From prisoner to president

Nelson Mandela is poised to lead a divided land crackling with psychosis

BRUCE WALLACE April 25 1994

From prisoner to president

Nelson Mandela is poised to lead a divided land crackling with psychosis

BRUCE WALLACE April 25 1994

Here comes the old man at last. Never on time. To the outside world, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is the Last Great Man, the moral crusader of his era, but in South Africa he is just “the old man”—spoken with affection. On this cloudy afternoon, the 75year-old leader of the African National Congress (ANC) is also the candidate. And as he takes his campaign for the South African presidency into Orlando Stadium in Soweto, 15,000 people in rickety stands, held back by high fencing and barbed wire, go crazy for their hero.

In Canada, there is a political adage that a party must be capable of running smooth meetings to prove that it is fit to run a country. If that is any measure, South Africa under the ANC will be a ball of confusion. Mandela’s security is awful. He wades into crowds, punching his clenched fist into the air like the boxer he once was. Mayhem rules. Furious but outnumbered bodyguards push photographers back, frenzied people reach through the cordon to touch him, and anyone who tries hard enough can get close. It is a frightening sight at a time when a single assassin’s bullet could plunge the country into catastrophe, and there are any number of armed fanatics eager to fill the role.

Mandela, who was released in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars for his political beliefs, is not a spellbinding speaker. He loses the crowd’s attention at times, although he draws cheers when he attacks outgoing President F. W. de Klerk’s National Party as “a mouse about to disappear into the darkness.”

But he takes a tough line with his own supporters as well. He appeals for peace, and tells them that ANC members, like their opponents, should surrender their weapons to South Africa’s security forces. “We have a duty to ensure that the police and army have legitimacy and credibility,” he says.

Unfortunately, the message is lost on the thousand or so ANC supporters at the back of the stadium. Moments after Mandela wheels out of the rally in a convoy of Mercedes and BMWs, they file out on foot, waving spears, fighting sticks and shields. On the way back to their township homes and hostels, they even fire a few taunting shots from homemade guns over the heads of the security forces, positioned along the route to discourage clashes between ANC and Inkatha supporters.

The peacekeeping effort, and Mandela’s plea, fail. Over the marchers’ chants and singing comes the unmistakable pop of gunfire, and a chest-thudding fear swells as they scream and scatter. Behind them, soldiers kneel in the dirt, backs pressed against buildings, weapons pointed into the fleeing crowd. This is the South Africa the world has come to know: a confrontation between spears and guns, and an aftermath of blood in the dust. One more black body, another devastated family.

Even on the cusp of black majority rule, South Africa remains violent, chaotic and ever-adept at creating sorrow. In the run-up to the April 26 to 28 election, the first in which blacks will be eligible to vote, men and women—mostly black—continue to die at a terrifying pace, 552 in March alone. The rampage has sapped euphoria from what is surely one of the seminal moments of modem history, the surrender of power by the white architects of apartheid to the blacks they oppressed for almost 350 years. But most South Africans now just want to get the election over with. It is not as though the results are in doubt. Everyone agrees that the ANC will sweep to victory, and that Nelson Mandela, once the world’s most famous political prisoner, will be South Africa’s next president.

Beyond that, nothing is certain. Some people believe the country is headed for civil war between an ANC-led government and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the banner under which a core of the country’s eight million Zulus, the largest tribe in South Africa, are demanding independence. Nor does anyone know whether hardline Afrikaners, descendents of Dutch settlers who have lived near the southern tip of Africa since the 17th century, are capable of drawing the ANC into another race war. And all South Africans wonder whether the revered Mandela can keep a lid on the simmering rivalries within the ANC, while trying to meet the enormous expectations sure to follow him into power.

And there are vivid dreams of glory. The long-sought political revolution almost complete, South Africa’s blacks are demanding a second, much quicker, economic revolution. Most of them live in poverty, forced by apartheid onto barely serviced urban townships or marginal farmland. It is they who have borne the heaviest cost of throwing off the white oppressors. “Liberation now, education later,” was the cry of resistance. But a decade of international sanctions, strikes and school boycotts has produced a generation that is versed in the language of protest, not computing—politics, not accounting. Throughout the campaign, Mandela has stoked their expectations, promising to build one-million homes in five years, create 2.5-million public-works jobs over the next decade, and provide 10 years of free and compulsory education for all children.

In attempting to keep those promises, Mandela can draw on apartheid’s other great legacy: South Africa’s superb roads and airports, its modem cities, its sophisticated communications and banking networks. All of that is in addition to its abundant natural riches. But to run the country—initially, at least—the new president will need the cooperation of whites, who dominate business, the civil service and the upper echelons of the police and army. Among whites, there is still great distrust, skepticism and foreboding. In their eyes, those taking power are a collection of former servants and terrorists. Whites may mouth politically correct platitudes about Mandela himself, but most remember that, until four years ago, the ANC was committed to shooting white farmers and blowing up “their” supermarkets. Even worse, the ANC is allied with the South African Communist Party, many of whose officials are running as ANC candidates. Typically, whites wonder if Mandela will be forced to nationalize industries and grab their land. Or if “comrades” in the ANC, ideologically opposed to free markets, will scare off foreign investment and transform Africa’s only economic success story into another Cuba.

On occasion, Mandela has tried to ease those fears with the same agreeable demeanor that smiles out from the Benetton-like election billboards that show him surrounded by happy children of all skin colors. But he also has engaged in name-calling that would make Margaret Thatcher blush. At a rally in Soweto this month, he accused current President F. W. de Klerk of “conniving in the massacre of our people.” The charge was prompted by revelations that renegade elements of the South African security services had fomented violence by killing ANC members and arming their opponents, including Inkatha. The fact that de Klerk was, at best, slow to curb those operations calls into question the ability of whites and blacks to trust each other in a new, multiracial government.

“By the time we turn to loving, they will have turned to hating,” Alan Paton, the white South African writer, warned a generation ago. Indeed, apartheid has left South Africa with a throbbing hangover. The country’s racial groups have been kept separate for so long that, although they share a country, they do not share a vision of the future. And now that blacks are finally ridding themselves of the white oppressor, Inkatha is ruining the party with its talk of war and secession. White conversations are laced with paranoia, all about stockpiling food and the best places to emigrate. South Africa cannot simply turn the page on April 28. It remains divided, crackling with psychosis; a vicious place, especially for blacks. This is the hurricane that Nelson Mandela will inherit, the storm that the world expects him to calm.

The willingness of some of his own supporters to defy Mandela openly is simply the most visible sign of the unrepentant militancy among many ANC members. Some senior ANC leaders, such as secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa, are accustomed to the world of polite deal-making. But the ANC’s candidate list also includes a number of refugees from death row—men like Robert McBride, who in the late 1980s planted a bomb in a Durban seaside bar that killed three people. Freed under a general amnesty in 1992, candidate McBride enjoys a strong following in the rougher districts of Soweto.

Standing on the grassy oval in Orlando Stadium, wearing a double-breasted suit and eating a sandwich, the six-foot, four-inch McBride looks more like a big teddy bear than a murderer. Only when pressed about his past does the coldness come through. “There are still two South Africas,” he says, eyes narrowing. “In the white world, I am a demon. In the black world, I am a hero. I am not ashamed of what I did. I am only sorry for the millions of black lives lost because of whites.” McBride is one ANC candidate who unnerves whites. Winnie Mandela is another. Two years ago, the former Mother of the Nation was in disgrace, newly separated from her husband and convicted of kidnapping in the beating death, by her bodyguards, of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei at her Soweto home. But the courts set aside her jail sentence last year, and even accusations that she skimmed money from ANC coffers have not stood in the way of her political resurrection. She is now president of the ANC Women’s League, and certain to win a seat in parliament under a new system of proportional representation.

Winnie Mandela rebuilt her political base in the poorest meanest sections of the townships. Places like Chicken Farm, a squatters’ camp of tin shacks, scrawny dogs and outdoor water taps on the outskirts of Soweto, where last year she rushed to the aid of residents involved in an armed standoff with police. Whenever there is trouble in the most impoverished neighborhoods, Winnie is quick to intervene, offering sympathy or hurling abuse at police. She shows up. “She’s popular because she cares about us,” said Brian Phohlolo, 25, who lives in Chicken Farm. Playing angel of mercy to the downtrodden is an unlikely role for a woman who enjoys the comforts of expensive homes, cars and travel. But South Africa follows its own logic. “No other woman in South Africa has suffered like she has,” McBride insists. “I am happy that she can at last live in comfort.”

The presence of moderates and fiery radicals within the ANC has made it easier for Nelson Mandela to make the delicate transformation from revolutionary to president. But the fact that so-called ANC self-defence units continue to ignore Mandela by murdering their opponents points to a crisis of authority. In the election’s wake, large segments of the population may prove ungovernable. The ANC is an unwieldy coalition, united under Mandela’s spell but not by his words and actions. And the old man is 75.

The political leader who has turned his back on these historic elections is preparing to speak to “his” people in Ulundi, the seat of government in the heart of the Zulu kingdom of KwaZulu. And Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi knows how to stir their passions. The occasion is a memorial service for Inkatha victims of a March 28 clash in Johannesburg’s business district—an event that claimed 53 lives and dragged the ANC-Inkatha war into the foyer of white South Africa. Speaker after speaker had primed the crowd of 2,000 mourning Zulus with warnings that their national identity was in peril. “The purpose of the alliance of the government and the Communists is to finish off the Zulu nation,” warned one Inkatha minister. “Let us lay our lives down for our nation, our King, for who we are,” pleaded an Inkatha youth leader.

Buthelezi must really reach to outdo such apocalyptic language. The Zulu leader tells the murmuring crowd on the hillside outside KwaZulu’s legislative building that he has received word from a white informer of “a special squad sent to wipe us out, coming to kill the King and myself.”

Buthelezi gets the response he was seeking: angry shouts about the sinister spectre of assassination. The sanctity of King Goodwill Zwelethini, Buthelezi’s nephew and a beloved symbol of the Zulu culture, is one thing that all Zulus agree upon these days—even if they do not all share his nationalist aspirations. This is a proud culture, rooted in a warrior tradition and held together in part by the memories of glorious battles against British colonialists and Afrikaners. “It is Zulu to fight for your rights,” says Eileen Shandu, a soft-spoken school principal and unyielding Buthelezi supporter. But the Zulu nation is now divided between those who support Buthelezi’s Inkatha party, and a growing number who have drifted into the ANC camp. The result has been a brutal war for loyalty in the townships and farms of KwaZulu-Natal province, a stunningly beautiful land of lush rolling hills that has become a killing ground.

Buthelezi was once white South Africa’s favorite black politician. A staunch anti-communist, he was clearly someone the white government in Pretoria could do business with—and did, by secretly arming Inkatha supporters. But Buthelezi’s political strength has waned since Mandela’s release and now, far from being a national force, he is struggling to hold on to his regional power base in KwaZulu, a patchwork of nominally independent homelands set up under apartheid. He has chosen to do so by boycotting the election and is suing blatant appeals to Zulu nationalism, a dangerous tactic that strikes deepest among illiterate and less-educated rural Zulus.

Buthelezi has proposed a detailed power-sharing arrangement with the ANC that would guarantee special status for KwaZulu within a federation. The debate is achingly familiar to any Canadian who followed the Meech Lake debate. Phrases such as “asymmetrical federalism” roll off the tongue of Inkatha spokesman T. C. Mamela. “We don’t want to secede, we want to be part of South Africa,” says Memela. “But Zulus have an affinity for their traditions. By sovereignty, we mean the King will decide which powers will reside in the provincial government and which he will turn over to the national government.”

But Mandela and the ANC are not about to cede that much authority to Buthelezi, who brooks no political opposition and is more warlord than statesman. Moreover, the ANC has a gut-level aversion to the concept of a loose federation. For one thing, such an arrangement would be reminiscent of apartheid’s system of black homelands. Worse, it could be used by white Afrikaners to create a province of their own—one in which apartheid could live on.

So the ANC and Inkatha have escalated their guerrilla war in KwaZulu-Natal. The killings spurred de Klerk—with Mandela’s blessing—to impose a state of emergency in the province. So far, about 3,000 troops from the South African Defense Force have rolled in to try to control the violence. But each night, the number of victims increases.

Victims such as the Mzelemu family. On April 2, about 20 armed Inkatha men arrived at their township home in an Inkatha stronghold outside Port Shepstone, south of Durban. They were looking for 23year-old Bkehani Mzelemu, an ANC member. When they found out he was not home, they used guns and machetes to slaughter nine members of his family, ranging from his 84-year-old grandmother to his five-month-old sister. His father, Ndukuzempi, a preacher, escaped through a window; a week later he sat next to Bekhani in a Port Shepstone church office and recounted the horror. The preacher is a man of peace. “I have no guns,” he says. “My gun is Jesus.” But he is anguished. “My problem is this,” he says. “Inkatha is killing many people but the government isn’t doing anything to stop it. What is this government for?” Bekhani, a rake-thin business administration student, says: “I am trying to be brave. But I am very much in grief because the people who were killed were apolitical. My grandmother didn’t know anything about political ideologies.”

In KwaZulu-Natal, grief has no politics. As the light fades in the hills above Ulundi, family and neighbors have come together to mourn Veli Tombela, an Inkatha victim of the Johannesburg killings. Veli lived far away, outside Johannesburg in Soweto. He came home twice a month with money for his family. He died marching for his king. Grief overwhelms his widow and sister-in-law, but his mother sits quietly in the candlelight and describes herself as “the mother of a hero.” In time, the sobbing subsides, and neighborhood children arrive to sing a gentle hymn, their song drifting across the darkened hillside.

When I married Rodger, he warned that I might someday be a refugee with nothing but two suitcases,” Dianne Stewart says, standing on the front steps of her home overlooking the family sugarcane plantation near Stanger, 59 km north of Durban. Picking up and leaving is top of the mind with many whites as the violence increases and the odds of South Africa “going bang,” as the Stewarts put it, seem to shorten. “New Zealand is this month’s flavor,” she says wryly.

But Dianne, Rodger and their four young daughters are not going anywhere, at least not yet. "Where would I go?” asks Rodger as he steers his truck along the dirt roads of the 5,500-acre seaside farm that has been in his family for four generations. "We are not colonials who can just pick up and go back to Britain. This is our home.” And Rodger wants to “make a contribution” in building a new, non-racial South Africa. He does not expect the ANC to shoot itself in the foot with foreign lenders by expropriating white property. Stewart has 400 employees and is far more concerned about the coming wage negotiations. It will be the first time his workers will have the legal right to bargain for more money. The union wants a 100-per-cent increase, and that, Stewart says, would force him to mechanize and lay off workers.

The Stewarts say they are happy to see the white regime extinguished. The end of the struggle means that “whites aren’t the enemy anymore,” Rodger explains. Beyond that, apartheid’s demise—and the lifting of U.S. sanctions—meant that Dianne was finally able to get a publishing contract in North America for the children’s books she writes. And now that they have rejoined the community of nations, sports-mad South Africans can again test their cricketers and rugby teams against the world’s best. "We’d slipped more than we thought,” Rodger says grimly. But the Stewarts have always been liberals, committed to providing comfortable living conditions for the workers who reside on their farm. They also made sure that their employees’ children received a proper education, and that the Cane Growers Association—of which Rodger is chairman—opened its membership to smaller, black producers.

South Africans of British descent are often derided as limousine liberals who could safely lecture Afrikaners on the immorality of apartheid while reaping the benefits. “That is not an entirely unfair caricature,” acknowledges Rodger. “The English tended to be in the professional classes—doctors, lawyers, accountants. They hardly ever met a black and if they did, it was never on an equal basis. It was the Afrikaner, in the mines and on the farms, who really knew the blacks, who had to get into the scrum with them every day.”

“Damn right,” says Chris du Plessis, an Afrikaner farmer from the East Transvaal region. “We’re not racist. It’s just that blacks don’t mix with whites, and whites don’t mix with blacks,” the 22-year-old says, sitting in a steak and burger restaurant in the Afrikaner enclave of Middleburg, 120 km east of Johannesburg. Du Plessis and his friends truly do not believe that they are racist. But after their fourth beer, they begin to refer to blacks as “monkeys,” and Mandela as someone who “should be put in a zoo.”

And those are the liberals in town. The Afrikaner hard line is embodied in Gerhard Swanepos, 34, also a fanner, who showed up at a meeting of the Afrikaner Volkstaat, the party that is campaigning for a white homeland. “I couldn’t leave my blacks alone to run the farm,” says the potbellied Swanepos. “If they have a good crop one year, they wouldn’t plant again until they got hungry. It will take about three years of black government, and then they will come on their knees back to the white man. My blacks don’t want to vote. They see me as their father and think Mandela has buggered up their lives.”

The solution, says Swanepos, dismissing the Afrikaner Volkstaat’s democratic tack, is simply to declare a white homeland. “There will be no stability in this country until they give us our volkstaat,” he says. “If they don’t, this place will make Yugoslavia look like a Sunday school picnic.” Such belligerence worries Constand Viljoen, the highly respected retired general who leads the Afrikaner Volkstaat. “The military option is the last option,” says Viljoen after the meeting. Like others, he defines his goal in terms of Quebec’s search for special status: a province in which Afrikaners would have their own official language, their own schools and their own judicial system. (The party is still debating whether blacks would be allowed to vote in the volkstaat.) The ANC has agreed to examine the proposal but is insisting, as it has with the Zulus, that Afrikaners must demonstrate support for a volkstaat at the polls. Meanwhile, radical whites are boycotting the election, promising to establish their homeland by force. “Of course we can take it,” says Viljoen. “The question is whether we could hold it, and at what cost.”

The war-mongering of defiant Afrikaners and proud Zulus, and the persistent clashes between ANC and Inkatha loyalists, have already marred South Africa’s march to democracy. Now, on the eve of the election, the ANC risks being distracted by nasty wars of secession.

But there may be an even more insidious threat to South Africa’s long-term peace and prosperity. Having forced whites to the negotiating table by making the country ungovernable, by turning the townships into a training ground for little else but stoning, shooting and torching, the ANC may have relegated a generation of blacks to illiteracy and violent crime. “Blacks must start seeing the liberation struggle in business terms—we must start to create wealth,” says Thami Mazwai, editor of Enterprise, a black business magazine. Political stability, he says, ultimately depends on the emergence of a large black middle-class.

“There is no such thing as a black entrepreneurial class in South Africa,” says Peter Vundla, 46, owner of Herdbuoys, the only black advertising agency in Johannesburg. He started the firm from his Soweto home three years ago, frustrated at being the “black expert” in a white firm. “They’d want to know if things would fly—‘Do black people eat rice?,’ and that sort of thing,” says Vundla. Today, Herdbuoys has a list of blue-chip clients, all of them white-owned companies. Success makes Vundla, by his own admission, “a bit of a freak” among South African blacks. “I am lucky to have come out of that township crap,” he says. “I have only been to jail twice. I am not unemployed. I am not alcoholic. And I’m not dead.”

Apartheid is gone, but it has left deep and painful scars. Perhaps the social explosion that the world once feared from South Africa will turn out to be nothing more than a bump. But there is a lost generation of angry blacks—young men and women who know only violence and may prove to be beyond even Mandela’s reach. That, more than anything, may dictate South Africa’s future. □