The War That Was Never Fought

“No further talks,” Nelson Mandela announced on TV after the massacre of shack-dwellers at Boipatong in South Africa in June of 1992. A few minutes later, Roelf Meyer, the former Minister of Defense for the white minority-ruling National Party and lead negotiator in the talks slated to bring about the end of apartheid, got a call from Cyril Ramaphosa*, Secretary General and lead negotiator for the ANC.(1)

“What the ‘heck’ are you doing?” Meyer asked.

“We need to talk,” Ramaphosa responded.

And, despite the violence that was raging and the abyss of civil war that faced them; despite the suspicions raised by both the black and white constituencies that doubted the legitimacy of the wider talks; despite the fact that the two men were from completely different backgrounds and cultures, the two did just that. What’s more: in a process insiders began to call “the channel”, they did it secretly.

Three months later, the Record of Understanding was forged; an agreement that laid the foundation for the resumption of successful negotiations that paved the way for the first fully democratic elections in 1994, and the end of apartheid.

How, in the face of all that doubt and all those odds, did they do it?

They used the win-win negotiating techniques from the Harvard Negotiation Project(2) (the same ones you’ve learned in Common Outlook’s workshops). In doing so, they paid as much attention to the negotiating process itself as they did to the issues at hand. Accordingly, they decided to hammer-out their own ideas of process, resolving to search for common ground rather than focusing on differences, ensuring intra-negotiations with their own teams received as much attention as the inter-negotiations between the two sides, and most importantly, vowing not to let de Klerk and Mandela’s hard-line stances derail the process. (See note below)

Secondly, the two men worked on developing a negotiating relationship that was based on trust. They shared information about their backgrounds and value systems. Cyril had been steeped in the traditional black rural customs of South Africa; Roelf, in the isolation of the Afrikaner ultra-conservative white culture. “Once we discovered it was possible to interact with other value systems … all sorts of new opportunities started to develop,” Roelf said. He suggested they open their meetings with a prayer; Cyril, wanting to reflect the minority groups of the country, suggested seven prayers.

Personal trust was put at an exalted level; they put it above the need to take control or to be more powerful, and above the need to have their vision of the future be the ‘right’ one. They met for drinks; they shared stories; they went fishing. They became friends. They got to know one another…beyond the negotiating table.

“We learned to trust one another,” Roelf said. “ …Because apart from the Record of Understanding and the fact that we were able to unlock the (negotiation) deadlock, the most important thing to emerge … was the trust Cyril and I developed in each other. After that, it was possible to deal with all problems, all disputes.”

“It was this trust,” Ramaphosa seconded, “that finally delivered a settlement in the South Africa conflict.”

And the lesson for us?

If trust can mitigate cultural differences, prejudices, beliefs, value systems, and even long-standing hatred; if it can light the way to friendship as it did with Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer; if it can stave off conflict between individuals and war between factions, then let us – each one of us – engage in one fight only:

To learn to trust one another.


Note: The ruling National Party had initially demanded ANC factions hand over their weapons. Mandela had refused to put an end to the violence, but even if he had, Cyril knew that the ANC would see it as surrendering. The compromise? The suspension of armed action which met the needs of both sides. Though the issue stayed on the table, it wasn’t made a pre-condition for the resumption of negotiations.

This article is based on a Paper: Ramaphosa and Meyer in Belfast by Padriag O’Malley, and derived from a lecture held by The Irish Association, June 1996.

(1) ANC: a tripartite alliance led by The African National Congress, and including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP)
(2) Fisher, R. & Ury, W. (1981) Getting to Yes. Penguin.  (1991 and 2011 Editions authored by Fisher, Ury, and Bruce Patton).
*  In December 2012, Cyril Ramaphosa was appointed Deputy President of South Africa.

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