Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Monday, December 09, 2013
I was briefed off-the-record by her foreign affairs adviser on several occasions, but when he told me that she had called on the then president, PW Botha, to release Nelson Mandela, I found it difficult to believe. I did not report it as I could not source it. But it was true. In a letter to Botha in October 1985 she wrote: "I continue to believe, as I have said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake."
When Botha stepped down after a stroke in 1989, he was replaced by FW de Klerk, who met Thatcher at Downing Street in June. I was among a group of journalists waiting outside No 10 with the promise that he would give a press conference straight after. We watched him leave then ran up Whitehall to the South African embassy where he had promised to speak. He did not turn up. We were told later that he had been too shocked by Thatcher's vehemence.
Mandela was released on 11 February 1990 (I was at the gates of the jail but to my eternal chagrin I failed to spot him). That evening he made a speech from the balcony of the town hall in Cape Town which was televised, live, world wide. The speech was written by the hard-liners and communists in the ANC and was full of Marxist jargon. "Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960… was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue." Thatcher was appalled. She picked up the telephone to Robin Renwick, the British ambassador in South Africa, and demanded to know why she had ever bothered to battle for Mandela's release if this was the result.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
As it turns out, I was right and wrong. The ANC was a lost cause; they did not believe in democracy, and had a large element of thuggery in their ranks. Many were terrorists who had received training in Libya, and were out for revenge and blood. Mandela, however, was more complicated than I had thought. He had had his violent phase, but only after trying peaceful opposition to apartheid. Both in and after coming out of prison, he proved an extremely intelligent negotiator and compromiser, reaching understandings with Botha and De Klerk, and turning down the volume of the anti-white message of the ANC. He seemed to have an understanding that whites and other non-blacks were essential for a peaceful and prosperous South Africa. He also, surprise, did not go full Mugabe. He won election--although the vote counting was suspicious--served his term, trying to unite blacks, whites, Asians, and others into accepting the new post-apartheid South Africa. He did not try to drive the whites out, and did not go around confiscating farms and businesses. He did not encourage revenge against whites and sought a reconciliation of the races. A practical politician, he turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption among the ANC, finding it better to let the party members expend their revolutionary fervor making money. At the end of his term, he stepped down. Yes, he stepped down. That is an amazing thing in Africa; he stepped down on completing his term of office. It does not happen much on that continent. He, however, never got over his deep mistrust of the USA, and despite his credentials as a victim of human rights abuse, refused to criticize Qaddafy, never gave up his fervent admiration for Castro--who, ironically, runs a racist regime in Cuba--and remained very anti-Israel.
Was he a great man? I think the answer is yes. He had great flaws, but great courage, drive, and commitment to his cause. He showed that a determined person can make a difference. He also showed that an African president can play by the rules and try to be president for all the people of his country. For that he deserves kudos and respect. He, nevertheless, did not establish a viable democratic political system in South Africa, and proved unable to stop the escalating criminal violence that has turned Johannesburg into one of the world's rape and murder capitals. His successors have proven notably less "great" than Mandela, and ANC corruption has gone into the stratosphere--including by Mandela's gangster ex-wife, Winnie. The white and other middle class flight he wanted to avoid proceeded and has grown. I think the jury remains out on whether South Africa can avoid the fate of Zimbabwe in the medium to long run. If I had to place a bet it would be that South Africa will not avoid that fate. Mandela's time in office, unfortunately, likely will prove a brief glorious moment of "what could have been but was not."
Nelson Mandela, RIP.