Book Review: Beyond Diplomacy by Riaan Eksteen

Moments that Made the Difference: The Autobiography of Riaan Eksteen

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Beyond Diplomacy Riaan Eksteen

From 1964 to 2022

Fifty-eight years span the continuing  professional career of Riaan ‘Koedoe’ Eksteen – from Hendrik Verwoerd to Nelson Mandela and beyond.

The best of those moments come as a professional diplomat, representing his country in Washington DC, the United Nations in New York and the United Nations in Geneva

He writes: ‘For twenty of those years, I closely dealt with the Namibian question. In all that time, it was South Africa’s main international concern and the focus of its foreign policy. I was present at the cutting edge of that policy. It was beneficial that this burden of many decades was relieved at about the same time as South Africa moved out from under the cloud of apartheid that perpetually soured international discourse. In all my years as a diplomat I was determined not to act or be seen as an apologist for the government. It was most important to behave as a reliable interlocutor and to always remain credible.

‘My return to the diplomatic fold, in the form of twenty months as South Africa’s first ambassador to an independent Namibia, was fortuitous. The posting to the United Nations and its Specialised Agencies in Geneva was at the request of Mr Mandela in 1991 to focus on the socio-economic benefits South Africa could derive from them.’

The worst of those moments coincided with the period when P W Botha was State President.

The politics of John Vorster was the politics of détente in Africa, the politics of P W Botha was the development of South African’s military might and the subjugation of communism in Africa by cementing ties with Jonas Savimbi and developing a nuclear capability.

Given the invaluable role Eksteen had played in serving the government’s needs on the international stage, it was not surprising that Pik Botha would seek to recruit him as a parliamentarian in the service of the National Party. The offer to represent a constituency firmly under NP control was declined – but internal NP politics was, nevertheless, to determine his professional destiny thereafter.

What P W Botha wanted was a financially-viable SABC that was totally subservient to the dictates of the National Party.

Eksteen, it was felt within the NP, had the managerial ability and he hesitantly accepted the responsibility

In the process, Eksteen suffered the most miserable five years of his professional career with P W Botha deluding himself that he possessed the authority to dismiss Eksteen when and where he saw fit in the most humiliating manner possible.

Eksteen kept the promise made to his mentor, Prof Wynand Mouton, vice-chancellor of the Free State University and chairman of the SABC Board, that he would lead the public broadcaster, despite Brand Fourie’s strong efforts to dissuade him to remain as heir-apparent at Foreign Affairs.

As changes in the world of broadcasting were clearly accelerating, Eksteen came to occupy the hot seat of a complex, influential and very large organization. Much like Ton Vosloo – who wrote the foreword to this book – did when he made the move from being an editor to leading a large publishing and news organization, Eksteen sought help and advice from the most-accomplished professionals he could find. Through dedicated task teams he drilled down into the inner workings of television, radio, signal distribution and business and their operating models.

Some of his changes were unpopular and some well-known broadcasters were taken to task for a commercial clash of interests.

Eksteen and Mouton enjoyed a relationship of trust. The chairman guided his chief executive and offered advice and a sounding board, but ultimately left the running and turnaround of the organization to Eksteen. He had Eksteen’s back, but Eksteen, in turn, respected the governance of the board and Mouton’s integrity.

When Eksteen’s counterpart at the BBC offered help, he was warned him that clashes with government would come and that they would be unpleasant.  Those were prophetic words. The Botha government wanted the SABC to emphasise what Botha, his Cabinet and the State Security Council thought would best serve their “Total Onslaught” strategy. Professional broadcasters and news journalists knew that many of these crude and naive directives would harm the SABC’s credibility and, inevitably, its important educational and entertainment role in South Africa.

Eksteen also describes the contemporary arrogance of some members of Military Intelligence and security establishment, riding the crest of a militarily-driven government and basking in Botha’s kragdadigheid, who thought the Department of Foreign Affairs had to keep its nose out of government policy.

Eksteen also describes how Alwyn Schlebusch, minister in the Presidency, initially supported him (Eksteen) in resisting a pay-out to Bloemfontein film maker Boet Troskie who had made a propaganda film lauding the role that Joanas Savimbi was playing in Angola. Schlebusch, however,  later capitulated under pressure from Botha and ordered Eksteen to pay the money

Matters came to a head at the beginning of 1987 when the Rev. Allan Hendrickse, a cabinet member and leader of the Labour Party, swam on a whites-only Port Elizabeth beach. What upset P W Botha most was that the SABC had reported that Hendrickse had resigned whereas Botha insisted that he had fired Hedrickse.

After this broadcast and during a reception by the board of the SABC in Cape Town, PW Botha “fired” Eksteen, seemingly unaware that  this did not fall within his purview.

The writing was on the wall. Eksteen was even told by cabinet minister Adriaan Vlok that his problem was that he did not carry out the instructions of PW Botha. Despite the fact that Botha had finally realised that, in terms of the Broadcasting Act, only the SABC board could fire Eksteen, the board under Brand Fourie, Eksteen’s previous boss at Foreign Affairs, now became Eksteen’s persecutor and nemesis. This included appointing two consultants who advised Eksteen to ‘move on’ despite the absence of any evidence justifying his resignation.
Any hope of the consultants and some of the board members nailing Eksteen with allegations of financial mismanagement soon faded.  After his departure, financial analysts studied the SABC’s figures and pronounced that Eksteen had taken the SABC from the red into the black.

During this turbulent period, subscription TV in the form of MNet presented itself as the financial savior of the print media.  Eksteen and Ton Vosloo, still friends today, crafted a mutually-beneficial deal for both the SABC and Vosloo’s print consortium. Brand Fourie wielding his power as chairman of the SABC board, turned it down flatly. The SABC lost out big time. MNet flourished.

Eksteen is able to use Hansard to prove that Botha and some cabinet members lied to Parliament about the SABC controversy.

In 1998 Eksteen parted ways with the SABC in his own terms and for the next two years he started to lay the foundations of a career in international consultancy.

When he was ousted by the SABC board at the behest of PW Botha he became a successful international business consultant. Dealing with major multi-national projects, his diplomatic acumen stood him in good stead.

But, once again, his country beckoned. Nelson Mandela saw him as the ideal point man as his eyes and ears in Namibia and Geneva, both crucial to South Africa’s interests.

It is clear from the content of the book that Eksteen was a hard-working, committed professional diplomat who enjoyed the trust of his superiors. The book contains dates, names, places and specific detail that could only be sourced from meticulous notes and other records, not from memory or subjective interpretation. It is this reliance on fact-based narrative that gives the book credibility.

His forte was networking and he enjoyed the trust of many of the names that dominated the headlines, particularly during the Reagan era – people like Henry Kissinger, Kurt Waldhiem, Chester Crocker, Don McHenry and others

Eksteen has made available a great deal of the research for this book, edited for readability, in the archives of the University of Leijden in the Netherlands.

Eksteen does not generalize, label or preach, but his narrative shows how much any government needs professional civil and public enterprise servants loyal to the constitution instead of those who rate party above country.

It was on his watch as a diplomat that the National Party bought about a transition to universal suffrage in South Africa, ceding political power at a time when it still retained military power. Laudably, it also relinquished its nuclear capabilities, thus becoming a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Today, Eksteen lives in Swakopmund, having helped to bring about a political dispensation on a principle he argued strongly for – namely that Swapo could not be recognised as the only true representative of the people of Namibia.

The fact that, ultimately, he received the imprimatur of Nelson Mandela sums up the professional life of Riaan Eksteen.

At Mandela’s behest, he resumed his ambassadorial career between 1995 and 1997 with Middle East postings to Ankara, Ashgabat, Baku, Bishkek and Tashkent.

Since then he has worked in South Africa and Namibia as an international consultant and business facilitator.

In 2017 he was awarded his doctorate in Political Science by the University of Johannesburg for his thesis ‘The Role of the High Courts of the United States of America, South Africa and the European Union in Foreign Affairs.’

This thesis and ‘Beyond Diplomacy’ will benefit a new generation of political scholars both in South Africa and abroad who seek valid insights into some of the most dramatic events in our modern political history.

What Eksteen has bequeathed to posterity is an historical record of great value. Not only did he preserve his correspondence with foreign governments but, at his suggestion, he collaborated with Pik Botha in producing briefing notes for his departmental colleagues about the diplomatic initiatives in which South Africa was involved. These appeared under the ‘Geagte kollega’ – ‘Dear colleague’ headline.  They comprise an unrivalled ‘from the inside’ chronology of a transition from ‘skunk of the world’ status to the triumphant 1994 election which thoroughly deserved the accolades it received at the time.

Beyond Diplomacy is available from Protea Publishers and costs R495.

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