To swim against powerful tides

2013-12-09 10:00

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Mondli Makhanya was a young activist when Madiba disappointed him terribly. This is his retrospective love story.

The news broke on Saturday evening.

FW de Klerk had just announced that Nelson Mandela would be a free man on Sunday.

Madiba? addresses a rally after his release. Picture: Trevor Samson/Getty Images

That Sunday, February 11 1990, South Africa was to take a gigantic step towards liberation.

There would be no turning back on the journey to freedom.

In my own township of KwaMashu, a rally was hastily arranged for the day of joy.

As we gathered for our celebratory rally, Inkatha warriors from a nearby informal settlement launched an attack on the township.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at the Codesa talks, which gave rise to a negotiated political settlement

Instead of celebrating Mandela, the people of KwaMashu spent the next weeks in the trenches, repelling the marauding mobs. It was ugly and brutal.

So when Mandela came to Durban’s Kings Park Stadium on his nationwide “welcome home” later that month, we expected him to issue a call to arms.

The message we came to hear was about how the enemy should be obliterated, and how the newly unbanned ANC would lead us into the final and decisive battle.

It was not to be. Mandela told the multitudes to “take your guns, your knives, your pangas and throw them into the sea”.

He spoke of the need to embrace peace and said he would reach out to Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi in this regard.

This was not the Mandela we had in mind when we sang “UMandela uth’ ayihom’ ihlasele” (Mandela says let’s arm ourselves and attack).

On that day at Kings Park Stadium, we got a glimpse of the man who would take hugely unpopular decisions as he guided the country on the rocky road towards democracy.

Disappointment and disgruntlement followed in later months and years, as Mandela took positions that had his supporters discreetly questioning whether?FW de Klerk had pulled a fast one on us and released a Fong Kong version of the Mandela we had waited for.

Mandela not only swam against the tide, but changed the direction of the rivers.

He had eyes that saw farther than those of others.

History is full of visionaries who falter because they do not take the people with them.

Mandela was that rare breed who defied the strong gush of oncoming waters with his moral suasion and natural authority.

After Kings Park, we were to witness Mandela calling De Klerk “a man of integrity” at a time when many viewed the apartheid president with great suspicion and cynicism. This declaration of trust served a dual purpose.

It armed De Klerk in the white community and enabled him to take his constituency with him on the road towards a new South Africa.

It also bound him to the project.

Mandela would raise the ire of his militant constituency when he and his leadership summarily suspended the armed struggle in August 1990.

With the apartheid security forces and surrogate militias like Inkatha still killing people in the townships and with the National Party still very split on the final shape of the new South Africa, the armed struggle was seen as insurance should “the boers” decide to take a hard line.

This turned out to be a deft move as it weakened the hand of the securocrats in De Klerk’s Cabinet and expedited the start of real negotiations.

He again risked his moral authority at the time of the assassination of Chris Hani, the Che Guevara of South Africa’s guerrilla war, in April 1993.

With tens of thousands of youths demanding all-out war against the government and whites in general, South Africa stood on the precipice of racial conflagration.

Mandela took over the airwaves in what was essentially his first state of the nation address.

He called for calm and told the seething masses that apartheid, not whites, was the enemy.

Although it was to be another 12 months before he took the oath of office, it is widely acknowledged that it was on that April night that Mandela became president.

From then until the elections, De Klerk was just a caretaker.

Between 1990 and 1994, the negotiations could have fallen apart, but Mandela was always there to force his party and the oppressed masses to see the bigger picture while he cleverly dribbled past his opponents who believed they had scored strategic victories.

Having successfully shepherded the country to democracy, Mandela was to face the task of building a united nation.

Against the will of many, the National Party and Inkatha had been included in the government of national unity.

The right wing had been demobilised by being given a?Volkstaat Council, a statutory body that was supposed to work on the feasibility of an Afrikaner homeland.

While Mandela’s deputy, Thabo Mbeki, concentrated on the intricacies of governance, Mandela worked on building the nation.

There are many who argued and still argue that he went too far in making white South Africa comfortable.

When he visited apartheid prophet Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow in Orania, even close loyalists expressed concern.

But the question, yet to be answered, is what kind of country we would have been had this segment of the population been driven into the arms of extremist elements and, worse still, been driven out of the country?

By far the greatest risk Mandela took while in office was in the economic sphere.

Having come out of prison pronouncing that nationalisation was the policy of the ANC, Mandela was to undergo a metamorphosis in the build-up to 1994.

By the time he took office he had come to accept the supremacy of market economics, much to the chagrin of leftists in the mainstream ANC and the outright socialists in the SA Communist Party and Cosatu.

So when the likes of Mbeki, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and others in the economic ministries wanted to push through the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy, it was Mandela who provided them with political cover.

Drastic measures needed to be taken to rescue a siege economy and a fiscus that was heaving under the weight of apartheid-era debt.

These measures were necessarily painful and the poor were going to feel most of this pain. But had they not been taken the economy would have imploded and South Africa may have ended up being a client state of the very Bretton Woods institutions that the Left hates so much.

Mandela took ownership of Gear and, in a most authoritarian fashion, simply shut the debate.

The Left had to wait until he vacated office before they could again openly wage war on Mbeki and Manuel.

Today only 1960s graduates of the University of Albania can question the wisdom of Gear’s bitter medicine, which enabled Mbeki in his second term and Jacob Zuma in his first term to open the purse for social spending and infrastructure construction.

As Madiba himself pointed out many times, he was no saint.

He made plenty mistakes. Some quite big.

Chief among these was waking up late to the scourge of HIV/Aids.

He would later frustratingly look on from the outside as his denialist successor compounded his own lack of action by adopting loony stances on the cause and treatment of the disease.

But Mandela did not just sit there.

He made Aids one of his post-presidency priorities, much to the irritation of Mbeki.

With Mandela providing the heavyweight authority to those battling the president’s wayward thinking, Mbeki unleashed the ANC’s most rabid Rottweilers and bulldogs on the old man.

Mandela did not wince and continued to swim against the tide of his own party.

It is by no small measure due to him lending his standing to the campaign that the government’s turnaround came about on April 17 2002 when it turned its face on denialism.

His other grave mistake was not paying adequate attention when grubby arms dealers from the West descended on our shores to corrupt our republic.

While the arms deal was signed after he had left office, it was on his watch that negotiations that led to the violation of our young republic’s innocence began.

So how should we honour this man, who has been variously described as a hero; a colossus; a titan; a giant; the president of the world; an icon; the “embodiment of courage”, an “individual whose message is universal”; “a champion of human dignity” and a man “who belongs to the ages”?

We should, before he descends into the Transkei soil, each commit to grab a piece of him to keep.

That piece may be his honesty, his integrity, his courage, his humility, his wisdom, diligence his morality, his forthrightness, his humanness and various other qualities that made Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela arguably the greatest human being of modern times.

Each piece that we take will help us emulate this amazing man who had the strength to swim against powerful tides and change the direction of raging rivers.

» Makhanya is editor at large

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