Every April we commemorate South Africa’s first democratic election. This presents those who were alive on 27 April 1994, and those who, like us, were not, with an opportunity to reflect on everything that made that day happen.
This month also marks 30 years since April 1993. Three decades on, it is apparent that the legacy of that month, and of its central characters, continues to influence South African life.
Today, a new generation of South Africans is starting to exert its own influence. And while the problems we face are many, the years that led to April 1994 remind us that this is nothing new. Those years also offer us a guide on what we need to preserve in a democratic South Africa and how we can make it work in line with its founding promise.
When they heard that call
In their own way, each of the critical events of April 1993 embodies the many features of the resistance to apartheid. The most famous of those events, the assassination of Thembisile “Chris” Hani on 10 April, was visceral in its reminder of the brutality with which participation in the liberation struggle was responded to.
Hani’s death shook a generation, who, at the time, were closer than ever to the freedom to which their idol had so often willed them towards for nearly three decades. To them, he was the epitome of courage, determination and discipline. Through his decades of service, whether in the ANC, the South African Communist Party or uMkhonto weSizwe, Hani embodied a radicalism that sought to upend a system of oppression that had besieged them for years.
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His aptitude for leadership was obvious from a young age through his involvement in the Wankie Campaign – MK’s plan to infiltrate South Africa from its bases in Lusaka. Despite some concerns about the plausibility of the initiative, Hani insisted it be conducted, if not to achieve its objective, but to at least keep the hope of liberation alive within his movement and land.
His assessment was proven correct, when a group of soldiers under his leadership trawled through the bushveld, short of ammunition and food, and defeated members of the Rhodesian Security Forces in a fierce initial battle. While the broader mission itself eventually failed, the story of this Hani-led division’s success spread across the country. His courage and determination were evident.
For many black people this act represented the possibility of victory against a system they thought to be unassailable, and showed them that one of their young leaders was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.
Not distracted by his rising star, Hani remained disciplined, tirelessly carrying out the liberation movement’s instruction to establish bases, especially in Lesotho. He was also tasked with making and maintaining contact with those aligned to the struggle.
It was these engagements that left a lasting impression on South Africa’s young people.
His steadfast concern for the well-being and development of the young MK entrants under his leadership cemented his status. Even as he matured, his mutual affinity with young soldiers and activists meant that they felt closer to him than other principals in the movement.
This kinship was crucial during the transition to democracy when Hani operated as an effective bridge between the elders within the ANC and the more militant youth; a role which helped quell domestic violence and instability during this critical period.
Hani’s assassination, and its aftermath, would prove the most tenuous period of all. Throughout his life, Hani’s unwavering persistence in his duty made him a frequent target of the apartheid government and its white supremacist supporters. And while some of those supporters eventually felled him, they failed to extinguish his lifelong goal. The outpouring of grief and anger that met his death signified the deep appreciation by the people of his sacrifice towards their freedom.
Oliver Tambo remembered
The passing of Oliver Reginald Tambo in more natural circumstances on 24 April 1993 was symbolic of the struggle in another way: that it was the work of many lifetimes.
Affectionately known as the father of the movement, we must never forget Tambo. His stewardship of the ANC through the Morogoro and Lusaka years enabled the party in exile to position itself as the leader of the liberation movement. He assumed the ANC leadership at a time when others like Chief Albert Luthuli and Walter Sisulu were either under house arrest or imprisoned. Tambo had the unenviable task of rebuilding the ANC following its 1960 banning, an undertaking that was even more trying as he sought to properly launch the armed struggle through the fledgling MK.
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Fulfilling his duty to his people required Tambo, while exiled with his young family, to navigate between his familiar roles as an ambassador of the ANC and a critical voice of the oppressed black majority, as well as the less-familiar one of being the leader of a separate military branch which needed consistent financial aid to operate.
Recognising the risk this placed on the ANC’s efforts to gain moral sympathy for its cause, Tambo explained to international delegates that the party had been forced into its decision by the National Party’s hostile and violent approach to black South Africans. As a result, the liberation movement was left with no option but to wage what he termed a “just war” against a repressive and inhumane regime. His approach worked, and its astuteness is all the more apparent when considering that World War 2 was still fresh in the minds of many of these delegates.
For three decades Tambo was the one unyielding constant, framing the ANC’s armed struggle in this manner to the international community up until 1990. This allowed his party to sustain a two-pronged attack on the apartheid regime from exile: on one side, increased and sustained international opposition; and on the other, sporadic yet effective attacks by the MK on key national infrastructure. The latter heightened unease within those leading the racist regime and, more importantly, its constituents.
His voice, filtered through radio broadcasts, galvanised his people, and collectivised them into one opposition unit. Their efforts to render the illegitimate regime ungovernable eventually brought the same regime to the negotiating table.
It remains a tragedy that neither Hani nor Tambo were able to cast their first ballot in a democratic South Africa. But without their lifelong commitment to that cause, the creation of this South Africa would have been a far lengthier, far more fraught endeavour.
As Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, one of Tambo’s contemporaries, remarked at his funeral: “Dear brother: You set yourself a task which only the brave would dare. Somewhere in the mystery of your essence, you heard the call that you must devote your life to the creation of a new South African nation. And having heard that call, you did not hesitate to act.”
When Mandela uttered those words he did not know with certainty that our first democratic elections were less than a year away, yet that did not deter him in realising that goal. He too had once heard that call. Acting on it had, over half a century, led him to Fort Hare, to Alexandra, to Liliesleaf Farm and to Robben Island.
If there was one quality that defined Mandela through the many phases of his life, it was his adaptability. His willingness, borne out of his recognition that circumstances change, to alter his own approach, thereby enabling him to effect his own desired change. In doing so, he was a stubborn, often relentless advocate for others to adapt their own approach.
It was this quality that, in 1943, compelled him to join Lembede, Mda, Sisulu and Tambo in exhorting then ANC president Dr AB Xuma to enable them to set up a more radical ANC Youth League. Nearly 20 years later, Mandela was among those who recognised that the liberation movement would have to abandon nonviolence to succeed. His voice was crucial in convincing Chief Luthuli that the ANC needed to set up a separate military wing. In turn, Luthuli tasked Mandela with leading that wing and Mandela was resolute in accepting responsibility.
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For the rest of his life Mandela maintained that equilibrium. It was what enabled him, while still in prison, to sense that the apartheid government was crumbling earlier than most.
In April 1993, Mandela was at his busiest, and most adaptable. The month began with the first meeting of the Multi Party Negotiation Process. By the time it ended, the liberation movement was unexpectedly bidding farewell to two of its finest servants.
Through that time, Mandela, in his capacity as ANC president, was constantly on the move, driving for the announcement of the first election date. His subsequent years as our first democratic president, and his post-presidency bore the same hallmark of adaptability.
Creating a new nation
In recent years, there has been renewed scrutiny of the legacy of Mandela, particularly over his actions between 1990 and 1994. This is welcome in a democratic society because it demonstrates a willingness to reflect on our past and reimagine our future. As part of this discourse, it is important that we remember who Mandela and his contemporaries were, and what their principal objective was.
They were explicitly political actors, defined by their realism, committed, above all, to achieving multiparty democracy with universal voting rights, while reducing the risk of the bloodshed that unrestrained civil conflict would induce.
To accomplish this during the early 1990s, they had to coerce, bargain, lobby, organise and, on occasion, withdraw from negotiations. The last tactic was often accompanied by the threat to resume the armed struggle.
We can see the effectiveness of this ruthless pragmatism at critical points.
Mandela’s public exposure and castigation of De Klerk and the National Party’s duplicity in the aftermath of the Boipatong massacre was a clear case in point. Similarly, the ANC of that era ensured that Hani’s assassination was an inflection point that compelled the swift organisation of our first democratic elections.
There is a temptation, especially for those of us who were not present, to reflect on the struggle as a series of events beyond our comprehension, as somehow detached from where we find ourselves today. However, to do this, it would mean that we miss these deliberate, political aspects of the struggle and negotiation process. It is vital that we absorb the lessons of these aspects, and of lives lived in the purposeful, relentless pursuit of larger goals.
Reducing the interlocking economic, racial and spatial inequalities pervading our country is one such goal. Undeniably, their continued presence has helped revive allegations that Mandela and the ANC “sold out” during the transition to democracy. To some extent, by never living through the formative, often rocky road our nation has traversed since April 1994, Tambo and Hani are insulated from the denunciations directed at those, like Mandela, who did.
Equally, ongoing tribulations do not impugn the necessity, nor the enormity, of what the liberation struggle accomplished. Breaking political apartheid was one of the staggering social and political achievements of the 20th century. Anywhere.
Before 1994, Mandela and his contemporaries believed that ensuring political stability and guaranteeing political freedom were necessary conditions for economic redress. They were correct.
Permanently transforming South Africa’s economic landscape would have been impossible during any protracted civil conflict where the white supremacist National Party maintained full control of the state. And as we see the world over, even assuming that civil conflicts end on terms favourable to a liberation movement, economic redress is harder to achieve in the post-conflict setting due to the lives lost and shattered families these full-scale conflicts invariably produce.
The inequality legacy
At their core, our ongoing inequalities are a reminder of just how far-reaching the legacies of colonialism and apartheid are. The record of the ruling ANC in grappling with these disparities has been, even when accounting for global and historical factors, uneven at best and actively counterproductive at worst.
For the past 29 years the South African public has consistently provided the ANC with significant parliamentary majorities, exclusive control of most provincial and local governments, and untrammelled access to the transformative power of the state. In short, we have conferred the ANC time and authority to nullify any economic allowances they felt were necessary during the transition to democracy. So, if any infidelity by the ANC to the goal of economic redress happened, then it occurred after 1994, and not before.
Party politics today may be in an unsatisfactory state, whether within the ANC or across the plethora of opposition parties. But the practice of politics itself, whether within party politics, or outside, is essential if we seek resolution to all our other difficulties.
When Tambo, Mandela and Hani and all their peers, named and unnamed, heard the call to create a new South African nation, they answered it, despite living under a system in which even their most basic practice of politics was rendered unlawful. That cause began before they were born, but while they lived they were faithful custodians of it. In doing so, they were able to leave a more just inheritance than they received.
In this, we will not fail you
In the end what broke political apartheid were those acts of defiance and sacrifice, committed generation in and generation out, in the face of perpetual repression and brutality.
Yes, they were committed at Kliptown, at the Union Buildings and at Rocklands. Yes, they were committed at Sharpeville, at Soweto and at Langa. Yes, they were committed at Alice, at Mankweng and at Pietermaritzburg. And yes, they were committed at Lusaka, at Maseru and at Robben Island.
But those acts of resistance were also the daily ritual of community halls, of buses, of classrooms, of factory floors, of places of worship, of city hostels, of courtrooms, and outside and inside embassies.
While the liberation movement had leaders, the sanctity of that struggle was not the domain of any individual. Rather, sanctity lay in those countless, deliberate, selfless acts of duty.
Today, there are times when it can all feel too much. Certainly, growing up in the presence of crime, poverty, corruption, violence and inequality is disillusioning. It can even be demoralising.
Indeed, our faith in our own democracy can erode.
Tempered though we are, a democratic South Africa remains worth preserving, and bettering. If not for ourselves, then as an eternal symbol of our reverence for those countless acts of sanctity, committed for our benefit, by those who knew that they might never get to experience those costly rights for which they kept striving. DM/MC
The title and subtitles herein are adapted from the address given by Nelson Mandela at the funeral of Oliver Tambo, delivered on 2 May 1993.
Moema and Desai write in their capacity as citizens.