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A question of availability

The creation of a new South Africa was one of the biggest political achievements of our times. THEO PANAYIDES meets one of its architects


An interview is a kind of negotiation. A friendly one, for the most part, with both sides (usually) trying for the best possible outcome – but still, not without a certain tension. One side wants information, the other must divulge it. One side wants to take as much as possible, the other wants to give just enough. The end result – a good piece that readers will enjoy – might be the same for both parties but they have different agendas, and different ideas of how to get there.

Roelf Meyer seems to know this – which is why, the moment he sits across from me in a conference room at the Holiday Inn in Nicosia, he goes into negotiator mode. His arms are folded 90 per cent of the time, giving nothing away. His grey-blue eyes, red-rimmed with fatigue (it’s been a long couple of days, criss-crossing Cyprus to meet with senior politicians and civic leaders, part of an initiative organised by London-based Engi Conflict Management), are calm and steely. He puts on his suit when it’s time to take a photo. He asks “Is this off the record?” when he wants to be a little more candid. His handshake is firm, his silver hair neatly trimmed, his smile (when it comes) is tight and slightly rabbity. He talks calmly, never rambles, listens hard to my questions, and remembers my name when it’s time to say goodbye.

This, I suspect – though of course I have no way of knowing – is exactly how he acted 20 years ago, when he first sat down at the negotiating table for the most successful peace process of recent times, the talks to end apartheid in his native South Africa. The aim was to transition from a white-dominated oligarchy to full democracy while avoiding bloodshed – and they pulled it off, ‘they’ being the four men who carried out the talks: Nelson Mandela for the ANC, FW de Klerk for the ruling National Party, and their chief negotiators, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer.

What lay behind the success of those negotiations? In the two decades since – especially since 2000, when he left politics – Roelf has travelled all over the world to explain this, or at least to lend his expertise to those who want it explained. No two conflicts are the same, he admits – but Cyprus is one case where he’s been (unofficially) invited to share his experience, others including Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Bolivia, Colombia and several African conflicts. “I think we can all learn from each other,” he says equably, with the amiable air of a negotiator offering a mutually-acceptable compromise.

Some of the reasons why South Africa worked are obvious. The magnanimity and absence of vindictiveness in Mandela, who might’ve sought revenge (he spent 28 years in prison) but instead sought consensus. The fact that, as Roelf puts it, “the circumstances were speaking for themselves” by 1990, when de Klerk announced the initial reforms, the country having been in a state of emergency since 1985; even the most rabid (and racist) whites could see that change was necessary. Yet he also adds a rather surprising reason why the talks went well – his personal relationship with Ramaphosa, his opposite number, with whom he simply clicked. There was, he says, “a chemistry between us”, and in fact there still is (“I saw Cyril last week”). It would certainly have taken much longer to achieve a settlement without that mutual trust, he insists, and they might not have succeeded at all.

So a friendship between two people can really have such an impact on the future of a country of 50 million?

“Absolutely. In my experience, definitely.”

profile2-With FW de Klerk and Cyril Ramaphosa
With FW de Klerk and Cyril Ramaphosa

It’s an interesting thought – and you have to wonder if it’s played a part in the permanently-stalled Cyprus talks, because of course our system discourages that kind of individual connection. Everything our chief negotiator does (indeed, everything the President does) gets second-guessed and criticised by a chorus of fractious party leaders. Maybe there is something to be learned from the South African experience, even if it’s only the advantage of decisions being made by a small number of people allowed to interact (and begin to trust each other) on a personal level.

There are differences, of course; the two situations aren’t directly comparable. Perhaps the biggest caveat is that Cyprus – like most conflicts – is a case of two aggrieved parties, each of whom blames the other for their grievances, whereas South Africa was a case of oppressor and oppressed, the only question being what concessions would be made by the former to the latter (admittedly with the threat of all-out revolution if the talks failed). Certainly, Roelf can’t have had much of a grievance with the status quo, being part of the very minority – white Afrikaners – the status quo was designed to benefit.

He grew up on a sheep farm in Eastern Cape province, his parents “just ordinary farmers” though his mother instilled both in him and his older brother an interest in the wider world and current affairs in general (both ended up going into politics). The family were solidly conservative, “strongly Christian-orientated from a belief point of view” – though not, he insists, racist. Memories of the Boer War were still fresh when Roelf was growing up in the 1950s, and Afrikaner animosity was much more likely to be directed towards the British than black South Africans. “I can clearly say of myself that I’ve never had racial tendencies. But I had conservative views, from my student years”.

Those conservative views were public knowledge – because Roelf was a student leader, actually the head of the national body of Afrikaner students around the country. Was he ambitious? A flash of the rabbity smile: “Sometimes one thing leads to the other,” he replies. He wasn’t really planning to go into student politics, but “people start to ask you to make yourself available for different positions, and so on. It just happens”. After graduation he practised Law for a while – then, a few years later, a parliamentary seat fell vacant and he was “called upon by the local constituents to make myself available. I was 31.”

Sounds like people were forever asking him to make himself available. Then again, I can see why they would. In background and political beliefs, he was rock-solid – but in fact Roelf Meyer had already embarked on the path of change, “the transformation in my life into a person who, in the South African context, could probably be described as progressive,” he explains self-deprecatingly. The mid-70s were a time of turmoil: the Soweto uprising was in 1976, Steve Biko died in 1977. Above all, working as a young lawyer opened Roelf’s eyes to the fact that “what we had on the law books was completely unacceptable and indefensible”. By the 80s, he was among a minority of “outspokenly progressive” National Party MPs – making him a good choice as the government’s chief negotiator in 1993, by which time he was also Minister of Constitutional Affairs under de Klerk.

He held the same post after the “transition”, tasked with implementing the new constitution which he and Ramaphosa had hammered out, working closely with Mandela, the country’s new President. What are his memories of the great man? He thinks about it, the steely negotiator’s gaze relaxing slightly.

“He acted like royalty, you know?” he replies. Even at the start, when no-one even knew what he looked like (photos of Mandela had been banned during his decades in jail), the ANC leader had a regal bearing. Of all the leaders he’s worked with, says Roelf, “he was the one that expressed best the very implicit nature of leadership. What I mean is, many leaders exercise power because of the positions that they hold – [but] Mandela just had it inherently in him. He didn’t need a constitution to give him that power, or that leadership quality. He just inherently demonstrated leadership.

“And the second thing that struck me,” he adds, “was the value-system that he subscribed to. I can almost call it old-style gentleman behaviour. To give you an example, I would see him standing up in a room if a woman entered – which is an old-style value in our gender-free society!”.

He chuckles at the last three words, the chuckle of a man who grew up in one South Africa and now bears witness – with a mixture of awe and disbelief – to a new South Africa. He’s something of a grand old man nowadays (he’ll be 66 in a couple of weeks), still living in Pretoria and predictably bullish about the country’s future despite the well-known problems (crime, corruption, increasing rifts in the ANC). He’s been in the business world – mainly as a consultant – for the last decade but still gets called into politics occasionally, most recently in a two-year stint as Chairman of the South African Defence Review Committee, appointed personally by the Minister of Defence (which was once his old job). Roelf has always been happy to oblige when people ask him to make himself available.

What does he do for fun? “I’m a real serious bush-lover,” he replies, prompting a nanosecond of bewilderment till I figure out what he’s talking about. In December (the South African summer) he and his wife go camping in Botswana for a couple of weeks, setting up their tents deep in the ‘bush’ where days are scalding-hot and nights are freezing. It’s too hot to walk, and besides there are wild animals, so “you take a few books, sit under the tree and read your books, which you never get time for otherwise”. A low-key holiday, by the sound of it, and he comes across as a low-key person – but also an unusual holiday, not just following the herd, and he seems an unusual person, the kind who’ll stay true to his views just because they are his views.

That mix of calmness and consistency may be what made Roelf Meyer such a good negotiator. “Credibility and legitimacy,” he says – those are the most important traits. He had de Klerk’s full confidence, so he had legitimacy, and credibility was a vital part of creating trust: “Your ‘no’ must be your ‘no’, and your ‘yes’ must be your ‘yes’. It mustn’t be one day this and the other day different – because then you lose your credibility. And I’ve seen this in many cases, where negotiators fail because they try to play tricks. They create hope, then the next day they squash hope. And then your role as a negotiator is gone”.

Can he find any common thread in the many conflicts he’s advised on? Three principles stand out, he replies: “Inclusivity, building of trust, and taking of ownership” all play a part in working out a solution. The second is perhaps the trickiest, the third (I suspect) the most relevant to Cyprus: “The leaders have to take ownership of the problem and find a way to resolve it. They can’t shift the responsibility to someone else. They can’t expect others to come and do it for them. They can’t expect the other side to take responsibility first”. So what you really need are politicians willing to shoulder the political cost, if any. “If any,” he agrees with a nod.

What does he think of his own transformation, the journey from Afrikaner farm-boy to accidental architect of a new South Africa? “All of us are victims of our circumstances, or beneficiaries of our circumstances,” replies Roelf Meyer. “I think I can say I was particularly a beneficiary of my circumstances”. He benefited from apartheid, undeniably – but then also benefited from changing times, and his own vantage point as a lawyer.

“I was very fortunate to be at the right time at the right place,” he says, “to be able to make a contribution”. I nod in approval, and he smiles at my nod. All in all, our negotiation has been quite successful.

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