From our vault: De Klerk and Mandela – what might have been

By Tim Cohen 11 February 2011

From a universe parallel to ours, through the ripple in the space-time continuum, the story of South Africa from 1990 to 2010 arrived at our offices recently. Reading it, we shuddered, too many times. So we thought you would want to see it too. Read it, don’t enjoy it. By our alternate history specialist, TIM COHEN.

“So this,” FW de Klerk recalls saying to himself, “is Nelson Mandela.” In December 1989 the world’s most famous political prisoner Nelson Mandela, was smuggled into the basement garage of what was then known as Tuinhuis.

The men had never met before, and like everyone else, De Klerk had no real idea of what Mandela looked like, because only a few secretly snatched photos of him had been seen for more than 20 years. De Klerk wrote later that Mandela was taller than he expected, dignified, courteous and self-confident.

Mandela for his part wrote to his ANC colleagues in Lusaka that he had “taken the measure of Mr De Klerk, just as I had with new prison commanders when I was on Robben Island”.

The two weighed each other up.

De Klerk had just won another whites-only election, after having ousted his hard-line predecessor, PW Botha. Still, not much was known about him. Even though technically the third most powerful person in cabinet at the time, De Klerk was often, and increasingly so in the later years of PW Botha’s reign, kept out of the loop. De Klerk did not even know at that stage there had previously been several secret meetings between justice minister Kobie Coetzee and Mandela.

Until then De Klerk had seemed an unlikely successor, another colourless “moderate” Afrikaner from the centre of this strange party – right-wing, racially obsessed, socially conservative but a changing entity.

Yet De Klerk’s history was Afrikaner blue-blood. When Voortrekker pioneer Piet Retief led his column of ox wagons over the Drakensberg Mountains to escape British rule, three De Klerks had died with Retief in the great kraal of the Zulu chief, Dingaan, in 1837. His grandfather was twice captured by the British in the Boer War, and later became a founder member of the National Party in 1914. De Klerk’s own father was a minister in Hendrik Verwoerd’s government, FW himself became an MP at 37 and was appointed to John Vorster’s cabinet five years later.

Mandela’s political position was also shrouded at the time, although aspects of his personal history were well known. He was born in Mvezo, a small village located in the district of Umtata, and was a member of a branch of the Thembu clan. He attended Wesleyan schools and met his life-long friend, Oliver Tambo, at Fort Hare University.

Escaping arranged marriage, he fled to Johannesburg and worked as an articled clerk at the Johannesburg law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman – a job he obtained through connections with his friend and mentor Walter Sisulu. Quickly politicised, Mandela became involved in non-violent resistance, and was arrested with 150 others, charged with treason, but later acquitted. Free, Mandela was radicalised and in 1961 became leader of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, which he co-founded, and became involved in sabotage campaigns against government targets. Mandela had given up on a negotiated solution as hopeless, and was eventually caught, charged, convicted and imprisoned for these activities in 1964.

Now facing De Klerk in 1989, after 27 years in prison, Mandela had the opportunity to decide the question of a negotiated solution again.

The years in prison had made him bitter. His daughter Zinzi was 18 months old when Mandela was imprisoned, and he had seen her only rarely. His many friends had been killed in jail or by security agents. They had turned his life into misery and he would not let them get away with murder that easily. Tens of thousands of them would have to pay for supporting apartheid.

Five years previously, Botha had offered Mandela his freedom if he would renounce violence. He had refused. De Klerk now had a new offer. He would free Mandela if the ANC would suspend the armed struggle. The ANC would remain banned, but ANC surrogate organisations would enter into negotiations with the government.

Mandela instantly refused. The radicals within the ANC had recently smuggled documents to him informing him they were close to winning. The townships were in flames. As a communist, Mandela was convinced the class struggle would inevitably bring about a revolution in which the masses would rise up. The recent fall of the Berlin Wall was merely an aberration, the Soviet Union was still strong and Cuba was a paradise. He angrily repeated his famous court declaration that he was prepared to die for freedom.

De Klerk left the meeting a chastened man. He had considered going further and unbanning the ANC unilaterally and suspending the death penalty.  But his meeting with Mandela convinced him doing so would be suicide. Suicide for whites in South Africa, political and real suicide for him too.

The hundreds of television crews which arrived to hear De Kerk’s speech left bitter and angry. De Klerk had offered only limited concessions and crucially, not announced Mandela’s release. Instantly, the world reverberated with news that the apartheid regime would go only if militarily defeated.

Life in South Africa continued in a horrible stalemate. The apartheid government continued to be reviled worldwide, but the ANC lacked the power to overthrow the state in open conflict. So it decided on a campaign of civil dissent and bombing, peppered with repeated strikes on apartheid security installations. In April 1998 the country was almost completely out of power for three weeks after a series of co-ordinated attacks on Eskom’s infrastructure resulted in nationwide blackout. All of that, in turn, led to the regime ruling through ever-more repressive measures.

The middle-class mostly left the country in the early 1990s and the economy wilted. Sportspeople left in droves since the “green mamba” passport was now effectively useless and accepted almost nowhere. Increasingly, the Church was dominating the white minority’s daily routine. Cinemas remained closed on Sundays, but in some smaller places in the platteland were closed altogether. SABC TV was mostly carrying propaganda programmes. By far the most popular TV series was “Oom Paul and his Many Children”.

Homeland governments teetered, with successive coups and counter-coups. As the world entered a golden age of new technology and economic prosperity, life in South Africa was one of pain and uncertainty. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lost patience with the National Party and supported its increasing isolation. The country teetered on, with inflation rising alarmingly as the rand fell in value. The South African workforce sought to leave in droves, scampering across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to find precious work in the comparative economic miracles of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Civil strife became so bad, the government was forced to build tall walls around “white” areas in some towns. UN resolutions increasingly isolated South Africa and empty shelves dominated its shops.

Ultimately, Mandela died in prison, as he promised he would. De Klerk was ousted in a military-led coup in 1994, after being accused of being “too soft” on the terrorists. He was replaced by the new, army-backed Prime Minister Eugene Terre-Blanche.

The 20 years that followed the failure by De Klerk and Mandela to agree were agony, pure and simple.  The country rotted in a stalemate and the future looked truly bad. And it was all because two men meeting in a government office in a Cape Town could not overcome their pasts. DM


For the real story of how De Klerk and Mandela met, read Ivan Fallon in The Independent.


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