WORLD

A celebrity statesman

Mandela’s speeches spark fury and euphoria

HOLGER JENSEN February 26 1990
WORLD

A celebrity statesman

Mandela’s speeches spark fury and euphoria

HOLGER JENSEN February 26 1990

From the moment he walked out of a South African prison last week, Nelson Mandela found himself a prisoner of another kind—unable to escape his admirers and the unrelenting eye of the world’s television cameras. But right-wing fury over his Feb. 11 release also mounted, increasing concern for his safety. Wherever he went, the 71-year-old leader of the now-legal African National Congress was surrounded by a phalanx of grim-faced young men in wraparound sunglasses. The bodyguards, drawn from the so-called Young Lions of the ANC’s youth wing, would not say if they were armed, but many of them kept one hand inside the jackets of their shiny silk suits. Although Mandela had refused police protection, members of the government’s VIP Protection Branch were also deployed at a discreet distance. Police spokesman Piet Bothma said that they would “move in immediately if Mr. Mandela was attacked,” either by white extremists or black militants who resent his willingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement of South Africa’s racial conflict.

Mandela himself seemed oblivious of the danger. Only once last week did he show a flicker of alarm: when a TV technician shoved a long black microphone into his face. Mandela recoiled, then later explained, “I thought it might be a weapon.” Still, for a man who had been isolated from the public for 27 years, the world’s most famous political prisoner was remarkably at ease in the spotlight of his first week of freedom. At frenzied rallies in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Mandela cut a statesmanlike figure as he reproved those who drowned out his appeals for calm. Besieged by well-wishers at his Soweto home, the gray-haired nationalist maintained a gruelling schedule of meetings and interviews that would have felled someone half his age. The National Reception Committee charged with arranging his schedule received more than 1,000 media requests for interviews with Mandela, and those he did grant were dignified and articulate. Some of his initial statements, however, dismayed many South African whites—and even provoked criticism from some blacks.

On the one hand, Mandela repeatedly assured whites that they need not fear domination by the 28-million-strong black majority. He praised President F. W. (Frederik) de Klerk as a “man of integrity,” adding, “I am convinced we can resolve all differences and come together to discuss our future.” On the other hand, Mandela called for a continuation of guerrilla warfare until apartheid was completely dismantled, and said that he would press for the nationalization of South African industries once majority rule is in place.

That sent shock waves through the Johannesburg stock exchange and prompted howls of outrage from white conservatives. The proapartheid opposition Conservative Party said that it would file treason charges against Mandela and staged a nationwide series of rallies to protest his release. “Mr. Mandela has shown that he stands by his Communist comrades and Communist ideology,” said Eugene Terre’Blanche, leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement. “The logical deduction from these statements is that, should [the ANC] ever get to a negotiating table, they would again threaten murder and death if they did not get their own way.” And a newly formed neoNazi splinter group declared “open war” on both the government and the ANC.

Disappointed blacks also complained that, in his speeches last week, Mandela had simply parroted the ANC line without trying to inspire groups beyond the ANC orbit. The Azanian People’s Organization, which preaches black consciousness, issued a statement saying, “Mandela would do the struggle a great service if he were to rise above the confines of his organization and preside over the greater whole in striving for the unity of the oppressed.” The National Council of Trade Unions expressed a similar view. Said one 20-year-old woman of Mandela: “He paid much more attention to what the ANC stands for than what he stands for. He should have come out as an individual, because we already know what the ANC stands for.”

The Pretoria government did not appear overly concerned, however. The minister of constitutional planning, Gerrit Viljoen, said that, although Mandela’s remarks on armed struggle were “not helpful,” the black leader was speaking “within the confines and discipline of ANC policy.” Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha noted that Mandela had to tread a delicate line between the demands of ANC militants and the requirements of the white government that freed him. Overall, said Botha, Mandela’s behavior reflected “moderation and balance from a man who has not had freedom for 27 years.” De Klerk himself said that the “threat of socialism” had faded with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and acknowledged that that was one of the factors that prompted him to release Mandela. The president added that the ANC should now drop its “somewhat outdated policy” and make a “considered response” to the government’s peace overtures.

At the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, the group’s exiled leadership, clearly caught off guard by the rapid turn of events, conferred for three days before announcing on Feb. 16 that it would soon send a delegation to meet with de Klerk and open offices in South Africa. Secretary General Alfred Nzo said that the ANC was prepared to negotiate “a suspension of hostilities” once de Klerk meets its remaining conditions for formal negotiations, including the lifting of the 3 1/2-year-old state of emergency and the release of an estimated 3,300 political prisoners.

But major ANC policy changes are not expected to occur until a consultative conference in June. At that time, the ANC’s 35-member national executive committee will likely make Mandela its president, replacing his friend and former law partner, Oliver Tambo, 72, who has been hospitalized for a stroke he suffered last August. Until then, Mandela has no formal role in the leadership structure and will have to abide by existing policy. “Mandela has been very careful not to assume an ANC mandate which has not been given,” said Prof. David Welsh, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town. “There is also an enormous bond of friendship between Mandela and Tambo, and it is inconceivable that Mandela would express any leadership designs until Tambo announces his own retirement.”

In a meeting with foreign ambassadors on Feb. 16, Mandela asked their governments to maintain pressure on Pretoria through economic sanctions. So far, only Britain’s Margaret Thatcher has expressed any desire to revoke sanctions in the wake of Mandela’s release. Other Western countries, including Canada, are waiting to see the effects of de Klerk’s initiative. For his part, de Klerk has indicated his readiness to repeal emergency measures as soon as the passions inflamed by Mandela’s release simmer down. But analysts said that he has stalled on the prisoner issue to wring some concessions from the ANC—perhaps a formal renunciation of violence—before beginning substantive talks on a nonracial constitution for South Africa.

Apart from such evident posturing, both sides appeared anxious to prevent a repeat of the looting and violence that occurred in Cape Town on the day of Mandela’s release. A crowd of 50,000 that had waited in sweltering heat for several hours turned ugly when police opened fire on criminal elements who had begun breaking windows and looting storefronts. As pitched battles between police and young rockthrowers swirled on the streets around city hall, no one heard an announcement that the rally was being moved to the outskirts of the city. Mandela’s motorcade first went to the new site, then took a wrong turn on the way back to city hall. There were further delays when Mandela realized that he had left his spectacles and the only copy of his speech back at Victor Verster Prison that morning. By the time he gave an improvised address, the crowd had thinned considerably.

U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson also got caught up in the confusion of the Cape Town rally: his silver Mercedes-Benz was virtually crushed by the weight of some of Mandela’s overenthusiastic supporters. A journalist covering the rally was later approached by one of them offering to sell a radio-cassette player stolen from the wreckage of Jackson’s vehicle. Said a senior Western diplomat: “It’s going to take some time to rebuild confidence that the anti-apartheid movement can hold mass rallies and control its supporters.”

Mandela’s National Reception Committee spent much of the week adding to the confusion. The location for Mandela’s first major news conference on Feb. 13 was changed to Cape Town from Johannesburg after most of the international media had already travelled to Johannesburg for the event. At the news conference, a reception committee spokesman announced that the black leader would stay in Cape Town another day. But within two hours, the Mandela entourage was on a private jet flying to Johannesburg, where more than 100,000 blacks had gathered for a joyous rally at a soccer stadium outside Soweto.

At that rally, Mandela restated his commitment to armed struggle, but also urged blacks not to engage in mindless violence. “Not a single hair, not a single window will be broken when we leave this place,” he said. “Let us give the enemies of liberty no excuse to take us back to the dark hell of apartheid.” The huge crowd cheered almost his every word. Education Minister Stoffel van der Merwe later reported that students had heeded Mandela’s call to end classroom boycotts and return to school.

Mandela’s triumphant return to Soweto, and to the modest brick bungalow where he lived with his wife, Winnie, before his imprisonment in 1962, was the emotional high point of his first week of freedom. But some personal troubles lie ahead. Several of Winnie Mandela’s former bodyguards are now on trial for the 1988 murder of a 14-year-old Soweto youth, Stompie Moeketsi. Although Winnie Mandela herself faces no charges, she will likely have to testify in court, reviving the scandal that led to her fall from grace in the anti-apartheid movement last year. She has also been linked to another case involving the recent death in police custody of ANC activist Clayton Sithole, her daughter Zindziswa’s lover. A judge investigating that death was told by police last week that Sithole had used Winnie Mandela’s car to launch attacks on political opponents in Soweto. The judge said that there were other “extremely damaging” allegations that he would not disclose.

De Klerk also faces potential embarrassment over disclosures that the South African army had its own death squad. In a court affidavit filed on Feb. 14, Brig. Floris Mostert revealed that a previously unknown unit called the Civil Cooperation Bureau had been responsible for the murder of two white activists, along with a string of arson attacks, bombings and assaults against government opponents. Such revelations are not likely to keep de Klerk and Mandela away from the bargaining table, but it may make their task more difficult.

Some analysts said that the only thing that will see the two leaders through the racial minefields of South Africa is their commitment to peace and Mandela’s celebrity status. Already, the country’s biggest advertisers have rushed to cash in on what the South African business press has dubbed the “M-factor.” Mining companies, food manufacturers, publishers and major oil companies all took out advertisements in newspapers last week, using Mandela’s picture to promote their products. Proclaimed Shell Oil in one ad: “Welcome back, Nelson Mandela! The stars will shine brighter tonight. Tomorrow, a brilliant future beckons.” While some South Africans found that commercialism distasteful, it at least brought home the message that peace can be profitable.

HOLGER JENSEN with CHRIS ERASMUS in Cape Town

CHRIS ERASMUS