It took two years of preliminary skirmishing before multi-party negotiations on the future of South Africa started and another two years of tortuous negotiations before agreement was reached on a new interim constitution, paving the way for national elections. There were many times along the way when it seemed that the whole exercise was doomed. As rival groups competed for ascendancy, South Africa was engulfed in prolonged bouts of violence. A mini civil war broke out between Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha party, a Zulu nationalist movement, and Mandela’s ANC, erupting first in the KwaZulu homeland and Natal, then spreading to black townships on the Witwatersrand, South Africa’s industrial heartland. Elements of the security forces still wedded to the idea of ‘total strategy’ aided and abetted Inkatha, determined to thwart any prospect of the ANC coming to power. Massacres by one side or the other became commonplace. All sides used death squads. Armed groups belonging to the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, an Africanist faction opposed to negotiations, singled out white civilian targets for attack. White right-wing paramilitary organisations, seeking an Afrikaner volkstaat, embarked on their own vigilante action and threatened to wreck the whole negotiation process.
Time and again Mandela and de Klerk clashed over who was to blame for the violence. In public and private their exchanges became increasingly acrimonious. Even on the occasion when the two men were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1993, the friction was still evident. In choosing them as ‘Men of the Year’ for 1993, Time magazine noted that ‘the mutual bitterness and resentments between de Klerk and Mandela are palpable’, and it asked rhetorically, ‘How could these two have agreed on anything – lunch, for instance, much less the remaking of a nation?’ At a political level, however, Mandela recognised how important de Klerk was to the whole settlement. ‘My worst nightmare is that I wake up and de Klerk isn’t there,’ Mandela told guests at a private dinner party. ‘I need him. Whether I like him or not is irrelevant. I need him.’
As the sun rose over the rolling green hills of Natal on 26 April 1994, Nelson Mandela walked up the steps of the Ohlange High School in Inanda near Durban to cast his vote. He emerged from the polling station, his face wreathed in smiles, and spoke of a bright future. ‘This is for all South Africans an unforgettable occasion; he said. ‘We are moving from an era of resistance, division, oppression, turmoil and conflict and starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation-building.’
In their millions, South Africans made their way to the polls, black and white citizens alike sharing a common determination to make the election a success. Many walked miles to reach a polling station. Some arrived on crutches and some in wheelchairs; some dressed in their Sunday-best clothes and some wore outfits they had made specially for the occasion. Long queues formed outside polling stations, circling around city blocks and winding back along dirt roads and across fields. Many arriving in the early morning were still waiting to vote late in the afternoon, tired and hungry; some in rural areas had to vote by candlelight. Yet, hour after hour, they remained patient. And when they returned home, having voted, it was with a profound sense of fulfilment, not just from participating in the election of a new government, but from exercising a right which had been denied to most South Africans for so long. Time and again, voters leaving polling stations spoke of how their dignity had been restored.
On each of the four polling days, South Africa was more peaceful than it had been for many years. The fever of violence that had affiicted the country for more than a decade abated. Even the killing fields of KwaZulu-Natal, where political warfare had caused more than 10,000 deaths, fell silent. On the Witwatersrand, members of rival factions found themselves joining the same queues in townships, swapping complaints about the long delays.
For many whites the experience of the election was as moving as it was for blacks. Standing side by side with blacks, waiting to vote, they felt a sense of their own liberation. The feelings of relief that the curse of apartheid had finally been lifted were as strong among the white community which had imposed it as among the blacks who suffered under it. The importance of the occasion was all the greater since for so many years it had seemed that a peaceful end to the apartheid system was beyond reach and that a more likely outcome would be revolutionary war.
The victory of the ANC at the polls in 1994 was as much a personal tribute to Mandela as it was to the movement he led. His ordeal of imprisonment had never been forgotten by the people for whom he spoke and was duly acknowledged when the time came for them to vote. Time and again it was said, ‘He went to prison for us.’ For blacks the election was, above all, about liberation – a celebration of their freedom from white rule – and it was to Mandela ‘s leadership that many attributed that liberation.
The transfer of power was accomplished in an atmosphere of much goodwill. Closing the book on three centuries of white rule, de Klerk chose words of encouragement fitting for such a historic moment. ‘Mr Mandela has walked a long road and now stands at the top of a hill. A man of destiny knows that beyond this hill lies another and another. The journey is never complete. As he contemplates the next hill, I hold out my hand to Mr Mandela in friendship and cooperation.’
The day of Mandela’s inauguration as president, 19 May 1994, was marked by the greatest celebrations ever seen in South Africa. From all over the world, visiting dignitaries – heads of state, royalty and government leaders representing some 170 countries – gathered in Pretoria to mark South Africa’s rite of passage. Taking the oath of office, Mandela promised South Africans a new covenant: ‘We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.’
Mandela seems to be all too rare among political leaders in understanding that even those on the right side of history do well to compromise in order to show respect for and facilitate reconciliation with their defeated foes. And he seems equally rare among heads of state—in many parts of the world, but especially in Africa—in having been willing to step down when his term of office expired.