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From the archive: An interview with Nelson Mandela on Bisho, de Klerk and the new South Africa

On 7 September 1992, 28 ANC supporters and one policeman were shot dead in Bisho after protesting in an attempt to have the Xhosa “homeland” of Ciskei reincorporated into South Africa. Less than a month later, Shaun Johnson spoke to Nelson Mandela about h

Nelson Mandela shakes hands with F W de Klerk in 1992. Photograph: Getty Images

Nelson Mandela emerged from his lush and colourful garden, set behind high walls in a formerly all-white Johannesburg suburb. Looking unrealistically relaxed for a septuagenarian with a murderous workload, he held out a long, smooth, prison-preserved hand. His face shone in the warm late afternoon Sunday sunlight of the Highveld.

It was a gentle moment in a hard country; an unusual moment. Looking at one of the two men who shoulder most of the burden for saving South Africa from disaster, it was impossible not to feel a surge of irrational optimism. Optimism that in spite of Boipatong, Bisho, train massacres, the Natal killing fields, a broken economy and broken-off negotiations, the miracle of the “new South Africa” could still happen.

Mandela, who is not always so benign and has been known to turn fiercely on his critics, wanted to communicate precisely this feeling. In the frightening aftermath of the Bisho massacre, when South Africans realised for the first time that Yugoslavia-style civil war was not an impossibility in their country, the ANC leader was about to hold out an olive branch to the Pretoria government. It was up to him and President F W de Klerk to stop the slide into anarchy, he said, and, for that, compromise on both sides was essential. He accepted de Klerk’s invitation to an urgent summit on violence, and said his organisation wanted to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

In a long discussion, Mandela showed his soft side. At one point, he spoke on a personal level about President de Klerk, almost to himself: “I phoned him two days ago,” Mandela said quietly, “and I must say he sounded a bit down. He is a very brave chap, you know, very bright and confident, and it was worrying to hear him sounding so down.” De Klerk’s conversation with Mandela took place a week ago. When it was publicised, the government reacted to the conciliatory tone positively – if cautiously – and the national mood changed at a stroke from one of deep despondency to hopefulness. Ministers let it be known privately that they had been told to clear their diaries for the summit meeting, soon, and ANC negotiators said they sensed a breakthrough. South Africans were shown just how much their destiny depends on psychology.

Five days after Mandela’s intervention, however, things were going awry again. The summit was still on, but it would certainly not take place as quickly as had been hoped. Hardline government ministers were blocking compromises on the three issues that still stand as obstacles to talks – the release of political prisoners, the securing of migrant workers’ hostels and the public carrying of dangerous “traditional” weapons – and some of Mandela’s allies, such as the Communist Party chief Chris Hani, were breathing fire at the gravesides in Bisho.

It is important to understand how we South Africans arrived at this point, in order to predict whether we can find a way beyond it. The formal side of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy began to break down in May this year, at the second plenary session of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa). Among the particular reasons for this was a disagreement between Mr de Klerk’s negotiators, who were insisting on a 75 per cent majority for approval of a new constitution, and those of the ANC, who had offered 70 per cent. There were several other detailed points of difference, but a more profound, and psychological, development was taking place. The process had got beyond the point of rhetoric and ringing declarations about justice and democracy; it was now time to talk about power and the politicians were manifestly unprepared for this. It is this scar that has yet to heal, and which still threatens to destroy the negotiations process and the country.

After Codesa 2, attitudes hardened considerably on both sides of the government/ANC divide, and soon developed into vicious caricatures reminiscent of the Botha era. The ANC, for its part, concluded that the white government had been trying to trick it all along – that in spite of de Klerk’s blandishments, the National Party had no intention of giving up power. The Boipatong massacre in June solidified this view, and very soon de Klerk was being referred to, like Botha before him, as a “murderer”. Where there had been at least ambivalence and at most grudging respect for de Klerk from black leaders, there was now a sense of betrayal, of the confirmation of worst fears. In this atmosphere, ANC leaders embarked on their campaign of aggressive “mass action”: the common wisdom was that the government could not be talked into a settlement, but had to be forced.

On its side, the government turned to its supporters and said: “You see, they are political terrorists after all. They are controlled by communists and they want nothing short of a seizure of power.” A two-way process of demonisation got under way, and swiftly undid the tenuous progress that had been made in the past 18 months towards grudging reconciliation. Both sides still accepted the fact of each other’s existence, but instead of seeking common ground and taking their followers along with them, they let it be known that a settlement would have to be fought out. Once again, they were enemies rather than negotiating partners.

The current state of mind of ordinary South Africans, post Bisho, could not be further removed from the generosity of spirit that briefly asserted itself in the aftermath of de Klerk’s 1990 speech and the release of Mandela. In the ranks of the black majority, there is talk of returning to “armed struggle”, even though it failed before. In the white suburbs, the middle classes, egged on by the bellicose utterances of political warhorses such as Foreign Minister Pik Botha, now say they have had enough of the ANC – as if it is in their power to wish the organisation away. Another joke is doing the dinner-party rounds: “Did you hear that the ANC has released a new calendar? January, February, March, March, March, March . . .”

These attitudes are revealing of the still-racial nature of South Africa’s political ­divide, and in bad times they are fallen back on eagerly by the politicians. If there is to be a settlement with any chance of sticking, something has to give in the two-tone world of South African prejudice.

The biggest danger is that attitudes wi­­­ll be allowed to harden to the extent that leaders will find it difficult to sell compromises to their embittered followers when the time comes. South Africa is in an interregnum of sorts: the old system no longer has the power to suppress its opponents, and its opponents do not have the power to overthrow the old system. De Klerk has to be prepared to give more than he is forced to give, and Mandela has to be prepared to take less than he is able to take. The Bisho massacre frightened both leaders to the extent that, having stared into the abyss of civil war, they drew back. The coming days will tell whether they have the courage to stay there.

Whites, in particular, seem not to be ready for the practical consequences of change; the majority appear to believe that they can stay exactly the same in the new South Africa. This is why it is so critical that de Klerk exercises leadership now. It will soon be two years since he launched his reform programme. In that time, formal power balances have changed not a jot: the government still controls the budget, the security forces, the state and practically everything else that matters in civil society. For this reason alone, it is clear that the impetus for a breakthrough will have to come from de Klerk’s side.

In terms of the summit, Mandela made it clear that an assurance from de Klerk that he would act on his promises to sort out the political prisoner, hostels and weapons issues would be enough to draw the ANC back to the table. Such an assurance has not been forthcoming.

In holding out his olive branch to de Klerk, Mandela was simultaneously sending a message to the revolutionary firebrands within his organisation. These are people who taunt him with the lack of results produced by negotiation with the “regime”. If Mandela cannot point to practical benefits flowing from conciliation, his leadership will face a sore test. He will have to choose between sticking to the path of rapprochement – rewards or no rewards – and bowing to the harsh logic of the militants who want to march on the homeland stronghold of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whatever the cost.

Mandela’s resolution of his own dilemma will affect all South Africans. If he is given the slightest chance by the government, it seems he will put his political credibility on the line and go for the summit, perhaps within weeks. But he knows, as does de Klerk, that this will be no ordinary summit. This one simply cannot afford to fail, as ANC secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa has said: there will have been too many false breakthroughs already. In this critical week in South Africa, Mandela is digging into the political capital he built up over three decades.

The smile on the face of the old man in his garden hides a deep fear for the future if this latest initiative does not work. Now we wait to see whether de Klerk will smile back.