When I turned up at university to study history in the early 1980s I was in need of inspiration. Reviewing the optional courses, I despaired of yet again examining the causes of the First World War or nineteenth century parliamentary reform. Important as these were, I felt I had studied nothing else at school – probably because it seemed a good number of my teachers were old enough at least to have served in the trenches if not to have agitated for political reform in the 1830s. So imagine my enthusiasm when I spotted a new course entitled: “South Africa: apartheid and the roots of segregation”. I signed up with alacrity.
Imagine my dismay when the first lecture was entirely given over to advances in plough technology in eighteenth century Pondoland. I had not read the small print. It turned out this was an economic history course and, from distant memory, was all about how advances in agricultural efficiency led to a population boom and a surplus of adult male labour. When the mines opened in South Africa in the following century, this pool of available labour migrated to work in the gold and diamond mines and soon became the basis of the region’s prosperity and one of the economic determinants of social segregation.
At least, I think that was the theory. This was in the days when you could still pass your exams and be awarded a degree without the inconvenience of having to attend lectures or be taught in any meaningful way. Once I realised we were not about to jet out and interview an incarcerated Nelson Mandela, I didn’t go again.
As a consequence, my knowledge of South African history has gaps. But I knew enough of the basic plot to be thrilled at the opportunity last week in Pretoria to have dinner with Roelf Meyer. Roelf Meyer along with Cyril Ramaphosa from the ANC negotiated the end of apartheid.
He was one of the youngest members of the De Klerk cabinet having entered politics in 1979. Tipped as a future president, he was regarded as being from the progressive wing of the National Party and as a minister became convinced of the need to release Mandela and do a deal with the ANC. He was involved in many of the early covert meetings and was then appointed chief negotiator to agree terms and draw up a new constitution. He then served in President Mandela’s first cabinet.
Ramaphosa was his ANC counterpart. They became close friends and now that both of them have retired from politics, they run a consulting firm together. They are also heavily involved in post-conflict reconciliation and have worked in Ireland, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Kosovo and Sudan. It was a remarkable evening and fascinating to hear Meyer’s view on the wider political situation in Africa (he is currently undertaking the Strategic Defence Review for the South African government).
But of course I could not resist peppering him with questions about being intimately involved in dismantling apartheid and transferring power. He was very patient in answering the same questions he must have been asked so many times but frustratingly modest about his role. And there were so many questions I wanted to ask but did not: What is Mandela really like? When did you decide that change was necessary and desirable? How did you make the intellectual and emotional journey from being the son of an Afrikaner farmer from the Eastern Cape to being one of the architects and enthusiastic proponents of the new South Africa? Hopefully, one day he will write a book, not least to stop people like me pestering him.
It was a privilege to meet Roelf Meyer. And having spent an evening with him it was abundantly clear that the demise of apartheid was infinitely more interesting than its distant origins in Pondo plough techniques.