At times it feels that we are sliding backwards from the freedom Mandela worked for, rather than progressing, says Fanie Du Toit.
Cape Town - In the final pages of Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela talks about how the quest to be free has been the driving force of his life. As a young boy herding cattle across the fields of Transkei he felt free in every way he could know; free to swim in the streams that criss-crossed the local village, free to roast mealies under the stars, free to ride the bulls he guided along the narrow footpaths.
When he moved to Johannesburg, he discovered that his boyhood freedom had been an illusion, and that his freedom had already been taken from him by apartheid. So began his fight for the basic individual freedoms, to marry, to achieve his potential, to earn and to have a family. A shrewd and tenacious lawyer was born.
But slowly he began to realise that his was not a unique fight, that his brothers and sisters too, were not free. That is when he joined the ANC and turned freedom fighter, working for the freedom of everyone “like him”. This, he reflected, turned a law-abiding attorney into a criminal, a family-loving husband into a man without a home, a life-loving man into a monk.
Finally, Mandela writes, it was in prison that his hunger for the freedom of his own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. “I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed”.
And I, as one of the beneficiaries of apartheid, remember that the day Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, was the day I felt more liberated and more thankful than on any other single day of my life. When I saw him in person for the first time, ironically during a visit to the United Kingdom, I was the proudest South African alive.
Mandela became the personification of all the reasons why I had changed my political loyalty from Afrikanerdom to being a South African citizen. I was no longer first Afrikaner and then South African. I was now happy to be South African first and whatever else second.
The fact that some whites have remained silent and distrusting, cocooned in middle-class comfort, even in the face of such magnanimity, and that apartheid inequality still destroys lives today, cannot detract from the greatness of Mandela’s grace.
He, and the movement he stood for and led over many decades, liberated white and black South Africans from the most systematically racist system the world had ever known. For this he deserves a place among the world’s greatest ever leaders.
For anyone who glibly says that reconciliation was a cheap way out of apartheid, Mandela’s 27 years in prison provide the starkest possible rejoinder. Reconciliation could never be cheap if offered at such a profound cost.
Reconciliation the Mandela way, however, was not only an act of extraordinary moral greatness. It was also, perhaps primarily, pragmatic and extremely shrewd politics. Mandela was no moralist, nor was his aim to spiritualise politics. He could play politics as hard as anyone, and did so, perhaps most famously, in his public spats with FW de Klerk during the Codesa talks. Who can forget the day he told De Klerk that even the head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime had certain moral standards to uphold and that he, De Klerk, had no excuse just because he was the head of such a discredited regime, not to uphold moral standards. He was tough as nails.
His choice for promoting reconciliation as the politics of choice after apartheid was based on his realism. He understood to what degree whites and blacks had always been interdependent. He understood that apartheid’s racism was, in the final instance, also unrealistic and utopian. He saw that white and black needed one another, and that serving black aspirations meant addressing white fears. His original motivation to join the struggle, the liberation of black South Africans, could be achieved in the most realistic fashion if white South Africans were taken along in the process.
In the well-known telephone conversation with General Constand Viljoen after the South African Defence Force’s (SADF) botched attempt to deploy troops to the former Bophuthatswana, Mandela told Viljoen more or less the ANC could not defeat the SADF militarily but too, that “you cannot kill us all”. He pointed out that sooner or later they would have to talk. Why not now, Mandela asked Viljoen, “before we destroy the country and one another and end up having very little to negotiate over?”
As a political realist, Mandela had to contend with the more ideological factions of both Afrikaner and African nationalism on either side of the negotiations. He had to convince the hotheads that a pragmatic approach, the reconciliation way, would be the best for everyone. And he, together with De Klerk, did this.
We are very far from the freedom Mandela worked for. And at times it feels that we are sliding backwards, rather than progressing. We are looking for answers, and sometimes Mandela’s reconciliation politics is blamed for the current malaise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Would it not have been for him, we would probably not even have had the luxury to pose the question: whereto from here? – because we as South Africans, would not have been here at all.
Counterfactual speculation is always risky, but it is entirely possible that without Mandela and the leadership around him, South Africa today would have been a wasteland, a place of horrendous violence and no hope at all.
Seamus Heaney famously wrote “once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme”. In Nelson Mandela South Africa was given a leader who knew how to rhyme hope and history, moral courage and real politics. He extended the grace of a second chance to his oppressor and won, in the process, the best possible outcome for the oppressed – a chance of a better life. That so many South Africans are not yet enjoying the fruit of this liberation is not his fault, it is ours.
In one of our more tragic political episodes since 1994, the ANC decided to seek a court order to block the release of the final TRC report in 1998. According to Thabo Mbeki, the report was no more than “lies, lies and more lies”. An outraged Desmond Tutu vehemently opposed the court action saying that he had opposed one oppressor and would do it again. It is a matter of historical record that the TRC won the day in court and later presented President Mandela with the report.
In accepting the report, Mandela offered these words: “Today we reap some of the harvest of what we sowed at the end of a South African famine. And in the celebration and disappointment that attends such harvest, we know that we shall have to sow again, and harvest again, over and over, to sustain our livelihood; to flourish as a community; and for our generation to know that when we finally go to rest forever, our progeny will be secure in the knowledge that two simple words will reign: Never Again!”
* Dr Du Toit is the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (www.ijr.org.za).
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers