Chapter Thirty-Three – Pearce Hits the big time
We’re leaving together, but still it’s farewell… Pearce Ellison had the 1987 smash hit ‘The Final Countdown’ by the band, Europe, stuck in his head.
And still we stand tall. Cause maybe they seen us, and welcome us all…
To Pearce, the time was ticking by at a slow rate yet his wristwatch seemed to be in overdrive as the hours passed by at great speed. It was like he was caught up in a time warp.
He climbed out of a taxi at the gates of Pollsmoor Prison, in Steenberg Road, Tokai. He was set for the meeting of all meetings. His gut feel told him that he was on the brink of a major breakthrough in his quest to access Nelson Mandela.
Pearce needed to find an open-minded Correctional Services official, but that was as rare as finding a needle in a haystack.
As soon as he twanged his American accent, the Correctional Services official at the main gate knew exactly who he was.
“Ah, you must be Mr Ellison, here to see Acting Commissioner Mark van Pletzen?” said the guard, with his nametag on his left breast shining in the sunlight.
“Yeah, thank you,” replied Pearce.
The guard got on to his portable radio to inform his colleagues in the administration centre that the Acting -Commissioner’s guest had arrived.
“Kantoor kom in, daai swart Amerikaner man is hier om die Waarnemende Kommasaris te sien (Officer come in, that black American man is here to see the Acting Commissioner),” said the guard.
Another guard pulled up at the gate in a whit car and Pierce was advise to climb into the back seat.
“Today is the Acting Commissioner’s day off but he made a special effort to come in to meet with you,” said the guard, in mis late twenties, with a strong Afrikaans accent.
Pearce smiled. He excepted this as a compliment. Not many apartheid service employees would make a special effort to meet with a foreigner, let alone an African-American one.
The Human Rights lawyer was ushered from the car down a typically government style corridor. The walls were white and gave off a feeling of boredom. The kind of place where one works for their salary. You know, the 9am to 5pm shift day in and day out without any sense of creativity. One does this for thirty years and then retires on a nice fat government pension.
Pearce could never run his life that way. He was a man who was up for an adventure as regularly as the sun rose each day. He was not the type of person who would be a number on a monthly paysheet. That is why he would never have made it in working at a bank. He needed to be his own man with his own mind.
At the end of the corridor on the right-hand side, was an office door with the name, Acting Commissioner’ on a plague.
The office was pretty well furnished and Pearce could sense that while the foot soldiers were probably paid close to peanuts to keep the blacks locked up in their cells, the boss was a man of a different lifestyle, courtesy of a different monthly salary.
Mark van Pletzen, in his late forties, and with hair that was showing signs of greying, shook hands with the lawyer, before pointing at a chair in front of the Action Commissioner’s desk.
“So, let me guess, you are another of those optimists who thinks that buy releasing Nelson Mandela, all of our country’s problems will simply disappear?” asked the prisons boss.
Pearce shook his head.
“No, not at all, but I do believe that releasing Mandela and his colleagues is a step in the right direction,” replied Pearce.
“The bigger picture that needs to be thought through by your government is that of where will this country be ten years from now. Already the economy is close to rock bottom as all trade between overseas countries and South Africa is no longer allowed. Then there is the matter of the continued onslaught between the South African military and police and the ANC and it’s affiliates.”
Mark stared at the lawyer. He could sense that the man was no fool and was worthy of his law degree.
“What would you do if you were in P.W. Botha’s shoes?” asked the prisons chief.
Pierce had hoped that Mark would ask that question.
“Firstly, release Mandela, secondly, unban the ANC and its alliance parties, thirdly, get a new multi-racial, multiparty constitution in place as soon as possible, and fourthly, get elections done sooner rather than later,” tabled Pearce.
“My last point is probably the most important as opposing forces will try and delay South Africa’s first one-man, one vote elections.”
Up until now, only the whites and the coloured and Indian people had a vote at election time. Pearce knew that giving all black people a vote would not go down well with many in the minority groups whose vote had up until now, set SA on a course, one way or another.
Pearce’s fears of anxiety among the right wing would later be proved correct, when the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) crashed a ‘Viper’ armoured vehicle through the glass doors at the Kempton Park Trade Centre on 25 June 1993, where the ANC and the ruling National Party were involved in talks to find common ground to end the apartheid system through multi-racial elections.
“Look, it sounds good in principle, but it is highly unlikely to happen without bloodshed, one way or another,” said Mark, as he leaned back in his leather chair.
Pearce tossed his head one way and then to the other.
“Well, if it doesn’t happen soon, there could be more bloodshed that what one could ever imagine. Commissioner, the people, and I mean the masses, are fed up. Either a peaceful solution for all involved is found, or a group could remove the government by force.”
“You mean the ANC could unseat the Nationalist Party by force?” asked Mark.
“Either that,” replied Pearce.
“Or the Afrikaner right wing will remove the Nationalists, then it will be full on warfare between the right and left wings. I have no doubt that the right wing could take over power, but what then? The country is cut off from the world? What would they do then? There is only one decent solution and that is to find a way for black and white to live peacefully together through a multi-party solution.”
The Acting Commissioner listened carefully to Pearce’s thoughts. Mark was a man who was going up the ladder and was one of the more liberal-minded Correctional Services members. With his bosses being staunch Nationalists, he had to hide his views well.
“When do you believe would be the best time to release Mr Mandela?” asked Mark.
“I am asking this question for his own personal safety.”
“There will never be as a good a time as now,” quipped Pearce, with his hands folded and placed on the edge of the desk in front of him.
“Tomorrow could be too late. One never knows what the future holds, but I can almost guarantee that from what I have heard and researched about Mandela, a person like this only comes around once every two hundred years or so.”
Mark thought for a moment and then puffed out his cheeks.
“You know how volatile the current political landscape is?” asked the prisons official.
“If we released him today, he might not make it to supper time,” added Mark.
“I am aware that an attack on the life of Mr Mandela could come from the right wing or for that matter, the left wing, who think that he is far too close to the Afrikaners, but it is a chance that government will have to take,” commented the human rights lawyer.
Mark van Pletzen stood up from his desk and stared out of a window over a courtyard where some of the prisoners were exercising.
“Mandela used to be a boxer, they say?” he mentioned rhetorically.
“Well, he is going to have to box clever if he is to become champion in this political fight.”
Mark turned to the human rights lawyer.
“So how can I help you in this?” asked the prisons official.
“What is it that you need from me?”
Pearce wasted no time in placing his need on the table.
“I need to get close to Mandela,” said Pearce, with his eyes as wide as he could stretch them.
“I need to prepare him for what is to come. His allies may have got word to him, but I need to tell it to him like it is from all sides, just like we have been discussing.”
This time it was the turn for Mark van Pletzen’s eyes to flash with hope. If the Acting Commissioner pulled this off with the help of Pearce Ellison, and Mandela went on to be a free man and to possibly lead the New South Africa, Mark’s career could rise too.
Mark needed a black Godfather!
“Alright, I am going to help you get to Mandela,” agreed the Acting Commissioner.
“However, if things go pearshaped, remember that you don’t know me and I don’t know you.”
“So where is Nelson Mandela?” asked the lawyer.
“He is on the island,” answered Mark.
“He has been shuffled a bit to and fro in recent months but that is, as you rightfully know, for his own safety. I must warn you though, that he hasn’t been in the best of moods after his last meeting with government officials.”
“The Nationalists offered him a retirement package to the Transkei if he promises to stop the military onslaught against the South African National Defence Force,” said Pearce.
“You know too much,” replied the Acting Commissioner.
The prisons boss felt a sense of trust between himself and the lawyer and opened up a bit more.
“Between us, I would never have taken the offer either, as only a turncoat coward would have accepted it, and clearly that is not what Mr Mandela is,” said Mark.
Pearce nodded with confidence.
“Acting Commissioner, we are dealing here with a man of integrity and supreme confidence,” said Pearce.
“This man is a lawyer in his own right. He can read situations. He is a believer that knowledge is power, and successful leaders and indeed countries, are built off the platform of knowledge. He is not the fool that government make him out to be. He is also not the blood thirsty freedom fighter than government make him out to be either.”
“What about his colleagues on the island with him?” asked Mark.
“Do you believe that they are of the same mindset as Mr Mandela?” asked Pearce, as he tested the Acting Commissioner’s thinking.
“I believe that Mr Mandela’s inner ring of thinkers are on the same page as he is,” answered the Acting Commissioner.
“I also believe that if Mr Mandela and the South African government were able to reach a peaceful agreement with regard to a future new constitution including a one-man-one-vote principle for all people, then this would secure new elections. Mr Mandela would get the word through to Mr Tambo at the ANC’s offices in Lusaka, Zambia, and the wheels would be put in motion with regard to changing the political landscape of South Africa forever.”
Mark van Pletzen never had any form of relationship with Mandela. In fact he had never spoken to the man. However, he was close enough to the apartheid decision-makers to know just how revered the man was in ANC and indeed black African circles.
In Mark’s eyes, Pearce Ellison could well be the key to the Godfather!
“Alright, be here at 7am sharp tomorrow,” said Mark.
“We are going to Cape Town for a boat trip to Robben Island.”
Pearce grinned. He had been to the island before and had been unable to access Nelson Mandela. In fact, on his last trip there, the prison officials would not even tell him if Mandela was on the island. Who knows, as Mark van Pletzen confirmed, Mandela was scurried to and for safety reasons, so the prison officials on the island may well have been truthful last time.
Pearce thanked the Acting Commissioner for the meeting and agreed to meet again at 7am the following day.
Pearce was ushered down the same corridor that he had come in on. That sombre feeling of boredom and negativity went through his body again. However, he did feel different about Acting Commissioner Mark van Pletzen.
The truth would be known soon. Was Mark a man of his word, or was he like many of his colleagues, and about to pick up the phone and have Pearce’s visa confiscated, in order for the lawyer to be thrown out of the country?
Time would tell. Pearce made it out of the main building and out of the main gate without being confronted or arrested. Would Mark van Pletzen meet him the next morning or would a trap be set at the prison or on the island?
Either way, Pearce knew the risk of the job when he studied to be a human rights lawyer. If he was to go to prison, there could be no greater cause than for trying to arrange for the freedom, of ANC icon, Nelson Mandela!
That night, Pearce lay in bed at the lodge where he had previously stayed in Rosebank. Would this be his last night of freedom or his last night in South Africa? Was Mark van Pletzen a good man caught up in a bad system, or was he just an actor of Hollywood status?
Pearce glanced at his wristwatch on the small table next to his bed. It was 11am. Again, he felt that while the hours were ticking by, his life was going slowly.
It’s the Final Countdown!
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