The Presidential Years

The conflict between Indonesia and East Timor, struggling for independence, was a case in point. When Mandela accepted a substantial financial contribution for the ANC from Indonesia in 1990, it precipitated an outcry within the ANC about accepting support from dictators. Subsequently, with the recurrence of this criticism after 1994, Mandela’s office released a statement putting the issue in context.

The President's Office has noted that speculation continues in the media regarding South Africa's foreign relations and how these are impacted upon by financial assistance that may have been received by the ANC.

In particular, reference has been made to the President's and the government's approach to the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, Morocco and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, the situation in Nigeria, as well as Indonesia and East Timor.

The President wishes to reiterate that South Africa's foreign policy is based on the government's assessment of our country's interests and our principled stance on issues of human rights, democracy, development and equitable relations among all states. The process of setting up formal relations with any country is undertaken within the context of these considerations, and in consultation with all interested parties.

In his capacity as leader of the ANC, President Mandela has indeed raised funds to ensure that this organisation discharges its functions, a process which has made it possible for South Africa to undergo the transition that we have achieved. Such funds, and other forms of support, have been acquired from virtually all countries that the President has visited or interacted with - including the countries which are alleged in media reports to have been disadvantaged in comparison with others on account of some pecuniary considerations.

We hope that the media will handle these matters with circumspection, and ensure, at least, that clarification is sought with relevant government structures, before such serious allegations are made.716

Rather than abstain from further relations, Mandela made it a mission to help resolve the conflict over East Timor, which was seeking independence from Indonesia. Xanana Gusmao, a leader of the movement for independence of East Timor, was imprisoned for life in 1993. Soon after becoming president of South Africa, Mandela paid another private visit to Indonesia and raised the matter of East Timor and Gusmao’s imprisonment.

Then on a state visit to Indonesia in 1997, although he told the media that, ‘We are not going to take advantage of our friendship with Indonesia to prescribe what they should do,’ drawing criticism for not raising the issue of East Timor, he in fact asked to see Gusmao who was brought from prison to the guest house where Mandela was staying. Gusmao was not keen to negotiate and the Indonesian government was adamantly opposed to independence of East Timor. But both agreed to pursue the matter to find a solution.717

Mandela took the issue further through correspondence and direct interactions with Suharto and a wide range of people, some of whom he invited to meetings in South Africa, amongst them leaders of the independence movement and President Suharto.

In the flurry of these exchanges there was an awkward incident. A letter from Mandela to Suharto was mistakenly delivered to the embassy of Portugal (Portugal as the former colonizer of East Timor was a party to the UN led negotiations). The letter conveyed Mandela’s view that Gusmao ‘could be pivotal in the search for peace and I would recommend, with all humility, that you should consider releasing him without conditions.’ The Portuguese ambassador did not return the letter and Suharto only learned of it when it was leaked to the media. Mandela insisted that the ambassador be given 48 hours’ notice to leave the country.718 He was, he said in a letter to Suharto,

concerned that what transpired might not have been a mere innocent mishap and could have had the calculated intention of causing division between Indonesia and South Africa, thereby undermining and derailing an initiative ... which might in due course lead to a breakthrough in regard to the East Timor issue.719

The United Nations Special Envoy for East Timor, commended the initiative: ‘The political impetus that has been given to this process now is extremely important and it is something that we in the United Nations intend to develop and to maintain the momentum that has taken place so far.’ For his part Mandela emphasised that he was mediating under the direction of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan:

This is an initiative of the United Nations and it is our duty to help the Secretary General in his difficult task of promoting peace throughout the world. And it is in that spirit that I undertook this initiative, and I am strictly under his instructions.720

In his pronouncements after meeting Bishop Belo, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace and one of the most prominent leaders in East Timor, Mandela again deferred to the UN.

I invited [Bishop Belo] to come to South Africa so that I can brief him on the efforts that I’m making to assist the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan in his efforts to bring about peace in East Timor.

As you know I went to Indonesia recently and I had a discussion with President Suharto of Indonesia on the situation in East Timor and the basis of my representation to President Suharto was that autonomy should be given to the people of East Timor and he also allowed me to go and see one of the leaders of the people of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, and I was able to see him and to discuss with him.

I also, when I came back to the country, invited his co-partner in getting the Nobel Peace, that is Ramos Horta, and briefed him as I have briefed the Bishop now. Also, the President of Portugal asked if he could come and see me, which I agreed to and I also briefed him. And it is in that capacity and in that spirit that I am briefing Bishop Belo. …

… a solution in East Timor is not something that can be achieved by people outside East Timor. The leaders of East Timor and the Indonesian government are the people who are going to solve this matter.721

There followed a further meeting with President Suharto in Cape Town, during a state visit by the Indonesian President. Mandela sent the minister of foreign affairs, Alfred Nzo, and Jakes Gerwel to take up the conversation with the two parties, visiting Gusmao in prison and engaging with the government.

The Indonesian government rejected the proposal for independence, proposing autonomy within Indonesia, but did not rule out releasing Gusmao, provided it was part of a settlement being sought through a United Nations sponsored process involving Portugal and Indonesia.722

Although Gusmao was not released until late 1999, after being moved from prison to house arrest after Suharto resigned, he was regularly visited by United Nations Representatives and others. A UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999 rejected the Indonesian proposal for autonomy and initiated a transition to independence.