The mouse that roared: Mandela's leadership of South Africa

In this despatch from 15 April 1994, Sarah Baxter witnesses the moment Mandela held together a South Africa on the verge of falling apart.

Amandla! In 1992, children swarm round the African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela as he visits a squatter settlement south of Johannesburg. Photo: Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty.

“Today, we come to pay homage to one of South Africa’s greatest sons. He paid the supreme sacrifice so that we could be free. The greatest monument we can build in his honour is to elect a democratic government on 27 April.”

Nelson Mandela, Soweto, on 10 April 1994, the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination

When Chris Hani was gunned down outside his home in a Johannesburg suburb last year, there was no date for the South African elections. The constitutional talks dragged on, while the township violence continued to claim lives. Hani, the former chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe and leader of the South African Communist Party, used all his influence with young militants to persuade them to support a negotiated settlement. He was, as legend has it, a “soldier for peace”.

His assassination, planned by the right-winger Clive Derby-Lewis, and carried out by the Polish immigrant Janusz Walus, brought the political process to a crossroads. To this day, no one is certain whether there were other unseen hands behind his destruction. But to call off the talks would have unleashed chaos. Six weeks later, a date for the elections was set. Since then, Hani has assumed the role of saint and martyr.

Last weekend, thousands gathered at Orlando Stadium, many sporting T-shirts bearing the message: “He lived and died for me.” The religious imagery was deliberate. The National Party has made much of the African National Congress’s alliance with the “godless” communists. “Comrade Hani may well have become a Catholic priest, but because he grew up under the apartheid regime, his life took a different course,” said his successor as leader of the SACP, Charles Nqakula. Hani is still needed.

The township militants have not given up their arms. They streamed into the stadium, some behind the banners of the SACP, bearing spears, knives, two-foot-long nails, even golf clubs – any traditional weapon they could lay their hands on. A few had guns stuffed into their belts. They spoke excitedly of Inkatha men heading towards the stadium. That would have been a suicidal mission.

But on the way back from the rally, one person was killed and four people injured as their bus travelled past an Inkatha hostel. At the gates to the stadium, ANC security guards dutifully frisked women for weapons, while the armed men forged past them. They stormed round the circuit in gangs, accompanied by cheers and cries of apprehension from the crowd.

At last, Nelson Mandela’s grey Mercedes was spotted. Cheering broke out. “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” He descended from the car, jostled on all sides by journalists and bodyguards, and walked slowly round the stadium, raising his fist in salute to the crowd and smiling broadly.

On reaching the podium, he said loudly and clearly: “Chris Hani was a man who died preaching peace. On this day, all South Afri­cans should commit themselves to reconciliation. It is time that each one of us assumed responsibility for putting an end to crime and violence.” He was speaking to everyone, including white South Africans.

But behind the high walls guarding their homes, the whites are growing nervous. The planes entering the country are half-empty. The planes leaving are full. Thousands have joined the “chicken run” to Zimbabwe, Britain and other countries. Theirs is not a permanent exodus. They are spending a month abroad, while they gauge the situation back home.

Nobody knows what is going to happen “after the election” – the most overused phrase at the moment. People are stockpiling tinned food, candles and gas cylinders “just in case”. Even white liberals, who are determined to vote ANC, confess to feeling apprehensive. When the rules governing “petty apartheid” were abandoned, wealth remained the great divider.

But now the country is truly in transition. Former Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas are in the process of joining the South African Defence Force. New black presenters are appearing on state-sponsored TV. Soon, the changes will reach everyone’s workplace. The ANC has promised “affirmative action”. Does that mean there will be new colleagues, new bosses and new work priorities? Of course, they support the principle, but what about the practice? Mandela has done his utmost to soothe people’s fears.

At Orlando Stadium, he praised the work of the security forces and said they deserved “our full confidence and support”. He gave an account of his visit to Natal a few days earlier, after a state of emergency had been imposed there with his agreement. Eight youths, who had been carrying AK-47s and revolvers, came to him and complained: “‘You wanted a state of emergency and now they have arrested us and taken away our guns.’ I said: ‘No, you must expect the South African police and the South African Defence Force to be even-handed. Don’t expect to be exempted. We want peace.’”

But it is not so much civil war, as change itself that is feared. The National Party has staged a remarkable comeback by insisting that only it can be trusted with the transition to a truly multi-racial society. The attempt has been brazen. F W de Klerk has proclaimed: “I, not the ANC, liberated this country from apartheid.”

The ANC is still on course for an over-whelming victory. The latest poll puts its support at 62 per cent. But the NP’s share of the poll has risen 6 points in recent months, mainly at the ANC’s expense. In the short term, its aim is to deprive the ANC of the two-thirds majority needed to draw up a new constitution for the country.

Under the interim constitution, de Klerk is certain to be one of two vice-presidents under Mandela’s leadership, and the NP has argued: “No partnership works if one of the parties is too large and the other too small.” Perhaps the best sign that de Klerk trusts the ANC to govern the country democratically is that he is already positioning himself for the election after next. He wants the NP to be the multi-racial right-wing party of the future, just as the ANC will be the multi-racial party of the left.

It is a shrewd gambit. The NP can never again win with the support of whites alone. In any case, the white vote has splintered, with up to one-third of Afrikaners supporting far-right demands for an independent volkstaat. Support for General Constand Viljoen’s Freedom Front has risen to 5 per cent – enough to secure him a possible seat in South Africa’s transitional cabinet. De Klerk has had to forage elsewhere for votes among conservative blacks and the coloured and Indian communities, who are afraid of black majority rule.

Mandela has been making light of the NP’s renaissance. The crowd at Orlando Stadium laughed delightedly when he said: “We are dealing with a mouse. The National Party is a mouse and they think they can fight an elephant. We, the African National Congress, are the elephant. If a mouse overfeeds itself, it will gain weight, but it is still a mouse.” The ANC can count on the support of the vast majority of black people. But in the Western Cape, the elephant is growing afraid of the mouse. In this bastion of the coloured community, which for years enjoyed preferential labour over black people, the NP is marginally ahead of the ANC. De Klerk’s popularity rating is 62 per cent; Mandela’s is 17 per cent. Mandela’s car was stoned recently on the way to a meeting by the same young gangs who would once have thrown rocks at the security forces.

It is in the Cape that the NP’s propaganda has been crudest. It has not only played the traditional swartz gefaar (fear of blacks) card, but has also adapted the US Republicans’ “Willie Horton” campaign tactics. An advertisement shows the face of a young black woman next to the words: “Could you look her in the eye and tell her you’re giving her rapist the vote?”

The Indian community has also been reconsidering its previous staunch support for the ANC. It, too, has been using an elephant metaphor. The saying goes: “When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” They are particularly fearful of being squeezed between Inkatha and the ANC in Natal, where they settled in great numbers generations ago. One in four Indians may not vote at all.

The ANC has been incredulous at the NP’s bid for support. “After 46 years of NP rule, these people want you to vote for them,” said one of their posters in astonishment. By its own admission, the NP has only just realised the error of its ways and refashioned itself as a “new” multi-racial party, while the ANC has been multi-racial since its foundation in 1912.

But the most galling of all is the NP’s pose as the party of peace and stability, when it is suspected of complicity with the “Third Force”, the shadowy security apparatus that has been accused by the Goldstone Com­mission of trying to disrupt the election. In Orlando Stadium, Mandela protested that de Klerk was party to atrocities committed by the Third Force “by omission and conni­vance”, but the difficulty has been proving links between the two.

The hand of the Third Force is seen everywhere. Where there are killings, there are rumours of white men in balaclavas either directing or participating in operations. Inkatha is increasingly regarded as an instrument of the Third Force. Even whites, who traditionally preferred Inkatha, with its respect for “cultural differences”, to the “communist” ANC, are beginning to worry that if civil war comes, it will be thanks to Chief Buthelezi’s warriors.

The pity is that, outside KwaZulu and a few Inkatha strongholds, the strategy of disruption has failed. The elections are expected to be free and fair for the great majority of South Africans. The homelands, including Bophuthatswana, have been brought into the fold. The South African far right is participating in the elections in the form of Viljoen’s Freedom Front. The date fixed after Chris Hani’s assassination has held fast.

Mandela has talked to every South African leader bar the neo-fascist Eugene Terre’-Blanche in his bid to ensure that the voting goes smoothly. He personally embodies forbearance and tolerance. But the ANC has spent years planning to “take power”. It is the language that Hani and every ANC leader was schooled in. For most South Africans, those words have a happy ring. For a minority, they inspire suspicion and fear. Hani’s death symbolised the hope to come and the conflict accompanying it. There has been no resolution yet, but hope remains strong.