Four miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island stands as a monument to the quest to end apartheid. For three decades, it housed the activists regarded by the government as the most dangerous in the country – typically with little in the way of legal proceedings – just a short distance from the offices of the country’s chief executive. Among the hundreds of political prisoners behind bars or working fields on July 5, 1989, one had been transported to a very important meeting. Pieter Botha, the President of South Africa, had invited Nelson Mandela to leave the prison farm and visit the presidential mansion.
After ruling with an iron fist for over 40 years, the minority white National Party slowly came to realize the situation caused by the continuation of apartheid would lead to the destruction of the South African economy – many nations participated in sanctions banning foreign trade or investment – and opened the door ever so slightly to an end to its policy of segregation. Botha’s meeting with Mandela would signal a major step in the right direction.
The public, remembering Botha’s “Total Onslaught” policy of oppression, did not know what to think. Leaders from anti-apartheid groups and members of Mandela’s family were dubious. “The supposed meeting does not constitute any dramatic event in the history of this country, as the South African government would like the world to believe,” said the Reverend Frank Chikane. Robbed of the right to talk with anyone in the ANC, many South African blacks pointed to Mandela’s own words – “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate.” – as evidence Botha was pulling a trick.
Others, however, saw the 45-minute meeting to be part of the initial movements toward negotiating a settlement to end apartheid. The discussions between Botha and Mandela were kept private, characterized as “an informal chat over tea.” The fact the president would soon leave office added fuel to the fire of distrust on both sides of the apartheid debate: disenfranchised groups generally felt it a meaningless gesture while members of Botha’s National Party dismissed it as a cavalier action by the outgoing leader.
For his part, Mandela would later write he found Botha to be very genial, writing later in Long Walk to Freedom, his autobiography, that
“He had his hand out and was smiling broadly, and in fact from that very first moment he completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly.”
The following year, under the new President F.W. de Klerk, the end of apartheid would become inevitable. From the time he entered office in 1990, de Klerk went about beginning the reform process in earnest. Negotiations would commence on many fronts early in his presidency, with Mandela’s release being one of the first to occur. Four years later, in 1994, South Africa held its first free elections since the National Party had taken control in 1948.