I interview a lot of silly people about a lot of silly things. That's sort of the nature of television and ... well, of me.
Occasionally, however, there's an interview that stirs me on different levels. That includes the one with Michael Young, who led secret talks that helped end apartheid. His story is told at 9 p.m. Sunday in "Endgame," the superb film that launches the season for PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary."
Young is someone you'd never notice in most corporate law offices. At 63, he's handsome, white-haired, well-dressed, well-spoken; Steve Martin could play him without going to the make-up trailer. Guys who look like him have made (and, alas, lost) billions for us on Wall Street.
But between 1985 and 1990, he led the talks that paved the way for South Africa to save itself; it's a fascinating story.
I don't usually use this spot for the feature stories that I send to newspapers; mostly, the Web site is for regular blogs and TV columns. Still, I want to get this story out as widely as possible. Please read it and comment:
It was a joyous day in 1990. The secret
talks had finally finished; apartheid was ending and Nelson Mandela
was coming home. South Africa had saved itself.
That's when one negotiator turned to
Michael Young, a quiet businessman. “He said, 'It takes a big man
to be invisible,'” Young recalls.
Then everyone else returned to South
Africa and the spotlight. Young returned to invisibility.
“I was prepared to never talk about
it,” he said.
That wouldn't be necessary. Four years
later, word leaked out about the secret talks that helped change
history. There was a book on the subject and now “Endgame,” a
fascinating TV movie that opens the “Masterpiece: Contemporary”
season at 9 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25) on PBS.
Jonny Lee Miller plays Young, who
organized the negotiations. “I saw him as a quiet man,” he said
“It gives you a chance to do some subtle work.”
In real life, there is nothing
invisible about Miller, the former “Eli Stone” star. He has
colorful tattoos (covered by make-up in roles that require short
sleeves) and a colorful ex-wife (Angelina Jolie).
Now, however, he was playing the man
trying to silently nudge together two firm forces:
– The white South African government,
unofficially represented by Will Esterhuyser. He's played here by
– The blacks, who had no votes and
few rights. They were represented by Thabo Mbeki, who would later
follow Mandela as South Africa's second freely elected president.
“There's a real roller-coaster” of
emotions, said Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Mbeki, ranging from rage to
fear to sheer joy at the result. “It showed how people can change,”
All of that centered on Young, who
could easily escape notice. At 63, he's white-haired and handsome, in
a quietly corporate way.
His own views have been liberal, but he
exists easily in other settings. He was an advisor in Britain's
Conservative Party government of Edward Heath, then worked for
Consolidated Goldfields. “It was a very right-wing company
….Goldfields was a British mining house and Cecil Rhodes' old
company …. They were very much part of the establishment.”
Young says he was “the licensed
liberal … I personally found apartheid morally repugnant.”
Still, the guiding impulse at
Goldfields may have been sheer pragmatism. “Planning for a gold
mine requires at least a 25-year horizon,” Young said, “and you
upload your money in the front.”
He was supposed to find out if South
Africa would implode in the next 25 years. At first, he “ducked my
handlers” and talked to villagers; he was vulnerable to either
side. “It would have been quite easy to take me away to the bush.
And the animals would have disposed of any evidence.”
It was back in London that Young met
Oliver Tambo, the head of the African National Congress. “He held
my hand firmly and said, 'I want you to build a bridge.'”
These would be unofficial talks,
facilitated by Consolidated Goldfields. In a British manor, over a
five-year stretch, both sides nudged toward the South African
government's 1990 decision to free Mandela and end apartheid; that's
a story tackled by talented British actors.
Miller, 36, grew up around theater and
television, with a father who was an actor and stage manager at the
BBC. He was a teen-aged store worker in 1990, when Mandela was freed;
five years later, “Hackers” would bring him popularity and Jolie.
The opening “Endgame” scene was
filmed in South Africa, in depressing conditions, Miller said. “This
was a shantytown, full of people …. Some of the shacks had
electricity; many didn't.” Then the negotiations scenes were filmed
in a British mansion, the setting for “Gosford Park” and other
Ejiofor, 35, the son of a Nigerian-born
doctor, grew up in London, hearing about South Africa. “People were
talking as if … apartheid was going to be a part of everybody's
life and always would be.”
He was in the National Youth Theater
when a young South African told him apartheid would end soon.
“Everybody was skeptical about that. (Then) everything seemed to
happen incredibly quickly.”
In the years that followed, he would do
some large films – from “Amistad” to the upcoming “2012” –
and many praised independents. Few, however, can match “Endgame”
for quiet power.
“It was a very, very rich acting
experience,” Ejiofor said, depicting “a seismic change in a
And that change was partly achieved in
a cloak of invisibility.