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Undercover negotiations out in the open

TOMORROW IS ANOTHER COUNTRY by Allister Sparks Heinemann Pounds 7.99. - 0 434 00127 9 THE WAITING COUNTRY by Mike Nicol Gollancz Pounds 8.99. - 0 575 05915 X

Allister Sparks is a journalist with an eye for resonant images. In The Mind of South Africa he began with an image of a hedge of bitter almonds planted in the 17th century by Jan van Riebeeck, leader of the first Dutch settlers in the Cape, as a vain attempt to keep separate from the indigenous peoples. His sequel, Tomorrow is Another Country, starts with an equally powerful tale-cum- allegory.

Sparks describes an early meeting between two political antagonists brought together for a weekend trout fishing by a Johannesburg stockbroker in 1991. When the inexperienced fisherman Roelf Meyer, then South Africa's deputy minister of constitutional development, got a hook stuck in his finger, it was Cyril Ramaphosa, chief negotiator for the African National Congress, who knew what to do. Preparing Meyer with a stiff whisky, Ramaphosa proffered the advice: "If you've never trusted an ANC person before, you'd better get ready to do so now!"

Subtitled "The inside story of South Africa's negotiated revolution", Tomorrow is Another Country is about the recognition by the apartheid Nationalist government and its foremost opponent, the African National Congress, of their mutual dependency. The story is a riveting one, compared by former cabinet minister Kobie Coetsee, one of the participants, to a John le Carre thriller. It was in fact eight and not four years of negotiations that led to South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994, the first four years being conducted in total secrecy.

Sparks begins the trail with an Afrikaner lawyer practising in the remote rural town of Brandfort to which Winnie Mandela was banished in 1977. Reluctantly, as the only lawyer in town, Piet de Waal accepted her as a client. But it was the beginning of an unexpected friendship between Winnie and the De Waal family and their first insight into the casual brutality the State meted out to its adversaries. When an old university friend Kobie Coetsee became minister of justice, police and prisons, De Waal began the first cautious lobbying from within the Afrikaner fold itself for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Sparks follows the clandestine trail from the first meeting of Kobie Coetsee with South Africa's most important prisoner while Mandela was recovering from an operation in hospital in 1985. The minister was taken aback and impressed at how prisoner no. 46664 took command of the situation, like a host greeting old friends. On his return to Pollsmoor Prison, Mandela was separated from his political comrades to facilitate further secret meetings. In 1988 they broadened to include the head of the National Intelligence Service, Mandela's diary noting 47 meetings in all.

Sparks charts the tortuous, tense course of negotiations which continued throughout the late eighties while the state remained engaged in savage mass repression. Sparks reveals some key players now prepared to talk openly for the first time. For instance, intent on protecting the ANC from manipulation, Mac Maharaj, then heading the underground Operation Vula, used a computer and modem to transmit coded messages between activists within the country and the ANC in exile, finally connecting up with Mandela in Victor Verster Prison.

It is a tale of suspicion, spies, secret encounters in Swiss hotels and includes the smuggling of "wanted" top ANC personnel into South Africa by the National Intelligence Service to meet internal members of the ANC. Much as the apartheid state would have loved to destroy the alliance between the ANC leadership and the mass movement, it ultimately depended on the ANC being able to deliver compliance with any agreement.

In the second half of his book, Sparks deals with the period of open negotiations where there are not quite as many revelations. However his ability to seek out the human drama continues to make engaging reading. Sparks is also an impressive commentator on history. His final prediction of new economic alliances and of the alienation of an increasingly large underclass of unemployed indicates the need for the inside story of economic as well as political negotiations to be revealed.

Mike Nicol is not only a journalist but a poet and novelist who locates himself in The Waiting Country very differently from Sparks. Subtitled "A South African Witness", this is an intensely personal book. His prose is often poetic as he attempts "to construct a narrative of living in South Africa". He explores the violence and how it has touched the lives of individuals. Interviews with victims of a Cape Town pub bombing in 1993 precede a historical enquiry into his own colonial family - "I found that we had bled and caused others to bleed". He writes of the perniciousness of apartheid which "sank into our lives" and which cannot be easily exorcised. Nicol records anger, pain, desperation and occasionally wry humour - refusing to accept what he sees as sanitised versions of reality. For him hope lies in giving witness, in "telling and retelling".

Beverly Naidoo's latest novel for young people on South Africa, No Turning Back, is published by Viking.

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