EXPERT OPINION: Business deserves thanks for role in averting SA civil war, say experts ahead of discussion co-hosted by UP

Posted on March 11, 2021

The pressures to end apartheid and build a new political dispensation were multi-levelled, but on one of those levels, business in this country played a significant contributing role. It and the individuals that drove it deserve wider mention.

1972 is probably a good starting point in this story, it was the year the then CEO of Anglo American Corporation, Harry Oppenheimer, invited Alex Boraine, then president of the Methodist Church, to join Anglo. Boraine had publicly criticised the company for its labour relations and challenged Oppenheimer directly with the charge that he “could not believe trade unions were good for whites but not for blacks”. This marked the start of a process of progressively deeper political engagement by the SA business community that led all the way to the Codesa negotiations of the early 1990s.

The rationale for engagement was diverse and far from universal. Business had benefited from operating in a racially structured environment and many of its leaders actively and publicly supported apartheid. However, key influential individuals from the business community throughout the 1970s and 1980s made critical contributions to create the environment for political change to happen.

These contributions were multi-tiered, direct and indirect. In 1976 Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert established a think-tank called The Urban Foundation to advocate reforms to improve the social conditions of black people in urban areas. The NP government viewed the foundation as too critical, and black activists categorised it as moderate and still in support of apartheid. Business also supported initiatives such as the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement, funding legal expenses and facilitating and paying the costs of meetings.

The Durban strikes in 1973, where more than 60,000 workers participated in 160-odd strikes that spilt over into other cities and industrial centres, was a turning point and trigger for the Wiehahn Commission, which laid the ground for black trade unions to operate formally.

This was a critical development as it enabled a formal entry point for dialogue between capital and labour. It was in the interactions between employers and unions that followed that business leaders discovered people they “liked” and could reach agreement with. The discussions, negotiations and relationships that were formed in the 1970s provided an absolutely critical basis of good faith that facilitated later upstream political discussions.

By the time international sanctions were imposed in the mid-1980s, business was engaging regularly with the ANC and facilitating high level meetings with the NP government, and even the security and intelligence services. In particular, after PW Botha’s Rubicon speech in 1985, far more from the business side started to get involved, perhaps because they saw the writing was on the wall.

It was in that year that a meeting took place in Lusaka between business leaders led by Anglo CEO Gavin Reilly and senior ANC officials, including Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Pallo Jordan, James Stuart and Mac Maharaj. Reilly was publicly denounced by Botha for disloyalty.

By this stage these meetings involved scenario planning exercises developed by Anglo, which proved to have considerable influence on later decision-making. These trips to Lusaka became so frequent by a diverse range of people from business, civil society, academic and religious institutions that they euphemistically became known as the Lusaka “trek”.

An important consideration in this process was the homogeneous nature of SA business. In the 1970s and 1980s the major national companies were Anglo (the Oppenheimers); Rembrandt (the Ruperts); Liberty (the Gordons); and Anglovaal (the Menells and Hersovs). The top six companies owned over 80% of the economy in 1985. This economic clout provided considerable leverage.

In addition, key tools business brought progressively to the wider transition process were the principles of dialogue and negotiation. Later, at key points in the transition story this proved critical.

According to the chief negotiator for the National Party, Roelf Meyer, business was the critical factor in laying the foundations in 1990/1991 for the peace accord, without which — in his view — constitutional negotiations could not have succeeded. “It was under the leadership of business, together with Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu and other individual leaders from civil society that played a formidable role in bringing the power of the peace accord. The peace accord is totally underestimated in its impact on the preparations for the constitutional negotiations.”

The early 1990s saw a new and agreed political dispensation emerge, the “Rainbow Nation”. Disappointment would follow, for sure, but the much-feared civil war that many, perhaps most, predicted was averted. For that, business in this country played a not insignificant role.

Dr Cori Wielenga is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, and acting director at the Centre for Mediation in Africa. Gary Rynhart is senior employers’ specialist at the International Labour Organization. The two organisations are hosting a live discussion on March 16 that can be attended virtually on

This article first appeared in Business Day on 1 March 2021.

- Author Dr Cori Wielenga and Gary Rynhart

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2023. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

To contact the University during the COVID-19 lockdown, please send an email to [email protected]

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences