“The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith – a book I bought at the Schiphol airport – is a really enjoyable book. It tries to tell something about the post-independence history of the continent not by being as encyclopaedical and wholesome as possible, but by focusing on a few ‘case studies’, fates of a few countries and a few leaders to demonstrate a general problem. It spends a lot of time on being anecdotal and biographic and I must say this approach works quite well. Anyway, one of the anecdotes is about Mandela.
So it’s early 1980s, Mandela’s as in prison as ever, but the apartheid authorities are starting to figure out that they’re in a dead end and that they might need to talk to Mandela sooner or later. So they approach him. It goes quite well, so one day they secretly drive him off prison to meet ‘somebody important’. He’s escorted into a basement where a man awaits him. This man is P.W. Botha aka Die Groot Krokodil (‘The Great Crocodile’), the man in charge of the whole regime. Mandela’d obviouslynever met him before but surely’d heard a lot of bad things about him. And reciprocically, I suppose. Anyway, the moment Botha sees Mandela entering the room, he stands up, smiles, comes closer and shakes Mandela’s hand in greeting. Later – and this was the most shocking moment for Mandela – Botha himself pours tea for his ‘guest’ and they spend the next hour or so chatting about cricket and rugby.
Imagine now, there’s this guy, who basically personifies a vile, immoral, universally condemned regime founded upon racial inequality, hosting his own public enemy no. 1, a paragon ‘rebellious Negro communist terrorist’ and being all cordial and affable. No trace of, you know, racial supremacy, just cricket talk, because that’s what gentlemen talk about when they don’t know each other very well (and thus have to avoid divisive topics like politics). A beautiful scene, isn’t it?
Now, the reason I’m writing about it (apart from it being beautiful) is that quite often people see their political opponents as embodiment of evil, child-eating monsters or something like that. Quite silly. A ruthless dictator with a blood on his hands may well be a reasonable, cultured, open-minded gentleman with refined manners. Viewing such people just as a composite of all kinds of character flaws is dishonest but also dangerous, because it leads to contempt and underestimation.
But there’s a further twist to that. We’ve said that a dictator might be a great person to talk to. Be it as it may, the said talk may actually lead nowhere. Such was the Mandela / Botha case. They talked and maybe not exactly liked each other, but recognised each other as partners, people to make a deal with. The point is, no deal was made. P.W. Botha famously backtracked at last moment before his 1985 parliament speech which was supposed to be ground-breaking and the apartheid regime continued for a couple years more.