Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africaby Patti Waldmeir
One of the most extraordinary political tales of the 20th century, in which a nation stepped through the looking glass and emerged as the mirror image of its former self. See more details below
One of the most extraordinary political tales of the 20th century, in which a nation stepped through the looking glass and emerged as the mirror image of its former self.
From their country's earliest days to the apartheid era, white South Africans have shown a perverse genius for making bad historical choices. But from the 1980s on, when the stakes were at their very highest, everything suddenly changed, and the country began to act with a creative and inclusive sense of destiny. Perhaps not since the American Revolution has such a remarkable transformation been accomplished by so many remarkable individuals. As the Johannesburg bureau chief for the Financial Times, Waldmeir was at the very center of the action. As a purely journalistic account of what happened, of why apartheidwhich seemed so entrenched, so culturally immovablecrumbled away, this book is exceptional. She has talked to all the players, from F. W. de Klerk to Nelson Mandela, right down to the lowliest cabinet officials, and she has personally covered all the big stories. Waldmeir has a pitch-perfect understanding of the forces working to end apartheid, and this helps take her account far beyond mere journalism. She believes that apartheid ultimately fell not because of sanctions or ANC actions, but because it forced the Afrikaner leadership into an inescapable moral contradiction. They thought apartheid's separate- but-equal policy was"however perverse," she notesa wonderful, even beautiful, moral idea. But separation never worked, and equal was constantly perjured by naked racism. The only way out of this quandary was to abjure the ideal. No one thought de Klerk would be the man to do it. No one thought the ANC would control negotiations so completely. Few thought that the process would be as relatively smooth and harmonious as it proved to be. With Mandela's inauguration as president in 1994, Waldmeir writes, "one of the great psychological transformations of the twentieth century was complete. . . . It was a magical moment in the history of the human spirit."
Waldmeir's account will be cited and debated for years to come. A notable achievement.
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The Myth of the Monolith
F. W. De Klerk watched, and admired, as the apartheid military celebrated the sheer naked power of the white state he would one day dismantle. All the hardware of white dominance passed before himtanks, heavy guns, armored cars, jet fighters. It was 1966: apartheid was invincible.
De Klerk, model Afrikaner, stood on the podium that crisp bright day in May as his nation marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of an independent South African Republic. Amongst the dignitaries were Hendrik Verwoerdthe man who made South Africa famous for racial segregationand F. W.'s father, Jan de Klerk, a minister in Verwoerd's government.
It was a moment of intense patriotism for de Klerk, no less so than the day nearly thirty years later when he would hand over power to Nelson Mandela. At least as many people attended these celebrations held at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, sacred shrine of Afrikanerdom. The same Impalas and Mirage jet fighters swooped overhead streaming patriotic colors, to the fervent acclaim of a crowd whichhowever implausible it may seem to outsiderswas also celebrating national liberation.
The creation of a republic independent from Britain in 1961 was a decades-old dream come true for Afrikaners, revenge for their 1902 defeat by the British in the Anglo-Boer War. The war had made Afrikaners the second-class citizens of South Africa (Africans did not even rank on the class scale). And the all-consuming national conflict of the years that followed was between Boer and Briton, not black and white.The declaration of a republic in 1961 was a liberation just as sweet and true for Afrikaners as the inauguration of Mandela was for blacks.
On Republic Day, May 31, 1966, the new Afrikaner nation appeared impregnable. All the levers of control were in its hands. Top policemen, generals, bureaucrats, and judges were Afrikaners; they had inherited a white monopoly of political, economic, administrative, and technological power stretching back more than three hundred years. It was impossible to believe things would ever be otherwise.
"The white minority has a monopoly of force which it does not hesitate to use, and of power which it will not voluntarily yield ... for the foreseeable future, South Africa will be able to maintain internal stability and effectively counter insurgent activity." That was U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger's assessment of the apartheid state in 1969, at its zenith; that was the image created by Afrikaners to protect their vulnerable young nation.
The apartheid state had spent huge sums nurturing the myth of the monolith: the government budget for munitions manufacture rose a hundred-fold from 1960 to 1964 alone. And behind that image of military power lay the equally daunting edifice of the national will, granite-hard in defense of white hegemony. By the end of the 1960s, the psychology of white supremacy was firmly entrenchedin black minds as much as white.
That imageof the Afrikaner trapped forever in a prison of ethnic fear and loathing, ready to fight to the last man to defend the apartheid laagerwould ultimately prove deceptive. But in 1966 it was a fair reflection of the national psyche. Afrikaners were aggressive because they were fearful, belligerent because they were insecure. That only made them all the fiercer.
The word apartheid means "separation" in Afrikaans, but segregation had been a fact of South African life long before Afrikaners took power. From the day when the Dutch sailor Jan van Riebeeck founded a victualing station at the Cape in 1652, blacks and whites lived separately. But when radical Afrikaner Nationalists triumphed in the 1948 elections, they created a vast legal superstructure to enforce separation. From then on, "apartheid" governed every aspect of national life: it assigned every baby from birth to a rigid "population group," which determined where he could live and go to school, what lavatory he could use, and whom he could marry. Many Afrikaners believe that was their greatest mistake, to set in stone what others (including whites in the contemporary American South) were content to observe as custom.
The American situation was different. Whites were a majority in America, whereas white South Africans were a small and declining minority in their country. Afrikaners were terrified that blacks would do what the English had done: render them a subject minority in the land of their birth. Their answer was apartheid. Its aim was to guarantee the prosperity and security of Afrikaners, through white domination. Apartheid was in large part an economic ideology, tailored to develop the largely poor, rural, undereducated Afrikaner nation of the 1930s into a prosperous bourgeoisie. In that, it succeeded. After the National Party took power in 1948, government employment became virtually an Afrikaner preserve: lucrative government accounts went to Afrikaner banks and contracts to Afrikaner businesses; huge state corporations, run by Afrikaners, were soon making everything from iron and steel to heavy weapons.
Verwoerd, who became prime minister in 1958, turned that policy into an ideology of national salvation, known as "grand apartheid." And he gave it a moral dimension, which made it that much easier for decent Afrikaners to accept. Verwoerd fed them what they wanteda moral justification for white domination. As it was wrong for whites to continue ruling blacks, they would stop doing so. Black South Africans would be sent to live in their own tribal homelands, where they could govern themselves and live as they pleased. Whites would retain the bulk of the land, while blacks would be "removed" to a patchwork of ethnic states covering only 13 percent of the landmass. (Eventually, some 3-4 million people were forced to move to the homelands.) Blacks remaining in white South Africa would be treated as "foreigners" and tolerated only as migrant workers. The races would be separate; but they would be equal.
Verwoerd used the Bible to defend this policy, known as "separate development." He based his defense on the biblical injunction, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." As he told a Cape Town church congregation in the 1960s, "We have a very fine position in South Africa, we've got land, we've got a country and we are obliged by the love commandment to provide exactly the same to black people." (The clergyman who recalled this event for me in October 1994, Reverend Johan Heyns of the Dutch Reformed Church, was murdered by an assassin's bullet two days afterwards in the same room where we had held our conversation. The police believe that Heyns, who led his church away from apartheid, was killed by the kind of right-wing Afrikaner who still clings to that Verwoerdian vision of thirty years ago.)
Verwoerd gave the authoritarian state a conscience, a sense of right and wronghowever perversewhich would eventually prove one of its most fatal flaws. Had the rest of the edifice remained strong, had economic collapse, international opprobrium, terrorism, and the sheer weight of numbers not sapped the will of the Afrikaner to rule, this flaw might have remained latent forever. But in the end, morality did play a role: apartheid was abandoned not only because it failed but because its very failure made it immoral. Afrikaners could no longer rationalize their desire to rule and their belief in justice. That, as much as anything, made it possible for them to embrace the new South Africa.
Make no mistake. To the Afrikaners of the 1960s, the question of right and wrong was less important than their will to survive as a nation. But the twisted beauty of apartheid was that it appeared to them to fulfill both imperatives. Some embraced it purely cynically, as an excuse for white privilege. But others hoped it would provide a path to what the Afrikaans poet N. P. van Wyk Louw called "survival in justice." Among them was F. W. de Klerk, that most loyal child of the apartheid state, a textbook Afrikaner.
"We, my father, my uncle [former Prime Minister Hans Strijdom], have been pictured as almost hard-line criminals, willfully saying, 'I'm filled with hate, I'm a racist, I think nothing of blacks, I'm prepared to be part of a system which oppresses them.' It was never like that, and I am not prepared to admit to sins of which I am not guilty....
"The people who structured apartheid and put it on the law books were not evil people.... Apartheid was, in its idealistic form, a plan to make all the people of South Africa free."
The passion evident in F. W. de Klerk's defense of apartheid has not waned with the years, nor can political expediency dissuade him from voicing it, even in the new South Africa. He leaned toward me as he spoke, insistent, irritated that this vital point had been so often misunderstood. I had come to know de Klerk's body language over the years, but these were signs I scarcely recognized: the gaze so intense, the tone rising high in appeal, the tension in the neck. De Klerk was not going to rest until he had made his peace with history.
It was November 1994, six months after he handed over power, and the former president was installed in his new office of deputy president. He was trying to explain how he had ended up there, shielded by tinted bulletproof glass that was never necessary to protect him when the white state was strong.
He traced the roots of his actions straight back to the ideology of apartheid, drawing an unwavering line of moral conviction from "separate development"whose goal was "to bring full political rights to all South Africans via nation states"to democracy. And then, in his eagerness to defend himself in the eyes of Afrikaner history, he reached even further back into the collective consciousness of his people, saying, "The Afrikaners fought the first anti-colonial war in modern history in Africa, against Great Britain. So Afrikaners have a deep understanding of the need of a people to be free."
It is a precarious argument to make before a foreigner, who is asked to accept that the architects of apartheid were not evil but merely blinded by fear, and that their motivation was not greed but the highest morality. De Klerk knows this, but he is not put off because he genuinely believes it to be true, and because he cannot bear to be seen as the man who betrayed his people's history. In his eyes, the quest of his forefathers was the same as his ownthe search for "survival in justice."
He picks up the story of the creation of apartheid, one of the most ambitious social engineering projects in human history: "a dramatic process of decolonisation swept across Africa from the beginning of the 1960s.... South Africa found itself increasingly isolated and out of step with the rest of mankind.... It was clear that white South Africans would have to respond to this new situationbut how could we do it without at the same time losing the right to our own national self-determination which had been the central theme of our history? ...
"The response was to embark on a process of internal decolonisation ... we would lead the rural homelands to independence just as the colonial powers to the north had done. The goal was to bring justice to all by transforming South Africa into something like Europenational states working together in respect of common interests."
Here again, de Klerk is on fragile ground, a man of the future who insists on defending the anachronisms of the past. As always, there is a tension in him between the modern, cosmopolitan leaderhe is a politician of consummate skill, to rank with any of his Western peersand the Calvinist Afrikaner born of a world that owes more to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century.
Still, the body language is entirely plausible. With head cocked to one side, the pose he adopts characteristically for maximum persuasion, de Klerk yearns to be understood, explaining, "There was a great degree of idealism in this vision. I know because my father was a member of the government which formulated it, and he was a good man. I as a student and youth leader was committed to liberate all South Africans in this way." Perhaps history demanded such a manchild of his time, creature of apartheidto launch South Africa on a very different path to national liberation.
"The Afrikaner youth of the time were absolutely hypnotized by the ideology of apartheid because it was marketed as the ultimate solution of different countries for different peoples. The grand apartheid concept sounded so logical...."
Willem de Klerk, elder brother to F.W. and son to Jan, muses on the early character of the man who made the de Klerk family famous. In later life, the two brothers parted company politically. Ironically, it was the elder brother who became the liberal, while F.W. clung to the conservative beliefs of their forebears. But in 1966, Willem and F.W. stood side by side on their father's Republic Day podium, united in admiration.
Framed by portraits of bearded de Klerk ancestors and a bronze profile of Calvin on his study wall, Willem (popularly known as Wimpie) recalls the state of mind of the Afrikaner nation in 1966: "We thought we were on top of the world. We had conquered the English, we had sorted out the black situation via apartheid, we had affirmative action, all the generals were Afrikaners. So the mood was, at last we have arrived."
The de Klerk family felt very much part of the national triumph. When the National Party won power in 1948, "it was a wonderful day." The whole family celebrated, including twelve-year-old F.W. Politics was in his genes. One great-grandfather was a senator, his grandfather Willem was a Cape Rebel during the Anglo-Boer War; his father Jan was a member of cabinet in three apartheid governments, and president of the Senate. It was the perfect pedigree for change. Perhaps no one but a third-generation politician, whose loyalty to the National Party could be measured in decades, could have been trusted to mastermind the revolution.
"We were all Nationalists, we were all on the same side, what do you debate?" Jan Mentz, now a frail octogenarian, was once F. W. de Klerk's Latin teacher, mentor, debating society coach, and fellow spectator at the 1966 Republic Day parade.
Mentz says he had a premonition of evil that day when the parade commander collapsed and died on the spot. What he means is that he had a premonition of black rule. For this elderly gentleman's political views are like his courtly manners and exquisite hospitality, relics of a bygone age. He describes himself as an "Aryan," and remains convinced of the mental inferiority of the darker-skinned races.
Mentz has left me for a moment, sipping tea and wondering whether it would be greedy to sneak another of the delicious homemade oatmeal-and-fruit pastries from the plate by my side. This old man, with his crude talk of racial inferiority, has provoked in me a familiar dilemma: How can I sympathize with Afrikaners who hold such views, however legitimate their fears for the future? Can I eat their pastries, and accept their hospitality, without feeling somehow complicit?
My life in South Africa has been one long struggle with this dilemma, one long battle to come to grips with the paradox at the center of the Afrikaner soul. At once pious and cruel, brutal and paranoid, Afrikaners yearn to be loved, but have done so much that is both unlovable and unforgivable. Jan Mentz was just such a paradox: a bigot, but one who accepted the new order with ease; a white supremacist who expressed an irrational pride that the man who gave away white power had been his pupil.
Mentz returns to the room (noting with pleasure my consumption of a second pastry) and remembers that time of greatest Afrikaner blindness, the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls that race was never even the subject of debate at Monument High School in Krugersdorp, which gave F. W. de Klerk his diploma in 1953. Those were the days before the slightest shadow of doubt had come to darken the Afrikaner mind.
Blacks were firmly under white control. They had no political rights, no labor rights, were barred by law from skilled professions, and kept in fenced townships built out of sight of white South Africa. Afrikaner society, too, was cohesive. No one would have needed to teach the young F.W. that every race group had its place in a hierarchy ordained not by man alone, but by God. These were the implicit truths of Afrikaner life.
During this period of greatest Afrikaner certainty, there was nothing to debate, and no sign that the young F.W.universally described as a boy of agile but not brilliant mindwould be the one to revolutionize the politics of centuries.
Jan Mentz recalls that the future president loved Latin, because of its analytical nature. But he also loved Mentz's lessons in logic: "I taught him that he must always approach a matter in a balanced way, not be overruled by emotion, take a logical approach to everything and weigh things in an objective way." All who knew F. W. de Klerk, child and man, agree that this was his greatest strengththe courage to think rationally when fear would crowd out logic; the clarity of vision to recognize facts.
None of this sounds particularly heroic; indeed, no one who knew the future president as a child remembers premonitions of greatness. They recall a nice, decent boy, with a winning smile and a way with girls, not the type to pursue greatness with single-minded obsession. One friend remembers F.W. singing these lines from an Afrikaans folksong: "If I become president of South Africa one day, / We will drive to the capital, / The two of us in a wagon." Nobody thought he was making a prediction.
This, then, was the monolith: a nation that coupled frightening unity of vision with fearsome military force.
But at the very moment that Verwoerd and F. W. de Klerk were celebrating its strength at the Voortrekker Monument in 1966, a plot was afoot to reduce the monolith to myth. Within the walls of the maximum-security prison at Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was scheming not to overthrow but to outsmart the state. He was planning a monumental act of seduction, aimed at wooing Afrikaners away from apartheid by proving to them not only that it was wrongbut that it was unnecessary.
It took Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) colleagues something like thirty years to find the cracks, widen them, and watch the monolith implode. But though the vast majority of ANC energy went into a military challenge to the monolith, the final victory was more psychological than physical. The journey down the road to capitulation began at Robben Island, a barren expanse of rock off the shores of Cape Town, which was home to Nelson Mandela for nearly two decades.
To this day, Mandela can shock an audience by publicly pining for Robben Island. It is an idiosyncrasy he shares with many other former inmates of this, South Africa's Alcatraz. They all agree that incarceration on "the Island" provided one ingredient that proved essential to their struggle. "Time to think," as Mandela puts it. Time to mature politically, time to plot. Captured in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for sabotage, Mandela had plenty of time to prepare himself to rule.
Mac Maharaj was one of Mandela's closest colleagues in prison. He traces the psychological conquest of Afrikanerdom back to those distant days on Robben Island when Mandela first learned to play mind games with the Boer. The secret was Mandela's mastery of the Afrikaans language. He even used Afrikaans to refer, affectionately, to the younger MaharajMandela called him neef, or nephew, while Maharaj returned the compliment with the Afrikaans honorific oom (uncle) for Mandela. The older man's choice of the Afrikaner languagedetested by blacks as the language of the oppressorwas not accidental. He considered a knowledge of enemy tongues an essential weapon in battle. Throughout his imprisonment, he read Afrikaans voraciouslyhistory, poetry, philosophy. He insisted his colleagues do the same.
Maharaj is a volatile man, who fought apartheid with powerful energy and intellect. He went on to become one of President Mandela's most trusted ministers. But in 1965, he was the angriest of young men. He recalls his outrage when, in that year, Mandela suggested he learn Afrikaans. "He said, `Neef, we are in for a protracted war, which is going to be a combination of armed and political struggle. Slowly the armed struggle is going to become the dominant form. But to wage it, you must understand the mind of the opposing commander. You can never outmaneuver him unless you understand him, and you can't understand him unless you understand his literature and his language.'
"That's where I collapsed, and I took up Afrikaans."
In the years to follow, Mandela would exploit this psychological advantage to launch his Afrikaner interlocutors on the road to conversion. Dr. Niel Barnard led a government team which negotiated with the imprisoned Mandela in the late 1980s; he recalls that the ANC leader always greeted him in Afrikaans, and allowed him to conduct his side of the talks in his mother tongue. By volunteering to speak the language so detested by his followers, Mandela sent signals of good faith that did much to calm Afrikaner fear of cultural annihilation. Such concessions were cheap at the price. They were to prove a major down payment on peace.
Mandela spent his twenty-seven years in prison preparing mentally for the day when the oppressor would sue for that peace. He made sure his fellow prisoners did the same, launching a series of debatesover pick and shovel at the Island limestone quarry, or during mealtimeson issues ranging from the merits of guerrilla warfare to whether there are tigers in Africa (there are not).
In this way, the ANC guaranteed unity among its leaders on key issues. The government had thought it could kill off dissent by exiling political opponents to Robben Island; instead, it merely succeeded in consolidating the opposition. But perhaps Pretoria gained, perversely, in the end, for generations of young hotheads got a sobering political education at what was known as "the University of Robben Island." Those who entered the prison hating whitesprobably a majorityemerged hating the system which whites had built, but not the race itself. A case of unintended consequences, of which many more were to follow.
"One of the things that we discovered is that men are not the same, even when dealing with a community that has a tradition of insensitivity toward human rights. Because the moment we arrived at Robben Island, a debate started amongst Afrikaner warders, some saying, let's treat these people harshly so they respect white supremacy, others saying, their side in history will ultimately win, we must treat them in such a way that when they win, it should not be a government of retribution." Nelson Mandela is outlining the lessons in human nature that he learned at the University of Robben Island.
"We established a very strong relationship because we adopted a policy of talking to the warders and persuading them to treat us as human beings. And a lot of them did, and there were a lot of things we could talk about.
"And the lesson was that one of our strongest weapons is dialogue. Sit down with a man, if you have prepared your case very well, that man, after he has sat down to talk to you, will never be the same again. It has been a very powerful weapon."
I had asked Mandela to reflect on the genesis of multi-racial power sharing, the model for his first government. He traced its roots back to Robben Island. And as always, he showed no bitterness when recalling his Island incarceration. The seventy-five-year-old man sitting stiffly on an armchair opposite me had no time for extraneous emotion: he had been president of the new South Africa for less than eight weeks, and there was a huge task of racial reconciliation ahead. Everyone knew he had suffered. He wanted us to focus instead on what he had learned.
Mandela is a slow speaker, agonizingly slow. I always found his prolonged pauses unnerving. He would sit, with mouth closed and head held unnaturally still, until I was convinced he had forgotten the question. Then, when reason had extinguished passion in his breast, he would speak, most often in a flat monotone that betrayed little. There are no cheap glimpses into Mandela's soul. He is too disciplined for that.
There are insights into his thinking, however, and he offered some that day, as we took tea in the Office of the President. My mind's eye gave the place such capital letters, to mark the momentousness of the occasion. For this was what I had never thought to see in my lifetime, a black man in charge in the Union Buildings, the seat of government. And unlike Mandela, I had not had twenty-seven years in prison to learn how to conquer my emotions.
What Mandela was saying that day was just as implausible to me as his very presence in the Union Buildings: that South Africa's negotiated revolution began on Robben Island in the days of Verwoerd. But Mac Maharaj and other Islanders provide a wealth of detail to verify the point. One story concerns a meeting in the mid-1960s between Mandela and General J. C. Steyn, commissioner of prisons. The subject, ostensibly, was prison conditions.
"In this war, there has got to be a victor and a vanquished, but even over the ashes of our country, the victor and the vanquished will have to sit down and talk," Mandela told the general. "You may think you're going to win, we think we're going to win. But don't make the mistake of robbing us of the chance to respect each other as worthy adversaries. Give us the chance, while we disagree with you and are your enemies, at least to respect you." Mandela went on to use that logic to argue for better prison conditions. No one will ever know whether General Steyn understood him, but someone heard his plea. Over the years, conditions improved dramatically; and somehow, the two sides maintained that respect which was crucial, in the end, to a settlement.
But of all the lessons taught at Robben Island, none is more poignant than the case of Colonel Piet Badenhorst. He arrived as prison commanding officer in 1970, preceded by his reputation as one of the most brutal and authoritarian of officials. In the time-honored fashion of Afrikaner warders, Badenhorst swore at the prisoners, enjoined Mandela "jy moet jou vinger uit jou gat trek" ("pull your finger out of your arse"), and made unfavorable comments about Mandela's mother's anatomy.
None of this was unexpected. But what amazed Mandela was Badenhorst's demeanor when he left Robben Island the following year" `I just want to wish you people good luck,'" Badenhorst said. Mandela writes about the incident in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom:
I thought about this moment for a long time afterwards.... Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that day, he had revealed that there was another side to his nature.... It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour.
Few passages better capture the generosity of Mandela's spirit and the nature of the understanding that prompted him to seek peace.
Reflecting, finally, on all twenty-seven years of his captivity, Mandela then distills this lesson: "A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness ... the oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed." It was through just such a feat of simultaneous liberation that Mandela defeated the monolith, and saved Afrikanerdom from itself.
He had been looking for ways to do so even before he reached Robben Islandand before he and other ANC leaders adopted the strategy of armed struggle which landed them in jail. In 1960, Mandela outlined an early vision of power sharing in testimony to the court which tried him and 156 others for high treason (they were acquitted). Mandela knew whites were not then ready for majority rule. But even if they gave Africans only 60 out of 160 seats in Parliament for, say, five years, "that would be a victory," he told the court, "a significant step towards the attainment of universal adult suffrage for Africans." Mandela wrote to Verwoerd to call for a national convention on a new constitution. He never received a reply.
But the most striking statement of the ANC leader's early moderation was the one he made from the dock in the 1964 "Rivonia" trial, which sent him to Robben Island. In it, he promised never to allow a black monolith to be built where the white one had fallen. "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. 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. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Over a quarter century would pass before Mandela met a man capable of understanding this message. When he did, he immediately sought to play on the similarities in political genealogy between himself and F. W. de Klerk. Both were, effectively, princes of the South African political scene, both descendants of families with power. Perverse as it may seem, Mandela respected de Klerk not despite his political antecedents but because of them. The white president came of a powerful lineage, and Mandela understood power.
He had learned about it as he grew up, in the household of the regent of the Thembu people, Jongintaba. Mandela's father was a "headman" or councilor of the Thembu, who are part of the larger Xhosa tribe. The ANC leader still pays homage to the Thembu regent as the source of his own later notions of leadership.
In his autobiography, Mandela paints a picture of an early, Thembu prototype of the consensus-style government he would adopt as president more than sixty years later. He is describing a tribal gathering at the regent's residence, the "Great Place," Mqhekezweni.
At first I was astonished by the vehemenceand candourwith which people criticised the regent.... But no matter how serious the charge, the regent simply listened, not defending himself, showing no emotion at all....
The meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at all ... democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.
Only at the end of the meeting, as the sun was setting, would the regent speak. His purpose was to sum up what had been said and form some consensus among the diverse opinions. But no conclusion was forced on people who disagreed. If no agreement could be reached, another meeting would be held....
Mandela would follow the same principles when he became a leader of men. "I always remember the regent's axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that they are being directed from behind."
Like de Klerk, Mandela had politics not only in his heart but in his blood. But both men would have to serve a long apprenticeship to power before they stood on that Pretoria hilltop and vowed solemn allegiance to the new South Africa. Both, in their very different ways, had a long way to go to disprove the myth of the monolith.
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