On the Passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

By: John Higginson, Department of History

South Africa and the world have lost a great moral compass with the passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela last week. How many sitting politicians or corporate executives would voluntarily cut their annual salaries in half, for example? On can scarcely imagine a “negotiated settlement” ending South Africa’s last apartheid government or the first truly inclusive election in the country’s history in April 1994, without Mandela’s measured but steady tread toward the seat of power. Once F. W. De Klerk’s government was compelled to release Mandela from Viktor Verster Prison in February 1990 and to lift the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the cruel political certainties apparently collapsed. However, even more dangerous ambiguities and uncertainties took their place.

Mandela’s “rainbow nation” was never a given, even though the ANC’s leadership, with Mandela guiding from the rear, avoided a bloody civil war and won an election. The Afrikanervolksfront, which was composed of former generals from the General Staff of the South African Defense Force (SADF) and the leadership of proto-fascist organizations such as the Afrikanerweerstand beweging (AWB), was fully capable and willing to prosecute a devastating civil war. Under the leadership of General Constand Viljoen and others far to the right of him, plans for a conflagration on this scale swung into high gear after the assassination of popular anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani in April 1993. Even after future president Mandela invited Viljoen to tea at his home and persuaded him that he should run for a seat in the prospective parliament, others went forward with a plan for a protracted military campaign.

There was a three-way cabal of intrigues that included the more intransigent parties in the Afrikanervolksfront, elements of the state security forces, Gatsha Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party and Lucas Mangope’s Christian Democratic Party. All the factions of the cabal had charged themselves to derail a potential negotiated settlement by violent means. The South African press at the time took to describing the violent attempts to disrupt negotiations as the handiwork of a “Third Force.”

I arrived in South Africa for the first time shortly after Chris Hani’s murder. Ironically Hani had spoken at the University of Massachusetts Amherst two months before he was assassinated. I was to take up a post as a research associate at the University of Witwatersrand’s African Studies Program. In the midst of the popular outrage around Hani’s murder, De Klerk’s government and the leadership of the formerly banned political parties had begun negotiations to prepare the way for national elections under the rubric of an entity called the “Transitional National Executive.” I enclose some excerpts from diary I kept during the unsettling run-up to the April 1994 elections in South Africa:

22 September 1993: The Afrikanervolksfront is still on the airwaves in defiance of the Ministry of Communications, and the Transitional Council Bill has been the catalyst for the most heated parliamentary debate since the passage of the Land Act [the 1913 Natives Land Act formed the bedrock of all the segregation and apartheid legislation ever passed in South Africa]. I hope I can outrun the fuse that’s about to be lit.

Tomorrow there will be peace marches in all the major cities — Jo’burg, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

Nevertheless, I still hew to the conclusion of the last paragraph, even though the peace marches might dampen the matchbox.

3 October 1993, Sunday, 8:00 pm: Sunday always has a sepulchral air here [Johannesburg] and in Pretoria. Doubtless a result of the heavy influence of the dominees [clergy] of the various denominations of the DRC [Dutch Reformed Church] over civil society and the present political climate. I was pretty sick all last week [I had contracted the flu]. Stayed at the apartment Monday and Tuesday, went to the doctor again on Wednesday [My doctor was Dr. F. Randera, who was a key figure in interpreting the forensic evidence of atrocities brought before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission or TRC], and I still feel lousy. I think I am pushing it a little too much because of the constraints under which I am working.

I started reading the minutes and proceedings of Mr. Honnold’s club in Jo’burg, The Fortnightly Club — unbelievable stuff [William Lincoln Honnold and Herbert Hoover were part of the second wave of American engineers who worked at South Africa’s gold mines. Until 1963, the majority of engineers at South Africa’s deep level gold mines were Americans.]. Now that the Transitional Executive Committee has passed on an apportionment plan for a new parliament — with unilateral and unconditional opposition from the Conservative Party [a breakaway party to the right of the Afrikaner national Party] — some of the apparent heat is off. But things have not calmed down. The AWB occupied the proceedings of the Randburg City Council two days ago; a bomb went off near the intersection of Wolmarans and Smit Streets killing several people; and yesterday four of the AWB’s top people were arrested in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate ANC leaders and bomb the Trade Center talks with remote control missiles and plastic explosives. Meanwhile, commandos from the SADF wiped out a cadre of PAC fighters in the Ciskei—average age 18. Also, there has been an ‘upgrading’ of the firearms report I hear in the middle of the night just outside the hotel. It has gone from single shot to semiautomatic in about a week and a half.

I bought a chess set last night in the store that sells “tourist junk” in the lobby of the hotel last night. I rather like this set, though. Went to church this morning.

Relevant Sources:



1 comment
  1. Mario S. De Pillis, Sr. said:

    Thanks so much, John.
    I had forgotten how we lived through those events as “news”.
    Now history. Will history be more truthful?
    –and Merry Christmas!

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