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5 September 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 12:06pm

25 September 1992: The last chance for Peace

Nelson Mandela, hoping to make President de Klerk an offer he cannot refuse, talks to Shaun Johnson

By New Statesman

Nelson Mandela emerged from his lush and colourful garden, set be-hind high walls in a formerly all-white Johannesburg suburb. Looking unrealistically relaxed for a septuagenarian with a murderous workload, the myth now made man 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, the side that endears him so deeply to those close to him. 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. Government 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.

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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 P 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 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 ‘Clerk’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, in today’s atmosphere, is in the possibility 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 to do so. 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. The only hope for a Peaceful solution lies in the hands of de Klerk to Mandela. De Klerk has to be prepared Lo 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 black. 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. The mean-spirited battle over the singing of the white anthem and the waving of the white flag at recent rugby matches bears sad testimony to this, and the longer that the inevitability of non-racial interim government is held off, the more recalcitrant whites will become. 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 towards a settlement will have to come from de Klerk’s side.

In terms of the much-awaited 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, and there is now a danger that a window of opportunity is about to be slammed shut. There is a growing sense among South Africa’s intellectuals that we might be running short of such opportunities, and that to fritter them away for short-term party-political gain is irresponsible in the extreme. 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 months of negotiation with the “regime”. If Mandela cannot point to practical benefits flowing from conciliation this time, his leadership will face a sore test. He will have to choose between sticking to the path of rapprochement—rewards or no re-wards—and bowing to the harsh logic of the militants who want to march on the home-land stronghold of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at Ulundi, 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 deep 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.

Textbox:

Mandela charts the ANC’s long battle for compromise with homelands leaders

You must understand all the efforts we as the ANC have made in order to reach an agreement with all the leaders of the bantustans, and in particular Brigadier Dupa Gqozo [of the Ciskei]. I phoned him several times to raise the question of the lack of free political activity in his area. I have gone to Bisho to see him on two occasions. But to my disappointment, I have found that the clampdown on political activity has continued. The last time I saw him I warned that if we don’t reach an agreement, I can see that there is going to be an explosion in that area.

But it has not worked. For example, in one of our meetings we agreed that we should each lead delegations of ten to a summit. His delegation was composed of seven whites and three Africans. All these whites were seconded from South Africa. We got nowhere.

Then take President Lucas Mangope of Bophutatswana. I have travelled all the way to his capital, Mmabatho, to see him, with my top chaps. I suggested a rally in Bophutatswana, I said he and I should be the main speakers at that rally, in order to remove any fears that we want to overthrow anybody.

He first agreed, but in the same meeting turned back. The discussions broke down. I have phoned him since on numerous occasions and he has avoided me. Every time I have to speak to Pik Botha and say: get your man to pick up the telephone. And then he picks it up. I have done everything in my power to speak to him.

I have done the same thing with [KwaZilln leader] Mangosuthu Buthelezi. I went .to Durban to have a one-to-one discussion with him in April last year, after the failure of out main meeting in January. We decided on certain strategies to curb the violence and to allow free political activity in his area. When nothing came out of these discussions I phoned him and said: ‘Listen, this is an indictment of you and myself. We have now reached a position where neither you nor I are totally innocent in this violence. Let’s come together and address it.’ I went to Durban and I said to him: ‘Your alleged commitment to peace is hollow as long as, you still allow your men to carry weapons of death. Disarm your people.’ He agreed, but said, ‘Let me go back to my people and convey to them your concerns.’ Nothing happened.

You must understand, therefore, the efforts we have made. And the fact that it is quite clear that the government is now fighting an electoral campaign, and that they are using these homelands as areas where they can start with maximum votes, where they have no competition. Natal has 23 per cent of the votes in the country, the Witwatersrand is second with 21. That is why de Klerk is protecting these people, and doesn’t want to interfere with them.

We have done everything in our power. We are left with about two years before elections. We must make sure that all political parties can operate throughout the country when we can’t make progress in discussions with the bantustan leaders affected, what are we expected to do? The ordinary people in these areas want action.

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