Former South African President Frederik De Klerk, who freed Nelson Mandela, died on Thursday. Before taking power, the future head of state told us that he would put an end to apartheid, during a breakfast in Pretoria kept secret.
We are in 1988. A strong year for southern Africa. While the end of apartheid will be recorded two years later, the first stones of peace are laid at the end of 1988. And then I will have the chance to be one of the actors in the negotiations. .
South Africa was then at a turning point ... In September 1988, Pope John Paul II planned to visit Lesotho and Swaziland. He tries to bypass South Africa, but the weather conditions force the plane of the sovereign pontiff to stop in Johannesburg. South African Foreign Minister "Pik" Botha then rushes to get a photo with the Pope. At that time, South Africa was trying to renew dialogue with the rest of the world.
But it is difficult for a country which has put in place the racist apartheid laws to find interlocutors. On December 13, 1988, the Brazzaville protocol will be signed, which will lead to the peace agreement signed between South Africa, the United States, Cuba and Angola, announcing the independence of Namibia, secretly confirming the legalization of the ANC by the racist regime and paving the way for the release of Nelson Mandela, and the official end of apartheid laws.
"De Klerk is called upon to play a very important role"
If Mandela was the hero of this period, another man played an important role. The first time I heard of Frederik De Klerk was during a dinner in Pretoria with Cornelis Schabort, alias "Corn", a South African businessman who had been introduced to me by the head of the military intelligence, General van Tonder.
Corn had a very active and important role in the politics of his country as a very influential member of the secret society of the Afrikaner elite, the Afrikaner Broederbond (League of Afrikaner Brothers). After this dinner, when it was time to smoke a cigar, Corn simply said to me, after a long silence: “We would like you to meet Frederik De Klerk. He is called upon to play a very important role ”.
I had never heard of De Klerk before. His curriculum vitae was not really full. De Klerk was then Minister of Education and leader of the National Party in the province of Transvaal. I did not see how this political leader, unknown to the battalion, could play an important role in South Africa, especially since he had never taken a position for or against the international policy of South Africa. Worse, De Klerk seemed to have been cast in the classic mold of the Afrikaner political elite.
But Corn was rarely wrong. And the information, which he got from inside, seldom turned out to be inaccurate. I tried to learn more about De Klerk. The latter was a lawyer by training, a practicing Calvinist and at the very least very conservative. Far from the portrait Corn had painted of me: that of a "South African Gorbachev" in the making.
So I decided to go and meet this future king of South African politics. I have met Frederik De Klerk on several occasions. What struck me first was his ignorance of political strategy. De Klerk was an Afrikaner, as I had met dozens of. But I quickly understood Corn when I realized that the minister was actually an underling. He was responsive and flexible, ready to participate in any negotiation. Later, Mandela was also unhappy that the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to De Klerk, whom he considered to be a mere messenger.
Was the future South African president nothing more than a "charge de mission"? But not just any. I understood much later what role De Klerk was going to play. At the time, European diplomats did not have the right to visit a South Africa under embargo, nor to dialogue with the regime there.
"Pick" Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs informed me that a young Portuguese Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, José Manuel Barroso, also with a great future, was to go to Johannesburg to meet there exclusively. the large Portuguese community. "Pick" asked me to be able to meet him and to intervene with the Portuguese with whom I had good relations - the latter did not wish to waive the sanctions and refused. However, they agreed to entrust me with the organization of a secret meeting "with influential personalities".
Barroso had been allowed to meet with me and attend an interview I had arranged. Appointment was made in Pretoria, within the secure perimeter of the ministerial residences. Then began a very secret breakfast, four: Barroso, De Klerk then Minister of Education, "Corn" Schabort and myself.
De Klerk's confidences in Barroso
If history was certainly not written at that time, I was nevertheless the witness of an upheaval: the Minister of Education De Klerk indeed unrolled a list of confidential information in the Portuguese: PW Botha was going to leave power, and it was De Klerk himself who was to succeed him. De Klerk pledged to dismantle apartheid and, as soon as these discriminatory laws were signed, to release Nelson Mandela. He finally agreed to negotiate with the ANC.
Barroso was astonished to be the privileged witness of this flood of information, which he brought back to Lisbon. For my part, I made a note addressed to François Mitterrand, via his son Jean-Christophe. The French President agreed to receive the new President De Klerk officially in Paris after coming to power, much to the surprise of his government and French public opinion. I received him for dinner during his visit to "Laurent". Few personalities agreed to join us.
On February 2, 1989, history began: Frederik De Klerk was elected head of the National Party, dislodging Botha. On August 14, 1989, the latter resigned and, the following day, De Klerk was the last white president of South Africa. The rest is now history.
* Jean-Yves Ollivier is a businessman, “auto-entrepreneur in private diplomacy”, founding president of the Brazzaville Foundation and author of “Neither seen nor known” (Fayard editions).