Michael Young (Endgame) Interview

Channel 4's Endgame is a gripping and sophisticated political thriller in which British businessman Michael Young (played by Jonny Lee Miller) initiates secret talks between ANC exiles and white Afrikaners to try and find a peaceful solution to the brutal conflict in South Africa. At stake is not only their safety, and their reputations, but the future of a nation.

Here, the real Michael Young discusses the story behind the film...

How did a representative of a British mining company come to play such a pivotal role in the talks that helped to end Apartheid?

Things were definitely going to change in South Africa; it was simply a matter of how long the incumbent regime could last. My job at Goldfields was a strategic role, where I had to try and work out how our gold-mining house could remain in South Africa for the long haul. The other companies were throwing money at black education, hoping to build up a black bourgeoisie and a black entrepreneurial class, and see if they could be the salvation for the country. I took the view that there was only one issue, and it was ‘How do you get from a rigid, totalitarian, white-driven state to a black state through the process of the ballot box?’ I suppose for me that was partly driven by an intellectual exercise but it’s also fair to say I was the licensed liberal in the mining house.

So for you there was an element of the ideological as well as the expedient?

Yes, I think it was a blend of the two. Intellectually, the status quo couldn’t be maintained, and ideologically it was one of the most unpleasant manifestations of people dealing with other people that we saw in the world. It was about a democratic transition from white control to black majority rule, and that required that you actually engaged with the people who represented the bulk of the population in South Africa. Whether the political and business classes in the UK, Europe and America liked it or not, you were talking about the ANC. So my chairman agreed in principle that I should begin to try and forge links with the ANC in exile, just to see what they were like and what they wanted. So I met the ANC, and we began the process of discussing what needed to happen. I put the question to Oliver Tambo, the head of the ANC worldwide: “What does a British company need to do to help with the resolution to the South African situation?” His response to me was “Please help me build a bridge. I need a bridge built to the regime in Pretoria.”

What did he mean by that?

Thabo [Mbeki] said to me, much later on, that one of the greatest fears the ANC had was that when the signals [of a readiness to talk] were coming from Pretoria, they may not have recognised them. So it really was critical that some form of communication, some form of awareness of what the other guys were about, what their tolerances were, what their fears were, was understood by the other side. That’s what this was about.

Why was Willie Esterhuyse, an Afrikaner academic, the right person to sit down with to facilitate the bridge-building?

Well, I tried a whole range of different people. First of all, I didn’t have the capacity to go and knock on PW Botha’s front door and suggest to him we needed to be talking to the ANC. What one had to do was look at the power structure and determine where were there people close to the centre of power, who took a view that the status quo was not maintainable and realised something needed to be done, and had to courage to follow that through. Why did I happen upon Willie? I had to be careful who I spoke to. If I’d been careless in who I spoke to, I could have been picked up and sent packing very quickly. I had to give quite a bit of thought about who I thought might have been willing to enter into discussions with us and not denounce me. Willie was the man who actually gave me a fair hearing, and had the courage to say “Yes, I think what you’re doing is probably right, and yes I’ll come along on the journey with you.”

The film shows you being followed by the security forces. Why were they intent on doing that? And did you feel threatened at any point?

Most telephone lines between South Africa and the UK were intercepted. It was clear to me very early on that they would discover there was something happening with which they weren’t familiar. Normally when British businessmen like myself would go to South Africa, we would go to our subsidiary company there, we’d fly in, we’d be met, almost the first question we’d be asked was “What time is your flight when you’re leaving?” So the notion of me wandering around outside the business environment would have been very odd.

My phone was tapped, and it was very clear that I was being followed. I received phone calls telling me they knew what I was doing and I better watch my back. I was taught how to check under my car for booby trap devices and so on. Yes, I was frightened, but it seemed to me that this was such a potentially important initiative that you just needed to get on and do it. You don’t discount the danger, but I think you sublimate it when you’re younger in a way which you might not when you grow slightly older.

So the state became aware of what you were doing, and basically allowed it to happen. Why did they permit the talks to take place?

Well, the state as a whole wasn’t homogenous. What PW Botha had done was marginalise the cabinet and parliament, and he’d set up a piece of apparatus called the ‘securicrats’. Those were people who had a responsibility for security. Had the police and their intelligence forces - who were very much more redneck and untutored and right-wing - been the people that were following me, I think I’d have been found in a bush, dead. The people who were following me belonged to Neil Barnard’s National Intelligence body. These were people who didn’t like the options they saw ahead of them, but realised the maintenance of the status quo wasn’t possible. I think they felt “He’s doing something interesting. Let’s just watch this. If it gets out of control we can jump on it.”

At the same time, elements of the government were in discussions with Mandela. Why were they conducting separate talks? Was it an attempt at ‘divide and rule’, trying to split the ANC?

Yes. PW Botha quite clearly sanctioned this ‘little adventure in the United Kingdom’ as he called it, because he wanted to do a deal with Mandela, who he’d had locked up for a long time and who he thought might be more amenable to a deal. So they wanted to isolate him, and see if they could nurture him and do that deal. It was quite clear to me that could have led to the most almighty schism within the country, which would have created precisely the kind of bloodbath we were trying to avoid.

Why did you take the decision to have the talks in the UK?

There were two preconditions that I had, and I told both sides this at the start. That if they wanted to play games with this, I wasn’t their man, and therefore this would be a secret process, and to ensure that secrecy we would take it away from the main theatre and take it to a place that allowed us a chance at keeping the thing secret.
Why did you consider secrecy to be so paramount?

Politicians, if they have their way, operate between election cycle and election cycle, and from time to time within that, they need to make genuflections to the gallery. That would have been hugely dangerous for this process. So that’s why from the outset I insisted that I’d walk away if they played political games with it. It was necessary for us to see this as a very serious exercise which didn’t have political parameters around it.

Once you had got everyone sat around a table, was that the hardest part of your job done?

Well, we’d started a process when we sat down, but the really difficult bit was to keep them focused and to make sure that we actually delivered a product. It is relatively easy, after a bit of pushing and shoving, to get people to sit down and talk. What you’ve got to then do is make sure that it’s a substantive conversation, and that people don’t say “Well, I’ve seen this fellow and I don’t like the look of him and I’m going to now talk about it and tell everybody why I’m not going to continue to talk.” So for me it was as much of a challenge to do the second phase as it was to get them to meet.

You chaired the talks. What sort of a stance did you take as chairman?

Initially I had to be a very forceful chairman. But there were about a dozen talks in all, and they ran from late 1985/86 to 1990. So as the ANC and the Afrikaners started to get to know each other, and behave as South Africans together, I could cast myself in the role of outsider. I could move back from a tightly prescriptive chairman’s role to a much more facilitatory role, and would, from time to time, leave them alone in the evening, and just make sure there was plenty of Glenfiddich. Willie Esterhuyse described this type of facilitation as ‘Glenfiddich diplomacy’. The object of the exercise, more than anything else, was to get these guys to talk to each other. It wasn’t my game. I’m not a South African. I can walk away from this and my house isn’t going to be blown up, my family is safe. This is their game. I have got to get them to think as South Africans. Once I began to achieve that - manifestations such as they would embrace when they gathered together - I began to sense that we were achieving an objective. So the style that I used as chairman changed as the conversations went on.

Did what was going on in the rest of the world have a bearing on the talks?

At one point, about halfway through the process, the external world was beginning to get in the way - Mrs Thatcher would make some silly remark and it would cause a frisson in Pretoria. So I was asked to go and see Mrs Thatcher, to see if we could get them brought in to a much more ordered relationship with the process, so that they didn’t get in the way. She wouldn’t see me personally, but when I saw her Chief of Staff, it was clear from the conversation that she would not engage with the ANC because she regarded them as terrorists. Part of my role in the talks was to advise on the geopolitical situation - what was Regan about, what was Thatcher about, or Gorbachev, or Kohl in Germany. We had to take into account what was happening in the outside world - and that was particularly true when it came to discussing the post-Apartheid economy.

Do certain moments in those talks stick in your mind as being key?

Yes. I think it was hugely significant when Thabo explained in very simple and graphic terms to Willie and the other whites about the command and control system of the ANC guerrilla movement. One of the great critiques was “You are sitting with us here, but then you unleash your guerrillas, and you blow up innocent people outside a bank”. So Thabo said; “Let me tell you how this system works.” So he went on to explain how when a decision is made in Lusaka, at the military high command, to use a device against a military or state target, that the message to target that structure on that day in this way was done by word of mouth. And you see it is referred to in the film. Very often, when you’re dealing with word of mouth, the nuance slightly changes. Don’t forget, you were dealing sometimes with guys who had very little education. This was a dispossessed people. So the message very often had changed by the time it got to the ground. You couldn’t make a telephone call, you couldn’t communicate the instruction in any other way. So Thabo deliberately took the guys through that process, and he was effectively saying that the guerrilla movement had its limitations. It was a very brave thing for him to do, but what it did do is it unlocked that final element of trust that was so important to the process, and it really cemented the Esterhuyse-Mbeki locus, which was so central to what we were about.

What effect did the change of presidency in South Africa have on the talks?

Oh, it speeded up the process hugely. When PW Botha was replaced by FW de Klerk, who was regarded as a hardliner, we were all a little dismayed. However, it was because of his strength that he was able to make his decision cleanly and then deliver it effectively. FW was so important. When his brother started to join our discussions, we really did believe that we had a very direct line in to this man, and it was clear, from his questions to the ANC - substantial, serious, direct questions - that this was only coming from one source, and that there was a thirst to know more.

What was it like watching Mandela’s release with these men at Mells Park?

It was very emotional. That’s why I wanted the staff of Mells Park to join us, because it was a historical moment we worked for, and helped create and pave the way towards. It was a visible manifestation of some product of our endeavours. So it was a beautifully sweet moment, because here’s this man who’s been incarcerated for as long as some of us around the table had been alive, coming out of prison and behaving in a tolerant and forgiving way. So that television broadcast was a hugely emotional and powerful experience for us all. I think it’s safe to say that all of us had tears in our eyes.

How much longer after that did the talks go on for?

We had two more sets of talks after that event. My view was we needed to keep the momentum of what we were doing until such time as Mandela and the un-banned ANC could sit down formally with FW de Klerk and begin a formal, public process of negotiation. I wasn’t prepared to back off until I was satisfied that that was there. And that formal process moved as swiftly as it did because most of the discussions had already take place with us. Discussions about unbanning, minority rights, what was to happen to Mandela, how can riots be avoided, the nature of the post-Apartheid economy, all of those issues had been gone through in great depth in our process, so that when they began the formal discussion process, all of the big ticket issues had been, in part or in full, exercised.

Did you form close relationships with those involved in the talks? Are you still in touch with them?

Very, and yes. Not on a weekly basis, but I see Thabo from time to time, Willie from time to time, but we’ve all got lives to lead and things to do. But I see them. It’s a very close bond. After all, we devoted a great number of years in very difficult circumstances together, working to a common goal, and that’s a very powerful piece of cement.

Now the talks and the events surrounding them have been made into a film, Endgame. The producers contacted you about this, didn’t they?

Yes, they did. I had always taken the view that the process should remain silent. You can’t come to power and say “We will not have anything to do with the Apartheid structure” and then be found to have been negotiating with them at length very early on in the process. I didn’t want to do anything that would damage Mandela’s government or Mbeki’s government. But it did eventually leak out from within South Africa. So when I was then approached about the film, I decided that if it was going to be treated, then I wanted it to be treated accurately and fairly. Given that it was going to become public property, I wanted it to be completely accurate.

What do you think of the end product?

I was hugely impressed. I’m not a film man, so I’m speaking as a businessman/putative politician. But what they’ve succeeded so well in doing is in capturing the essence of what we were about, but at the same time making something which is capable of keeping the audience’s attention. I’m very happy with it.

Mbeki went on to become President. Did you get the feeling at the time that this was a leader-in-waiting?

Oh, most certainly. He was head-and-shoulders above all of the people with whom we were working. It was quite clear to me that this would be the President of South Africa in the fullness of time.

Endgame airs on Monday 4th May 2009 at 9pm on Channel 4.