Twenty years ago

2014-04-24 00:00

THIS was the week, 20 years ago, that the country breathed a sigh of relief. Peace was finally brokered in KwaZulu-Natal. The blood bath widely predicted was averted and the elections were on track.

It is hard to believe that the democracy we now take so much for granted, was poised on a knife’s edge.

It is worth looking back to move forwards, if only to appreciate what we have today — warts and all. Perhaps more importantly, ordinary South Africans need to be imbued with a deep sense that such a hard-won democracy must never be squandered.

On the broader South African front, 20 years ago, right-wing Afrikaner extremists had formed themselves into militia groups to fight the takeover of South Africa by “terrorists”. There was military training on farms and links with former homeland leaders. All of this came to a faltering end when the militia men turned out not to be the hardened soldiers they thought they were. A showdown on a dusty Bophuthatswana Road ended in surrender. Nelson Mandela was able to persuade the leader of the counter-revolutionaries — former chief of the Defence Force general Constand Viljoen — to fight for his separatist course through constitutional means. Viljoen formed an Afrikaner party — The Freedom Front.

However, back in KwaZulu-Natal, the situation was far more tense. By March 10, the IFP, already embroiled in violent battles with ANC supporters, reported that it would not be taking part in the elections. Days later, IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi changed his mind, saying his party was determined to contest the election, only to change his mind again.

Tensions soared once more when King Goodwill Zwelithini announced that KwaZulu-Natal was on the verge of a unilateral declaration of independence. He was reported in the Weekend Star as having urged Zulus to defend their freedom and sovereignty “at all costs”. He told them that sovereignty would be denied by an election under the Interim Constitution.

Meanwhile, newspapers were reporting increasingly on black-on-black violence. Judge Richard Goldstone, who had been appointed by then president F.W. de Klerk to look at the violence in the Ciskei, the Bisho massacre, pointed to evidence of security-force involvement and what became known as instigated or third-force violence.

By March 28, 1994, the Sowetan reported that KZN remained a tinder box over the weekend — “despite several high-profile peace initiatives. In one incident, the home of African National Congress regional premier candidate Mr Jacob Zuma was torched by a mob on Saturday night in Nxamalala, near Inkandla, in northern Natal.”

Then there was the IFP march on Johannesburg as a show of support for Zwelithini, which ended with more than 30 people killed and hundreds injured.

By early April, KZN was placed under a State of Emergency and vast numbers of South African Defence Force troops were deployed to the province. Buthelezi was insisting that the elections, scheduled for less than a month away, had to be postponed. Meanwhile, those South Africans gripped by pessimism and a sense of foreboding for the future, were stockpiling essentials such as candles and canned goods. Shops country wide reported shelves emptying as fast as they were being stocked.

Mandela, in a desperate attempt to get Zwelithini to support the elections, offered him powers as a constitutional monarch with sway over the whole of KZN. The Sunday Times reported that Buthelezi scuppered the proposal by insisting the offer could not be considered unless all Inkatha’s other concerns were handled at the same time.

With two weeks to go before the election, a seven-person team of international mediators arrived in the country. However, less than two days later, the team threatened to quit when the ANC, IFP and the government failed to agree on their terms of reference. By April 15, at a press conference, the downcast team of mediators, which included former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, announced that the talks had collapsed and they were on their way home. This was when Mandela was credited as having played an extraordinary and reconciliatory role, making several concessions to allow peace to prevail.

The Sowetan (April 20, 1994) reported: “South Africa was yesterday rescued from the brink of a political tragedy when the Inkatha Freedom Party finally agreed to contest the country’s first non-racial elections, to be held next week. The announcement follows five days of intensive meetings between IFP president Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, State President F.W. de Klerk and African National Congress president Mr Nelson Mandela.

“Buthelezi, Mandela and De Klerk acknowledged the shuttle diplomacy of Kenyan roving ambassador Professor Washington Okumu, who brokered the negotiations leading to the historic inclusive settlement.”

The Independent Electoral Commission burnt the midnight oil, placing stickers on the ballot papers to include the IFP. Seven days later, South Africa’s “miracle” election took place as millions of South Africans, the majority voting for the first time, went on peacefully to vote for the parties of their choice.

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