How Mandela and South Africa's Rulers Cut Their Historic Deal


Johannesburg, South Africa. -- South Africa's first all-race election is remarkable not for having brought to power a black-led government -- that was a given -- but for allowing apartheid's scions to still stride the halls of power.

More remarkable yet, it was the man who spent 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid, Nelson Mandela, who gave his white jailers in the mid-1980s the first glimmer of hope that they might yet strike a deal and retain some power in a black majority government.

That a deal of sorts was struck is no longer a matter of doubt but rather a question of detail. It was not a formal, contractual arrangement, but rather a loose agreement, a joint vision, a convergence of understanding over time, grown out of trust that developed during numerous discussions between Mr. Mandela and senior white officials while the African National Congress leader was still in prison.

Nearly five years after that agreement, the outcome is close to the most that outgoing President F. W. de Klerk and his National Party could realistically have hoped for when they took the first bold steps toward its fruition.

It has allowed them, against heavy odds, to snatch a functional defeat from the jaws of destruction.

They remain influential, though junior, partners in government, having drawn one in every five votes cast in the election -- perhaps one third from mixed-race or black supporters -- and actually won convincing control of one of the most important of the country's nine provinces.

When Mr. de Klerk relinquishes the presidency to Mr. Mandela on Tuesday, he will immediately take up the mantle of vice president -- a position of some leverage in the ANC-led multi-party government of national unity.

Some former members of the old de Klerk Cabinet are likely also to be absorbed into the Mandela Cabinet, while many old-guard bureaucrats will continue to hold key positions in the civil service.

Of course, none of the old guard -- Mr. de Klerk included -- can expect seriously to hold sway in the new government. The ANC's overwhelming majority will ensure dominance and enable it to strengthen its grip on power in the five years before the next elections.

Nonetheless, the two parties have developed a positive relationship over several years of negotiations; so positive, in some respects that many analysts believe the two parties are bound eventually to merge.

Yet none of this might have happened had not three historical events converged in the late 1980s: the demise of the Soviet bloc; the replacement of ailing President P. W. Botha by Mr. de Klerk; and Mr. Mandela's settlement offer.

Former members of the Botha and de Klerk cabinets said in interviews last week that by the late 1970s most senior Cabinet members were convinced that apartheid was doomed. By 1982 they had already begun searching for ways to bring the black majority into government without burying themselves in the process.

By the mid-1980s senior prisons officials, including former prisons director Jannie Roux, a close confidante of President Botha, had held secret discussions with Mr. Mandela -- contacts that would be maintained with increasing frequency by more senior government members in later years.

"It was part of government strategy to understand the important black leaders and, if possible, to influence them in our favor," says Gerrit Viljoen, former minister of constitutional development both the Botha and de Klerk cabinets.

Over time, he said, the government began to realize that Mr. Mandela was not the fire-breathing radical it had portrayed, and itself had believed, him to be. Here, they realized, was a powerful yet moderate black leader with whom they could negotiate.

The problem was, he would not negotiate from prison, and who knew what forces he would unleash if released.

Yet if he died behind bars his martyrdom would be elevated to supernatural heights and become a focus of black revolt evermore.

The greatest concern in top government circles by then, Mr. Viljoen says, was not so much black domination as Communist domination.

The ANC for years had been completely integrated with the South African Communist Party, and generally espoused Marxist rhetoric.

"By then our fear was not so much for Afrikaner survival but for Western democratic values," says Mr. Viljoen.

The collapse of Soviet-aligned communism at the end of the decade was regarded by many in the strongly Calvinist government literally as a godsend. Not only did it strengthen the hand of international capitalism, but it severely undermined the ANC's financial and moral support from the East.

National Party hopes remained frustrated, though, as Mr. Botha, weakened by a stroke in early 1989, seemed to have become politically dysfunctional, although his irascible grip on power was as strong as ever.

In July, with the country still wracked by political uprisings, tightening of sanctions and the decline of the economy, the jailed ANC leader made his move, asking to meet with the president.

He would endeavor, he told Mr. Botha, to persuade his organization to give up its guerrilla struggle and negotiate in a spirit of compromise, but only if the government committed itself to negotiate for a nonracial, unitary state with a government elected by majority vote.

Of course, as a prerequisite to any negotiations, he and other jailed leaders would have to be released and the restrictions lifted from banned organizations, such as his own ANC.

A peaceful and lasting solution could only be achieved, he wrote in a lengthy memorandum presented to Mr. Botha, "with the ANC and government working closely together to lay the foundations for a new era in our country."

Months went by without response from the government. Then, when it seemed the initiative would founder, the simmering frustrations in the National Party erupted, forcing Mr. Botha into retirement and hoisting Mr. de Klerk to the presidency.

Former Education Minister Stoffel van der Merwe believes that Mr. Botha was temperamentally unable to release Mr. Mandela. Had something not happened to break the logjam, he says, "we might have limped along, deeper into the pit of disaster."

Keenly aware of the need for bold action, Mr. de Klerk wasted no time in getting his party behind him for what he knew would be the most perilous gamble of its 40-odd years in power.

One of his first acts as president was to release in October 1989 all of Mr. Mandela's fellow long-term prisoners. Then he held the first of several meetings with the ANC leader himself, to let him know that the deal was on, and to prepare the aged leader for his release and other events that were to make world history.

Certainly the two protagonists then had no clear picture of how those early moves would turn out. But there is little doubt they shared many of the same ideals.

The National Party had hoped that it could negotiate a constitution with strong protections for racial minorities -- in other words, the whites.

That wish was swept aside in the four years of negotiation, but so too were many of the white Nationalists' racial fears and prejudices. The party is no longer for whites only, and in fact depends heavily on the strong support of mixed-race South Africans.

No, the new governmental arrangement is not all that the white Nationalists hoped for. But all the fundamentals are there. On Feb. 6, 1990, just five days before Mr. Mandela's release, Mr. Viljoen, then still constitutional affairs minister, who had himself met confidentially with Mr. Mandela, told journalists he expected blacks would have full political rights within five years. He also predicted the demise of his own party's rule.

"In 10 years time we won't have a single party in government. I would imagine we would have a coalition of some kind," he said. The National Party, though, he said, would continue to play "a meaningful future role."

Peter Honey is a Johannesburg-based journalist and political analyst. He is a former Southern Africa and Washington

correspondent of The Baltimore Sun.

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