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Mandela: Bringing a Nation Together


My Experience as a Foreign Service Officer in South Africa during the Apartheid Era

I knew Nelson Mandela long before I met him – not an uncommon feeling amongst those who had lived and worked in South Africa.  I arrived as a young political Foreign Service officer at the American Embassy in Pretoria in 1976.  I was assigned to cover "black political affairs," which meant getting to know and interacting with the majority population and its leaders during the height of the racist Apartheid government's rule.

I came to know dozens of important and influential African leaders at this time, such as Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele, Cyril Ramaphosa, Smangaliso Mkatchwa, Barney Pityana, Nthatho Motlana, Winnie Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, Murphy Morobe, and a myriad of township and student leaders.  I visited many individuals in prison, like Percy Qoboza or Enoch Duma, or in internal exile like Ramphele, Biko, or Winnie Mandela.

Even though the African National Congress (ANC) was in exile in those years, and Biko's Black Consciousness Movement was the most potent African political and philosophical force, Madiba was never far from anyone's thoughts or prayers.  Exiled leaders like Oliver Tambo were respected, but not seen as relevant as those on Robben Island like Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Ahmed Kathrada.  Mandela was the "leader" in everyone's mind.  I applied to the Ministry of Justice to see him, but was never given that privilege.

I left South Africa in 1979, and it would be over a decade before I would actually meet the man.  In that time, Mandela's legend would grow, and his leadership became more firmly entrenched, even in prison. The South African Apartheid government, recognizing his central role as a leader, would come to realize that the only way to avoid a huge confrontation of epic proportions was to begin to negotiate with Mandela for a way out.  During that decade, I was in and out of South Africa constantly, consulting for the Ford Foundation, running an organization called the U.S.-South Africa Leader Development Program, and working for the Aspen Institute running a program called the Southern Africa Policy Forum.

Throughout the 1980's, South Africa was under a vicious state of emergency with thousands of people dying in violent townships, the tightening of the police state apparatus, growing ANC sabotage and no seeming way out but ultimate Armageddon.  Mandela worked silently and diligently behind the scenes from his cell on Robben Island, and then in his more relaxed house arrest in Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, to urge restraint and common sense, while making sure no one misunderstood the final goal:  a South Africa in which all people had equal rights in a democratic state.   From letters and secret messages to verbal prompts to visitors, Mandela remained the central guiding figure of the struggle.

Employing the Concept of "Ubuntu" to Piece Together a Divided South Africa

In 1990, after years of painstaking and persistent negotiation with President P.W. Botha and then President F.W. De Klerk, and their teams of intelligence officers and cabinet ministers, Mandela walked out a free man with the other political prisoners on the Island, including Walter Sisulu. The liberation movements of the ANC and the Pan African Congress had also been unbanned.

Few knew about the process in which Mandela had been engaged, and fewer still understood his vision of a unified South Africa.  Mandela, now an icon of the struggle, was roundly criticized at the time by the ANC's National Executive Committee as being too conciliatory, of "coddling" the Afrikaner leaders.  Of course, he had compromised on no issues, not even agreeing to Botha's insistence that he renounce violence as a prerequisite to his release and thus ensuring his imprisonment for another two years.  But he instinctively knew that South Africa would not succeed without including all populations and all parties.

Mandela's sense of inclusiveness, of always understanding opposing views, "walking in the shoes of the other," and taking the interests of all into account reads like a manual of conference resolution training.  He did not learn this from books, but from "Ubuntu," which in the Nguni languages of Southern Africa means a sense of humanity that binds us all. His commitment to that concept was the saving grace for a South Africa that could have erupted in irretrievable violence.

Reconciliation as a Presidential Policy

Much is known of Mandela's presidency, but the role he played from his release in 1990 to the election in 1994 was just as critical, as he worked hard to keep disparate and ideologically opposed groups committed to the writing of a new democratic constitution which would guarantee the rights of all.  When finished, the constitution and its bill of rights became a model for the whole world.

Madiba also fought to stop the consistent outbreaks of serious violence among opposing parties – not just the white right-wing groups, but also between African rival parties – in which over 10,000 people lost their lives in the lead up to the election.  Often frustrated with his counterpart, President De Klerk, for not taking stronger action to stem the violence, and constantly being threatened from right and left, Mandela stood like the rock of Gibraltar to stem the flows of violence and keep it from consuming the whole country.

Once president, he took on the critical and necessary task of reconciliation between white, black, colored and Indian in this deeply divided society.  He formed a unity government, inviting De Klerk, who had lost the election, to stand beside him as one of the Deputy Presidents.  He oversaw the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address past violations of human rights.  He reconciled with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of a powerful and opposing Zulu party, who had also stood for and lost the election.  Mandela appointed him to a cabinet position and wisely appeased his ego by making him Acting President when Mandela traveled overseas.  Mandela also met with General Constance Viljoen, the head of the South African Defense Forces, who had formed a rightest party of his own and had enough arms to set back the transition to democracy.  Viljoen became an important ally.

Mandela understood that all South Africans had to be in this together or the new "Rainbow Nation" would not succeed.  His instinct and wisdom knew no bounds, and his greatest legacy will be a South Africa, still separated in opposing political camps, but where all South Africans are proud of their nationality and unity.  The first order of business in 1994 had to be reconciliation, and no other human being could have accomplished it.

By Steve McDonald, Director, Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, The Wilson Center

Photo attributed to Babak Fakhamzadeh

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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more