Kobie Coetsee - Meets Mandela

Kobie Coetsee - Meets Mandela Education Biographies Government History Social Studies Tragedies and Triumphs

Kobie Coetsee, in charge of South Africa's prisons in the mid-80s, began a dialogue with Mandela which eventually freed the prisoner from his life sentence.  

Coetsee, who died in 2000 at the age of 69, talked extensively with John Carlin.  Excerpts, from that interview, are contained in Carlin's book (Playing the Enemy) and online, courtesy FRONTLINE.

Kobie Coetsee had been meeting with Mandela for a period of years before the country's president, P.W. Botha, met with Mandela on the 5th of July, 1989.  How had the first meeting originated?

Before you met Mr. Mandela, you had a chance meeting on a plane with Mrs. Mandela ...

Well, I know there are different versions. I'll try and recapture the moment ... I was working with material from my briefcase, and all of a sudden I became aware of the presence of this very interesting and imposing woman. I recognized her immediately. There she was standing and she didn't speak a word. She just indicated with her head that I must move the briefcase, she wanted to sit next to me. I did so and she sat next to me for the remainder of the flight.

Can you talk about it?

Mrs. Mandela was then very much in the center of making the country ungovernable ... and she was justifying her involvement in encouraging the youth under the slogan, "Liberation before education," to take part in the struggle ... She also spoke about things in general ...

We had a discussion on Mr. Mandela ... "You must see Mr. Mandela and you must do something about it." I think there was also a deliberate strategy on her part, which she developed probably when she saw me the first time, because this conversation was not prearranged as some people tried to tell posterity. Towards the end she said she is going down to see him, and she could have mentioned to me that she thinks I should also see him, which was already then in my mind. It was arranged that I would look at the possibility. I would not say that she did not have an effect on the promptness with which it was done ...

When Coetsee first met Mandela, he was greatly surprised at the prisoner's character:

I studied Latin, Roman culture, Roman literature and now for the first time I've met a man whose qualities have explained to me what the Romans meant with onestas, gravitas dignitas.

Then it was finally time for Mandela to meet with Botha.  Everyone had trepidations about that event:

The meeting with P.W. Botha. This was the first opportunity to have your boss meet your, you might say he was your protégé and you must have been very concerned that the meeting should pass off without any sort of combustible impact. Tell me how you prepared both sides ...

I developed a formula ... that would focus on the future rather than on the past. And if it works in the future, the past would be neutralized. So the formula that we devised was one of reconciliation and future development. Future development in the broader sense, which could get economic development, it could also and definitely could not exclude constitutional development. You can't imagine reconciliation and development with an armed struggle still above your head.

What was the relationship between the president and the prisoner?  Surprisingly, given their great differences, they had a very good chemistry:

Were there moments of tension at that meeting?

No.  No, there were no moments of tension, but there were definitely moments of great sincerity and both parties very serious on their position.

Did you see a chemistry between them?


Can you describe the encounter?

Yes. Almost relief, as they approached each other to say, "How are you?" "How are you?" There was almost relief on both sides. I always have a vivid picture of that--of the relief between the two men. That this has happened. For both it was a great occasion, no matter what differences there were ... I have no doubt about it ... there was a kind of chemistry between them which could emerge only between people who really wanted to meet and who respected each other. That was my impression.

After the initial meeting, at Robben Island, many of Coetsee's encounters with Mandela were at Pollsmoor prison (a maximum-security facility near Cape Town where Mandela was incarcerated between 1982 and 1988).  Their discussions accomplished more than either man could have initially envisioned.

At the end of the day, the two men liked each other.  As a result, they were able to accomplish much.  Mandela, among other things, called Coetsee "a reformer ahead of his time."

Media Credits

Photo of Kobie Coetsee, online courtesy South Africa History.org

Quoted passages from Carlin-Koetsee interview, online courtesy FRONTLINE and PBS.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Kobie Coetsee - Meets Mandela" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 29, 2020.
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Show tooltips