'How foolish we all were … not to do this ages ago'

Only minutes after taking their seats at the negotiating table both sides at this weeks historic talks in Cape Town realised “how foolish we’d all of us been’’ said African National Congress diplomatic head Thabo Mbeki. 

He told an audience of 400 guests of the Cape Town Press Club yesterday: “We were all of us a bit surprised ... within a matter of minutes, everyone understood there was no one in the room who had horns - and that in fact, this discussion ought to have taken place years ago. “And when we closed, the general feeling was that not only is forward movement necessary but that it is also possible.” 

Mbeki’s address, which came at the mid-point of the three-day “talks about talks”, signalled the rapport which appears to have been achieved by the two opposing sides.
While his speech suggested that agreement on issues of conflict is still far from being achieved, it reflected a breakthrough in personal relations and attitudes among the country’s major political players. It was also a diplomatic tour de force from the man who is regarded as the ANC’s crown prince: the audience was visibly impressed by his sophisticated and conciliatory approach. 

Introducing Mbeki, Cape Town Press Club president Alan Duggan said many in the audience had never met an ANC official and it was “long overdue”. Stressing that both sides had agreed not to disclose details of the talks before their conclusion later today - an arrangement Mbeki described as “very fair” - he spelled out the ANC’s view of how the negotiating process should unfold that those obstacles that have been identified are removed. 

“What happens next? Our view is that some people have to get together to discuss who should sit around the table and negotiate a new constitution.” The obvious problem, he said, was who should sit around that table. The “basic political conflict” in South Africa was between people who, on one hand, said there should be a “united, democratic, non-racial South Africa” and those who agreed there should be change but favoured a “group-based solution”. “I’m trying to be very fair,” Mbeki said. “In earlier days I would have said what they wanted was a perpetuation of apartheid.” 

The ANC leader rejected assertions that his organisation saw itself as the “sole and authentic representative of the majority of South Africans …  “The ANC recognises that many others are involved in the struggle against apartheid and should be involved in the process (of reshaping) the country,” he said. “We would hope that many white people want to sit on our side,” Mbeki said. 

The United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, churches and other groups would already be on the ANC side,’ he said. There would also be “people serving within government institutions - such as the bantustans - who have rejected apartheid and who would attend as “part of the broad democratic movement’‘. On the opposite side of the table would be “FW de Klerk and such other people who might think of themselves as representative of groups. “In that kind of framework, leaders who feel that they lead seven mil lion Zulus would presumably sit next to FW de Klerk.” 

The election of a constituent assembly “would stop all debate about who is bigger than whom and who the genuine representatives (of the people) are”, Mbeki said. The constituent assembly would then draw up a new constitution. The “sticky question”, said Mbeki, was the need for an interim government to be appointed, ahead of the adoption of a new constitution, which would supervise the implementation of processes agreed to: “The present government is party to this conflict.” He added later that the ANC believed the interim government to be essential at a ‘‘certain stage” of the process toward a new constitution - “we’re not saying we must have an interim government now”. 

In a joint statement after the first day of talks at Groot Schuur, the government and ANC delegations said the discussions were characterised by openness and straightforwardness on both sides. The key issues being addressed include: security laws, the return of exiles, troops in the townships, political prisoners, the State of Emergency, ANC adherence to the armed struggle, and the need to end violence. Opening remarks by delegation leaders De Klerk and ANC deputy president Nelson Mandela emphasised mutual determination’ to seek agreement without “underestimating the complexities and differences that will have to be resolved”. The talks could produce results on the question of an amnesty for exiles, progress on the issue of political prisoners, and a “statement of intent” regarding the suspension of armed hostilities between the government and ANC -  Gaye Davis and Shaun Johnson.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.