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The Challenge of Freedom
Nelson Mandela had heard this freedom song and its many variations long before his release from Victor Verster Prison in 1990.* The concerted efforts of the state security apparatus and the prison authorities to isolate him from the unfolding drama of struggle – and its evocative soundtrack – could not stop the flow of information between the prized prisoner and his many interlocutors. The influx into prisons, including Robben Island, in the late 1980s of newcomers who were mainly young people from various political formations – preceded in 1976 by the flood of student activists following the upheavals in Soweto and elsewhere – marked the escalation of the struggle and brought with it new songs, each verse a coded commentary on progress or setback, tragedy or comedy, unfolding on the streets. The recurring refrain of the songs was that the South African regime was on the wrong side of history.
Like most people who accept that history has carved for them a special place, and probably being familiar with Emerson’s mordant dictum – ‘to be great is to be misunderstood’1 – Mandela knew that his own legacy depended on the course he had championed: the talks between the government and the ANC. These had started five years prior to his release, when fresh from a check-up at Volks Hospital where he was visited by Kobie Coetsee, the minister of justice, Mandela had broached the question of talks between the ANC and the government.* Coetsee’s presence was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise unrelieved darkness. The year 1985 marked the bloodiest period of the struggle, a time characterised by an irreversibility of intent and a hardening of attitudes among the warring sides that stared at each other from across a great gulf.
Oliver Tambo, the ANC president and Mandela’s compatriot, had just called on South Africans to render the country ungovernable.†2 Mandela, however, realised that the toll would be heavier on the unarmed masses facing an enemy using the panoply of state power. But he was a prisoner, a political prisoner, who, like a prisoner of war, has only one obligation – and that is to escape. Only, his escape from his immediate confinement was irreversibly intertwined with the need for the broader escape, or liberation, of the people of South Africa from the shackles of an unjust order. Having long studied his enemy and having read up on its literature on history, jurisprudence, philosophy, language and culture, Mandela had come to the understanding that white people were fated to discover that they were as damaged by racism as were black people. The system based on lies that had given them a false sense of superiority would prove poisonous to them and to future generations, rendering them unsuited to the larger world.
Separated from his prison comrades on his return from hospital to Pollsmoor Prison, a period Mandela called his ‘splendid isolation’, it was brought home to him that something had to give.‡ He concluded that ‘it simply did not make sense for both sides to lose thousands if not millions of lives in a conflict that was unnecessary’.3 It was time to talk.
Conscious of the repercussions of his actions to the liberation struggle in general and the ANC in particular, he was resigned to his fate: if things went awry, he reasoned, the ANC could still save face by ascribing his actions to the erratic frolic of an isolated individual, not its representative.
‘Great men make history,’ C. L. R. James, the influential Afro-Trinidadian historian writes, ‘but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment.’4
In almost three decades of incarceration, Mandela had devoted time to analysing the country he was destined to lead. In those moments of waiting for word from his captors or for a clandestine signal from his compatriots, he mulled over the nature of society, its saints and its monsters. Although in prison – his freedom of achievement limited by the necessities of his environment – he gradually gained access to the highest councils of apartheid power, finally meeting with an ailing President P. W. Botha, and later his successor, F. W. de Klerk.*
Outside, deaths multiplied and death squads thrived; more funerals gave rise to more cycles of killings and assassinations, including of academics. A new language evolved on the streets, and people became inured to self-defence units and grislier methods of execution, such as the brutal ‘necklace’, being used on those seen as apartheid collaborators.†
In all the meetings Mandela held with government representatives what was paramount in his mind was a solution to the South African tragedy. From De Klerk down to the nineteen-year-old policeman clad in body armour, trying to push away angry crowds, these were men and women of flesh and blood, who, like a child playing with a hand grenade, seemed unaware of the fact that they were careening towards destruction – and taking countless millions down with them.
Mandela hoped that sense would prevail before it was too late. Nearing seventy, he was aware of his own mortality. Perhaps it was in a whimsical mood that he wrote, much later, what amounted to a prophecy:
‘Men and women all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. It would seem that they never existed at all. Others do leave something behind: the haunting memory of the evil deeds they committed against other human beings; the abuse of power by a tiny white minority against a black majority of Africans, Coloureds and Indians, the denial of basic human rights to that majority, rabid racism in all spheres of life, detention without trial, torture, brutal assaults inside and outside prison, the breaking up of families, forcing people into exile, underground and throwing them into prisons for long periods.’5
Like almost all black South Africans, Mandela either had first-hand experience of each violation he cited, or knew of people close to him who had suffered hideously in the hands of the authorities. This was the period of sudden death, where the incidents were reminiscent of titles of B-grade American movies: The Gugulethu Seven. The Cradock Four. The Trojan Horse Massacre.‡ In all of these instances, where young community leaders and activists were killed brutally at the height of state clampdowns in the mid-1980s, the state security agencies either denied complicity or claimed to have been under attack.
Remembering Sharpeville and other massacres perpetrated by the apartheid security forces where scores of people had been maimed or killed through police action, Mandela evokes disturbing images of a ‘trigger-happy police force that massacred thousands of innocent and defenceless people’, and which blasphemes, using ‘the name of God … to justify the commission of evil against the majority.* In their daily lives these men and women, whose regime committed these unparalleled atrocities, wore expensive outfits and went regularly to church. In actual fact, they represented everything for which the devil stood. Notwithstanding all their claims to be a community of devout worshippers, their policies were denounced by almost the entire civilised world as a crime against humanity. They were suspended from the United Nations and from a host of other world and regional organisations … [and] became the polecats of the world.’6
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was an international story that almost overshadowed a major domestic development that had occurred a month earlier. On 15 October 1989, Walter Sisulu was released from prison together with Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Oscar Mpetha, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi.† Five of them, alongside Mandela, had been among the ten accused in the Rivonia Trial of 1963–4,‡ and were his closest comrades.§ Jafta Kgalabi Masemola, co-founder with Robert Sobukwe of the PAC, was also released.¶ Six months later, Masemola died in a car crash, which some PAC members still regard as suspicious.
Mandela had prevailed on the authorities to release the men in Pollsmoor and on Robben Island as a demonstration of good intent. The negotiations for their release had started with Mandela and Botha, and had stalled when, according to Niël Barnard, former head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), due to ‘strong antagonisms in the SSC [State Security Council] these plans [to release Sisulu in March 1989] were put on the back burner’.**7 The release left Mandela with mixed emotions: elation at the freeing of his compatriots and sadness at his own solitude. But he knew that his turn was coming in a few months.
Kathrada recalled how the last time ‘prisoner Kathrada’ saw ‘prisoner Mandela’ was at Victor Verster Prison on 10 October 1989, when he and other comrades had visited Mandela in the house where he was held for the final fourteen months of his imprisonment.
Mandela said to the group, ‘Chaps, this is goodbye,’ and Kathrada et al. said they’d ‘believe it when it happens’. Mandela insisted that he had just been with two cabinet ministers who assured him that his comrades would be freed. That evening, they were given supper in the Victor Verster Prison dining hall instead of being returned to Pollsmoor. And then, just in time for the evening news, a television was brought in and an announcement was made that President F. W. de Klerk had decided to release the eight prisoners: Kathrada, Sisulu, Mhlaba, Mlangeni, Motsoaledi, Mkwayi, Mpetha and Masemola.
The men were returned to Pollsmoor Prison and three days later they were transferred. Kathrada, Sisulu, Mlangeni, Motsoaledi, Mkwayi and Masemola were flown to Johannesburg where they were held at Johannesburg Prison. Mhlaba went to his home town of Port Elizabeth, and Mpetha, who was from Cape Town, remained at Groote Schuur Hospital where he had been held under armed guard while being treated. Then, on the night of Saturday, 14 October, the commanding officer of Johannesburg Prison approached the prisoners and said, ‘We’ve just received a fax from prison headquarters that you are going to be released tomorrow.’
‘What’s a fax?’ Kathrada asked. He had then been in prison for over twenty-six years.8
On 2 February 1990, F. W. de Klerk stood up in Parliament and announced the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and about thirty other outlawed political organisations.* He further announced the release of political prisoners jailed for non-violent offences, the suspension of capital punishment and the abrogation of myriad proscriptions under the State of Emergency.† For many South Africans who had writhed under the jackboot of apartheid rule, this was the proverbial first day of the rest of their lives.
Like almost all political prisoners who would be required by history to service a broader humanity, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Antonio Gramsci, Václav Havel and Milovan Djilas, Mandela was able to impose his will on himself and, to a certain extent, on his captors. He had read everything available to him about the devastating patience of leaders such as Ahmed Ben Bella, Jomo Kenyatta and Sékou Touré, who had persevered through the hardships imposed by colonial administrators and emerged strong – stronger perhaps, given that they had proven that prison could not break their spirit. But Mandela was aware of the changes wrought by the reality of life outside prison. The seduction of office and the invincible allure of power. He had seen it happen in his lifetime, in certain cases with people with whom he had rubbed shoulders, of whom he writes:
‘There were also those who once commanded invincible liberation armies, who suffered untold hardships, yet ultimately succeeded, not only in freeing their people, but also in improving their living conditions. They attracted respect and admiration far and wide, and inspired millions in all continents to rise against oppression and exploitation.’
For Mandela, it was saddening to see some of these leaders, former freedom fighters, going astray. In critiquing their disastrous hubris, he tried to convey the magnitude of the resultant betrayal of the cause. He could also have been expressing his own inner fear of what might happen, when he writes about situations where ‘freedom and the installation of a democratic government bring erstwhile liberators from the bush to the corridors of power, where they now rub shoulders with the rich and mighty’.
He continues that it is ‘in situations of this nature that some former freedom fighters run the risk of forgetting principles and those who are paralysed by poverty, ignorance and diseases; some then start aspiring to the lifestyle of the oppressors they once detested and overthrew’.9
The genesis of these observations can be seen in Mandela’s own life, where discipline was his watchword. He followed a strict regimen of exercise and kept himself in good physical shape. He was used to doing things for himself and continued to do so after his release, on one occasion astounding the cook assigned to him, Warrant Officer Swart, by insisting that he would do the washing up and cook his own meals.
Mandela writes: ‘One day, after a delicious meal prepared by Mr Swart, I went into the kitchen to wash the dishes. “No,” he said, “that is my duty. You must return to the sitting room.” I insisted that I had to do something, and that if he cooked, it was only fair for me to do the dishes. Mr Swart protested, but finally gave in. He also objected to the fact that I would make my bed in the morning, saying it was his responsibility to do so. But I had been making my bed for so long that it had become a reflex.’10
To a large degree, Mandela had observed a soldier’s code of conduct long before his own arrest in 1962. He expected his confrères, members of a select fellowship of committed fighters, to be beyond reproach; the apartheid machinery was rigid and regimented and would need an equally disciplined force to resist and finally overthrow it.
‘Unless their political organisation remains strong and principled, exercising strict discipline on leaders as well as ordinary members alike, [and] inspires its membership, apart from government programmes, to develop social initiatives to uplift the community, the temptation to abandon the poor and to start amassing enormous wealth for themselves becomes irresistible.’11
From inside prison, Mandela had been monitoring world affairs, noting with dismay that not a few of the leaders on the African continent were in the grip of megalomania. From the northernmost point down to the tip of the continent, self-appointed leaders, their uniforms bristling with medals, inflicted untold misery on their subjects in countries where plunder of state resources was the order of the day. The people became prey to famine, violence, pestilence and extreme penury. About this, Mandela says: ‘They come to believe that they are indispensable leaders. In cases where the constitution allows it, they become life presidents. In those cases where a country’s constitution imposes limitations, they generally amend the constitution to enable themselves to cling to power for eternity.’12
Questions about how he was going to lead roiled in his head when the moment of his release came. The larger world promised to introduce complications more daunting than the negotiations he had conducted with his captors, including when he prevailed over the prison authorities about the time and place in which he was to be released. De Klerk’s government had wanted to release him much earlier, and certainly without fanfare, to his home in Soweto, but Mandela had baulked. He wanted to be released in Cape Town where he could thank the people of the city before going home:
‘I was saying that I want to be released at the gate of Victor Verster. From there I’ll look after myself. You have no right to say I should be taken to Johannesburg. I want to be released here. And so eventually they agreed to release me at the gate of Victor Verster.’ In addition, Mandela asked for his release to be postponed by seven days for the people ‘to prepare’.13
It was in prison that Mandela perfected what would later become one of his greatest strengths, the ability to appreciate that a person in front of him, friend or foe, was a complex human being with many facets to his or her personality. One of his regrets, while cameras clicked and the crowds were in rhapsodies over his release on the afternoon of 11 February 1990, was that he had not been able to say goodbye to the prison staff. To him they were more than an assemblage of uniformed functionaries at the sharp end of an unjust regime; they were people with families, who, like everyone else, had anxieties about life.
This, of course, did not mean that Mandela would let evil off the hook, nor was he wilfully oblivious to the excesses of the white apartheid regime. In his single-minded preparation for the future, which had started with the closing of the prison gates behind him, he knew he had to unburden himself of the clutter of resentment and concentrate on what lay ahead. Even if he had started his sentence as an individual, Mandela had been part of a committed fellowship called upon by the exigency of struggle to sacrifice the best years of their lives for a greater good.
Going out alone, with the rest of the Rivonia defendants and fellow prisoners having been released earlier, he knew there would be millions of eyes looking to see what he had become. For months Mandela had been meeting and conducting telephone conversations with a number of people from the ANC and the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella organisation with a broad range of affiliates, including hundreds of youth organisations, scores of civic associations and student organisations. Hours before the actual release, he had consulted with members of the National Reception Committee,* a selection of battle-hardened activists and leaders of the mass democratic movement, which included Cyril Ramaphosa, Valli Moosa, Jay Naidoo and Trevor Manuel, all of whom would play important roles in the future government.† Almost all long-term prisoners have a heightened perception for situations and read them more quickly than others for the simple reason that their survival depends on it. Therefore, while excited at the prospect of being released, Mandela picked up on the anxiety of the ANC representatives who had received very little notice of the change in his release venue from Soweto to Cape Town.
‘The notice was less than twenty-four hours,’ said Valli Moosa. ‘We were quite shocked but none of us gave in to the temptation to ask that he be kept in any longer, though we wanted to ask that.’14
Mandela understood the dilemma that his release posed for both the government and the ANC as a measure of the complexity of the road ahead. On the journey out of Victor Verster he had already told himself that his life’s mission was ‘to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both’.15 This meant that he would have to try and straddle the gulf between the oppressor, represented by the government that had jailed him, and the oppressed: the majority of the people of South Africa in all their diversity. He had already accepted what it would take to achieve that goal. It was a goal that destiny had set for him.
‘The real test of a man,’ Václav Havel writes, ‘is not when he plays the role that he wants for himself but when he plays the role destiny has for him.’16
Much later, Barbara Masekela, a renowned writer and diplomat who was chief of staff in Mandela’s office, echoed this sentiment.* ‘Mandela,’ she said, ‘knew that being president was playing a role – and he was determined to play it well.’17
Playing it well was far from easy, however, and Mandela’s preparations had begun a long time before. In the mid-1980s Mandela had grasped the nettle and explored the possibility of initiating talks between the ANC and the National Party government of De Klerk’s predecessor, President P. W. Botha.† A cartoonist’s favourite, whose scowling countenance and finger-wagging admonishment graced national newspapers, President Botha was one of the last hard men, a hawk nicknamed ‘Die Groot Krokodil’ (The Big Crocodile) for his hard-line stance, who saw brute force as the answer to conflict. But even Botha had learnt from some of his most hawkish generals that the resolution of the South African nightmare could not be achieved through military force alone.
Mandela knew that the cycle of violence was taking its toll on the poorest and most marginalised sections of the population. The restive black majority had its expectations. The benefactors of the apartheid regime – many of them armed and possessed of a formidable capacity to wreak havoc – were also waiting with bated breath for a significant threat to the status quo.
In all this, Mandela had to signal that F. W. de Klerk was a man of integrity, if only to disarm the hardliners who would have chortled with glee if the South African president were further weakened by the ex-prisoner’s rejection. According to the right-wingers’ so-called logic, it was one thing for De Klerk to release the terrorist, and another for the self-same terrorist to call the shots while spurning the hand of his liberator.
For Mandela, conducting the dialogue with the Pretoria regime was like negotiating a route through volatile traffic. He had to act as a buffer between the group of negotiators led by De Klerk and two vehicles coming from different directions – one driven by the expectations of a black majority who would wait no longer, and the other by the right-wing hardliners, influenced by fear and a misplaced sense of righteousness. For Mandela, the derailment of the negotiations before they even started would have been the greatest tragedy. In this regard, he went against the counsel of the representatives of his own organisations, who were uncomfortable about his intention to call De Klerk a man of integrity. When his colleagues bristled at his accommodation of De Klerk he always insisted that he would continue to accept De Klerk as a man of integrity until he was presented with facts to the contrary. Until then, De Klerk was going to be his future negotiating partner.
Mandela was able to see and make a distinction between F. W. de Klerk the man and De Klerk the representative, if not the victim, of a repressive and all-powerful state machine. Perhaps Mandela’s one wish was to work on his political counterpart and wean him from the influence of the political party that espoused apartheid as a policy, a stance he found wholly repugnant.
On this, he would comment later: ‘The apartheid regime, even during the period of negotiations … still believed that they could save white supremacy with black consent. Although the apartheid negotiators tried to be subtle, it was clear right from the start of the talks that the overriding idea was to prevent us from governing the country, even if we won in a democratic election.’
He’d had a foretaste of this stance when he first met President de Klerk while still a prisoner at Victor Verster, on 13 December 1989. He writes:
‘Shortly before that meeting, I had read an article written by the editor of Die Burger, then the official mouthpiece of the National Party, under the pen name of Dawie in which he sharply criticised the concept of Group Rights which was being peddled by that Party as the best solution for the country’s problems. This meant that each population group after the first democratic elections would retain permanently the rights and privileges it had enjoyed before such elections, no matter which political party had won.’
This deception would mean that the ‘white minority would continue to monopolise all the important rights of citizenship. The revolutionary changes demanded by the liberation movement, and for which martyrs across the centuries had paid the highest price, would be stifled. The new government would be unable to provide shelter for the people and quality education for their children. Poverty, unemployment, hunger, illiteracy and disease would be rampant. Die Burger criticised this pseudo policy as introducing apartheid through the back door.’
Mandela pointed out to De Klerk that ‘if their own mouthpiece condemned this idea, he could well imagine what we thought of it. We would reject it out of hand.’18
‘It was at this point that the president impressed me,’ Mandela writes. ‘He conceded that if our movement would not even consider the idea, he would scrap it. I immediately sent a message to the ANC leadership in Zambia in which I described the President as a man of integrity with whom we could do business.’19
Mandela might have been impressed with De Klerk, but it was another matter to sell the proposition to the ANC. The ANC, as has been noted countless times, is another animal altogether, at once a broad church, a liberation movement and a way of life for millions of South Africans. It has been in certain families for generations, passed down from one generation to the next like a family heirloom. Such an organisation inevitably becomes hidebound to tradition, viewing any innovation with suspicion. In its seventy-seven years of existence at the moment when the talks between Mandela and apartheid presidents reached their acme in 1989, the issue of negotiations had never been detailed in its policy. But in exile, the ANC had had to make a realistic appraisal of the situation and the balance of forces. The relentless assault by the South African military machine against Frontline States, an alliance of southern African countries united in opposing apartheid from 1960 to early 1990, for harbouring the ANC, changed the geopolitical character of the region.
More crucial was the ANC’s forced removal from various strategic zones, the most important being Mozambique after President Samora Machel signed the non-aggression pact with South Africa, the Nkomati Accord, on 16 March 1984. This meant that the ANC had to pursue its armed struggle without the benefit of bases in neighbouring states. This put pressure on the leadership to start thinking about what to do with the thousands of displaced cadres in Zambia and Tanzania. In that same year, a mutiny that broke out in the MK camps in Angola shook the leadership, especially as its raison d’être was impatience on the part of MK soldiers who wanted to return home to fight the enemy, instead of being embroiled in the domestic conflict between Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (‘The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola’) (MPLA) troops and the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) (UNITA)) bandits, who were backed by South Africa.* Similar pressure had forced the ANC to assign the Luthuli Detachment of MK into the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in what was then Rhodesia from 1967.* In the camps, in most areas where there was a significant community of exiles, people sang songs invoking a pantheon of heroes and martyrs, including the names of Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo. They sang to dedicate themselves to the struggle and of how they were going to march on Pretoria. Sometimes the revolutionary songs were about the perfidy of agents of the South African regime, some of them one-time comrades who had crossed to the other side. But the most reviled figures, looming large in the collective imagination of the fervent singers, were the succession of apartheid leaders, especially Botha and De Klerk.†
Even before Mandela had actual contact with Botha and De Klerk, rumours of the talks and Mandela’s imminent release had been doing the rounds. In early July 1989, a group of exiled ANC writers on their way to meet with Afrikaner writers and academics at the Victoria Falls stumbled on a whole battery of red-eyed South African and international journalists and TV crews camped outside the Pamodzi Hotel in Lusaka. Acting on what was obviously gross misinformation, the media were keeping vigil outside the airport and at the gates of the ANC headquarters on Chachacha Road downtown, on the off-chance that they would get a scoop if Nelson Mandela were released into the custody of the ANC in Zambia as they had been told. More disturbing, however, were the charges from some youthful firebrands at home and in exile that ‘the old man had sold out’. There was even talk of threats on Mandela’s life.
Notwithstanding this, however, the ANC has consistently possessed an unerring political instinct, seeking, through the years, to find a solution to its problems. Even the men and women under arms, in camps or operating in the underground inside the country, were guided by political principles. There were members of the NEC, the highest decision-making body between conferences, who were hugely uncomfortable with the possibility of a rapprochement with Pretoria. But there was Oliver Tambo, the president, whose credo was decision-making by consensus, who insisted that each aspect of a difficult problem be discussed and analysed, no matter how long it took, until an agreement was reached.
Inevitably, any liberation movement comes to a crossroads where crucial decisions that have a bearing on people’s lives have to be made. OR, as Tambo was affectionately called, made them. Untiring and scrupulous to a fault, he consulted leaders in his own party as well as ensuring that leaders of the Frontline States were briefed on the developments.
Ultimately, it was quite clear to all that talking with the enemy was an idea whose time had come. To strengthen this, representatives of various trade unions and political and civic organisations flew into Lusaka to confer with the ANC and to start mapping out strategies for dealing with the unfolding scenario. The arrival in Lusaka of the grand old men – Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki (who had been released two years earlier), Wilton Mkwayi, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Ahmed Kathrada – and their interaction with the membership, made everything real. It also acted as an escape valve for the pent-up emotions of MK comrades, mainly members of Special Operations working underground, who had grievances about the heightened casualty rate among MK members infiltrating inside the country. It was Walter Sisulu who told the ANC members congregated in Mulungushi Hall, Lusaka, that they should get ready to go home.20
Text copyright © 2017 by Nelson R. Mandela and the Nelson Mandela Foundation