27/04/2018 05:13 BST | Updated 27/04/2018 05:13 BST

Forgetting History: Cheap Talk About Mandela, Freedom And The Truth

Three central figures during South Africa's transition to democracy say there is a lack of common understanding about historical fact.

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Nelson Mandela casts his historic vote in a small voting station on April 27, 1994 at Oshlange High School outside Durban.


"April 27 was more than just the main election day. On that day the new South Africa was born in spirit as well as constitutionally," writes Allister Sparks in his wonderful account of the transition, "Tomorrow Is Another Country" (Jonathan Ball, 1995).

"The need to paste Inkatha stickers on 80-million ballot papers meant there were delays in delivering them to the thousands of voting stations, so voters had to wait up to six, seven hours, in queues that wrapped around city blocks a quarter-mile [400m] or more," Sparks goes on.

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An ANC supporter at a rally in Durban 24 April 1994 holds a pair of sunglasses up to a Nelson Mandela poster. Nelson Mandela addressed his last election rally three days before South Africa's first all race elections and called on supporters to ensure ANC victory. South Africans will vote 27 April 1994 in the country's first democratic and multiracial general elections. (Photo credit should read WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images)

"People tend to get irritable in such circumstances, tempers get frayed and racial friction may surface. But not on this day. Now, millions of South Africans stood patiently, good-humouredly, in the long queues, black and white together, hour after hour, sharing the tedium and discomfort, sharing the sense of occasion, and for the first time in their lives discovering each other."

The immediate run-up to this country's first democratic elections, exactly 24 years ago on Friday, was marred by violence, beset by intransigent homeland leaders, and blighted by the rise of a militant right wing.

Three participants in events in those heady days now agree that South Africans tend to misplace their memories of this country's transition from apartheid state to democracy — and that they should not forget the reality of those days. This amid the controversy following the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and analyses of her role sparking increasing criticism of the transition and the Constitution.

Per-Anders Pettersson via Getty Images
Nelson Mandela acknowledges a crowd of ANC supporters April 21, 1994 in Durban, South Africa. The pre-election rally is just days before the historic democratic election on April 27, 1994 that Mr. Mandela won. Mr. Mandela became the first black democratic elected president in South Africa. He retired from office after one term in June 1999. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson./Corbis via Getty Images)

Mac Maharaj, a senior ANC negotiator and member of the interim Transitional Executive Council then, says the problem is that arguments about the past are not based on facts.

Leon Wessels, a minister in the last apartheid Cabinet and government negotiator, says he'd much rather tackle today's challenges than those of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And Ivor Jenkins, who worked for the now-defunct NGO Idasa and who helped bring the disaffected right wing into the fold, says it's "cheap talk" to label our first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, a "sellout".

South Africa was reaching boiling point by the time Mangosuthu Buthelezi — then Inkatha leader and chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland — agreed to participate in the election a mere seven days before it was due to be held. Widespread violence throughout the then-province of Natal, as well as continuing murder and mayhem on the West and East Rands, convinced both Mandela and then-president FW de Klerk that the election needed to be held, come hell or high water.

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Head of the South African Defence Force General Constand Viljoen salutes (L) and Army Chief Lieutenant-General Jan Geldenhuys as troops withdraw from Angola into Nambia.

But the Afrikaner Volksfront, led by former head of the defence force General Constand Viljoen, invaded Bophuthatswana to "assist" the homeland's leader, Lucas Mangope. The Volksfront was supported by the boorish and loutish AWB and their leader, Eugene Terre'Blanche, and it led to a bloodbath. The right-wing attempted to muster support for their opposition to the election, and found willing allies in Mangope and Buthelezi.

"We [the negotiating teams] faced numerous threats before the elections. And the right-wingers were one of them," recalls Maharaj, now 83.

"Their strategy was very clear: they would use the black-on-black violence to mobilise Afrikaners and as a pretext to launch their own offensive to prevent the election. And KwaZulu and Bop was the perfect opportunity."

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The ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa (L) and Mac Maharaj take a cigarette break during a speech, April 20, 1994.

Maharaj — who said he was recently turned away from both the pearly gates and the gates of hell — says he is frustrated by the mangling of the past. "The problem isn't so much that people have forgotten, but that what they are remembering isn't based in fact. What people put on the table, when discussing the past, is bereft of context and chronology."

He wants South Africans to develop a common understanding of the facts. "Sure, we can disagree on interpretation and belief, but without the facts [regarding what happened then]... let's put the facts on the table."

Jenkins, who today works alongside Roelf Meyer (the National Party government's chief negotiator in the pre-1994 process) in conflict management, says a lot of work remains to be done to properly contextualise and explain the realities of South Africa's situation in the early 1990s.

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Cyril Ramaphosa (sitting R), chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly (CA), and Leon Wessels, deputy chairperson (L) and members of parliament sign copies of the amended Constitution in Parliament, on October 11, 1996, in Cape Town.

"It's cheap talk to label Mandela a 'sellout' or to have a go at the Constitution. The period before the elections was fraught, with the invasion of Bop, the violence in KwaZulu, the states of emergency, every township had a military camp... People tend to forget that," says Jenkins.

He was deeply involved as a facilitator between Mandela and Thabo Mbeki on one side, and Viljoen and the hard right on the other, to try to convince them of the futility of an armed insurrection.

"A big moment, a turning point, was when Mandela and Viljoen met in his Houghton home. I then realised that if we are going to make this country work, we're going to have to become problem-solvers. Another big moment was when Mbeki met four generals and proposed a 'volkstaat council'. It took away their reason to take up arms. And they never did," Jenkins recalls.

"Mandela, more than anyone else, had a deep understanding of what nation-building entails, and how it should be approached. After his meeting with the right wing, the notion of group rights faded and individual rights became entrenched."

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
A member of the South Africa's right-wing AWB begs for his life moments before being shot dead by a soldier in the centre of embattled Boputhatswana capital Mmabatho on March 11, 1994. The black soldiers ambushed the AWB men after thousands of armed white rightists swarmed into the streets in support of hardline ruler Lucas Mangope.

Wessels, who became a commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, says it's not only important to remember the past and its realities, but it's also important how that past is remembered. "We need to find a way to drag the past into the present and the future... we must live with it, but not in it."

He offers one reason why the past increasingly seems to be under siege: "We might have buried apartheid legally on April 27, 1994, but the vestiges of the systems remain to this day. It haunts us through spatial divides, economic inequality and yes, persistent racism."

But for Wessels, who as De Klerk's minister of labour cast his vote in the Krugersdorp township of Munsieville, says there is no doubt the country today is a vastly better one than it was on April 27, 1994. "There was violence and states of emergency and an economy without the potential of all the country's citizens. And even though we have big challenges today, we live in a participatory democracy and a Constitution within which we can shout at each other."

His abiding memory of the period, and one which he says ran like a golden thread through every event from the adoption of the Declaration of Intent on December 21, 1991 (which set out the ground rules for negotiation) to May 8, 1996 (when the final Constitution was adopted) was a shared sense that "failure was not an option".

"We knew what the price would be if we couldn't pull it off. And we did," he says.