/ 6 June 2012

A long way from home. A small step closer to hope

Dakar, the capital of Senegal, was witness to some of the most extra-ordinary scenes in the history of the South African conflict yesterday when a tumultous welcome was given to the party of 50 white South Africans arriving for the opening of their historic meeting with leaders of the African National Congress.

Dancers in tribal costumes threw themselves about with ecstatic enthusiasm to the thunder of drums while elegant Senegalese men and women in flowing robes strode through ranks of foreign diplomats and local cabinet ministers, gathered to greet the former leader of the South African opposition, Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, and his, party as they arrived at a conference centre a few kilometres outside the city.

But this scene was eclipsed by an even more startling spectacle, at the conclusion of opening speeches, in an informal ceremony during which both the whites and the ANC members mounted the podium in turn, under the glare of television lamps, to introduce themselves to each other.

"I'm a minister of religion at Pretoria University … l'm a professor of Afrikaans … I'm a member of parliament…. I'm a sheep and mohair farmer … I used to believe in radical ideas like apartheid … I was a youth leader of the National Party … I'm the PFP member in the President's Council … I'm principal at the University of the Western Cape … I've tried to contribute a little to the struggle against apartheid from within the establishment, I'm not sure it has contributed much …" went some of the autobiographical sketches from whites.

And they were matched by the ANC: "I'm an Afrikaner," declared Thabo Mbeki, leader of their delegation and the man many believe is a future president of the outlawed organisation. "The longest I've ever been in one place has been on Robben Island," said another. "I studied history and now I'm making history … I managed to escape from jail … I'm a professional revolutionary …" said others.

But it was in speeches made at the opening session that some of the ripest material was provided for major controversy in South Africa – including a reaffirmation of the ANC's commitment to the "armed struggle" from Mbeki; what might be seen in South Africa as outspokenly warm comments addressed to the ANC men by Slabbert, and a startling hint from the Senagalese President Abdou Diouf, that consideration should be given to the establishment of post-apartheid Nuremberg-style trials.

Diouf opened the talks with a speech in which he welcomed the whites as "representatives of the patriotic and democratic forces" of South Africa describing them as being engaged in a struggle &ndash to dismantle apartheid – which was "one of the most significant human enterprises of this century, since the victory over Hitler's Nazi party". But he went on to say that crimes against humanity "cannot be absolved, it must be punished", asking: "Should it therefore not be indicated that in the course of your meeting you should examine the most appropriate ways and means to conduct the trial of apartheid … of its supporters and accomplices."

An ANC leader also welcomed the white South Africans saying it was "a matter of vital importance that our white compatriots should themselves join the struggle". He added: "We believe that those who have travelled from South Africa to Dakar have taken that decision already and are committed to contribute what they can to the whole effort to ensure the triumph of justice over injustice, of democracy over racism and reaction. Their active involvement in the struggle greatly strengthens the momentum for change …"

In his reply Slabbert said his party had been "simply overwhelmed by this reception". He described the ANC as "a crucial part to the solution of the South African crisis. They constitute the largest movement in that country working for liberation – and the oldest one. We believe that there is no solution possible for a peaceful solution in that country without our involvement "

And in an emotive conclusion to his speech – addressing himself directly to "our  compatriots from the ANC" – he said: "There is a sadness that we have to meet so far from our common fatherland. This in itself is a tragic commentary on the history we share. "Some of you have travelled far and suffered much pursuing freedom for your country. Some of you have ended up adopting strategies and supporting ideologies which some of us have difficulty in supporting and understanding, but which we want to find out more about.

Despite that and despite whatever differences there may be, we have come to talk to you because we realise your critical role in finding a resolution to our tragedy. "We gather on foreign soil but on a shared continent. We are among friends although we live in a country the government of which is determined to make us enemies. In the few days ahead let us in all sincerity explore a way out of this lunacy."

Talks between the white South Africans and the ANC – most of them in closed session – are expected to continue until Sunday, when delegates will be going on what will be seen as a symbolic trip to visit an old slave island just off the Dakar coast. The whites will be travelling on to neighbouring black African states including Burkino Faso and possibly Ghana, returning to South Africa on July 20.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper