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

 

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Guns and bullets and nothing more: The Syrian Kurds fighting Isis

They are the US-led coalition's main ally in the fight against Isis, but as Turkey keeps bombing them, the sense of betrayal is growing.

A sense of a betrayal pervaded the funeral, giving an angry edge to the mourners’ grief. The Kurds were used to the Turks killing their people. It was almost expected. What was different in their attitude to the killing of the 14 men and women buried that hot afternoon in the cemetery at Derik, among 20 fighters killed by Turkish air strikes just three days earlier, was that it had occurred under the watchful auspices of the Syrian Kurds’ big ally: America.

So when a US armoured patrol arrived at the edge of the cemetery in northern Syria, the American troops had been met with sullen stares and silence. I watched Aldar Khalil, one of the most influential advisers with the local Syrian Kurdish administration, approach the US army officer while a cordon of armed YPG fighters surrounded the patrol to keep civilians away.

“I told the American officer how angry people felt,” he told me afterwards, “and advised them that as soon as they had achieved what they wanted to at the funeral they should go. Emotions are high. People expected more.”

The air strikes had been far more significant than anything previously visited by the Turks on the YPG, the Syrian Kurd fighting group that has become the Americans’ primary ally in the forthcoming battle to capture the city of Raqqa from Isis. Operations to shape the battlefield around the militants’ capital are ongoing, and some sections of the front YPG units, the mainstay of the anti-Isis alliance, are now less than four kilometres from the outskirts of Raqqa.

However, the entire operation was thrown into jeopardy early on the morning of 25 April, just days before US officials confirmed that President Donald Trump had authorised the direct supply of weapons to the YPG. Turkish jets repeatedly bombed the YPG’s main command centre on Qarachok Mountain, just above the small town of Derik, destroying ammunition stocks, a communications centre and accommodation blocks. The dead included Mohammed Khalil, a top commander involved in planning the Raqqa operation.

The attack immediately drove a wedge between US troops and the Syrian Kurds, who felt they had been knowingly betrayed by the United States, which had acted as the YPG’s ally in the fight for Raqqa with the one hand while allowing its fellow Nato and coalition member Turkey to stab the YPG in the back with the other.

“There were a couple of days after the Qarachok strikes when several of our leading commanders, and many of our people, put on the pressure to withdraw our forces from the Raqqa front altogether and send them to protect our borders with Turkey,” Khalil, the Syrian Kurd adviser, told me. “They wanted to stop the Raqqa operation. We had to explain very carefully that this was [the Turkish president] Erdogan’s goal, and to persuade them to continue.”

Senior YPG commanders suffered deep personal losses in the Turkish air strikes. Among the mourners at Derik was ­Rojda Felat, a joint commander of the overall Raqqa operation. Standing beside the grave of Jiyan Ahmed, one of her closest friends, she clasped a portrait of the dead woman in her hands.

“She survived fighting Da’esh [Isis] in Kobane, in Tal Hamis and Manbij,” Felat said. “She survived all that, only to be killed by a Turkish jet.”

Later, illustrating the fragile contradictions of the coalition’s alliances, Felat explained that she had gone to sleep in the early hours of 25 April, after finishing a series of late-night planning meetings with British and US officers at the forward headquarters she shares with them on the north side of Lake Assad, Syria’s largest lake, when word of the air strikes came through.

“It was very clear to me that the Americans I was with had not known about the air strikes,” said Felat, 35, a legendary figure among Syria’s Kurds whose role models include Napoleon and the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “They could see how upset and angry I was to learn in an instant that so many friends had been killed, and the Americans dealt with that compassionately. I was extremely distressed, to say the least,” she added, looking away.

Within a few hours of the strikes, Felat was on a US helicopter alongside US officers flown to Qarachok to assess the damage in a very public display of US-YPG solidarity.

The Americans were quick to try to mitigate the damage to their Kurdish allies. A further 250 US troops were sent into Syria to run observation patrols along the Syria-Turkey border in an attempt to de-escalate the tension, bringing the number of US troops there to more than 1,200. In addition, US weapons consignments to the Syrian Kurds increased “manifold” in a matter of days, Felat said.

Yet these measures are unlikely to stop the fallout from a strategy – that of arming the Syrian Kurds – which risks broadening Turkey’s overall conflict with the YPG, unless certain crucial political objectives are attained parallel to the push on Raqqa.

Turkey, at present regarded as a mercurial and mendacious “frenemy” by Western coalition commanders, perceives the YPG as a terrorist organisation that is an extension of its arch-enemy the PKK, a left-wing group demanding greater auton­omy within Turkey. Hence Ankara’s deep concern that the YPG’s growing power in Syria will strengthen the PKK inside Turkey. The Turks would rather their own proxies in Syria – an unattractive hotchpotch of Syrian Islamist groups mistrusted by the West – reaped the rewards for the capture of Raqqa than the YPG.

Although US commanders find the YPG more reliable and militarily effective than the Turkish-backed Islamist groups, the Syrian Kurds are a non-state actor, a definition that ensures B-grade status in the cut and thrust of foreign policy. Nevertheless, recalling the painful lesson of 2003 – that military success is impotent unless it serves a political vision – the US should be devoting energy to imposing conditions on the supply of arms to the YPG as a way of containing Turkish aggression against their ally.

Salient conditions could include the YPG disassociating from the PKK; a cessation in repressing rival political parties in YPG areas; the withdrawal of YPG fighters from northern Iraq, where they are involved in a needless stand-off with Iraqi Kurds; and an agreement by the YPG to withdraw from Raqqa, an Arab city, once it is captured.

As a quid pro quo, and in return for the YPG blood spilled in Raqqa, the Syrian Kurds should have their desire for autonomy supported; have the crippling trade embargo placed on them by the government of Iraqi Kurdistan lifted; and, by means of buffer zones, have their territories protected from further attacks by Turkey and its Islamist proxies.

So far, none of these measures is in play, and comments by US officials have only strengthened a growing suspicion among Syria’s Kurds that they will be discarded by the US the moment the YPG have fulfilled their use and captured Raqqa.

“We have not promised the YPG anything,” Jonathan Cohen, a senior US state department official, told the Middle East Institute in Washington on 17 May – a day after President Erdogan’s visit to the US. “They are in this fight because they want to be in this fight. Our relationship is temporary, transactional and tactical.”

Cohen further said: “We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops.”

The sense of betrayal felt by the mourners at Derik was perfectly understandable. But Syria’s Kurds should not be so surprised the next time it happens. America, it seems, has promised them nothing more than guns and bullets. 

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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