Negotiator played secret role in bringing apartheid to an end
Back in the late 1980s, the former York University student organised secret meetings between the South African government and the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) that led to the end of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela and free elections in South Africa.
His story and the covert peace talks he instigated were recreated in the Channel 4 film Endgame last year, and next week he returns to his old stamping ground in York for a special screening of the film followed by a question and answer session where he will discuss the historic events that unfolded.
Young was a London-based businessman working for the British mining company Consolidated Goldfields at the time. It was his job to formulate a strategy to secure the firm's South African interests, but, having gained an insight into the country's complex political make-up while working as an advisor for British Prime Minsters Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath, he had more radical ideas.
Young wanted to follow up an invitation from Oliver Tambo, one of the ANC's exiled leaders, for discussions between his organisation and the South African government. His boss reluctantly agreed, but warned him he would be sacked if the board got wind of what was going on. "To understand the political situation in South Africa you had to understand its nuances and I had seen apartheid through a political prism since the early '70s and I knew who the key players were," he says.
The exiled Thabo Mbeki and Afrikaner social reformer Willie Esterhuyse were the main protagonists who agreed to meet. The secret talks, chaired by Young, were held in the unlikely surroundings of a country house in Somerset, and the stakes could scarcely have been higher. "This was a chance for the ANC and the South African government to begin to understand each other and find out what could and couldn't be accepted by each side, and to look at how Mandela could be released, how we could broker an end of the guerrilla war and what a post-apartheid economy would look like."
But in bringing the key players to the table, Young put his own safety in jeopardy. "In Johannesburg and London my phones were being tapped and I was told to check my car for incendiary devices. I had to travel to South Africa and Zimbabwe on occasions to meet people and I could have easily been taken out into the bush and disposed of and left to the animals," he says.
Between 1987 and 1990 there were 12 meetings and as attitudes softened on both sides, an agreement was eventually reached that led to Mandela's release. "PW Botha knew about the meetings and he made sure that the questions the government wanted answers to were being asked. Secret messages were sent to Mandela in prison to reassure him that this wasn't an attempt to divide and rule."
The meetings were so secret not even the British Government knew they were taking place and Young believes this secrecy was crucial. "It was important that the process remained secret for the duration of the talks because if they had been made public they could have easily collapsed."
The success of the talks, though, were testament to Young's skills as a negotiator which he had first cultivated while studying politics at York University in the late 1960s. After graduating, his political acumen was quickly spotted and he became an advisor to both Douglas-Home, while he was Foreign Secretary, and Heath during his tenure as Prime Minister. He has great admiration for both men.
"Home was an extraordinary man, a beautiful, gentle fellow. I spent time with him at his home in Northumberland and listened to his stories. He met Hitler, he was with Chamberlain in Munich, and he knew Stalin. Here was a man who would take me back through the pages of history as a participant. He was very self-effacing yet he was a great analyst and his understanding of people and politics was incredible."
His personality contrasted with that of the next Tory PM. "Heath was a much less relaxed man, but he had this huge capacity to get to the heart of an issue very quickly, he was a huge intellect."
Young, now 64, has been involved in conflict resolution throughout his career, playing a significant role in both Portugal and Spain during their transition from dictatorship to democracy. Unsurprisingly, though, he ranks the part he played in bringing about change in South Africa as his greatest achievement. "The whole process helped bring an end to apartheid and it did so in a way that led to ordered change, rather than violent revolution. It's created a template for how conflicts can be resolved."
n The Fall of Apartheid, featuring a question and answer session with Michael Young, is being held at York University on January 20 at 5.30pm. Admission is free but by ticket only. For more information call 01904 432622.