Memories of Mandela
December 10, 2013
Memories of Mandela

Tue Dec 10, 2013

by Garrey Michael Dennie PhD – History Professor – St Mary’s College of Maryland,

former speech writer for Nelson Mandela.

Across the world, in the global outpouring of memorials which have accompanied the news of Mandela’s death, virtually every eulogy has celebrated his life as powerful testimony to the triumphant struggle to overcome apartheid, the most brutal racial oppression in the history of the twentieth century. Such representations are, of course, quite correct.{{more}} But very few people are aware that when Mandela left the prison doors, his leadership skills would be tested to the utmost by friends, colleagues, and supporters within the Black Liberation Movement, and that Mandela’s capacity to inspire, persuade, cajole, and overcome doubters within his own organization, the African National Congress (ANC), played a pivotal role in leading South Africa from the brink of full- scale civil war to the path of a “peaceful” negotiated end to apartheid. During 1990, as a speech writer for Nelson Mandela, I was privy to some of the deliberations and tensions within the ANC, and the ways in which Mandela navigated the criss-crossing streams of Black ambitions and White fears. Examining Mandela’s actions and thought processes in these moments of extraordinary tensions, violence, and death offers a fuller measure of how Mandela illuminated the world around him.

Mandela’s struggle to take control of the direction of the ANC began even before he left the prison itself. On February 11, 1990, all South Africa and much of the world stayed transfixed at their television sets, waiting with bated breath to see Mandela walk out of the prison doors. Yet, for several hours, Mandela would not come out. In fact, unknown to the watching millions, a deep disagreement had arisen between Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress. On the surface, the issue was quite simple. On his release, what should Mandela say to the public? But this very simple question was constrained by a rather important fact: Mandela had written a speech for the occasion, and so too had the leadership of the African National Congress. The problem then became this: which of these speeches should Mandela give? For, whereas the speech written by the ANC’s leadership reiterated the ANC’s commitment to the armed struggle against apartheid, and in substance and tone reflected a hard line confrontation with the apartheid state, Mandela’s own speech was far more conciliatory and cognizant of the steps the South African government had taken to begin the dismantling of apartheid. In the end, Mandela did indeed deliver the speech sent to him by the ANC. But he would not abandon the proposition that the rhetoric of reconciliation could indeed advance the liberation struggle in South Africa. And he would understand very clearly that until and unless he could exercise effective power within the ANC, his capacity to guide the process of negotiation and shape the outcome of a post-apartheid South Africa could be fatally wounded.

The ANC itself had a dilemma. The internationalization of the struggle against apartheid had transformed Mandela into a global icon. The Free Mandela Campaign of the 1980’s had elevated Mandela into the moral leader of the struggle. In South Africa itself, the vast majority of Black South Africans saw him as their leader. But within the ANC itself, Mandela had no official position. It was true of course, that at the time of his imprisonment, he had been the Commander in Chief of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation). But that position was now being held by Joe Slovo. And the presidency of the ANC was in the hands of Mandela’s great friend, Oliver Tambo. Hence, although Mandela remained a member of the ANC, technically, he was outside of the leadership flow chart.

To solve this dilemma, the ANC created a new position within the organization, that of Deputy President. In theory then, Mandela was second in command to Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC. However, several months before the South African government released Mandela from prison, Oliver Tambo fell seriously ill and could not carry out the responsibilities of the office. In practice then, Mandela had become the official leader of the ANC, entrusted by its own constitution to chart and execute the policy decisions of the organization. And to Mandela, there was nothing more important than establishing an understanding with the South African government on a framework for negotiating the end of apartheid.

For the African National Congress, negotiating an end to apartheid was no easy thing. For starters, the vast majority of its leadership and members could not trust the white South African government – and for very good reasons. Moreover, in a Black liberation movement, which had become convinced of the efficacy of violence in confronting apartheid, and which also valorized the ANC guerillas for their battle field exploits, negotiating an end to apartheid appeared less glorious. To transform these negative attitudes about negotiations, Mandela’s speech writers would coin a new phraseology: “negotiations as a terrain of struggle.” Mandela’s adoption and proclamation of this new rhetoric of liberation was of tremendous value in persuading millions of Black South Africans that the nobility of the struggle remained unblemished, even if it had moved from the battlefield to the table. And for white South Africans, this language and the reality of negotiations would calm their fears of that Black South Africans would launch race based attacks against white South Africans. In steering his new ship of state, Mandela was acutely aware that he must cater not only to the dreams of Black South Africans, but to the fears of white South Africans as well.

Black South Africans, however, also had their fears and none more so than the sustained violence launched against Black South Africans by shadowy groups, and some not so shadowy at all. One of the enduring ironies of the liberation struggle is that the release of Mandela from prison brought with it a scale of violence greater than that which took place while Mandela was in prison. I have witnessed violence in South Africa firsthand. On my first week in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, I witnessed white policemen open fire at young Black men without caring that they might shoot innocent people. I have been in Soweto when police used tear gas and live ammunition to break up funerals. I have been in a funeral cortege where soldiers emptied buses at gunpoint and searched every mourner for weapons, with every one of us acutely aware that we could be shot. And I have lost friends killed by the apartheid state. But these were the daily rituals of South African violence where the powers of the police to arrest and hold persons in indefinite detention led to thousands of anti-apartheid activists being imprisoned. And some were murdered while in police custody.

But these daily bloodlettings pale in comparison to the paroxysm of violence that erupted in South Africa with Mandela’s release. The prime mover behind this escalation was a man called Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of an organization known as Inkatha, and a man who saw himself as a rival to Mandela as a leader of Black South Africans. With Mandela’s release from prison, Buthelezi stood on the sidelines as Mandela visited kings and queens and heads of state around the world. He requested an audience with Mandela, a request Mandela was willing to honour, but which the members of the ANC vehemently opposed. And as Mandela ignored his request, Buthelezi escalated the violence, as the South African security forces claimed that they were unable to act to protect South Africans in what they labelled, “Black on Black” violence.

The South African government was in fact sending a deadly message to Mandela: we have released you from prison, but you cannot protect your supporters. Mandela’s response, however, would be an act of extraordinary perspicacity and courage, which would turn the tide in the violent conflagration that had been engineered by Buthelezi and the South African government. Mandela decided that he would speak directly to the combatants and issue a call for peace. Moreover, Mandela informed the ANC that despite their reluctance, if a call for peace was truly meaningful, then he must meet and speak with Buthelezi, the enemy of the ANC.

Professor Carolyn Hamilton and I were tasked with writing that speech. Our central concern would be how to find the language that captured Mandela’s vision of peace. We decided that we must call for the combatants to disarm and thus was born one of Mandela’s most famous lines: “Take your guns, your knives, your pangas and throw them into the sea.” This unreserved call for peace would serve to reduce the violence between Black South Africans. Mandela’s meeting with Buthelezi would also help advance this project. Above all, however, Mandela’s speech established the fact that he possessed a position of unique power in South Africa, the power to persuade men and women in times of turmoil to bend to the force of their hopes rather than the momentum of their fears. And he would do this again and again as South Africa lurched from the prison of fear to the freedom of its dreams. In remembering Mandela, it is this capacity to bend the arc of history towards the embrace of a common human dignity that I hold most dear.