🔒 Denis Worrall: Secrets of the top Apartheid-era diplomat

This is The Rational Perspective. I’m Alec Hogg. In this episode, Denis Worrall shares the secrets of an apartheid-era diplomat. One of the cardinal rules in biographies is not to be put off by the first few chapters. More so, in autobiographies – those books where the life of the story is being written by the subject themselves. It was a good thing I remembered this when tackling South African politician and diplomat Denis Worrall’s autobiography, which he’s called “The Independent Factor”. The first few chapters are dry. They’re a testament to his diplomatic side with 60 years of diaries being chopped to produce a laundry list of people he wanted to be sure weren’t offended by being left out but true to the genre’s form, this biography turns lively around a quarter of the way in. Worrall starts sharing a host of insights that even now, you might have expected would remain unsaid.

Among the more interesting was the optimistic lead-up to and subsequent fallout after Prime Minister PW Botha’s watershed Rubicon speech on the 15th of August 1985. More of that later but in his talk at South Africa House last week, Worrall omitted to share the backstory of how South Africa managed to escape total meltdown after that 1985 moment. In his book, Worrall reminds us that in the wake of Botha’s middle finger to the world; just two weeks after the Rubicon speech, South Africa had closed its Foreign Exchange markets and declared a unilateral moratorium on all of its debt repayments. On the 27th of August, Worrall got a call from Botha’s office instructing him to fetch Reserve Bank Governor Gerhard de Kock from Heathrow and go with the man who looked after South Africa’s Central Bank to Rothschild’s Bank in the city of London.

This fabled, privately owned financial institution which PW Botha apparently believed was able to sort out the mess. Worrall writes that after de Kock had said his piece in the meeting, Rothschild Chairman (Sir Evelyn) called in four young executives and in a couple of hours they’d returned with a debt standstill proposal that was duly accepted; not just by Sir Evelyn Rothschild but also by South Africa itself. That proposal – a schedule of debt repayments that lasted five years – turned the country into a capital exporter, forcing the regime to face the reality that it could no longer afford its dysfunctional approach. It’s an untold story of how it might have been Rothschild and the global banking community which actually brought down apartheid. For his part, Worrall regards himself as a liberal inside a rotten system – the globetrotting academic who was roped in by the politicians to urge the rest of humanity to give South Africa time to change its trajectory.

Given his subsequent actions, which we’ll hear more about later, there’s some credence in that story. Despite revisionary hardliners who maintain that such liberal forces within the old party merely prolonged apartheid’s agony, there’s cause to believe that without them, South Africa may even have ended up like Syria. In that context, it was instructive that Worrall was given the honour of being able to launch his autobiography at South Africa House on Trafalgar Square and to hear South Africa’s incumbent High Commissioner Thembi Tambo, introduce her predecessor in glowing terms.

“What an honour to have you here. When I got your letter, it made me feel the relevance of my story as well because I’ve also come back. I don’t know how much you know about His Excellency, Dr Worrall but he’s lived quite an extraordinary life. There are legacies that he’s left behind in South Africa (as we speak, the Democratic Party is one of them) that will forever speak of his courage, his integrity, and his determination to see things done correctly. For him to have taken this place as where he wanted to launch his remarkable book, it’s a real honour for us and I also think it’s a sign of the unification of South Africa.”

Quite an introduction from the daughter of ANC icon Oliver Tambo, a man after whom Johannesburg international airport has been named. So, let’s meet Worrall himself. Here’s how he describes his career and his life.

I was ambassador from ’84 through to the beginning of ’87. It is a very important part of what was otherwise a very varied life. I’ve been an executive trainee in business. I have been a judge’s clerk. I’ve practised as an advocate. I’ve been a professor of political science on several continents. I’ve been head of an international bank – many different things – and of course, a politician in South Africa and ambassador in London and prior to that, in Australia.

After he resigned to go back to South Africa and into opposition politics, pretty much everyone who’d seen him in action in London described Worrall as a cut above those who’d been there before him. With hindsight, he was the best that the country had in the diplomatic corps at that time. Recognition of support that South Africa enjoyed from the UK’s Iron Lady, its Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

I was here during the Thatcher years. I was in a period when we were opposed as a country, to sanctions and when the world wanted to impose sanctions (full-scale sanctions on South Africa) … The one person in the world…the one political leader in the world who really opposed sanctions strongly was in fact, Margaret Thatcher. I, combined with her… We worked together. As a matter of fact, Charles Pole (now Lord Pole) who was a private secretary, described me (Denis Worrall) as a spy within South African officialdom back home in terms of the advice he gave Margaret. Notwithstanding difficulties from the government, I was able (in Australia) to perform what diplomats should do – promote trade and promote relations between the countries. I was able to do that. I felt a sense of satisfaction. I come to London and it’s a totally different situation. The pressures are enormous. The anti-apartheid movement is the strongest in the world. It was a very difficult situation.

“A very difficult situation”: that’s something of an understatement as we read when you go through Worrall’s book, but he worked out a plan and played to the country’s limited strengths like a poker master making the most of what he can.

I don’t want to go into all the crises that I experienced but my experience in London was solving crises caused by the South African government. The fact is that the South African government and particularly its leader at the time (PW Botha), had no sense of the importance of international relations to the country, no realisation of the particular importance of Maggie Thatcher and the Brits, to South Africa at that time. Of course, British business was deeply engaged in South Africa. I can illustrate it in a little way. Shortly after I came here, I was told that Dennis Thatcher one day, came down the stairs in their apartment and he saw a suitcase standing at the door. He said, “Who does that belong to?” and somebody mentioned a name. “Where’s he going to?” “South Africa.” “Lucky bugger.” Anyway, the fact is the general view…


The best bit of advice I got was from a previous ambassador, Carl de Wet who had two terms here and he was very successful as an ambassador. I went to him and asked his advice and he said, “Look, you concentrate on the city. Leave the politicians to your Number 2 because all they really want is a free trip to South Africa. You concentrate on business.” I took that advice seriously. Every lunch (as my wife will confirm) was in the city. I addressed all the associations in the city that I could and the result was that I developed a relationship that did vie with the anti-apartheid organisation and did – very much – support Margaret Thatcher’s approach to the country.


Stressful as that first year in office might have been, it was a cakewalk compared with what came after August 1985.

The expectations which were created, was so enormous that he was going to cross the Rubicon…by implication, release Mandela and a lot of other things and in effect, he fell into the Rubicon. It was as simple as that. The strain on us was quite enormous with a whole lot of crises. I want to focus however, on one, to give you an idea of the kind of difficulties that my staff and I experienced and this related to The Eminent Persons Group…the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, which Maggie knew was going to be difficult. She organised a seminar before the conference and they worked out various strategies – all the top people in government. The one thing they included, which was kept undercover, was a group could be sent to South Africa from their Commonwealth to try and promote better relations between the Commonwealth and South Africa.

That was to be called The Eminent Persons Group. The conference had one subject/one topic and that was ‘sanctions and South Africa’ and it was a very difficult conference for Maggie. At its conclusion, she produced the Eminent Persons Group to save the whole effort and in fact, for it to not be a total disaster from a British point of view and they accepted it. The ANC was very unhappy because they had wanted sanctions to come out of this conference but the fact is that they accepted the Eminent Persons Group and this was brought together in due course. They met in London and I knew that the South African embassy here would play an extremely important role in advising them what they could expect etc. When the Eminent Persons Group of about six top leaders arrived in London, they met at Sonny Ramphal’s Commonwealth Office.

They planned their strategy and they invited me to give a point of view. At that time, Carl von Hirschberg who was a top diplomat in Pretoria, was sent across to manage this with me and Carl von Hirschberg is a very remarkable South African ambassador. I would have thought that the meeting justified Pik Botha (the Foreign Minister) coming but anyway, I was delighted to have Carl join me. When I met with him, I said to him, “Carl, what’s the story? What’s our line? What position are we to adopt?” and he said, “Denis, I tried to get hold of the Foreign Minister. I only got to speak to him at the top of the stairs when he was on his way to the loo.” That’s as much guidance as we got from Pretoria on this critical issue. So, we met with the EPG and it was quite extraordinary because we both made little speeches that expressed the right sentiment, etc.

The two co-leaders of the EPG were sitting in the front row. One was Malcolm Fraser and the other was Obasanjo (the Nigerian General). I thought he was asleep because his cap was over his forehead but suddenly, Obasanjo said, “Ambassador, you were at the University of Ibadan and you were Nigeria’s 1-mile champion.” Everybody was absolutely bloody amazed. I just said, “General, yes. I spent a very happy year teaching and studying at the University of Ibadan but I was not Nigeria’s 1-mile champion. I was Nigerian University’s mile champion.” I might have added that I ran for Nigerian university’s against Ghana but to no credit of Nigeria because all I saw was this chap’s heels. He was in fact, Ghana’s Olympic champion. That created quite an image around me. Clearly, this was not a normal South African and we had a very good relationship.

Shortly after that meeting, Sonny Ramphal had a lunch for the EPG Group and he invited Anita and I. Anita had a very good chance to talk to Obasanjo. The fact is that we were very hopeful. The EPG then went to South Africa. I accompanied them on both trips and was in South Africa for the period that they were there. The second (and last) meeting was quite extraordinary because Pik Botha addressed us on a Friday afternoon. It was not a normal meeting. It was not a formal meeting. In fact, we had snacks and we were lounging around. It was extraordinary. Pik spoke and told us that he was totally convinced that on Monday when we met with the government, we would have a deal. By that, he meant a deal that would satisfy the ANC as well. It was quite extraordinary. It was so totally overconfident/full of confidence.

That Friday night, two of the leaders of the group went off to Lusaka to in fact, inform the ANC just what had happened and the rest of us thought ‘well, it’s going to be great on Monday’. That Sunday night, the SADF bombed three ANC facilities in three countries and that was it. We met and my arch opponent Chris Heunis whom I was to oppose in an election later, made a short speech in which he said, “We can’t continue like this. It’s too much like foreign interference in South Africa’s Internal Affairs” and that was it. Obviously, the EPG members were very unhappy about this. They said there would be consequences and there were going to be consequences. That night, I flew back to London on the same flight as the British representative and Malcolm Fraser. I could see in that discussion, that Malcolm Fraser was not going to give up.

He said, “We will continue with this and I have no doubt that with big international meetings to follow, that the pressure on Britain and on Thatcher in particular – even within her own cabinet – would be enormous” but it was a decision taken by the South African government and it left us in the embassy… You can imagine how disappointed we were. There were so many instances of that sort that left us without any real response. We tried to explain things but in fact, it didn’t work and so – increasingly – I began to ask myself, “Really, what am I doing here?” I was into resignation mode.

Well, it wasn’t long afterwards that Worrall did the unthinkable by not only resigning, but returning to South Africa to take on his former bosses by standing for election against PW Botha’s right-hand man Chris Heunis in the unwinnable Helderberg constituency. Unwinnable it remained, but Worrall lost by just 20 votes out of 18,000. He was publicly supported in that election by business leader Johann Rupert, sportsman Gary Player and a bunch of other high-profile personalities but mostly, he cast the dye for a massive change in the attitude of white South Africans who, en masse, started believing that reform was now urgently required and could actually happen. I won’t spoil anymore of Worrall’s book. It’s well worth the R120 that I paid for the Kindle edition so go and unlock some more of those untold secrets for yourself but remember, persevere past the early chapters. This has been The Rational Perspective. I’m Alec Hogg. Until the next time, cheerio.