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Statesman helped battle apartheid

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Exchanging ideas: visiting US legislator William Payne, left, chats with Randy Horton, Speaker of the House

A visiting statesman has recalled the day he sat among the enemies of apartheid, as well as its diehard supporters, in a historic gathering hosted by Bermuda.

For William Payne, a former member of the New Jersey General Assembly, the so-called Lantana Talks of April 1990 struck a chord with his own role in the civil rights struggles of the United States, which claimed the lives of friends such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Although he remembers no open hostility in the Bermuda forum, Mr Payne told The Royal Gazette: “One Afrikaner could have been a Nazi — these were the ones keeping apartheid in place.”

He had come from prominence in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People to find himself sitting next to a staunch, “rabidly prejudiced” believer in South Africa’s racist regime.

“He was a brash type of person,” Mr Payne said. “Smoking, and then blowing the smoke at people.”

Mr Payne, who turns 84 this week, had come with United States delegates for secret talks in Bermuda organised by the Aspen Institute on the fate of the crumbling apartheid regime.

It was the second round of covert discussions at the Lantana Colony Club, following on from a forum in March of 1989. Mr Payne attended with his brother, the late Congressman Donald Payne.

“The Aspen Institute brought members of Congress and Senators to discuss issues of national importance, away from their offices and across party lines,” he said. “In this case, we met with leaders from South Africa, from both sides, under the radar.”

A media blackout protected both meetings between members of South Africa’s National Party and the African National Congress.

At that time in 1990, a ban on the ANC had only just been lifted with the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the jailed revolutionary and opponent of apartheid who would become president of South Africa in 1994.

Mr Payne, who returned to the island this week to visit his daughter Gina Payne-Scott and her family, had been coming to Bermuda for decades.

“The Aspen Institute identified those people in South Africa who were either fighting apartheid or were part of it, and they brought those adversaries together.

“We had discussions with the fighters for freedom and the Afrikaners who were defenders of apartheid.

“They didn’t have the opportunity to speak freely in South Africa, and in Bermuda they were able to have frank discussions.”

Apartheid backers “questioned whether these people trying to eliminate apartheid were equal to them — they had a deep-rooted feeling that this was their country, and that it was an intrusion on their rights”.

Bringing ideological enemies into the same room without courting disaster was a testament to the power of Dick Clark, the director and moderator from the Aspen Institute — remembered by Mr Payne as a persuasively soft-spoken man.

Having joined the NAACP at the age of 18 and becoming the chairman of its Youth Work Committee, Mr Payne was personally acquainted not only with Dr King, but Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1963.

Mr Payne recalled speaking with Mr Evers over the rumours that he was being targeted by white supremacists, only to be told that the activist was determined to go back and make Mississippi “safer for his children”. He was shot dead in the driveway of his home.

“One thing that kept me going was that I personally know people that gave their lives,” Mr Payne said.

Delegates spent four nights at Lantana, changing seats each night.

“People got to know each other better, even that guy who was such a crude individual — I’m not sure his attitude changed, but I can’t imagine it was an easy task to convince them to come in the first place,” Mr Payne said.

“There was less rancour. Obviously it was extremely valuable, especially for those who were in favour of apartheid to have a more intimate knowledge of those who were against it. It was also valuable to be removed to a place where the pressure was not on them.”

Mr Payne served on the New Jersey General Assembly from 1998 to 2008. Among the legislation passed under his tenure was the state’s banning of racial profiling by police. He serves today on the Amistad Commission, which incorporates black history into the American school system.

Visiting US legislator William Payne (left) chats with Randy Horton, Speaker of the House (Photograph by Dallas Scott)
Making history: William Payne, right, was personally acquainted with Dr Martin Luther King, centre, among other well-known political activists