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8 July 2020

From the NS archive: Nelson Mandela at large

19 January 1990: On the release of Nelson Mandela, awaited like a second coming.

By Ivor Powell

Thirty years ago, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison after serving 26 years of his life imprisonment term. Ivor Powell was in Johannesburg ahead of the event and took the temperature of the waters there. Mandela’s release was, he said, awaited like a second coming, and the prestige of the man himself was both the greatest hope and greatest threat to a reshaping of South African politics and society. Would the expectations being loaded on to Mandela’s shoulders prove simply too much to bear?


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; things are never the same again.

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 in a situation where the parties still have not so much as agreed upon the rules. While the African National Congress (ANC) is holding out on the far-reaching preconditions for negotiations set out in the Organisation for African Unity’s August 1989 Harare Declaration, the de Klerk faction is evasive, having indicated little more than that talks would be desirable. But these talks are to be conducted along racial group lines, which the ANC emphatically rejects.

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But there is little doubt about Mandela’s commitment to a negotiated settlement. Fatima Meer, his confidante and biographer, in a recent piece in the Indicator SA, diligently hatches out a portrait of Mandela as the man of reason, the father figure you can trust, the man of destiny – the man of negotiations.

The piece, which weaves together the modernity of Mandela’s thinking with the gravity of his traditional tribal authority, is clearly meant as a briefing as much as it is a biography. The movement is being prepared for a crucial role for Mandela in the tortuous process of negotiations. 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 – and the probability is that the crowds will be half a million plus if he does – it will still be under the watchful eye of the authorities, and only on their tolerance and after he has applied, like everybody else, 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. Both on the street and in resistance politics, the personal prestige of Mandela is such as to transcend factional barriers and unite the resistance in the pursuit of a common goal of a free South Africa. 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 there is no more impressive testament to the man than that of the leaders of the nationwide uprisings in 1976. Before the ANC had lost a good deal of ground internally, and the revolt had been led by Black Consciousness (BC) militants, actively hostile to ANC non-racialism and moderation. These same leaders, sentenced to terms of imprisonment on Robben Island, underwent conversions to the ANC cause in their dozens. Coming out of prison, former BC stalwarts went on to become leading figures in the ANC’s internal wing, the United Democratic Front.

According to Fatima Meer, Mandela will be pursuing, as a priority, the cause of unity and the creation of a united front among black interests at the negotiating tables. Already significant moves have been made, largely at Mandela’s instigation, to bring the government-sponsored homeland leaders – traditionally dismissed as sell-outs – back into the fold.

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.

In recent times, the ANC and its unofficial affiliates in the trade unions and the United Democratic Front/Mass Democratic Movement have been vigorously pursuing campaigns of “political education” to supplant earlier phases, in which mobilisation of the masses was seen as being of paramount importance. Underground propaganda groups have been churning out pamphlets and copies of key documents such as the Harare Declaration and the ANC’s constitutional guidelines. Township grassroots structures have discussed at great length the documentation provided as they, too, attempt to comply from their side with the new education directives. MDM speakers have addressed nearly every youth and trade union grouping on the desirability of negotiations. But, for such as Marcus, an 18-year-old Soweto youth activist, veteran of several detentions and tortures, militant from the 1984-86 uprisings, the principle of a negotiated settlement is a hard one to swallow. For Marcus there are only two guarantees: one lies in the preconditions set by the Harare Declaration; the other, and the more important one, lies in the quality of the leadership involved. “If the climate is right I can believe in negotiations,” Marcus 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 – though the public facade remains more or less intact – 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. It is probably the realisation that he is the only one capable of doing so which has prompted the ANC’s external leadership to hint that Mandela will be given a senior position within the movement’s central executive, whatever toes may be trampled in doing so.

There is, however, one thing that may prevent the ANC leadership from doing so. 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, seems to have been carefully contrived to coincide with the release of Mandela. And it is more than likely Winnie will be named in the trial.

Though her husband is personally untouched by the scandal, he has stood by his wife and 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. Despite attempts on the part of the internal leadership to reintegrate Mrs Mandela into the struggle, the degree of venom and mistrust she excited among the township residents has precluded this, and 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.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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