In 1990 when Nelson Mandela stepped out of the prison of Robben Island, few could have predicted that apartheid would be dismantled within a few years, and South Africa would emerge as a democratic unitary state.
For decades it had been thought that only a mass revolution and an armed struggle could bring down the apartheid state. More than to anybody else we owe the emergence of a unitary democratic state to Nelson Mandela who finally delivered South Africa from the horrible days of apartheid. Today the whole world pays homage to this remarkable man and statesman who has come to symbolize determination, hope and reconciliation to all those who seek equality, freedom and justice in an unjust world.
Nelson Mandela was a courageous man who showed an unwavering determination to fight the apartheid regime when he joined the ANC in the 1940s. Apartheid was institutionalised in 1948. He threw himself fully in the struggle, and was later arrested with 11 other friends and accused of attempting to overthrow the South African state. He accepted his participation in the struggle and, at the Rivonia trial in 1964, he stated: ‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. If need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’
Many observers feared that he would be hanged because the offences under which he and his friends were charged carried capital punishment. They were given life imprisonment probably because the judge changed his mind over a cup of tea or probably because he did not want to make martyrs out of them and they would be forgotten during their prison sentence.
It was the contrary which happened. During his 27 years of imprisonment, and more particularly in the 1980s, Mandela became an icon of the struggle against apartheid. Boycott, protest marches and mass demonstrations which began after the Sharpeville massacre in the 1960s gathered momentum in the 1970s. The South African embassy at Trafalgar Square, London, was the focus of mass demonstrations and picketing in the 1970s. It was those protests which forced the cancellation of the Springbok visit to the UK.
In the 1980s, the anti-apartheid campaign focused on the liberation of Nelson Mandela, and pressures both inside and outside were maintained on the South African state. After the Soweto riots in the late 1970s, there was a lull and in the 1980s, resistance to apartheid was carried out by many organisations among which UDF and COSATU were the most important ones. They were able to make South Africa ungovernable but the South African state survived the crisis.
Attempts by the apartheid government to defuse the crisis failed and the PW Botha reforms merely politicised the resistance. Economic sanctions, pressure from business interests and international pressure as well as political changes in the international scene such as the collapse of communism and the vulnerability of the South African military on the frontiers with neighbouring states brought about the resignation of PW Botha and his replacement by F. De Klerk
Far from surrendering to the anti-apartheid forces, De Klerk sought to regain the initiative and win legitimacy for his government and salvage the apartheid state which would continue to be dominated by the white minority in the National Party. As part of this strategy, Mandela was released from prison in1990. From 1990 onwards Mandela would play a decisive role in the emergence of a South African democratic state.
After his release from prison, negotiations which had started earlier before his release were resumed. His contribution became crucial. As an icon of the resistance to apartheid, he emerged from prison as a mythical figure with an aura which commanded respect.
The negotiations with De Klerk were extremely arduous and difficult as the latter sought to preserve the privileges of the White minority while continuing to encourage and support violence of the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Buthelezi against ANC supporters. De Klerk hoped that in pursing this policy he would weaken the ANC and enlist Inkatha as an ally in future elections. Mandela threatened mass action and suspended the negotiations. A mass campaign was successfully organised resulting in a general strike involving four million workers. However, Mandela took the initiative to resume negotiations and on several occasions he had to do so after negotiations had reached a stalemate on several constitutional issues.
De Klerk was always trying to preserve minority rule and a government of national unity in which the National Party would secure some power for at least a decade. These conditions were unacceptable to Mandela and he remained firm in his commitment to dismantle the apartheid state, and bring about majority rule and a unitary state. At the beginning of negotiations, he had to contend with criticisms from the grassroots who did not want the ANC to talk to the enemy but also from the PAC and South Africa Communist Party. At every stage of the negotiations he had to confront Zulu nationalism Chief Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party which posed a number of problems while White extremists threatened civil war if majority rule was implemented in South Africa.
At the negotiating table Mandela had to be patient, firm on the core principles and to accept compromises so as not to wreck the negotiations. Finally he was able to push for a Transition Assembly. Even after it was agreed to have a single constitutional assembly, which would prepare a new Constitution and serve as transitional legislature for the new government, Inkatha withdrew from the negotiations. They were continued and finally ANC agreed to a five-year government of national unity, a multi-party cabinet and the creation of a Transitional Executive Council. After months of negotiations the date for the first national non-racial elections, based on one-man one-vote was fixed for 27 April 1994. An interim Constitution was worked out and approved.
Further concessions had to be made before the elections to Inkatha to get them on board. The elections gave the ANC a majority and a government of national unity was formed. Mandela was happy after victory but he realised that South Africans had merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. ‘We have not taken the final step of our long journey, but the first step on a longer and more difficult road.’ He became the first Black President of post-apartheid South Africa and after five years in office he stepped down. Mandela’s contribution was immense – in ending apartheid and in ensuring a smooth transition for South Africa to a democratic state. He had achieved a miracle and this is unanimously acknowledged and recognised in South Africa and in the world.
As the world mourns the death of its most loved citizen, it will remember Mandela as the man who gave 67 years of his life fighting for freedom and justice. He was the Man who negotiated with passion, intelligence and a calm determination the most important process of emancipation in contemporary history. No one could have believed that he would have liberated South Africa from the brutality of apartheid in a spirit of reconciliation and bequeathed to his country a unitary and democratic state. He remains a model of democratic statesmanship for the world and the hope of generations of oppressed people throughout the world.
* Published in print edition on 13 December 2013