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.

 

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.