Mandela's South Africa

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHEN NELSON MANDELA walked out of prison on Feb. 11, 1990 South Africa's future walked with him. If Mandela had raised a clenched fist and said, "We must purge this land with blood," an uprising would have surely ensued, and South Africa would have disappeared into the sea of anarchy that has engulfed so many other African nations.

A lesser man would have felt justified in calling for a violent upheaval to bring down the white supremacist government. Anger is a powerful emotion and Mandela had reason to call for revenge. He had spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island, an inhospitable chunk of rock sitting in the cold Atlantic, off the coast of Cape Town.

Day after monotonous day, Mandela performed menial jobs such as pounding rocks into gravel or working in the island's limestone quarry. Day after day, he endured the indignities heaped on him by the white guards who ran the prison. And day after day, he longed for friends, family and freedom as the best years of his life wasted away while he sat in a dank cell.

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela reflected on his years in prison: "It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away somone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their own humanity.

"When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both...."

Mandela's words underscore the complexities of the man. For example, he is not a communist, but he embraces the communists who fought alongside him in South Africa's liberation struggle. He hated the apartheid government, but he does not hate white South Africans. He is a man of peace, but he headed a guerrilla group that waged a campaign of violence.

Despite Mandela's complexities, one thing remains constant. Since his earliest days in the African National Congress, he has described his vision for South Africa, a vision that includes South Africans of all races living in harmony.

Last month, I visited South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana with 10 other members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. The highlight of our visit to South Africa was a meeting with Mandela.

Soon after we arrived in Johannesburg, it became obvious that the United States does not have a Nelson Mandela. There is simply no figure in our society who enjoys the same degree of respect and adoration that South Africans, of all races, have bestowed upon him.

Our visit came while squatters were taking over farms in neighboring Zimbabwe and the medical community and AIDS activists had turned their attention to South African President Thabo Mbeki, who stirred up a controversy by questioning the safety of the drug AZT and whether HIV causes AIDS.

Meanwhile, in Pretoria, a trial was under way that served as a grim reminder of the horrors of apartheid. The defendant, Wouter Basson, is the alleged mastermind of South Africa's secret program to develop chemical and biological weapons. Under Basson's guidance, the program is alleged to have developed vaccines to make black women infertile, plans to contaminate water supplies with cholera and yellow fever, and a plot to poison Mandela while he was in prison.

We met with Mandela in his home in an affluent area of Johannesburg. Tall and proud, at age 82 he still has a commanding presence. His face was drawn, and he looked tired, but his voice conveyed the strength of a man whom not even Robben Island could break. I shook his hand and gave him an Orioles cap. He politely thanked me, and placed the cap on the table in front of him.

During the 1950s Mandela played a key role in the ANC's nonviolent campaign to undermine apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation, through strikes, civil disobedience, and demonstrations. The government labeled him a communist - a name given to anyone who called for social and economic change - and issued a banning order which restricted his movements and prohibited him from attending public gatherings.

Mandela continued to work with the ANC, but he abandoned nonviolence in March 1960 after 69 unarmed protesters were shot to death in Sharpeville, a town near Johannesburg. The demonstration was held to protest the "pass" law that required black South Africans to carry identification documents.

In 1964, Mandela and other ANC leaders were convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life in prison. Three years earlier, Mandela had become the head of Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), an organization that launched a campaign of bombings and armed struggle against the South African government.

During Mandela's 27 years in prison, he became the symbolic body and blood of the anti-apartheid campaign. The South African government, which was reeling from world condemnation, economic sanctions and a fear that if Mandela died in jail, a black revolution would follow, finally released him in 1990. Mandela negotiated with the white government to end apartheid. Four years later he was elected president and served for five years.

Two days before meeting with Mandela, our group had traveled to Soweto where we were surprised by the lack of bitterness expressed by the people we met in the black townships. Although some had lost friends and relatives in the fight against apartheid, nobody spoke of revenge. Why? Mandela offered an answer.

"Well, normally, people take that cue from the leadership. Some leaders of the African National Congress spent 30 years in exile, others went underground risking their own lives and those who were in prison have not time for revenge," he explained. "They know that you pass through this time only once and they want to use the opportunity that they now have to solve problems of the country. It is because of that we were able to avoid bloodshed in this country.

"We confounded the prophets of doom, who had predicted that there would never be changes without this country being engulfed in rivers of blood. We confounded them because we had the ability to reconcile our emotions, which said, 'Don't talk to the apartheid government,' and our brains which said, 'If you don't talk to them, this country will go up in flames, so let's go to them and sit down and say: 'We are South Africans, why are we slaughtering each other?' That is why there is no sense of revenge."

Asked if South Africa was recovering from the racial wounds inflicted by apartheid, Mandela said: "You must remember that South Africa has been under white rule for almost three and a half centuries. Our policy [of the ANC] has been since 1955, when we issued our basic policy document [the Freedom Charter] ... a formidable attack on all forms of racial discrimination. We called for a united South Africa in which all citizens regardless of their backgrounds, speak with one voice. When we issued that document, we were arrested and charged with treason ... when we were elected in 1994, the new government adopted those principles.

"Now you cannot expect policies which have been there for more than three centuries to be totally eliminated from the fabric of South African society within six years. Since then, we have made solid progress and we're happy at the way in which we are eliminating all forms of racism, the way in which we have united our country and the way in which we are promoting reconciliation."

Mandela dismissed the idea that he alone was responsible for the peaceful transition of political power from the white minority to the black majority. Mandela said he and other ANC leaders function as a "collective" and no one person deserved all the credit. He said he was no more than a spokesman for the collective during the five years he was president.

Asked if he was bitter because he had been imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela's voice grew stronger and more impassioned.

"It's futile to be bitter," he said. "The best thing to do is to give to the community and in a small way to the world. It is tragic to spend the best years of your life in prison. But at the same time, prison, and this is the aspect that I want to emphasize, has certain advantages, especially with people like myself, who were in single cells where you could sit down and stand away from yourself, see yourself in the distance and discover the mistakes that you've made in the past ... And therefore you are able to mold your own emotions and your own approach and discover that you behaved not like a human being, but there are cases when you behaved like an animal. And when you came out, you tried to rectify those mistakes."

Mandela drew laughs when he offered this caveat, however: "Nevertheless, I would not advise anyone to go to jail to find out and correct mistakes made in the past."

Mandela's voice remains the strongest in the new South Africa, which stands as one of the few African nations functioning as a stable democracy. But the nation has problems. Most black South Africans remain mired in poverty and they are ravaged by diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS. And wounds remain unhealed from the black-on-black violence that pitted the ANC against the Inkatha Freedom Party led by Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.

I've tried to avoid the trap that snares some journalists who visit a nation for a short period of time and become instant experts. Instead of pretending to be something I'm not, I've compiled a collection of interviews that provide sketches of a nation in transition. These voices form a snapshot of the new South Africa, a vibrant nation that deserves the attention and support of the United States and other democratic nations.

Aggrey Zola Klaaste is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, a black newspaper in Johannesburg with a daily circulation of 1.5 million. He was a Nieman Fellow and studied at Harvard University.

"While we fought for political freedom, the economic clout remains in the hands of white people. It seems ridiculous to me that this has happened, just as it did in other parts of Africa. I thought that what should have happened, before we got our political freedom, was for black people to try to develop themselves in all ways, intellectually, economically and spiritually, as white people have. Those are the things I thought we should have grappled with before we got to 1994 (when Mandela was elected president). But there just wasn't time, we got the political kingdom and we're kind of stuck in the same situation that other African countries are stuck in right now.

We have all these black guys in government and we have all these white people sitting in the richest parts of the country. This is a pretty dangerous situation, as has happened in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe thing is not just about Mugabe and the land. The Zimbabwe thing is an old saw from black guys who say, "We got our independence in 1980, but we're still poor" and it's a very sore thing, which possibly might happen here too, if we're not careful.

"One of the fortunate things about South Africa is that we are the last act in the history of the continent. Mr. Mandela was smart enough to leave the seat of power in five years time. No other African leader has done that before, these guys hang on to power until they get into the kind of trouble Mugabe got himself into. So, that's a good lesson we've learned.

"But there are other lessons like this one to do with the land. The land thing is not only a physical thing, it is emotional, it is a freedom thing. Unfortunately, the wealth of the country, all the good things, remain in the hands of a few people, who in this case, just happen to be white. And the rest of the people are sore, they hope it will get better, and it doesn't, as in Zimbabwe.

"I don't know how the heck we are going to settle this because there is no way in the next 20 years that black people are going to be equally well-to-do as whites. There are too many of us and the inequalities are just too vast.

"In 1994, before the elections it was touch-and-go, then something totally miraculous happened. Some people say it was prayers. Fine, I believe in prayer. And some people say there is something particular about South Africans, that we're righteous. If you repeat the myth enough times, it becomes the truth. Look at black South Africans now - after all the hassle we went through, you would think we'd be at the throats of most white people right now because we want revenge. But we hardly ever think of it, very few blacks want revenge and the things that happened under apartheid, you must know, were horrible. But there were some white people who were terrific during the struggle so we have hope.

"You know, it's an amazing situation - the Afrikaners , who were, if you will excuse me, the bastards in the past, have come very close to us black people. I've met quite a few of the Afrikaner people who have changed completely to accept what happened. Now, you would have thought that blacks would want revenge, secondly, you would have thought that some whites would like to bring down this black government. But it's not happening. "

Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, minister of home affairs and president of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Buthelezi is in the Guinness Book of Records for giving the longest known speech, which occurred intermittently over 11 days.

Buthelezi is a man who feels stung by history. During the fight against apartheid he opposed economic sanctions and other policies endorsed by the ANC. He also maintains that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is biased when it blames his Inkatha Freedom Party for inciting bloody clashes with the ANC.

"Liberation was achieved in South Africa only once we surrendered the idea that unity could be won through the barrel of a gun. As you know, our liberation movement was divided between those who advocated a military strategy based on the armed struggle and those such as myself who rejected it. This division caused untold suffering to our people and yet I feel that I, for one, made the right call. Had I and Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement joined our forces in the armed struggle, the country would have been reduced to ashes with no winner or losers in a war with no spoils.

"A military solution would have divided our people even further. In the end, liberation was secured through negotiations, with every South African represented at the negotiating table...

"Today, we are faced with greater challenges than before liberation, for we must throw off the persisting yoke of poverty, disease, ignorance for lack of education, unemployment, lack of opportunity, poor service delivery and criminality...

"The burning of schools and violence in black communities was splashed across every newspaper around the world...Black-on-black violence did not help to achieve liberation and had little effect on the white population or its firm grip of power. Indeed, the fallacy of the armed struggle being a black-on-white and a white-on-black conflict persists even today, when the truth is readily available to any wishing to find it. Even the much applauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission ignored the fact that while approximately 600 white people were killed during the armed struggle, at least 20,000 black people lost their lives at the hands of black people. This is a mystery that must be uncloaked.

"At grass-roots level, the armed struggle fueled the black-on-black conflict to secure political hegemony once liberation was achieved. For instance, systematically, leaders and office-bearers of my party were assassinated in their homes, taxis and workplaces. Inkatha Freedom Party supporters were targeted and killed. A new leadership was foisted on black communities, one which was ruled by the barrel of a gun. The horrific incidents of necklacing witnessed by the international eye never once involved a white South African. The conflict was black-on-black. Unfortunately, this killing did not stop and continues to the same degree to this day.

"I had established Inkatha to give a political home to those who wished to maintain the righteousness of our cause and it continued as the political vehicle of the people while other liberation movements were banned or exiled. However, as the path of Inkatha diverged from that of the other liberation movements on the points of the armed struggle and international divestment, a campaign of vilification began against me and my party which would continue to grow in ferocity and injustice. This campaign of vilification, which assumed international proportions, was very painful for me and could have been the cause for a grudge on my side."

Jerelyn Eddings is the director of The Freedom Forum's African Center in Johannesburg. She is a former editorial writer for The Sun and in 1990 she became the paper's correspondent in Johannesburg. She returned to South Africa last year for The Freedom Forum.

"We are struggling in the States and they're struggling here. But in South Africa there is a much bigger imperative to solve the racial problem because whites still control the balance of the economy but blacks are in political power and blacks are the majority of the country.

"When Mandela was president, a very big part of his agenda was reconciliation. He would go out of his way to make it plain that whites were South Africans, they were still wanted here, they were still welcome here, because in much of Africa whites fled after nations gained independence, and of course they took their skills and their money with them. And South Africa did not want to suffer from the same kind of mistakes that a lot of other countries suffered from.

"So, there is a major imperative here to work out problems of race. I don't think we have that same kind of imperative in the United States. I don't think they've invented anything new here in terms of what needs to be done. When a discussion has been underway for 30 years, there's not a lot new you can bring to it, but we're still having it in the United States.

"Blacks are a minority in the United States, so there will never be the same kind of overall pressure to bring them into the system as there is here in South Africa.

"When I came here in 1990 for The Sun, I never would have been able to imagine that South Africa has made as much progress as it has in 10 years toward getting away from apartheid, toward changing the society. So, I'm really impressed by what I've seen. South Africa still has difficulties, there are race problems here. And sometimes it does not work the way you think. It's black South Africans being racist against other black Africans. But looking at the progress they've made in 10 years, I think they can make a lot more in the next 10 years."

Albie Sachs became an ANC supporter in 1952 when he was 17 years old. After he became a lawyer, he defended many ANC dissidents. In 1988, his arm was blown off by a letter bomb believed to have been sent to him by South African military intelligence. In 1994, President Mandela appointed Sachs to the country's first Constitutional Court.

"Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela represent the African theme of "Ubuntu." It looks at two elements, one is being concerned about the community and the norms, standards and value of the community. At the face-to-face level, it's the idea that my humanity is dependent on acknowledging your humanity - even the least among us, and the worst among us, are people. We diminish ourselves if we forget that fact.

"In practical terms , if we want to solve the problems of inequality and poverty - they're still the biggest problems facing our country - we have to draw on as many sources as possible. We have to focus our energies on moving forward. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did was to acknowledge in a very intense and dramatic form the crimes and violations of the past, but in a way to free us to move forward, rather than trap ourselves in the past. The perpetrators don't get off scot-free, they pay a humiliating price, it's not easy to stand up in public and acknowledge the terrible tortures that you've committed. You go home afterward, and your children look at you and say, 'Daddy, did you do that?' Publicity through shame is very powerful...

"Our constitution is very much homegrown. We spent more than four years on its drafting and evolution with popular involvement...On the other hand, it freely absorbed from the best of the world...The starting-off point of constitutional reasoning in the United States is that society is basically OK and the disturbance of the status quo has to be justified.

"Here, the starting-off point is - and it's clear in our constitution - that society is unjust and it's unequal and it's unfair and measures have to be taken to remedy that. And so the concept of the achievement of equality runs right through the whole of our constitution."

Dr. Jean B. Nachega, M.D., M.P.H., medical field director and research associate in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Nachega has been assigned to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, where he is studying South Africa's tuberculosis problem.

"In 1997, 105,169 cases of tuberculosis were reported in South Africa for a rate of 392 per 100,000, and it is estimated that near two-thirds of the population of the country are being infected with the TB germ.

"Most of these people will never be sick with TB, because their immune system is strong. Famous South Africans such as former Miss Universe Margaret Gardiner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former President Nelson Mandela were once afflicted by TB. As with the whole of Southern Africa, South Africa is facing a double challenge as more HIV-positive patients develop tuberculosis.

"In Gauteng Province, it is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of TB patients are co-infected with HIV. Indeed, TB is the number one killer of HIV-positive people in South Africa. HIV weakens the body's immune system and its ability to fight diseases. This leaves the body vulnerable and unable to prevent the infection from developing into an active case of TB. In addition, the TB epidemic is being fueled by poverty, increasing migration, an expanding population, the lack of resources, and multi-drug resistance tuberculosis."

Maggie Matseke, 63, is a former nurse who took in a set of fraternal twins who were thought to be HIV-positive. The twins' mother died from complications from AIDS while giving birth. Tests later showed that the children are not HIV-positive. Matseke wants to adopt the children, who are now 3 years old, but members of the dead woman's family have shown an interest in the children. Last year, it was estimated that 20 percent of South Africa's adult population, or a little more than 4 million people between the ages of 15 to 49, were HIV-positive. An estimated 1,700 South Africans are infected with HIV daily.

"I belong to the Church of Christ and we go to orphanages, normal orphanages and orphanages for HIV children. We go there over the weekends and feed them and try to make them happy. We try to do the best we can do for these children. It was during one of those visits that I saw these children. I love children, I love them with all my heart, especially twins. I wish I could have had twins. I have two daughters, ages 29 and 25. I lost my son during the upheaval, he would have been 40 now. What happened is that when I saw these children, right away, I wanted to take them home to my place.

"The woman who was taking care of the children knows me, so she knows my life and she knows my family. I told her I'd take them, and she said, 'Take them as they are, now.'

"I'm not getting any grant from the government or anybody, I'm sharing the little bit of my pension money with them.

"When the mother died in the hospital after birth, these children were delivered Caesarean section. So the family came to take the corpse, the dead body of the mother, and inquired about the children. They were told that the children were HIV-positive. They did not want them because they thought they'd infect their children. They inquired again when the children were three months old, but then tests showed that they were negative. We did not hide anything from them, we told them that the children are negative, but apparently they are having a problem, they don't know who is to come and take the children. First it was the sister of the late mother who wanted to take the children, then it was a brother.

"We Africans still believe in extended families. If a woman dies, a family member usually takes the children. But now we're concerned because nobody wants children who are infected. And there are more and more adults with HIV and more and more children who are infected."

Mandela's old house in Soweto has been turned into a museum. Our tour guide, Zebeth Hlophe, took us through the small house and gave us a history lesson on Mandela's life. In the bedroom, we found a shrine made up of Mandela's footwear, including the shoes he wore when he was arrested in 1964 and the boots he wore when he trained as a guerrilla in Algeria, and clothes and documents of historical significance. Hlophe's words convey the love that black South Africans feel for Mandela.

"He was like Jesus, he told us to reconcile, he told us to forget. I have a brother who was shot dead in the 1976 trouble. The police shot him while he was running away. His name was Patrick and at that time he was 27 years old. But I don't have much pain with it because of that man [Mandela], he comfort us, whatever he said, we could see it, he told us about the rainbow South Africa, he told us about the beautiful country that one day to be the greener pastures. So it is today, it is our greener pastures, it is our beautiful country, it is the rainbow country, we enjoy each other, black and white.

"Some of us were young, but we were part of the struggle, we enjoyed the chanting, the singing, to see our black leaders, they were giving us the strength to go forward to fight. We knew that they were going to come and shoot at us, we knew what was going to happen but we were enjoying that togetherness. But we knew some of us were going to be hurt, going to be killed.

"It was worth it because today we are enjoying the fruits of it. The pain of losing a brother, today it is a joy because of the freedom, I can move around as I wish. I don't have to run away when I see the police. President Mandela played a very big role in that short period of five years. He made us to enjoy our country."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°