Great Mediators in History #2. Michael Young OBE
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
· Graduated, York University
· Government Aide to Edward Heath’s Government
· ARC Limited, Government Affairs
· Consolidated Gold Fields, Government Affairs
· OBE – 2001, for human rights
· Played by William Hurt in “Endgame”
11th February 1990, the day Nelson Mandela was released, marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa. There were some who were not there to witness the great event in South Africa, but were watching via TV from a country house in Somerset, in U.K., and some who played a key role in the unfolding event. Those watching in Somerset included: Michael Young, ANC representative Thabo Mbeki, a terrorist in the eyes of the South African government, Prof. Willie Esterhuyse, a reformist academic who was briefing the South African secret police. The country house they were watching from was owned by Consolidated Gold Fields, a British mining firm.
Until the release of the film Endgame Michael Young’s unheralded contribution to those events was known only to the very few who were privy to those clandestine Somerset negotiations.
From 1986-1990 Michael Young carefully brought together two sides of the South African equation that were unable to engage with each other. The ANC had a policy of aggression. Diplomatic talks with the South African Government would be seen by party insiders as ‘treachery and weakness’. The South African Government, in turn, denounced the ANC as terrorists, and as such refused to talk until their bombing campaign ceased.
Despite this enmity, Michael Young put his career and his personal safety on the line, to bring together the two sides and work towards a workable solution. He did it by guile and with copious amounts of fine Glenfiddich single malt whiskey – sometimes leaving the South Africans alone for long periods with a bottle.
But Young is adamant. "It was their country, their problem, and they've got to resolve it. I was a signpost, a helper, a creator of space. I was there to keep the dialogue going and build a consensus as it went on. I only had to negotiate each player, each point of the agenda."
"I don't need to be visible to get out of bed. Instead I've got to be able to make something happen. I don't have to have people pointing cameras at me. It's not modesty, I just don't work like that. In life, you can make things happen without standing on the mountain waving a flag. In delicate issues, you need to take people away from the theatre, away from the hurly-burly, the public grandstanding, and just make them behave as ordinary human beings around an agenda."
Young is the son of farmers and miners in Northumbria, a family he describes as "not poor but not rich. We were political, active in the local Tory party," a political leaning he would come to break from. He attended York, where he read Politics.
After graduating, Young joined Conservative Research, a Tory party think tank. There he worked alongside Michael Portillo, and Chris Paton. Young advised 10 Downing Street on foreign issues such as Cyprus, Rhodesia and the Middle East, before lending support to Prime Minister Edward Heath during the mining strikes and the three-day week talks. Young left Number 10 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and went into the private sector, working for ARC and then Consolidated Gold Fields, the mining conglomerate.
At Consolidated Gold Fields Young stunned his bosses by agreeing to meet with the leaders of the ANC, whose apartheid protests and bombings were destabilizing Gold Field's business prospects. Even most of the Western world saw the ANC much like Hezbollah today, as a group of destabilising terrorists, and not trustworthy statesmen - Gold Field's Chairman, Rudolph Agnew, trusted Young.
Agnew took a major risk in allowing these talks to take place, funding them through "research and development" accounts, and keeping them a secret from the Gold Field's board. Young, however, knew that he was dispensable and deniable if the existence of the talks were leaked. Agnew was much more excised by Young’s support for the UK Liberal party, for whom he fought a seat.
The top-secret nature of his work with the South Africans, coupled with the right-wing reputation of Gold Fields, would leave him compromised at times during his work in liberal political circles.
Young certainly did that. As my time with him comes to a close, I ask him of his sense of achievement when he sees South African today.
Young says of his own contribution: "I feel utterly privileged. It's not false modesty to say that I was a lucky guy. I have some skill set, sure…..but it couldn't have been anyone. You've got to be in the right place, with the skills, hustling. But it was an amazing experience. And if I do nothing else in my life, I will at least feel like have done something."