By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“In the 20th Century he was one of the few who, in contrast with those who made it infamous for fascism, racism, dictatorship and war, marked the era as one that achieved some human advancement…. Nelson Mandela belongs to the world”. – Nadine Gordimer[i]
In 1993, as South Africa hovered in a twilight time between an Apartheid-past and a post-Apartheid future, two men planned a murder. Janusz Walusz, a neo-Nazi, and Clive Derby-Lewis, a Conservative Party parliamentarian, were readying to ignite a racial-civil war to keep Apartheid alive. Their plan was to kill a popular black leader and provoke the already simmering townships into bloody mayhem. The white-majority military will intervene to protect order and white-lives, they believed; and Apartheid will be saved.
Their chosen target was Chris Hani, the second most popular ANC leader, hero of rebellious young blacks, former head of Umkhonto we Sizwe[ii], chief of the South African Communist Party and the man widely believed to be Mandela’s handpicked political heir[iii]. Hani had played a key role in the negotiations which ended Mandela’s imprisonment. He was also involved in the talks to end Apartheid and bring about a democratic South Africa.
The first part of the plan worked; Hani was gunned down by Walusz outside his home in the morning of 10th April 1993. A traumatised land teetered on the edge of a calamitous civil conflict, but did not fall. That same evening Nelson Mandela addressed the nation: “This is a watershed moment for all of us”, he told his people waiting for a sign. “We must not let the men who worship war and who lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country into another Angola.”[iv]
His appeal worked. Though some violence did happen, the Armageddon Hani’s killers were counting on was prevented and South Africa’s march to freedom saved.
Mandela’s plea in that desperately dangerous hour may not have worked so well, had he or the ANC made any compromises with Black-supremacism during their long struggle. But they had not. Their vision and their actions had been uncompromisingly non-racist. They regarded Apartheid not as a crime against blacks but as a crime against humanity. Whites – and other non-white people – were actively encouraged to take part in the struggle. And a minority of committed whites did participate at every level; they too were hunted by the Apartheid state, arrested, tortured and sometimes killed. Black South Africa’s list of heroes and martyrs included quite a few white men and women. It was the ANC’s conscious and consistent refusal to respond to the Apartheid state’s toxic ‘white vs. black’ politics with an equally noxious ‘black vs. white’ politics which saved South Africa from a violent hell 20 years ago.
An Icon of Fraternity
Before there could be Nelson Mandela the global icon of peace and reconciliation, there was Nelson Mandela the angry young man. The leitmotiv of his life was not non-violence or moderation. He championed the cause of armed struggle against the opposition of the ANC’s own ancien regime (the then ANC leader Albert Lutuli was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to non-violence), was the founder-leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe and even went for military training in Algeria and Ethiopia. His totally constant political quality was his abiding belief that South Africa should be the equal home of all her people. That fundamental sense of tolerance, that refusal to define humanity by race, colour, tribe, religion or any other divide defined his and ANC’s politics.
The path to liberation that Mandela/ANC espoused was colour-blind. Anyone who was outraged by Apartheid and willing to struggle against it had a place to occupy and a role of play in that struggle. Perhaps Mandela’s and the ANC’s total commitment to non-racism is best symbolised in the history of Umkhonto. Taking up arms against the white state was the deadliest form of resistance, a ‘treasonous act’ meriting death. Considering the risks, that venture required total trust, commitment and reliability. Umkhonto was truly a multi-racial venture, a worthy forerunner of Mandela’s future rainbow nation. Mandela founded it together with white communist Joe Slovo. Its leading figures included many non-blacks: Fred Carneson (white/Communist), Jack Hodgson (white/Communist), Ahmed Kathrada (born of Indian-Muslim parents), Arthur Goldreich (white/Jewish), Dennis Goldberg (white/Jewish) and Ronald Kasrils (white/Jewish).
Ordinary blacks, living the horrors of white-racism in their daily lives, would yet have the example of some whites who risked life and freedom to liberate South Africa. That would have been a potent impediment to the degeneration of anti-Apartheid struggle into an anti-white war.
The incarceration of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mabeki and other top ANC leaders (Oliver Tambo was working in exile) created a leadership vacuum in the anti-Apartheid struggle. This was briefly filled by another South African great, Steve Biko who argued that blacks should liberate themselves through their own efforts. Biko was not a black-racist and he did not want to see a white-racist South Africa replaced with a black-racist South Africa. But he believed in promoting black self-reliance and empowering blacks psychologically. We will never know what South Africa would have been like, had Biko’s Black Consciousness movement supplanted the ANC and its multi-racial politics. But it is reasonable to assume that such a South Africa would not have been able to resist the diabolical lure racial civil war as totally as Mandela’s country did.
Mandela’s and the ANC’s refusal to imitate Apartheid’s divisive rules or intolerant creed saved South Africa from another very possible horror – tribal war. As Apartheid rule neared its inglorious finale, there were real fears of Zulu-dominated Inkatha igniting a tribal-war with the help of recalcitrant White-supremacists. Though most top ANC leaders of that time were Xhosa, the organisation had principally abjured tribal-politics. Had Mandela/ANC dabbled with the tribal-card, a black-on-black confrontation might have torn independent South Africa apart.
Means do shape ends. A Black-supremacist ANC could not have created a multi-racial South Africa. The new state’s national anthem symbolised the unapologetically tolerant, consensual and inclusive approach to nation/state-building championed by Mandela and the ANC. Combining parts of the ANC’s battle-hymn and the old Apartheid anthem, it is sung in five languages[v]; the end result is a beautiful harmonious whole[vi].
It was perhaps Mandela’s refusal to accept limitations to his humanity which made him traverse a different path from Robert Mugabe. Mugabe believed that his status as a liberation-hero placed him above the common humanity. Considering himself infallible he used tribalism and racism to protect his power. Mandela did not. He refused become a Superman of Nietzschean-mould, governed democratically and left power voluntarily.
In a speech commemorating Ruth First[vii], Mandela said, “It is a small consolation that her memory lives beyond the grave, that her freedom of spirit infuses many committed to an open society, rigorous intellectual thought, courage and principled action.”[viii] So it is with Mandela. His example, and the institutions, practices and beliefs he helped fashion, will hopefully enable South Africa to survive the execrable excesses of Jacob Zuma.
Mandela appealed to the best and not the worst in his people. He proved the possibility of Utopia. It is a worthy dream to cleave to.
[i] Keynote Speech at the AI’s Ambassador of Conscience Award to Nelson Mandela
[ii] The Spear of the Nation – the armed wing of the ANC
[iii] In his funeral oration for Hani, Mandela referred to Hani’s widow Limpho as ‘Our daughter-in-law’ – a clear indication of the politico-personal bond which existed between the two men.
[v] Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English
[vii] White communist leader and wife of Joe Solvo; South African secret police used a parcel bomb to kill her.