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Mandela Unbound: Imagining the South African Future

March 12, 1990

Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images

In March 1990, one month after Nelson Mandela's release from prison, John Carlin—then a South Africa correspondent for The Independent in London—discussed then-president F.W. de Klerk's decision to release the political activist, despite protests from pro-apartheid forces. Carlin saw in Mandela a unique set of political skills: "Mandela has set himself up as a statesman just as much as a liberation leader. He has seen that the two roles must go hand in hand. Apartheid is founded on white fears. Remove those fears, and apartheid is gone."

During Nelson Mandela's ride from prison to Cape Town on the afternoon of his release, he spotted a white couple and their children on the side of the road and, to the dismay of his security men, asked his driver to stop. The man had been trying to take a photograph of the twelve-car convoy as it passed. Mandela stepped out of his car alone and walked over to the couple. He talked to them for about ten minutes and played with the little boy and girl. There was much laughter, not to say stupefaction on the part of the couple. Before leaving, Mandela posed with the family and asked one of his party to take the picture. The next day, when Mandela was asked at his first press conference what differences he found in South Africa after twenty-seven years in prison, he confessed that he didn't know where to begin. But here was one thing in particular that had astonished and gratified him. Driving through the countryside to Cape Town after leaving prison, “along the route I was surprised to see the number of whites who seemed to identify themselves with what is happening in the country today amongst blacks. I was absolutely surprised.”

Mandela's generosity toward white people, his urge for reconciliation, and his implicit forgiveness all make nonsense of the reasons previously cited for not releasing him. Senior South African police officers had argued against his release on the grounds of what they called “the Ayatollah factor,” They feared that Mandela would mobilize South Africa's black population in the same electric, devastating manner that Khomeini did the Iranian people on his return from exile.

The biggest failing of the black liberation movement has been its inability to mobilize the masses in anything like sufficient numbers to pose a real threat to the white establishment. The police, by sowing fear and by skillfully engineering divisions, have communicated a strong sense to most black people of the futility of attempting to stand up to the white baas. Mandela, though, had the potential to galvanize all those who harbor resentment and injustice in their hearts but have not found a channel for political expression. Such was the power of the Mandela myth that the silent, politically inchoate masses would find in him, it was felt, a voice, a drive, and a direction. Indeed, that has been in large measure the political significance of Mandela's release.

The policemen need not fear an uprising. Mandela has kept an astute eye on South African politics over the years, and one thing that can be said for certain is that he is not one to deceive himself. He has noted the imbalance of power between black and white and the state of cowed ignorance to which his people have been reduced during the decades of apartheid rule. Black South Africans are not Iranian fundamentalists. They are a religious people, but not to the fervent extent where religion spills over into revolutionary politics.

Neither is South Africa Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall of white minority rule will not fall in one night of euphoria. The example of Eastern Europe has prompted the world to expect change, where change is obviously needed, to happen dramatically, and fast. But to begin with, the repression here has not been on the same scale. Where many other governments would have murdered their political enemies, here they detained them without trial. Nelson Mandela is still alive. The police death squads have allegedly assassinated up to 100 people in the last decade, compared with the many thousands, say, all over Latin America. And for all the press restrictions, the freedom to report the news has remained—again compared with the truly repressive countries—surprisingly wide.

Just as important is the fact that the entire population could not be expected to rise up against the government. There are five-and-a-half million whites in South Africa, and they control the army and the police. Only a relatively small, if noble, minority actively support the liberation movement. And the black majority themselves have not been exposed to anything like the levels of education of Eastern Europeans. Their expectations in life are thus markedly lower.

Mandela, then, could not play the role of either an Ayatollah or a Vaclav Havel even if he wanted to. And F.W. de Klerk has calculated as much, for otherwise he would not have ordered his release. Indeed, de Klerk has secured what appears to be a commitment to peaceful change and negotiations from Mandela, who knows that his abilities would be best channeled in the service of his people—not in the role of the rabble-rousing demagogue.

Mandela had learned patience before going to prison. Thirty years ago he delivered an address from the dock in the famous Treason Trial—in which he and 155 other defendants were acquitted after four years in court—where he demonstrated his willingness to compromise with the government if the result was the end of minority rule. He told the court that he wished to talk with the government, and said that he would accept an agreement whereby for five years the black population had only partial representation in Parliament, after which the situation would be reviewed again. He understood, he said, that whites might not be ready to be politically dominated by non-whites:

In my view that would he a victory, my lords; we would have taken a significant step towards the attainment of universal adult suffrage for Africans, and we would then, for the five years, say, we will suspend civil disobedience. … And we will then devote the intervening period for the purpose of educating the country, the Europeans, to see that these changes can be brought about and that it would bring about better racial understanding, better racial harmony in the country.

Such a proposal today would be music to de Klerk's ears. He will not hear it, for there is a greater urgency in black demands now, more blood has been shed along the way, the sense of grievance is greater and so are the expectations. The spirit of compromise does continue to guide Mandela. He smiles, he exudes Christian charity, but there is iron in his soul. He has said that his commitment to “armed struggle” will continue so long as the apartheid system persists in employing violence as an instrument of political persuasion, so long, specifically, as the state of emergency—with the extraordinary powers it grants the police—remains in place and political prisoners remain behind bars. International sanctions must continue until the process toward a non-racial, democratic society becomes irreversible.

But Mandela's strategy has been to beat the government with one hand and dangle a carrot with the other. And it is the carrot approach, he has made resoundingly clear, that he hopes will prevail. If Mandela had one opportunity to inflame the masses Ayatollah-style, to urge them to storm the government buildings and seek vengeance against white oppression, it was at this massive “welcome home” rally in Soweto's Soccer City stadium. In South Africa's biggest-ever political gathering, more than 120,000 people packed into the creaking, overflowing stadium. Such was the euphoria on the crowd's first sighting of Mandela that one felt they would have done anything he would have bidden.

As it turned out, the speech was pointedly low-key. Mandela returned to Soweto rather like a father who comes home after a long absence to find that things are in something of a mess, but who understands—indulgent more than stern—that the family did the best they could under appalling circumstances. He dedicated virtually the entire first half of the thirty-two-minute speech to local Soweto issues and, by implication, to issues that affect all the black townships around the country.

He was “greatly disturbed” by the statistics of crime in Soweto, and at the knowledge that some people purporting to support “the liberation struggle” were using violence against their own people. He also made clear his rejection of school boycotts, the belief of many black militants that “liberation must come before education.” He ordered black schoolchildren to go back to their classes and learn. In short, he was urging black people, for all the iniquities of apartheid, to put their own house in order. And then he asked them, in the keynote message of his speech, to behave in such a manner as to reassure the white population that all South Africans, of all races, can live in equality and harmony together:

The fears of whites about their rights and place in a South Africa they do not control exclusively are an obstacle we must understand and address. I stated in 1964 that I and the ANC are as opposed to black domination as we are to white domination. We must accept, however, that our statements and declarations alone will not be sufficient to allay the tears of white South Africans. We must clearly demonstrate our goodwill to our white compatriots and convince them by our conduct and arguments that a South Africa without apartheid will be a better home for all. A new South Africa has to eliminate the racial haired and suspicion caused by apartheid and offer guarantees to all its citizens of peace, security, and prosperity.

Mandela, from that very first gesture with the white family on the side of the road, has set himself up as a statesman just as much as a liberation leader. He has seen that the two roles must go hand in hand. Apartheid is founded on white fears. Remove those fears, and apartheid is gone.

De Klerk, for all his boldness of vision, still harbors some fears. He has made clear his rejection of black majority rule. He hopes that in negotiations with Mandela and other black leaders a new constitution will emerge that will give everybody the vote, but that will also provide guarantees for white citizens that they will not be overrun, engulfed, and driven either to exile or to take up arms. The new battle cry of de Klerk's National Party has become “protection for minority rights,” which means inbuilt constitutional protection for whites guaranteeing that their political power exceeds their numerical strength. He has not escaped his party's traditional fixation with racial groups. A one-person, one-vote, winner-take-all system of government in the manner understood by most Western democracies is not something de Klerk is ready to contemplate.

It is, however, what Mandela and the African National Congress have always fought for. Was there room for accommodation, Mandela was asked at his first press conference? “The ANC is very much concerned to address the question of the concern of whites over the demand of one person, one vote,” he replied. “They insist on structural guarantees—that is, the whites—to ensure that realization of this demand does not result in the domination of whites by blacks. We understand those feelings, and the ANC is concerned to address that problem and to find a solution which will suit both the blacks and the whites of this country.”

A few days later Mandela demonstrated that government officials, who had been meeting with him frequently in prison since de Klerk took office in September, had not been wrong in describing him as a moderate. He made it plain what the opening negotiating position of the ANC would be. The government's “concept of group [by which it means ‘race’] rights means they are not ready to accept the principle of one man, one vote, but we are determined to negotiate on the basis of this demand.” But, he said, “compromises must be made in respect to every issue, as long as that compromise is in the interest not only of one population group hut of the country as a whole. That is the nature of compromises. I am convinced that in discussions between the ANC and the government, we will be able to find a solution which will be accepted by everybody.” And he declared. “We are ready for honorable compromises without surrendering our principles.”

This is a man de Klerk can do business with. Indeed, it is fitting that in a country obsessed with the workings of the law, if not necessarily with justice, two lawyers should emerge today as the dueling protagonists of the South African drama. In the attempt to understand the sort of man Mandela is, it is crucial to take into account his legal background and his legal habits of mind. These make him the ideal man to engage in the coming lengthy and complex negotiations with the government.

Mandela learned his legal trade in a Johannesburg firm in 1942. Ten years later he and the current president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, set up the first black law firm in South Africa. Before Mandela was sentenced to life for sabotage in June 1964, courtrooms had become a second home. The Treason Trial lasted from 1956 to 1960. When he was not helping conduct the defense case, he was acting as the prisoners' spokesman. Had they been convicted as charged, the accused would have faced the death sentence. As it turned out, everybody was acquitted, in large part due to the effectiveness of Mandela's interventions.

The characteristic that distinguishes him from the average anti-apartheid campaigner is this lawyer's propensity to examine all aspects of a question, not the least to attempt to understand the problems faced by the South African government. Those in the black liberation movement who fear that by talking with government ministers in recent months he has risked falling into a trap should remind themselves that Mandela has always made sure to know the enemy in order to exploit his difficulties and limitations. It was not for nothing that on Robben Island he painstakingly, and very successfully, taught himself to speak Afrikaans, the language of the ruling white elite. As his Johannesburg lawyer, one of those who has known him best in recent years, puts it: “Mandela is a chess player five moves ahead of anyone else in the game.”

By releasing Mandela, de Klerk has allowed into the political arena a figure whose presence automatically redresses the imbalance in the black-white exchange in South Africa. In the last several weeks, for the first time, the disfranchised black majority has been competing politically with the ruling white minority on equal terms. The ANC—exiled, imprisoned, or underground for three decades—has suddenly assumed the center stage of South African politics, complete with a party machine ready to shift into full gear.

Before the start of one of Mandela's press conferences, a gray-suited official of the ANC-allied United Democratic Front was asked what he thought of the state president's latest pronouncements. “Which state president?” the official replied, straight-faced. South Africa indeed now has two presidents. Any pronouncement by Mandela carries, and will continue to carry, at least as much weight as anything de Klerk has to say. Thus Mandela utters the word “nationalization” and, quite apart from the instant stock market tumble, he places squarely on the agenda of future negotiations an issue that had barely been mentioned before his release: the economy. He utters the words “armed struggle” and a Cabinet minister instantly responds in Parliament. He receives more invitations from foreign governments in a week than de Klerk has had in six months. The United States, Britain, Japan, and India, among others, are falling over themselves to see who will be granted the honor first.

To the gravitas, judiciousness, and extraordinary charm of the statesman-like Mandela has been added a politic move by ANC leaders in Lusaka. In response to de Klerk's bold announcements of February 2, when—notably—he ended the thirty-year legal ban on the ANC, they declared that they would urge a meeting with de Klerk as soon as possible. They immediately set about re-establishing offices inside the country and prepared for a mass homeward-bound exodus of the ANC's long- exiled members. Before too long, the ANC—to which Mandela has insisted on expressing his undying loyalty—will be operating as a legal political force inside the country. De Klerk, as a senior ANC official put it, has created “a new space, a new chemistry.”

That is the key. New space for the ANC to operate, new chemistry determining the rules of political engagement. And in such conditions, de Klerk is not in full charge anymore. He has set about a process of political liberalization that, as Gorbachev has found, necessarily precipitates unforeseen, not to say unintended, consequences. By seizing the opportunities presented by de Klerk, by wrenching the initiative away from his hands, Mandela and the ANC have taught the Afrikaner population the bitter, and frighteningly novel, lesson that they cannot control the course of history forever—which was exactly what apartheid, social engineering gone mad, had attempted to do.

Of course, de Klerk isn't the only one facing difficulties of adjustment. Black liberation politics was a relatively simple business during the long decades of brutish apartheid oppression. It was straightforward protest politics, with the apartheid enemy providing little opportunity for much in the way of flexible, imaginative maneuvering. The issue of negotiations, which de Klerk has obliged all parties to address seriously, has inevitably provoked confusion, debate, and division. Mandela is known to have favored negotiations with the government for at least a year, but just eight months ago the very mention of the “N-word” to the average ANC militant provoked an outraged response. Protest politics meant embracing the notion that the revolutionary seizure of power was feasible. It is in large measure due to Mandela's force of personality and persuasion, even from behind bars, that last December 9 the ANC and all its allies finally endorsed the negotiating strategy at a so-called Conference for a Democratic Future, at which more than 1,000 national and regional organizations loyal to the ANC were represented.

The indications are that Mandela's conception of politics as the art of the possible, and not the desirable, will prevail. The South African Communist Party, a longtime ally of the ANC, is with him on this. As many as half of the ANC leaders who sit on the national executive committee belong to the SACP. The ANC and SACP positions are, thus, the same, and may only change once “liberation” is complete. In other words, the SACP, which has significantly moderated its politics under the influence of events in Eastern Europe, sees its principal goal as ending apartheid. The strictly ideological debate will come later. For this reason Mandela has made it clear that he is happy to be in alliance with the SACP, which provides the ANC with much of its intellectual backbone.

Some other black factions reject negotiations out of hand. The Pan-Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement—people of a more patient, Vietnamese mind-set—are prepared to wait for as long as it takes for liberation on their own terms. For them, negotiation means determining the terms of the outright surrender of the white establishment before installing some form of socialist black majority rule. Down the line they may cause the ANC problems, especially if negotiations become tortuous or just plain bogged down. But both the PAC and the BCM command tiny popular support compared with the ANC monolith, and the Mandela juggernaut seems likely to reduce them to mere nuisance factors. In any case, should it become evident that de Klerk is not, after all, serious about ceding white power, Mandela will be the first to abandon negotiations and urge the masses to insurrection.

De Klerk's big problem now is that many, probably the majority of the Afrikaner population, stubbornly refuse to follow his lead. The great risk de Klerk took when he announced the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Mandela was that his own people would turn against him. He may come to regret his courage. A shamelessly pro-National Party Johannesburg newspaper, the Citizen, said in an editorial five days after Mandela's release: “The right-wing backlash, which some members of the government and others regarded as being of little significance, is growing menacingly.” The editorial came in response to a staggeringly big pro-apartheid rally staged by the unapologetically racist Conservative Party in Pretoria on the Thursday after Mandela's release.

Emotions were as intense as they were at the welcome rally for Mandela in Soweto. But the mood was different. At the Soccer City stadium there was a smell of victory in the air, the sense of impending victory of a people who believe that soon they would be winning what they had never had. At Pretoria's Paul Kruger Square, named after the Bible-bashing fundamentalist who ruled over the Transvaal Republic from 1883 to 1902, a mood of quiet despair underlay the pretended euphoria. These were a people who fear they were about to lose everything. The biggest roar of the night came when the Conservative Party leader. Andries Treumicht, declared: “The Afrikaner is a friendly tiger, but don't mess around with him.” Treumicht, a former preacher, finished his speech and led the crowd in prayer. “O Lord hear us,” he intoned, and every person there, every child, every brownshirted neo-Nazi, bowed his head, clasped his hands and closed his eyes reverently tight. More evidence existed of the Ayatollah factor on the South African right, one sensed, than on the left.

So far their bark has been worse than their bite. There has been much talk of strikes, marches, and even taking to arms. But there were signs that, if pushed just a little further, the talk might be transformed into action. The militancy of the ANC might be replaced by the militancy of the Conservatives and their extremist allies. “The struggle shall continue,” read one of the many banners on display. De Klerk may be forced to think twice about his plans to “normalize” political life in South Africa, as Mandela calls it. A senior government official told a group of journalists recently that Mandela should not demand change too quickly, for to do so would be to hand power to Treurnicht.

De Klerk, one may be sure, communicated these worries to Mandela in the two meetings they had while Mandela was still a prisoner. And Mandela has been responsive, in particular with his emphasis on seeking to placate white fears. With a magnanimity unprecedented in an ANC leader, he has spoken of de Klerk with praise. “One thing that I have been able to assess is that Mr. de Klerk is a man of integrity. … He seems to be fully aware of the danger to a public figure of making undertakings which he fails to honor, and I think that is a very promising sign.”

De Klerk has described Mandela kindly too, as “a friendly and interesting man.” It is not quite a marriage made in heaven, but clearly the two men have crucial objectives in common, peace and negotiations being foremost among them. The signs are that increasingly they will enter into a kind of partnership, a joint presidency of South Africa in which they will attempt to steer the country away from confrontation and toward reconciliation, seeking to smooth over their respective differences before hitting upon a modus vivendi acceptable to black and white. And if they can impose their wills on their respective camps, they will engage in the decisive political battle that may prove to be the South African drama's final act in a manner befitting the solemn civility of the courtroom.

John Carlin is the author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a NationThis article was originally published in The New Republic on March 12, 1990.