Brian Gilbertson, the angular, youthful-looking chief executive of the mining giant Gencor, was an unusual business titan in South Africa in the 1990s. More in desperation than expectation, I had visited him around September 1995, to request funding for my party’s very threadbare municipal election campaign. At the time, other than the Oppenheimer family, most of Johannesburg’s commercial community met such entreaties with big smiles and very small, if any, cheques. Gilbertson, however, completely understood the need for robust opposition and promptly wrote a cheque for R250 000. He also requested my presence at the imminent opening of his company’s corporate headquarters.
So rewarded, I duly presented myself on a balmy Friday evening in downtown Johannesburg at the rather splendidly reconfigured Gencor building. We were gathered, the leaders of South African corporate and political leadership, in a marquee set up outside.
I was not surprised by the presence of President Mandela, there to provide the keynote speech. After all, he set great store by obtaining the buy-in of business leaders, both to fund his cause and to keep faith with the course of the new South Africa. I had witnessed this just over a year before, in June 1994, at the banquet he hosted for François Mitterrand. I, along with other guests, had been somewhat startled, then, when he hastily departed the dinner after the first course. It later transpired that his finance minister (and Gilbertson’s predecessor at Gencor), Derek Keys, was about to quit his post; Mandela needed to leave the dinner to telephone such business luminaries as Harry Oppenheimer, Donald Gordon and Marinus Daling to apprise them of this before it was announced, and to receive their blessing for his designated successor, Chris Liebenberg, the former head of Nedbank. Reassuring the markets and their leaders was a key presidential priority.
Equally unsurprising was the presence at the Gencor bash that evening of FW de Klerk. Gencor, after all, was the latest corporate iteration of General Mining, which, with some assistance from Anglo’s Harry Oppenheimer, had in the mid-1960s become the first Afrikaner-controlled mining corporation in the country, nearly eighty years after gold had first been discovered on the Witwatersrand back in 1886. De Klerk was the inheritor of a patient political tradition that, in matters economic at least, set considerable store by the empowerment of die volk (the people, or Afrikaners).
But what followed was completely unexpected for the several hundred guests, me included, arrayed before the podium. Having commenced a prepared speech of suitable and forgettable politeness, Mandela took off his reading glasses midway through his courtesies and went vehemently off script. In altogether more memorable fashion, he launched a root-and-branch attack on the National Party, blaming it directly for the crime wave then engulfing the suburbs and townships of South Africa, and which had been a central theme of the recent local government elections in Johannesburg. His angry tone was reflected in his eyes, which seemed to focus directly on De Klerk, then serving alongside Mandela in the Government of National Unity (GNU). As the former president later wrote in his autobiography: ‘He worded [the attack] in such a manner that it was clear that he had targeted me personally as leader of the party.’
This somewhat dampened the bonhomie of the night, but we all duly retreated into the building for the banquet – all except Mandela, who had indicated he would have to leave before the meal began. It was only the next morning, when The Star newspaper splashed candid pictures across its pages, that South Africa learnt that Mandela’s dressing-down of De Klerk had continued outside on the pavement. The photographs showed the two joint Nobel Prize winners wagging fingers at each other – with an anxious-looking Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs, Pik Botha, trying to intercede. This was a further reminder to the country that the relationship at the summit of political power was neither peaceful nor happy. In fact, De Klerk and the National Party’s presence in government would end, by their own hand, less than a year after the showdown that evening.