Apartheid-era diplomats' own WikiLeaks
Peaceniks who danced to the music of Wikileaks on the grave of official secrecy and who now find the music grown faint behind the hullabaloo of the North African revolution can take heart from the recent publication of a collection of diplomatic memoirs.
Titled From Verwoerd to Mandela: South African Diplomats Remember, the book was compiled and edited by former diplomats Pieter Wolvaardt, Tom Wheeler and Werner Scholtz.
The neutralisation of the Official Secrets Act by the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 made the release of information contained in this three-volume collection possible and Wolvaardt and Wheeler moved quickly. They contacted as many former colleagues as they could, for, by 2005, certain stories from this time (the early 1960s to 1993) had already lost their relevance.
A further impetus for the project was the perceived vulnerability to historical revisionism of the achievements of diplomats during this time. In the introduction, for example, the editors recall in an affronted tone Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s 2000 comment that long-serving South African diplomats did not have any real foreign affairs experience as they had spent 30 years engaged largely in sanctions busting.
There’s plenty of “unofficial diplomacy” described in this collection, but what also emerges is a picture of a foreign affairs department at arms length, to the extent of alienation at times, from the verkrampte apartheid ideologues who tended to think the country’s diplomats a bunch of “cocktail sipping pinkos”.
Almost every reminiscence glows with the frustration of having to work within the constraints of a domestic policy as contentious as apartheid, especially the reminiscences of those diplomats who had to smooth over relations with neighbouring African countries after the South African Defence Force had launched one of its covert cross-border manhunts.
On its own, the chapter titled “Cat and Mouse: Unconventional Diplomacy and Sanctions” is a perfect scandal story, describing in great detail how sanctions were thwarted and how state funds were externalised. At one point, for example, diplomat Marc Burger describes how the inactive trust accounts of Jewish families killed by the Nazis were reactivated as international conduits for South African funds.
Diligent South African officials would apparently identify wealthy Jewish families that had become extinct and take over their family trusts, appointing friendly trustees (Burger mentions a “certain well-connected European prince”) who “should in no way be linked to South Africa”. But the vast majority of “game ranger” tales teaches us that, a scrape with the extraordinary, even if it is well written, does not a rapt audience make.
Pile one extraordinary experience on top of another with no thematic master plan and what one has is a copy of Boy’s Own, not a work of lasting merit. Diplomats are far more capable narrative engineers than game rangers, but at times, especially in the chapters on African states, mere situational detail dominates at the expense of context.
Aside from unavoidable patches of hot and cold and plenty of information holes, the editors have done incredibly well. The project succeeds wonderfully both as historical artefact and entertainment.
Since publication, several diplomats have contacted Wolvaardt about a possible fourth volume. The editors have yet to commit. But with new secrecy laws looming I, for one, hope this particular dance of truth has a few more heel clicks yet.
This article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Its views are those of the author and the Mail & Guardian