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News > OD Publications > Sam Sterban (1957W) - Memories of Swaziland

Sam Sterban (1957W) - Memories of Swaziland

Sam Sterban (1957W), writes an account of his time as a South African diplomat in Africa during the last years of the PW Botha's presidency.

Memories of Swaziland

A South African diplomat in Africa during the last years of the PW Botha presidency

Sam Sterban (1957W)

I retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs after 32 years of service in 1998. I sometimes wonder what a career in the Department of international Relations and Communications is like today. Forty years ago, for those of us in the Department who were taking first, rather tentative steps into Africa, our foreign service careers were an adventure into an unknown and at times hostile continent. The following incident is taken from a story I wrote for a trilogy of volumes entitled “From Verwoerd to Mandela: South African Diplomats remember” which was published in 2010.

In 1984, I opened South Africa’s first diplomatic mission in Swaziland – now Eswatini. The Mbabane mission was South Africa’s first formal representation in Africa since the establishment of the South African embassy in Lilongwe, Malawi, in 1966. 

Our relations with Swaziland developed smoothly. In April 1986, PW Botha was received with great warmth by the Swaziland government when he attended the coronation of King Mswati 111. However, this was a period of instability in southern Africa, caused largely by cross border raids conducted by the South African Defence Force which largely hampered our efforts to expand our relations with our African neighbours. Fortunately, Swaziland appeared to be immune from these attacks, or so I thought.

Early on the morning of 12 December 1986, the telephone at my residence in Mbabane rang. It was a call from Pretoria. I was instructed to meet the commissioner of the South African police, General Johann Coetzee at Matsapha Airport, who had something to tell me. When I got to the airport, I found the Swazi police commissioner, Sandile Dlamini, there as well. Something was terribly wrong.

When Coetzee arrived, he came bluntly to the point. The SADF had raided Mbabane, Manzini and Matsapha during the night in an action aimed at snuffing out ANC cadres in Swaziland. They had succeeded in catching two ANC members, killing one. They had seized an innocent man and gunned down his son. They had abducted two Swiss citizens whom they suspected of working with the ANC and taken them back to South Africa for interrogation.

I was appalled. The South African defence authorities had repeatedly assured Swaziland that they would not be attacked because of the special relationship that existed between South Africa and Swaziland. The raid was a clumsy, ham fisted operation that had resulted in the capture of two minor ANC operatives, the death of an innocent child and the abduction of two Swiss citizens that had ramifications beyond the African continent and triggered an angry response from Switzerland.

I spent a tense Saturday morning on the phone to Pik Botha, the South African foreign minister. At midday, he told me to see the Swazi Prime Minister although he conceded that this would not be easy under the circumstances. On weekends most Swazi officials left Mbabane for their rural homesteads. In those days there was no social media and cell phones were unheard of. “Do you know where the Prime Minister’s homestead is?” Pik asked. I said it was at Gege in south western Swaziland, near the South African border, but precisely where I had no idea. It could be any one of the little villages scattered over the kingdom’s hills. “Find out where it is and go and see him” said the minister, adding ominously “I’m relying on you.”

Great, I thought, just hop into a car, drive to the Prime Minister’s homestead somewhere in the Swazi hills without an appointment and have a cosy chat with him about the perfidy of the SA Defence Force. Furthermore, my knowledge of what had happened and why it had happened was sketchy to put it mildly.

I managed to get a radio message to the prime minister’s police detail and much to my surprise was told that he would see me. My wife said she would come with me which I thought was a good idea: perhaps a female presence would divert some of the prime minister’s ire.

We were escorted by a detachment of police to the prime minister’s residence, a modest mud walled homestead in the gentle rural landscape. An imposing figure, dressed traditionally, the prime minister, Sotja Dlamini, invited us to sit outside his hut and offered my wife tea and produced a bottle of whisky for himself and me. He was deeply distressed because there was no reason for South Africa to attack Swaziland. The little country was criticised by other African nations, notably Nigeria, for its close ties with South Africa. At a safe distance from South African retaliatory action, the Nigerians could now tell the Swazis, with some satisfaction, see what your friendship with South Africa has got you!         

I had no brief, so I had a clean canvas on which to work. Emboldened by a large tumbler of whisky, I glanced around quickly as if checking for eavesdroppers and then leaned forward, fixing the prime minister with what I hoped was a gaze full of resolve and emotion. “Honourable Prime Minister” I said, “my minister has requested me to convey to you his deepest regret at the unacceptable actions of the South African Defence Force.” (The minister had said nothing of the sort). I continued “My minister, as a committed democrat is convinced that the only way forward is to speak openly and honestly. Violence is anathema to him. He has only the greatest admiration for His Majesty the King and of course yourself for your wise leadership in guiding Swaziland on the path of peace.” And so on, ad nauseam.

Another whisky and I was in full flight. I recall my wife’s sharp inhalation of breath when I emphasised Pik Botha’s commitment to the establishment of a non-racial democracy in South Africa. “To attain that goal we have much to learn from a country like Swaziland.”

The prime minister looked rather alarmed when I finally ran out of steam. I would have too had I been able to listen to a recording of my impromptu address. However I was under duress. I could be declared persona non grata; I could be made the scapegoat for this mess; I had to extricate myself from this quagmire as effectively as possible.

The prime minister said, “Thank you, but we have another problem. We will probably have to make a statement at the United Nations and the sooner the better. We can’t delay beyond Monday.”

I had nothing to lose now and a shaft of inspiration struck me. “I have a suggestion, I said. “Let me draft a statement for you over the weekend. I know all the facts.” (not entirely true). “We can discuss the draft on Monday when your minister of foreign affairs is back in town. If you are happy, the statement could be ready for transmission to New York at midday our time and be at the office of the Swazi representative at the United Nations when it opens.”

Another whisky. The prime minister looked confused. “You are suggesting that you draft a statement for my government condemning your own government’s actions? Isn’t that rather irregular?”

“Yes” I replied, answering both his questions at once, and added before he could object, “no one needs to know about it. You will have to issue a statement, probably in New York, but most certainly to the press here, condemning South Africa’s actions whether you like it or not. All I’m saying is that I am prepared to help.”

The prime minister gazed out over the pleasant rural landscape, softened by the late afternoon sun. Then he said, “Fine I agree. If you are going to draft a statement you had better get going. I will see you on Monday morning.”

Back at my Mbabane residence, I called Pik Botha. I told him I had seen the prime minister who would be working on a statement over the weekend which would probably be sent to the Swazi mission at the United Nations and handed to the local press. I said I would do my best to limit the damage and added that the prime minister had agreed to let me see the statement on Monday morning before it was made public. Pik Botha appeared somewhat mollified by this news and added the by now depressing mantra, “I am relying on you.”

I went to my study, released the catch on a bottle of Black and White whisky and sat down at my electric typewriter. Muttering “bastards” I launched into a tirade against the SA Defence Force. It was not difficult. As the typewriter clacked away, my whisky-enflamed anger increased to gothic proportions. Finally the statement and most of the whisky were finished. I read my handiwork and smiled: “brazen”, “cowardly”. “rabid warmongers”, “racist imperialists” “cynical manipulators” and “feasting on maggot-riddled carrion” leapt out of the text as though highlighted.

The following day I typed a second statement. Where the first was full of thundering passages of condemnation that would have done a wild-eyed Southern Baptist preacher proud, the second was, at best, a heart wrenching whinge. “Swaziland wishes to live in peace”, “Swaziland regrets the acts of violence” and so on. By the end of the statement it was not clear whether Swaziland was condemning the South African government or the ANC for the raid.

As arranged, I arrived at the prime minister’s office at 8 o’clock on Monday morning. He was accompanied by his minister of foreign affairs, Senator Sibanyoni and other officials. I handed my first draft to the prime minister. As he read it, his eyes widened and he shook his head. “Eish” he muttered, handing it to the foreign minister. The foreign minister shook his head. “No, no” he said “this is too strong.”

I assumed a hurt tone. “Don’t you like it?” I asked. The prime minister said, “It is good, but the tone is too strong. For example we cannot refer to your state president as “a foul-tempered ageing lion facing his inevitable demise. That is not polite.” Then he offered me the opportunity I was looking for. “Can’t you redraft it. But hurry, the press is clamouring for a reaction from me.”

“Give me an hour” I said, “I am sure I can give you something we can both live with.”            

“Just get a move on” said Sibanyoni, adding “we are relying on you.” How droll I thought, two separate foreign ministers telling me within 48 hours that they were relying on me. The exercise was assuming the intricacies of a comic operetta.

I returned to my office, had a cup of tea, read the raucous denunciations of South Africa in the Times of Swaziland, and returned to the prime minister’s office with the second statement. I held my breath as the prime minister and then the foreign minister read it. I relaxed when I saw Sibanyoni nodding. “Much better” he said. The prime minister added, “Thank you for your efforts, we will send this off immediately.”

I returned to my office and sent the text of both statements by telex to Pretoria. Before transmitting them, I called Pik Botha’s private secretary and told him that he would be receiving the texts of the two statements shortly. I said, “they were hell bent on using the first statement, but I managed to persuade them to water it down a bit, as you will see from the second one. I’m telling you, man, it was bloody tough, I hope I am never put through this again.”

The private secretary was sceptical, “You mean they gave you both statements?” he asked.

I muttered vaguely, “They’re working documents and we agreed on the final text.”

The private secretary replied “You could have consulted us first before agreeing on the final text”      

I was appalled. “This is not a joint statement” I shouted. “You seem to forget that they are very angry with us. I tried my best to minimise the damage. I had a hell of a time. Do you think I enjoy this sort of thing? Do you think that any sane person would choose to do this for a living? Do you think…?"

“OK, OK" he said, “take it easy. I’ll show it to the minister."

An hour later, the phone rang. My secretary said “minister wants to talk to you.”

The conversation was short. “Well done” said Pik. “I knew we could rely on you.”

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