SA 'would've gone up in flames'

2009-05-20 20:05
Nelson Mandela (File, AFP)

Nelson Mandela (File, AFP)

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Cape Town - "If that man wasn't there, this whole country would have gone up in flames," Desmond Tutu told Anthony Sampson of Nelson Mandela's post-1990 role in South African politics.

His view of Mandela the reconciler was shared by the late Joe Slovo, who despite his Marxist scepticism of the role of the individual in shaping political history, said in 1994: "Without Mandela, South African history would have taken a completely different turn."

In his book Mandela - the authorised biography, journalist Anthony Sampson said that the constitutional negotiations leading up to 27 April 1994 represented "one of the most spectacular phases of negotiation in history".

"While fighting continued in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and the Middle East, South Africa was seen as the negotiating capital of the world, and academics, journalists converged to observe it. "But in the end the South Africans, unlike the Namibians or Zimbabweans, did not need other countries to make their peace for them; and they always be proud that they had more to teach the world than the world taught them," wrote Sampson.

In this process, Nelson Mandela played a cardinal role.

With the start of the constitutional negotiations at the end of 1992 one of the biggest challenges of his political career was at hand: achieving a peaceful revolution, while ensuring that the future of the emerging democracy did not suffer harm from either right-wing whites, or black leftists who were dissatisfied about the prospect of a negotiated settlement.

Fears of blood-bath allayed

Amid the euphoria of the negotiations, one of many setbacks was on 10 April 1993, when the general secretary of the SA Communist Party, Chris Hani, was gunned down by Janusz Walus, a Polish immigrant.

There were dire warnings that the murder could stoke racial conflict and derail the settlement process. In what is described by Sampson as one of the most important speeches of his career, Mandela appealed to South Africa to remain calm.

Despite unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and the Cape which claimed about 70 lives, fears of a blood-bath were allayed.

Analysts later observed that Mandela's steadfast devotion to conciliation was reflected in the opening paragraph of his speech, when he referred to the woman "of Afrikaner origin" who had by chance noted the registration of Walus's vehicle, enabling police to arrest him.

Mandela's near-legendary ability to instil an immense calm in politics was perhaps his biggest and lasting legacy to all South Africans.

To mark Mandela's 80th birthday in 1998, Professor Willie Esterhuyse of the University of Stellenbosch wrote:

"Mandela must be honoured today for standing like a wall between the concept of a negotiated settlement on the one side and chaos in the land on the other. Even when Chris Hani was murdered, the wall did not weaken or crumble. The bloody violence of Boipatong became too much for him and the process was suspended, but only temporarily."

A mammoth task

His personal adviser and friend of many years, Ahmed Kathrada, said that in the run-up to the first democratic election of April 27 1994, Mandela was absolutely determined to show that the ANC had transformed itself into a responsible political party which was ready and able to form a government.

He combined the unique ability of being able to call to order militant elements of the freedom movement, while constantly reassuring the white electorate and entreating them to stay put in South Africa, because the future also depended on them.

After being inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected president on May 10 1994, his first priority, according to Kathrada, was to build a new nation and reconcile former enemies - "a role he fulfilled with great dignity, without becoming ensnared in the more mundane demands that party politics sometimes entailed in South Africa". Esterhuyse said that by embracing the ongoing concept of reconciliation, Mandela took a mammoth task on himself and his government, the extent of which wasn't always fully appreciated by whites: he was the chief instrument in transforming decades of anger over injustice into political stability, rather than disorder and violent riots.

Kathrada said Mandela delegated some of his administrative and management tasks to his deputy president Thabo Mbeki early on because he knew that Mbeki would fare better with these tasks than he could have. On some critical issues, particularly on crime and corruption, Mandela was strongly criticised for not intervening more decisively

Sampson argued that there was an inherent contradiction in what was expected of Mandela - on one hand to use his personal authority to actively resolve these problems and on the other to establish a democratic tradition in which no future leader would hold solitary sway.

"As head of state he saw a clear priority: to consolidate the new nation, hold it together and transform it into a multiracial democracy in which all citizens could live at peace," wrote Sampson.

"He knew without that peace the machinery of government and the economy was useless - he was uniquely suited to the task of nation-building."

'No reconciliation without transformation'

Mandela was criticised by the left wing because he pampered to the interests of the white minority with his excessive efforts at conciliation. Kathrada said this criticism gained more prominence than it deserved, and it should rather be seen against his broad approach that reconciliation should be backed by transformation. In fact he showed impatience with the slow pace of transformation on various occasions.

This view was echoed by Esterhuyse in 1998: "His message of reconciliation was not one of 'forgive and forget'. Neither was it 'let's all say sorry to each other and get on with it'. On one point Mandela and Mbeki were indistinguishable: no reconciliation without transformation."

As Graca Machel-Mandela said in an interview with Sampson: "The land could have been in flames. Some people criticise that he went too far. There's no such thing as going 'too far' if you are trying to save a country from this kind of tragedy."

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  desmond tutu
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