From Verwoerd to Mandela: South African Diplomats Remember Volumes 1-3

Compiled by Pieter Wolvaardt, Tom Wheeler and Werner Scholtz

Available in e-book format from Kwarts.co.za.

A TREASURE TROVE OF WELL-READ, WELL-TRAVELLED HONESTY

“What a privilege to read this three-part historical account,” writes Jan-Jan Joubert, “and what a contribution to our country’s history.”

It was the German historian Leopold von Ranke who summarised the ideal way of historical writing as being the reproduction of “Geschichte wie es eigentlich gewesen war” – history as it actually happened.

And it is South African Professor Floors van Jaarsveld who is widely acknowledged for the concept of relative objectivity – that nobody can be objective, but that you can honestly declare your background and convictions, and then strive for balance. Combine these two concepts, and you have history at its best. This is a rare item, a precious jewel, it is pure pleasure to read and enjoy piecemeal, like an excellent cognac before the hearth - to recognize quality, to appreciate it and then to fill your being therewith, leaving you feeling grateful and enriched.

That is the case with this treasure chest of three volumes about our country’s diplomatic history. This is history as it in fact happened, out of the personal experience and in the words of those who were actually present and because of their obviously cultured well-travelled background can clothe their experiences in a thoughtful, erudite manner, with an honesty that long ago moved beyond self-justification.

From Verwoerd to Mandela consists of accounts by more than a hundred diplomats, their wives and children, about how it actually was to try and put South Africa’s case abroad, from the period of Premier Hendrik Verwoerd to that of President Nelson Mandela.

That was the time that South Africa, in the words of Piet Cillié, former editor of Die Burger, had become the skunk of the world. It charts the journey that South Africa undertook from recognized founding member of the British Commonwealth and the United Nations to that of isolated and hated state whose missions abroad in, for example, Australia and Norway, were constant targets for protest, from the irritation of noise throughout the night to invasions and violent attacks.

I must admit that it took me a long time to get through the three volumes, simply because it was such a pleasure! It is like having more than a hundred of the best diplomatic narrators - and here I must single out Mr Don Sole who recently, at the age of 93 passed away in Cape Town – at the fireside in your living room, where they tell you the amazing stories of their experiences as witnesses of great times. Better than this, it cannot be, as each story – yes, for me every single one of the hundreds – is absolutely fascinating. Astonishing and diverse action tales are simply too many to name – from the desperate attempts to rescue the ambassador in El Salvador when he was abducted, to a terrorist attack in Italy, break-ins in Germany, espionage in the USA, counter-espionage against the Brits ( for much money!) floundering in Swaziland, crazy clandestine adventures in Gabon, climate extremes in La Paz….the details of the de Carpio fiasco in Dr Verwoerd’s time, isolation in Taipei, disparities in Malawi ( with the petty disloyalty of South African ambassadors and their wives who claimed to be pious church-goers to avoid having to dance with black people - and how Malawians saw right through their falsehoods!)

The ways in which sanctions were circumvented (wonderfully set out by Marc Burger) are better, and at times more absurd and even more macabre than the most outlandish and action-packed spy thrillers, while the stories of the clashes between the departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence during the P.W. Botha administration are painted painfully clearly. The story of South Africa as nuclear power is neatly explained.

The sometimes disturbing influence of the geographically rootless –and by virtue thereof – the at times ethically contrary way of life of the nomadic diplomat, on family life and especially the development of a system of values for children is revealing and educative. The real success of this authoritative work – which must have demanded an unbelievably large input on the part of the editors, is that these editors had the self-confidence to let their fellow diplomats speak for themselves - from the heart.

The three volumes are an extremely important historical source because it was not prescriptive. It doesn’t come to conclusions. It simply exposes the experiences of people who are clearly all blessed with above average talent.

It trusts that the reader himself will recognize the humanity of the individual narrators – the small jealousies, the differences in interpretation of the same set of facts, in as much as experience of the same set of circumstances can differ as they pass through the filters of background, memory, motive, range of perception and relative enlightenment.

It doesn’t shy away from the ambivalence experienced by many of these diplomats, with their cultivated backgrounds, having to work eventually for the racially ideological apartheid government. Some treat this tension with humour, others with self- justification and others with sorrow. What a privilege to read it all in this way; what a contribution to our country’s history – to let these people talk in the fullness of their human experience, repeatedly offered in short, digestible accounts, each standing on its own, but still linked to the whole narrative.

It is this free flow of narration without any disturbing censorship and with respect for the reader’s intelligence that allows one to say these volumes uphold the highest ideals of Von Ranke and Van Jaarsveld.

It is with deep gratitude and the highest praise that one can recommend, to any reader, the input of the editors and every contributor into the history of our beloved land.

Rapport 19 June 2011 (Translation of review by Jan-Jan Joubert, political editor).