Chapter Five – Laying Down the Law
The rain had poured down non-stop in Washington D.C. for the past day and a half. Human Rights lawyer Pearce Ellison watched as the rain drops collided with his office window on the fourth floor of a plush building in Main Street. Pearce’s problems were bigger than the rain. Six months back, he had been appointed to the board of the legal firm, Stephenson and Partners. The African-American was no fool. He knew that he was being used as a pawn to add some skin colour diversification to the lily-white company board.
Like many such black appointees in South Africa would found out over the years, Pearce’s ideas were always shot down and his input was frowned upon by his more experience white colleagues. No man, what does a black know about law? He should rather listen to the wise whites and learn from them.
Having just celebrated his 30th birthday, Pearce was beginning to wonder if he made the right decision by accepting the position on the company board. Sure, his salary had doubled and he was now driving a Ford Mustang instead of his old Toyota Corolla, but was it all worth it?
Of course he cannot feed himself on principles alone, but the daily downplaying of his skills and knowhow, made it a huge task to motivate him to come to work each day. The first few weeks had been pleasurable, however, that feeling of pleasure had long since drifted away.. Reality had set in.
Pearce needed a big name client that would see his colleagues take him seriously. Even if it meant doing a big celebrity case for free, the publicity would be huge for Pearce and his company.
“Good morning, Pearce,” said Petronella Flusk, as she placed a copy of the Washington Post newspaper on his desk.
This was a part of her daily routine. At least the board had given Pearce a pretty African-American secretary. However, the reasons were always sinister, with the other white board members not keen on having a dark-skinned person as their right-hand woman.
Pearce smiled. It felt like his face was about to crack as his cheek muscles hadn’t gone into smile mode for quite some time.
He looked down at the newspaper and his eyes got stuck on the face of South African President, P.W. Botha. The story was that Nelson Mandela would be released within days if the ANC man renounced violence against the state and was prepared to go live peacefully in one of the Bantustans (black homelands) inside the borders of South Africa.
These homelands had their own so-called black governments, but these leaders were nothing more than puppets towing the line laid down by Botha and his apartheid regime.
Mandela was nobody’s puppet and refused to back down, hence the government’s decision to move him from Robben Island and to try and chip away at his resistance in a more comfortable, civil environment.
What Pearce wouldn’t do to become the human rights lawyer for Nelson Mandela!
Imagine the newspaper headlines – Mandela praises Ellison for his hand in South African freedom
Pearce’s mind drifted back to reality.
“Petronella, please bring me the Mandela file from the library,” he requested to his secretary.
The tall woman nodded.
“You’re thinking of taking on Mandela as a client, aren’t you?” she said.
Having been his secretary since his elevation to board level, Petronella gelled quite nicely with him in terms of thought.
“If only I could,” muttered Pearce.
“Nothing is impossible to the human brain, particularly to a black human brain,” she joked.
Petronella’s words seemed to be the last bit of convincing that Pearce needed.
“Please book an air ticket for me from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, and remember to give me two hours before I take the connecting flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town,” said the lawyer.
“I will sort myself out with accommodation. Bring me the cash withdrawal request and I will sign it off, but don’t tell anyone about my mission.”
“You know me better than that, Pearce,” she said.
Pearce raised his hands apologetically.
“I am sorry, the whiteness of this company is getting to me, but I mustn’t complain, I signed up for the deal,” he remarked.
“Yeah, rather be the change-maker than the quitter,” she said.
“You know what they say, a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” he remarked.
Petronella headed off to sort the travel arrangements for her boss and Pearce returned his focus to the Washington Post newspaper in front of him.
Hell would freeze over first before the South African government allowed a black human rights lawyer to meet with Mandela on Robben Island.
Petronella returned a short while later with a provisional travel itinerary for him.
Pearce wasn’t a big fan of flying and his day wasn’t about to get any better.
“Wow! Twenty three hours in the air from Washington D.C’s Ronald Reagan International Airport to Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg.”
Pearce began to chuckle and said to himself, “America’s Reagan and South Africa’s Smuts – two of the less popular politicians to walk the planet.”
Reagan, of the Republican Party, was President of the USA from 1981 to 1989, while Smuts was the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and again from 1939 to 1948.
Anyway, Pearce had no time to ponder on a history lesson when he was on a mission to make history himself.
He was full aware that he would be watched throughout his visit to South Africa. A foreign black man wanting to get to Robben Island, that could only spell trouble, would be the view of the authorities there.
Petronella departed from office and returned a few minutes later with the Mandela/ANC file from the legal library of the company.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” she asked.
Pearce shrugged his shoulders.
“Let’s try the good news, I do need some,” he replied.
“The bad weather has seen all flights at the Reagan airport suspended until at least the morning,” updated the secretary.
Pearce puffed out his cheeks. If his master strategy was to work he needed to get to Mandela before any other lawyer did.
“What is the good news?” he asked.
“We managed to get you the last available seat on a flight to Johannesburg, for when the plane eventually takes off,” she said.
“Awesome,” replied Pearce.
“Does it come with a stiff drink? I think I am going to need it.”
“Is there anything else that I can bring you?” she asked.
“I will be just fine,” said the lawyer, who then turned his attention to the file in front of him as Petronella left the office and shut the door behind her.
Pearce from pretty clued up on American history and the human rights stories relating to activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr.
The Mandela story fascinated him. Why was the apartheid government so determined to avoid putting this man to death when they executed many other opponents to white minority rule?
His thoughts had hardly worked through his mind when an excited Petronella appeared at his office door.
“Pearce, you got to see the story on CNN cable news network,” she said.
The lawyer rushed to the empty company boardroom where some of the staff was watching a breaking story.
The CNN story consisted mainly of old footage where P.W. Botha indicated his happiness to release Nelson Mandela and his ANC colleagues if they promised to suspend the armed struggle against the country.
A relatively new clip had Botha indicating that his government was engaged in talks with Mandela to speed up his release.
Did this mean that Mandela was selling out the ANC and on the Freedom Charter?
Or were Botha and his white supremists bluffing?
The in-studio television anchor mentioned that political reporter Louise Burrell was in South Africa and would provide daily updates on the South African story.
“It is safer if Mandela is inside the cage,” quipped one white junior staff to another.
“What do you mean?” asked Pearce sternly.
“Oh, nothing, I just feel that South Africans will be able to live peacefully as long as Mandela is kept behind bars,” the young law staffer said.
Pearce’s face tensed up. This was the typical blinkered mindset of a white person be it in South Africa or elsewhere on the globe.
“Do you realise how the black South Africans are being butchered and imprisoned by the apartheid regime in South Africa?” asked Pearce.
“Do you know what the black living conditions are like in a township? How would you like to live in a shack without electricity or running water?”
The young legal man cleared his throat.
“I am sorry, I did not mean it that way, I just figured that the bombings against civilians in the country would stop if the law enforcement agencies were a bit sterner in their approach. I mean the law is the law irrespective of what colour skin you have.”
Pearce wanted to respond but then thought better of it. Knowledge was power, and in fairness, the censorship of the South African press prevents many, like this young law person, from knowing the true story of what was happening in South Africa.
The South African government only allowed the world to see what they wanted it to see.
Pearce moved over to the boardroom window and pushed aside the curtain. Blast! The rain was not letting up. He needed to get to Cape Town and the weather gods were not helping him.
While walking down the passage towards his office, he asked Petronella to check on the weather forecast for the next two days.
“Clear skies in two days’ time,” was the report back that he received from the secretary.
Once back in his office, Pearce began to gather his thoughts. The CNN news clip had convinced him that the South African government had no plan of eliminating Mandela. Clearly, Botha and company felt that if they could change the mind of anyone in the ANC that ‘anyone’ was Mandela.
To make the mission a success, Pearce needed to find a liberal-minded ally in the South African government. Basically he needed someone who was a good person stuck in a bad establishment.
Once Petronella had brought in three thick files containing the history of South African politics, Pearce set to work.
He looked at the current leadership in South Africa. Chris Heunis seemed like a reasonable choice. The Afrikaner lawyer had taken over as the leader of the Cape from P.W. Botha and had been a driving force in creating the tricameral system in Parliament.
This system allowed Coloureds and Indians to have their separate chambers in Parliament, with the people of these skin colours also having a vote at elections. So it was just the blacks (the majority) who were left out in the cold.
Heunis was thought to be a potential successor to PW Botha.
Then there was Barend du Plessis, the Minister of Finance. Pearce did not fancy his chances of forging a relationship here as du Plessis was known to be PW Botha’s blue-eyed boy and a possible future President.
Another character in the mix was the Minister of Education, F.W. de Klerk. The general feeling was that if de Klerk got the No 1 job in South Africa after Botha retired, the situation could take a turn for the worst. Little did anyone know, but it would be de Klerk who would turn out to be the deal-breaker as far as South Africa’s new dawn was concerned.
There were other names too. Roelf Meyer (Deputy Minister of Law and Order) was unknown to Pearce but this politician would also later emerge as a key negotiator when the Nationalists and the ANC sat down to work out a way forward for the New South Africa.
Pearce was unlikely to approach high ranking military men like Constand Viljoen and Georg Meiring, as the Afrikaner male, particular ones with access to weapons, were the least to be trusted by the blacks.
Three hours passed by before the sound of the rain that had been tapping on the office window pain was no more.
Was Pearce’s luck turning? He looked through the window and saw a ray of sunshine in the direction of the White House, where his country’s government was in session.
Ronald Reagan may have had an airport named after him, but he had been in the midst of heavy politics with the Russians, let alone the US’ main opposition party, the Democrats, waiting for him to make a mistake so that he and his Republican Party colleagues could be exposed.
Politics was, and is still a dirty game no matter on which continent or in which country you live.
Pearce grabbed his leather briefcase and the raincoat off the back of his chair and headed out of his office. He picked up his final travel plan from Petronella.
“Where are you off too?” she whispered.
The African-American lawyer smiled
“I am going to camp at the airport,” he said.
“I have to get to Johannesburg soonest, and then down to Cape Town.”
Pearce Ellison was a man on a mission. The stakes were high. He wanted to prove to his white legal colleagues in the company that he was not a token darkie. He was pure merit and worth every dime of his monthly salary. Then there was the Mandela issue. Pearce was embarking on a campaign that would not only change his life forever, but the lives of millions of South Africans too, if he played his cards right.
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