyril as walking through a minefield. But I think he knows how to walk through minefields. He’s been doing it for most of his life. That’s the point. And negotiating when he was the head of the National Mine Workers Union, negotiating with big business, with the big mining companies. And he learned something else while he was doing all this. He learned that if he couldn’t have the top job, he was going to make some money. And he was going to learn how to become an accomplished trout fisherman, which he also is. And, you know, any good trout fisherman knows about patience and knows about watching for signs on the top of the water, and even knows how to land a fish. So I have some confidence in Cyril, I really do. I hope you do too. 

RENWICK: Yes, I do. And Mandela actually told him, you know, he offered him foreign minister under Thabo and Ramaphosa turned it down. And he said, right, young man, go off. Go into business. Make some money, so that when you come back to politics nobody will be able to say that you’re influenced by anybody. And he’s a genuinely good person, Cyril. And we all hope he will succeed. But he’ll win the elections. And the ANC will get 60 percent or so. The opposition are very divided. But the politics has gotten worse in the sense that Mandela was colorblind. But you do now get a lot of race-based propaganda. During the Zuma period, you know, there was a deliberate public relations campaign against white minority capital. Well, actually, the only monopolies in South Africa are the government-run enterprises. And, you know, you can’t—Mandela understood that you can’t succeed with the South African economy without the positive involvement of the whites.  

And all that said, the country has a terrible legacy, you know, because the educational system is still broken twenty-five years after Apartheid, sadly. And the teaching of math and English and science is really very weak. And teachers can’t be sacked because they belong to the union, who won’t accept testing. And the union support the ruling party. Cyril has to try to do something about that. The army of people who are unemployed and have no hopes of being employed is, you know, increasing. It’s not shrinking. And, you know, land is in the hands of—most cultivable land still is in the hand of what are now to sort of thirty thousand or so white farmers. And the problem in South Africa is that it’s a mainly arid country. You can’t have a lot of hugely successful small holdings, like you can in Kenya. You know, you need irrigation, fertilizer, and so on. So the only people who can mentor black farmers are the white farmers. And there’s got to be a much greater effort to enable that to happen. 

Now, Cyril knows this. Pravin Gordhan knows this. And they will try. But, you know, these are huge problems. It doesn’t matter who’s—you know, if the Archangel Gabriel is running the country he would have huge problems. 

COOPER: So I’m not sure if your glass is half-full or half-empty. And then I’ll ask you the same. 

CROCKER: Yeah. I think it’s important to look at the—at all sides of the ledger here. And we have in our audience a fellow who doesn’t need an introduction here, John Campbell, who wrote a book on all this. And I think you said that the glass was sort of two-thirds full. I’ve forgotten what your bottom line was.  

Q: Two-thirds, yeah. 

CROCKER: Two-thirds full, yeah. Anyway, I do see lots of upsides in the South African situation. But I also see all the political challenges that Robin has been talking about. So the question is one of timing and one of sequencing, and the political skill of the top leadership. I think that’s really the challenge. But a lot has been done. A lot has changed for the better in South Africa since 1994. And that needs to be borne in mind as well. There’s a much more inclusive economy, there’s a whole lot more people who are beneficiaries of the system. But the downside of that is that some of them have gotten there for purely corrupt reasons, or because they knew somebody. And it’s not necessarily a meritocratic system. So it’s—I don’t know. I might say the glass is half-full. I’m not sure if it’s two-thirds full, John, but you wrote a hell of a good book, so. (Laughter.) 

COOPER: OK. With that, I’m going to turn to the members now for questions. Remember that this is on the record. Wait for the microphone. Please limit yourself to one question. And say your name and your affiliation. 

Right here. No, sorry, two rows behind. Yes. Yeah. 

Q: Negar Kongary (ph) from Barclays. And thank you for a very illuminating discussion. 

I’m curious as to the dynamic with the ANC in exile who were very skeptical of constructive engagement, and specifically the role that Oliver Tambo played in this. 

CROCKER: Well, we made it a point throughout the ’80s to have some discussions with the ANC in exile, and to keep that channel open. I believe you did the same. 


CROCKER: And the ANC was in exile in lots of different places. It was in exile in Zambia, in London, in Stockholm, in Moscow, and all over the place, right? It’s not surprising, in a way, that there’d be a negative vibe in many ANC quarters during the 1980s. Why? Because South African Broadcasting Corporation decided that constructive engagement was a love-in and described it that way, and really poisoned our well. I’m sometimes asked if we made any mistakes. And of course, all people make mistakes in life. But my list back in that time period is kind of short. Giving the policy a name, constructive engagement, which allowed other people to take the name and attach their definition to it—I think that actually influenced in some ways the views of the leadership of the African National Congress in exile. But in reality, the policy was not one of friendship with the government. It was one of engaging with everybody who would engage with us. That’s a complicated message. Americans often didn’t get it either. So it wasn’t just the ANC that didn’t get it. Sometimes Americans didn’t get it. I sometimes wondered if Ronald Reagan got it, but anyway that’s a different subject. (Laughter.) 


Q: Arthur Rubin with SMBC. 

Dr. Crocker, you talked about the linkages of the negotiations in South Africa with other regional conflicts. I wonder if you could offer some commentary in hindsight of how—what the legacy of the post-Apartheid period has been for the region more broadly, and specifically in Angola and Namibia. 

CROCKER: Do you want to take that. 

RENWICK: No, go ahead. 

CROCKER: No, I think—I think there is—everyone recognizes that the South African capabilities far, far, far outstripped those of any of the neighbors. And a lot of the time, South African diplomats have been spending their energy to try and avoid anyone drawing the conclusion of a kind of imperial South Africa. They’ve been talking down their weight when in fact their weight is pretty obvious. And it’s not just the government’s weight. It’s the weight of the private sector. The South African private sector is hugely influential all over sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, when you think about it. So I think the South Africans have had a tough time in two respects. One is not appearing to be imperial, and the other is appearing to be an African-majority South Africa, not the old South Africa. So there’s been a transition there. 

But right now, for example, next door in Mozambique, the finance minister is being held in a South African prison pending extradition to the United States because of corruption in the Mozambican government. Why is that happening? It’s happening because we asked the South Africans to do that. And next door in Mozambique, the leadership is saying: Why is our finance minister in jail in South Africa? Why can’t we take him back here and deal with him here? It’s an interesting relationship. 

Q: You know, Mr. Crocker, when you were speaking I was reminded of the joke that American diplomats used to tell in the ’80s to me every time I went to the consulate or embassy. And they’d say, well, who’s going to be the next president of South Africa? Botha. And they said, who’s going to be the president after that? Botha? And who’s going to be the president after that? Botha-lezi. (Laughter.) And that, when you were assistant secretary, was very much the line coming out of the U.S. government in South Africa.  

I was the guy who was at the Johannesburg Star writing about the reemergence of the ANC during school boycotts and the anti-SAIC campaign. And every time I went to the consulate they said: Why aren’t you writing more about Buthelezi? But the reason why, of course, was because the ANC was emerging, and ultimately emerging as a strong force. Likewise, at that time, you know, you said that we were trying to wind down the regional conflict. But in fact, that was the time when we were playing arsonist, not fireman. We were encouraging the MNR in Mozambique and, in fact, encouraging the Saudis to fund them. And at the same time, the cannibal Joseph Savimbi was being feted at the White House by President Reagan as a freedom fighter.  

The decisive steps in Namibia came not because of our linkages, but came from the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, when the Cubans handed the South Africans’ heads to them. The decisive moment after that came in 1988, when a delegation of South African businessmen went to see P.W. Botha and said: We cannot sustain the price of this war. We cannot get spare parts for our aircraft because of the sanctions that have been imposed against us. We have to change.  

So with all respect, it does seem to me that it’s certainly true that by the late 1980s we were playing a very constructive role, but I was surprised that your list of regrets was so short because it would seem to me that the best part of your tenure in the second half of the 1980s may have been tiptoeing away from the policies that marked the first half. 

CROCKER: Well, you’re entitled to your view of the history and I’m entitled to mine. 

Q: From a different historical perspective, my name is Patricia Rosenfield and I’m working with the Rockefeller Archive Center.  

And our files, our records, are replete with a complementary history of the Apartheid era, starting in about the ’70s, where you had, and, Lord Renwick you mentioned it today, but you had a very active internal civil society and the beginning of the black lawyer movement to really tackle Apartheid through the judiciary. So I—with the Legal Resources Center you had the Black Sash women’s groups that were very active. So I would appreciate both of you commenting on the role—the complementary role that internal organizations, the legal organizations, the Legal Defenders Group, the Public Defenders Group, and the women’s organizations, played in bringing an end to—the peaceful end to Apartheid. 

RENWICK: Yeah. Well, you’re absolutely right. And the civil society there organized itself. And it did get external help. And it was very important for the Legal Aid Center, Legal Resources Center, and so on to get assistance from outside. And they did use the South African court system to the full extent they could to get some remedies from time to time. And from time to time they succeeded. And, you know, the leading figure in all of this, in many respects, was Helen Suzman, who for thirteen years opposed Apartheid on her own in the South African Parliament and, you know, got Mandela—she got Mandela and his colleagues out of the quarry where they were breaking rocks. She got them access to books, and then to distance learning. They all—they all took law degrees at the University of South Africa. That was Helen who did that, which is why, you know, he always thought the world of her, even though she was very critical of his colleagues in the ANC. (Laughs.) 

But, you know, this meant that when Zuma came along, you know, these civil society organizations were absolutely lethal because they are full of first-class lawyers . The former Chief Justice Johann Kriegler gave the government—gave the Zuma government a terrible time. I mean, the courts kept striking down his disgraceful appointments to various posts. And, you know, this is what restores your faith in South Africa, you know, the resistance to what was happening under Zuma was far stronger, far more effective than it would have been, frankly, in any other—you know, almost any other developing country I can think of. And in the end, they won. 

CROCKER: I would just add one point on that, which is that it really relates to the question of who liberated South Africa. And I think South Africans liberated South Africa. There are lots of folks outside of South Africa who would like to take credit in one way or another for that. And there were lots of contributing elements, no doubt. I’ve often thought that the financial sanctions that were imposed by American banks and European banks were quite decisive, actually, at a certain point. 

I had a phone call from Pik Botha, no relation to P.W., in August of 1985. And Pik was on the phone. He said: Chester, you got to talk to your banks. They’re not rolling over our debt. And—(laughs)—so the banking sanctions made a big contribution, as did sports sanctions. Why? Because folks in the white community didn’t like being shamed the way they were being shamed. And it actually had an impact psychologically on decision making. 

COOPER: Yeah. I think a lot has been written about all of these factors, including the sanctions. And I know some people argue that, you know, more than the economic impact, it really was the—you know, the isolation, the cultural—you know, the cultural cutting off that had an impact. 

Yes, in the back there. 

Q: Nick Platt, Asia Society, but I worked close with Chet in the early ’80s in the international Organization Bureau, and then as ambassador to Zambia. And I never was around to see the whole thing through. I went on to do other things. 

My question today though is—relates to the impact of the Cold War on the flow of negotiations. Diplomacy in the ’80s all took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. And I wonder if you could comment on the different developments in the Cold War on the flow of negotiations and, ultimately, the end of Apartheid. 

CROCKER: Do you want to go first, or do you want me to go first? 

RENWICK: OK. Well, you’re absolutely right. The end of the Cold War destroyed the doctrine of the South African securocrats—you know, we’re suffering from a total onslaught from all these diabolical communists all over the place. It undermined it really seriously. And I found that I was getting active support from the then-Soviet envoy in Southern Africa, who was called Boris Asoyan, who used to send me messages saying we agree with you. So the Russians did actively support a negotiating process. By this time, it was, you know, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. And they said to us, you know, you need to work on the South African government, and we will work on the ANC. And they did. 

CROCKER: I think Nick Platt’s question is a very good one. There were periods of time when we had a totally frozen relationship, as you will recall, with the Soviets. We occasionally met and we had exchanges, but they were very, very scripted exchanges and you didn’t learn anything. They didn’t, and we didn’t. (Laughs.) Gorbachev made a difference. We talked more creatively during the Gorbachev period. But it was the Cubans that made the big contribution to the breakthroughs at the end of the 1980s, rather than the Soviets. The Soviets encouraged the Cubans to do what they were doing, but the Cubans took over the war. The gentleman in the second row here made a reference to the—some of the battles in Angola. The Cubans took over the war to get out. They took over the war to get out. And they didn’t really bloody the South Africans at Cuito Cuanavale. That’s a Cuban myth. But what they did do was make it clear that the South Africans couldn’t win either. And so in a sense the Cubans were a decisive factor, yeah. 

COOPER: OK. I think we need to end, right? OK. Thank you both very much. Really appreciate the discussion. (Applause.) 


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