Defend Truth


When SA raged in 1993, true leaders emerged – who will step into our moment of crisis now?


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Justice Malala’s ‘The Plot to Save South Africa’ prompts us to ask who will be the leaders to emerge during this current moment of systemic crisis, with the ANC choking on corruption and criminality.

Two just-published, significant books about the country’s more recent past offer studies on the quality of leadership and what influences an individual’s rise to power and prominence.

In simpler terms, does history make the leader or the leader make history?

Justice Malala’s The Plot to Save South Africa: The Week Nelson Mandela Averted Civil War (Jonathan Ball) and Jonny Steinberg’s Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage (Jonathan Ball) are keepers. These are books you want on your shelf; solid accounts that will have perennial relevance and reference.

English historian Ian Kershaw, who has written extensively on World War 2, noted that one of the fundamental questions of historical analysis is whether conditions determine leadership or whether individual will and ambition propel people to power.

“How important is personality itself, both in gaining power and then exercising it?” asks Kershaw in the preface to Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe (Allen Lane), published in 2022.

“Exceptional times, it could be said, produce exceptional leaders who do exceptional things – often terrible things,” writes Kershaw.

There was one condition, however, that was a prerequisite, writes the historian. A systemic crisis. And in South Africa this was triggered on Saturday, 10 April 1993.

Birthed in blood

The murder of Chris Hani birthed modern South Africa. Nelson Mandela was the midwife, and the nine-day bloodbath in the violent aftermath – sparked by extreme provocation by a white, right-wing plot – hastened democracy in South Africa.

Fifty-four days after Hani, uMkhonto weSizwe chief of staff and general secretary of the South African Communist Party, was murdered by Janusz Waluś, a Polish-born member of the terrorist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the election date of 27 April 1994 was set.

There was no turning back.

Justice Malala was a young journalist at The Star in Johannesburg that Saturday morning, which he describes as “Holy Saturday” in this engaging deep dive into events that convulsed through the country 30 years ago.

It has taken this long to revisit these cataclysmic events in South Africa.

Like the post-World War 2 book Peeling the Onion, as German author Günter Grass titled his autobiography, Malala returns to those trauma-filled days.

Only now, with the passage of time and from the distance of the US, where the author has settled, can we dissect the national wound.

Events can be slowed down, rewound, played again and paused so we gain deeper insights into the extraordinary behind-the-scenes dramas and intrigues.

All of these events reveal the quality of leadership not only of Mandela but also that of FW de Klerk, who misread the moment and rushed into the arms of the securocrats – this at a key point in negotiations with the ANC.

How the nationalist government at the time handled matters was predictable, kneejerk and atavistic.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The meaning of revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness and action before and after 1990/94

De Klerk revealed his unidimensional interior logic, condemning the “violence of the ANC” in those nine days, while not once calling out the right wing, who had fired the first shot.

All this with the hope of provoking and orchestrating a civil war, a race war and enough chaos to justify a military coup.

An ANC with backbone

More interesting, though, is how Malala recalls the leadership displayed by many in the ANC who orbited Mandela.

Barbara Masekela features, as do Peter Mokaba, Mac Maharaj, Jay Naidoo, Gill Marcus, Sam Shilowa, Ronnie Kasrils, Ray Suttner and Thabo Mbeki. There are Mondli Gungubele, Tokyo Sexwale, Pallo Jordan, Saki Macozoma and Joel Netshitenzhe.

And even Carl Niehaus.

Niehaus, who Malala describes as “a young former political prisoner and Christian activist”, became the ANC’s media manager at the critical nexus.

“For the ANC, there were two key players at the court appearance [of Waluś]: Tokyo Sexwale and the ANC’s most visible Afrikaner, Carl Niehaus,” writes Malala.

Mandela, he writes, aware of “rising racial tensions in the country”, had “called upon Niehaus to be present at court and give an address alongside Sexwale”.

Malala’s book prompts us to ask who will be the leaders to emerge during this current moment of systemic crisis, with Mandela’s ANC choking on corruption and outright criminality.

It was these two men who reminded the angry crowd that the ANC was “rooted in nonracial, democratic principles”, writes Malala.

Then there was the key witness, Retha Harmse, a white resident of Dawn Park who took down Waluś’s number plate, leading to his swift arrest.

That in itself is a narrative that played out in police stations and interrogation rooms as the country raged and burned.

Enter Mandela

While Steinberg’s Winnie & Nelson highlights the searing personal emotional terrain Mandela was negotiating at the time, Malala’s book finds the statesman who appeared before the nation – even before he was elected the first president of a democratic South Africa.

When the moment called, when Mandela made his first broadcast to the nation, on the then still state-controlled SABC, he stepped into a political maelstrom that had been a long time coming.

Stiff, old, stilted but with a gravitas that could not be ignored, Mandela tipped the political scales and fortunes of the country.

In the end, the “race war” that Waluś and his co-conspirators, Conservative Party members Clive and Gaye Derby-Lewis, tried to ignite, did not materialise.

Ali – The Greatest

Malala reminds us that the late, great Muhammad Ali happened to be visiting South Africa when Hani was assassinated.

Ali had landed that very morning for a tour he had promised Mandela back in 1990. It was not, Malala reminds us, the tour the heavyweight champ had expected. The symbolism of Ali’s presence at this time of crisis served as a channel for raging emotions. As he made his way across the country, and by the time he got to Cape Town, the streets and buildings were on fire.

Back in Johannesburg, Ali visited the Hani family, opting to cancel a ticker-tape parade through Johannesburg. Leadership shone.

Are there any leaders left?

Malala’s book prompts us to ask who will be the leaders to emerge during this current moment of systemic crisis, with Mandela’s ANC choking on corruption and outright criminality.

Next year will bring new political tides and currents. Who will step into the moment?

The choice for the youth of South Africa will be far wider and more exciting as the Electoral Act opens up contestation. That is the legacy of the Constitution and of those constitutionalists who triumphed over hate and violence. Malala’s book is a road map of our DNA. DM


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  • rmrobinson says:

    If true leaders only emerged in 1993, that was far too late. The ANC knew long before that regime change was about to happen. (see, for example, Esterhuyse: Eindstryd). Africa has yet to produce true leaders. Read the In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M G Vassanji about what happened when Africans took over in Kenya. Exactly the same sorry scenario followed in South Africa: corruption contemptible ‘elites’, incompetence, disregard for the interests of the people, en so gaan dit.

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    The only reason leaders emerged in 1993 was that the quality of leadership in SA at the time was orders of magnitude better than it is now so even by scraping the bottom of the barrel then, some leaders of substance could be found. Now, there is nothing and no-one left, all the leaders of substance and their parties are gone or tainted, we are left with nothing but the lowest of the dregs.

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