Remembering Nelson Mandela: the origins of hope and despair

Nelson Mandela emerging from Victor Verster Prison, 11 February 1990, Reuters

Nelson Mandela emerging from Victor Verster Prison, 11 February 1990, Reuters

Sunday afternoon in 1990. 11 February in Port Elizabeth. The height of summer, just after schools have returned for the start of the year. The wind howls as the air tears down South Africa’s long coast.

That day was calm. The country held its breath.

Thousands gathered at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, about an hour outside Cape Town. They were waiting for the unhoped-for release of one man: Nelson Mandela.

I, 16 years old, poised in front of the television with my camera on a tripod. I knew it was probably futile trying to catch an image, but I wanted somehow to hang on to this moment.

The hours dragged on. The crowd was patient. 27 years since he had vowed to give his life to the freedom struggle and had been jailed by a wary government. Then, the iconic moment; a slender, smiling Mandela his arm raised in triumph alongside a beaming Winnie Mandela.

My maternal grandmother, staunch Communist and founding member of the Friends of Russia Society, then about 85 years old, had a friend drive her to Cape Town City Hall so they could hear him speak.

I watched on television, doing my best to comprehend who all these people were. Images of Mandela had been banned. Our school history lessons were devoid of any mention of the ANC and Apartheid. Every newspaper carried the warning that they were censored. There was no place for a young, middle-class white boy to get information. All I could do was hang on and hope it would all make sense.

My grandmother and I spoke a few days later. She had been disappointed with the speech. “He didn’t give up the armed struggle,” she said. I was still hoping for the best.

It would be a long time coming. And many would die along the way.

“But it isn’t going to happen that way,” I said. “Voting and jobs are different things. If you get one it doesn’t necessarily mean you get the other. It will take time. Even elections are going to take a few years. How long are you prepared to wait?”

Many people, it turned out, weren’t prepared to let anything change, or to wait.

Massacres in Bisho, Boipatong, Saint James Church, Shell House. And, countless murders, necklaces, and brutal mob violence.

“Together, hand in hand, with that stick of matches, with our necklace, we shall liberate this country,” said Winnie Mandela. And she meant it.

“Necklacing” involved beating the victim to a pulp, binding him by squeezing his body into old car tyres, then covering him with petrol and setting him on fire.

Anyone living through the period of 1990 to 1994 must have been convinced that there would be no end to violence in South Africa.

All through this, Mandela played the most calculated, delicate and brutal game of his life.

The ANC in 1990 was not the ANC of 1963. Mandela’s generation were educated professionals. Many of his friends who had survived the arrests of the ‘60s had taken their children and fled into exile. Those who remained had abandoned peaceful protest and taken to the streets. They, and their children, gave up education and opportunity in exchange for the armed struggle.

The ANC was wracked with division: the returning exiles seen as aloof and patronising, the young fire-brands seen as violent and uncompromising, the small group of white and Indian members forming part of the isolated non-racial wing, the Communists, and the Unions.

A split, after a 1959 fall-out, had led to the creation of the hyper-active Pan African Congress, whose members had suffered tremendous violence. There were numerous other struggle organisations.

The National Party, then still in charge, had their secret police, the army, the police and all of the civil infrastructure. Much of the violence was laid squarely at their door, but there was no proof.

Greg Marinovich, writing in the Bang Bang Club, said that, despite every journalist in the country hoping to catch the military in the act, no-one ever captured an image of the soldiers behind the massacres.

Mandela had to pick his way through this turmoil. The ANC, while a member of the fight against Apartheid, was not the obvious leader. Many organisations had grown and proliferated after the ANC’s banning. These ranged from violent Marxist agitators, to moderate multiracial liberals, to libertarian freemarketeers. Until it would be put to majority vote it was unclear who had what level of support.

Mandela’s objectives were to secure the ANC’s leading position at the negotiating table, draw all the other protest movements into line behind him, and then negotiate with the Nationalists.

Many deals were made, both inside the ANC and out. The ANC became an Alliance. Many of those deals still bite.

On 27 April 1994 the violence cleared and we voted.

That period, 1990 to 1994, is when the foundation for the future state was set. Mandela’s biography, Long Walk to Freedom, is frustratingly thin on detail. No other books have done justice to what must have been a complex and critical period of negotiation.

The first cabinet that emerged was a hodgepodge. A new constitution would only be passed in 1996. Until then the ANC would share with the National Party; 17 cabinet positions to the ANC, 6 to the NP.

Along with some genuinely brilliant surprises (like Trevor Manuel, who would go on to so ably lead Finance, to Tito Mboweni who would become Governor of the Reserve Bank), there were some evil people.

Joe Modise, who headed Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s army in exile, including running their prison and torture camps, became head of the Military. Sibusiso Bengu, at Education, who eviscerated the education system with Marxist theory and destroyed the hopes of children past 1994. Alfred Nzo, who dozed off at Foreign Affairs. Stella Siqcau, who started the looting at Public Works. And Jeff Radebe, Mac Maharaj, Dullah Omar and Winnie Mandela.

This became Mandela’s legacy: along with the feel-good Mandela shirts and dancing shuffle, along with international celebration, the country began to fail.

In lessons that would not be learned later in Iraq and other recently-liberated countries, the ANC retrenched tens of thousands of its most qualified white teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges and administrators. They all took their payouts and entered the private sector or emigrated.

While Mandela played the international titan: being hailed by millions for not presiding over massacres and devastation (say, like, for instance Egypt or Libya in 2012), visiting the queen, donning the South African rugby jersey at the World Cup in 1996. His comrades got on with business.

In 1998, Mandela’s government announced that, after a strategic review, the entirety of the state military hardware was to be replaced in a $4.8 billion arms deal.

With Mandela’s hands-off approach to government, and with the institutions of state still untested, the darkness at the heart of the struggle emerged. Everyone who had even a slight chance of gaining some income had their special advisors and deals. The corruption took in the whole of the ANC.

Those who stood against it were isolated and removed. In the ANC, no-one goes to jail for corruption, and no-one loses their jobs for incompetence. Embarrassing the ANC, though, is certainly a recipe for investigation and incarceration.

“I didn’t join the struggle to be poor,” said Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC official spokesman in parliament, representing the views of many in office.

Many people have asked me if it would have made any difference if Mandela had stayed on for a second term. Would the corruption and state failure have gotten so bad?

Consider AIDS. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the majority government’s first health minister, refused to have anything to do with the topic. Mandela, famously uncomfortable discussing sex, avoided it and only – out of office and after one son died of the disease – spoke about it when it would make no difference.

Dlamini-Zuma is also an ex-wife of Jacob Zuma, the current president.

The surprise is not that Zuma is in charge, it is that Thabo Mbeki ever got the chance. As a returning exile, he had no real support base in South Africa. He became Mandela’s heir by dint of careful planning and strategic manoeuvring. The rest of the ANC prefer guile and cunning.

Mbeki was terrible for HIV/AIDS but he was a good administrator and supported useful checks on state power. This came into conflict with the emerging corruption super-powers.

Mbeki turns out to have been a minor detour on the path to a party asserting its right to enjoy the good life and ignore the responsibility of government.

The party of liberty and representation has become the party of looters and liars.

Mandela certainly knew this was happening. When Winnie Mandela was charged with murder and corruption, the ANC – recognising her popularity amongst the youth – got behind her. Mandela dutifully supported her. She was found guilty but has never been sentenced. No ANC government would ever jail her.

For Mandela, first amongst everything, is a loyal ANC cadre. The organisation is not so much led by individuals as by a cabal of vested interests. He suffered and struggled for that organisation. He could no more turn against it or criticise it than he could turn against himself.

The ANC set about reinventing history. Removing other parties from the struggle narrative. Helen Suzman, who – in opposition – indefatigably represented the small swathe of dedicated liberals in parliament during the years of Apartheid, has been accused by ANC spokesman, Moloto Motopha, as being complicit in Apartheid and “wanting to kill us.”

This is the same woman who Mandela recalls in his biography: “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard.” Suzman had used her parliamentary privilege to visit ANC prisoners and ensure that they were not tortured.

In 2002, Mandela spoke of how Suzman’s “courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa” and to let her know “how fortunate our country feels for having had you as part of its public life and politics.”

The ANC of today cannot recognise that anyone else played any role in the struggle for freedom.

Mandela was certainly a leading part of the transition to majority rule. He ensured that South Africa’s international legacy would be secure. He helped a small nervous population of hold-out racists at least give his government a chance.

He also came to epitomise the hopes that all of us have for the future: freedom from fear, freedom from discrimination, freedom of choice, freedom of opportunity and freedom of conscience.

Our hopes, though, blinded us to his very human failings. His inability to confront the dark interests in his own party and to tolerate incompetence and corruption.

Many are still blinded by his light. The ANC, increasingly incapable and criminal, holds him up like a fig-leaf. More than anyone, they’re terrified of his passing. Without Mandela to hide behind, the electorate might just notice what a terrible job they’re doing.

Like striving youth in Egypt, Brazil and Turkey, they might turn out in their millions to complain. Then what?

Mandela’s passing is unlikely to trigger a civil war, which so many fear, but it may mark the high-water line of ANC privilege. They may still trade in his death for one big election victory in 2014.

And then the ANC that Mandela helped create will, too, start to pass.

At his going, I choose to remember most the optimism and joy of a young boy watching the emergence of a hope for change as one of history’s great figures walked out of prison, his arms held high, and his face a beam of delight and wonder.

3 replies »

  1. Reading this wonderful essay, Gavin, I was reminded of another towering figure we lost this year: Chinua Achebe. Your essay reminded me of the themes Achebe explores in ANTHILLS OF THE SAVANNAH: how reliance on the “great man” is, in one form or another, always a delusion.

  2. Wonderful exploration of a quite complicated subject. A great man, but great men aren’t always good. What a damnably difficult notion.