The 24 years of Madiba

An unerring instinct to include and create consensus

When Nelson Mandela died in December 2013, it was almost 24 years since he was released from prison. Today, the anniversary of that historic event, veteran writer and activist Mandla Langa reflects on the ethos of inclusion and consensus- building that marked the Mandela years.

Today, South Africa is at the crossroads. There is a cacophony of voices, most of them totally bereft of moral authority that seek to steer us from concentrating on building this country. Mandela alone could not have achieved anything without the backing of his political home.

In December 1993, I had to represent the ANC in an interview with SKY News in Hammersmith, London, to coincide with Nelson Mandela being honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. I remember feeling unbridled joy. This recognition was a symbolic validation of our struggle against apartheid. It was a struggle that had spanned almost five centuries and accounted for bushels of blood.

That elation was cut short when I realised that I would share the studio time with an official from the South African Embassy, since FW de Klerk was a joint recipient of the prize. Immediately I recalled an example that had been set by the Vietnamese General, Le Duc Tho, who had negotiated the end of the Vietnam War. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1973, Le Duc Tho declined it. I naively expected Mandela to follow this revolutionary’s precedent. In fact, soon thereafter, Mandela would dub FW de Klerk an honourable man.

There is no doubt that when Mandela was released on 11 February 1990, the apartheid regime had effectively run out of options to keep a lid on the scalding cauldron of discontent, which threatened to engulf the country from coast to coast. Furthermore, the international isolation coupled with economic sanctions coalesced to pressurise the rulers of the day towards accommodation with the liberation movement. The forces of the ANC, its military wing of UMkhonto We Sizwe, were far from realising the dream of a triumphant entry into Pretoria.

Mandela must have known that he, at the head of the ANC, was parleying with a wily regime. What was foremost in his thinking, however, was that he was championing a just cause. His first entreaty to warring factions in KwaZulu Natal was that people should throw their weapons into the sea. It was a futile call, predicated on the belief that all people, however aggrieved, are open to rational thought. It was in the howls of protest that greeted this appeal that must have shown him that the wounds run deep. Still he soldiered on, reining in his own comrades while striving to woo a skittish volk whose representatives threatened to plunge the country into civil war.

On the events in South Africa and the hurdles facing the Palestinians, Afif Safieh, the then UK representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, observed that, in pursuit of peace and survival, the PLO had had to be “unreasonably reasonable” in its dealings not only with the enemy but also with the reluctant governments hosting it in neighbouring countries. Mandela’s equanimity or the mask of reasonableness, which he wore into these negotiations, would slip in the face of wanton outrages by the regime. When, for instance, upwards of fifty ANC supporters were massacred in Boipatong, on 17 June 1992, he rebuked FW de Klerk, threatening to call off the talks.

If, since emerging from the gates of Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela had been the president-in-waiting, he effectively seized power in his television address to the people of South Africa. This was on 13 April 1993, following the assassination of Chris Hani three days earlier. The country teetered on the brink of civil war, a circumstance averted by Mandela’s words. He said:

Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being.

A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster.

A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin.

It was perhaps those words that summed up the Mandela years, from his confident stride out of the prison gates to the last goodbye. He has an unerring instinct towards creating consensus among factions that might have been staring at one another from across a great gulf. The establishment in 1995, a year into his presidency, of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, was a master-stroke in ensuring that all South Africans, the perpetrator and the victim could find common cause.

It is exactly the absence of a coherent voice, a vacuum that spawns charlatans and pretenders, where I remember a clip from a newsreel after the assassination of Malcolm X in New York, in February 1965. Watching the looting of a store in Harlem during the ensuing riots, an old black woman shakes her head. “Lord,” she says wistfully, “how we need Malcolm now.” Legions of our countrymen and women share that sentiment, transposing Malcolm’s name for Mandela’s.

Mandela is gone and the only pang of nostalgia we might experience should be channelled towards fashioning a liveable future for the new generations.

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