The Bridge Builder: Fish Hooks and Trust

It is not easy to build bridging relationships, particularly in conditions of actual conflict. That did not deter Sidney Frankel, a Johannesburg businessman who, in August 1991, invited Cyril Ramaphosa, a prominent young black leader in the African National Congress, and Roelf Meyer, a young white leader in the ruling Nationalist Party government, to his country cottage for the weekend. As Meyer and his family arrived by helicopter, they discovered that Frankel’s ten-year-old daughter had fallen and broken her arm; so Frankel, his wife, and daughter took the helicopter to the hospital, leaving the Meyers and Ramaphosas awkwardly alone together. Meyer’s two young sons insisted on going fishing, as their father had promised, and Ramaphosa offered to show them how. Meyer, a novice, promptly got a fishhook painfully caught in his finger. Ramaphosa’s wife, a nurse, tried to get it out but in vain. After an hour, with Meyer growing faint with pain, Ramaphosa intervened with a pair of pliers.

“Roelf, I’ve always wanted to hurt you Nats [Nationalist Party members],” he told Meyer as he yanked, “but never as much as this.”

“Well, Cyril,” muttered Meyer afterward, “don’t say I didn’t trust you.”

That weekend began a personal relationship of trust and respect that eventually played an essential role in the subsequent negotiations between the white government and the African National Congress. When official negotiations were broken off in the middle of 1992, the relationship between the two men helped prevent a total breakdown that might have escalated back into civil war. Both men continued to meet secretly and frequently, developing a confidence, as Meyer once explained to me, that no matter how intractable the issue, the two of them could find a way to work it out. Ultimately, they fashioned a formula that produced the breakthrough to a negotiated agreement.

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