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.