From the NS, 19 January 1990: Mandela at large

After 27 years in detention the release of Nelson Mandela was awaited like a second coming. On the eve of the prison doors opening Ivor Powell wondered if he could fulfil these great expectations.

When Nelson Mandela is ­finally released, the first disappointment is likely to be the absence of attendant trumpeting angels or a darkening of the skies at noon. In the minds of ordinary South Africans, the myth surrounding the world’s most famous political prisoner is so powerful that the man is scarcely any longer flesh and blood.

Here is Lucky, a notorious and hardbitten Soweto gangster on the subject: “Let me get one thing clear. I don’t support the UDF or the MDM or the ANC. I’m not a politician and I’m not waiting for liberation. I’m a man who makes his own freedom. But that man is my leader. He is bigger than all the parties and the movements. I don’t think they can afford to release him because that day there will be chaos in this country.” Lucky sketches a ­scenario in which the people rise up, rally round Mandela; the Boers get their come­uppance; the tyranny is toppled.

The blunt truth is that it’s not going to happen like that. Mandela is going to be released from the limbo of Victor Verster Prison so that he can take his place at the negotiating table. And negotiating a settlement is going to take a very long time. The signs are that the Mandela of real life will preach compromise and conciliation rather than revolution and take-over. In truth he could do little else. If Mandela does hold mass rallies it will still be under the watchful eye of the authorities, and only on their tolerance and after he has applied to the relevant magisterial authorities. And it will only be as a concession from the government that the ANC will cease to be a banned organisation. Pretoria still has the muscle to call the shots in any face to face confrontation. The people may be expecting King Nelson, but, willy-nilly, they are going to get Citizen Mandela.

But Citizen Mandela remains a personage of extraordinary force and prestige, both inside the country and beyond its borders. At least in his absence he looks to be the one figure who could effect unity among the various factions of the South African resistance. Or at least this is how it will appear initially – opposing black politicians will be loath for some time to tackle the myth head on.

One activist returning from a visit to ­Mandela recently described the encounter by saying: “You know all the nonsense that gets written about Mandela, how youthful he is, how he has a stomach like a washboard and can convince you that green is pink? Well it’s all true, he’s even more impressive than that.”

Perhaps the most significant factor though, as far as the ANC is concerned, lies in Mandela’s enormous credibility within the movement itself. As the prospect of negotiations looms, large sectors of the ANC’s internal grassroots support grows increasingly bewildered. Long nurtured on the rhetoric of revolution and the adrenalin of confrontation, the slogans and myth of a total transfer of power, the militant youth is approaching the prospect of negotiations with a certain dubiety. For such as Marcus, an 18-year-old Soweto youth activist, veteran of several ­detentions and tortures, the principle of a negotiated settlement is a hard one to swallow. “If the climate is right I can believe in negotiations,” he says. “We are young and we understand there must be democracy and people’s power. But we don’t understand the best ways of moving in that direction. But there can be no negotiations for the youth without Comrade Mandela. Then we will know that de Klerk is serious and there will be no sell-out.”

However, as the prospect of a settlement looms, cracks are starting to appear in the coalitions which have characterised the resis­tance in the past. Leading trade unionists have been heard to say in private that nothing short of a transfer of power will be acceptable to their membership. And the alliance of the South African Communist Party and the basically social democrat ANC, always only secure in its shared opposition to the South African state, is showing signs of strain. It will fall to Mandela to resolve all these tensions and to re-cement the alliances in the face of all the ideological difficulties and contradictions which loom as reality ­begins to erode the dream.

One difficulty, however, is the trial of the so-called “Mandela Football Team”, the ­private thug detachment surrounding Mandela’s wife Winnie, accused of murdering child activist Stompie Seipei in 1988, which seems to have been carefully contrived to coincide with the release of Mandela. It is more than likely Winnie will be named in the trial.

Though her husband is personally untouched by the scandal, he reportedly blames himself for what he perceives as the lack of guidance given to her. Whatever emerges ­regarding Winnie’s role, Nelson is almost certain to stand by her. Admirable as this attitude is, it may prove politically problematic: she remains one of the most feared and hated women in the country. Should she be deeply implicated by the accused in the trial, her husband may be forced to take a more retiring political role.

One more fact needs to be mentioned in connection with the phenomenon that is Mandela. When his jailers first consulted him regarding his release, he referred the matter back to his fellow prisoners. In secret, the cell block consulted and deliberated, ­finally making the decision by referendum.

For all his charisma, for all the manifest power of his personality, the man is no autocrat. He will abide by the consensus of his comrades. He will no more submit to the pressures of his own personality – or that of his wife – than he will be bought by crumbs from the white man’s table. That is the force de Klerk will now face. That is why blacks look to his release like a second coming.

 

elson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison in Paarl, South Africa on February 11, 1990. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle