SA youth need to put themselves in liberation fighters' shoes to understand sacrifices they made – Maharaj, Jordan

Siviwe Feketha Political reporter
The cover of the Breakthrough book by Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan.
The cover of the Breakthrough book by Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan.
Image: Supplied

The younger generation of South Africans will have to put themselves in the shoes of the generation of the liberation fighters who fought and negotiated the country’s negotiated settlement to fully understand why they made some of the sacrifices and compromises they made.

This is according to two ANC stalwarts and former anti-apartheid activists Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan who recently wrote a book titled Breakthrough, which recounts some of the behind the scenes informal talks that preceded and helped sow seeds for Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa).

The two veterans were on Wednesday night discussing the book with journalist and columnist Sam Mkokeli during a virtual dialogue which he jointly organised with SowetanLive.

Maharaj says the book sets out the instrumentality of the talks that were pushed by former president Nelson Mandela while in prison for the apartheid government to talk with the ANC and which led him to have 15 meetings with the then defence minister Kobie Coetsee as well as other no less than 48 meetings with the team led by the then head of the national intelligence services Niël Barnard.

He says the events are crucial to record for the fuller understanding of the country’s transition and in order to understand the presence.

The two, however, faced questioning from audience over compromises and concessions which were apparently made by the ANC leadership during both the secret talks and Codesa.

Maharaj said the book would help give an opportunity to  place themselves in the situation Mandela and other freedom fighters were in and ask themselves how they would conduct themselves in order to advance the Struggle for freedom.

“That’s the way in which we urge young people to confront our past,” he says.  

Jordan is more bold and dismisses the notion that the negotiations did not yield the future the ANC envisaged due to compromises, as he says it achieved a lot at the negotiating table, including ensuring that the constitutional guidelines the party drafted formed the foundation of the SA Constitution despite its initial opposition by many parties.

“Much as one might say that negotiations inevitably do entail a degree of compromise, the vision that the ANC had placed before SA in those constitutional guidelines is what is in our Constitution today.

“What I think the youth and the young people can take from this, is that, it was called a Struggle because it was a Struggle. It was not a snuggle. It was tough and we had to be realistic about what you could attain and could not attain,” Jordan says.

The book, whose sources include material in Mandela's prison files, minutes of the meetings of the ANC top structures, communications between then ANC president Oliver Tambo and Operation Vula, the Broederbond archives and numerous other sources, looks into one of the phases, between 1985 and 1990, predating the formal negotiations for a democratic SA between the ANC leadership and the heads of the apartheid government.

Maharaj says the idea to write the book had been triggered by a separate research he and Jordan been doing through the archives, but which did not get off.

“That project was not going anywhere and in the process just before the lockdown, we talked about what we would do with this massive information that we have,” Maharaj recounts.

He says while there were many elements of the Struggle that helped push SA towards democracy, including mass and civil society mobilisation and activism, conversations had always been the basis of the success of SA's negotiated settlement. 

“When you look around the world, the way in which wars and conflicts reach negotiated resolutions, it is focused really on what happens at the table, but the real issue is how do people who had been at war agree to sit at the table,” says Maharaj.

Maharaj laments that South Africans are currently talking past each other and that he and Jordan’s hopes are that the book and its contributions will help provide some of the facts that would help stimulate real conversations.

“The most important thing that comes out from this book is, let’s get facts on the table. Let’s agree what are the relevant facts and then we can disagree about how we analyse and what conclusions we come to, but then at least we will be in a conversation… The history of our Struggle shows, real conversations have been the basis of success,” he says. 

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