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South Africa and Mandela

Posted on the 10 December 2013 by Charlescrawford @charlescrawford

I have written three pieces about South Africa, Nelson Mandela and all that.

Two for the Commentator. The first here:

South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy was indeed a miracle that captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Fine, soaring sentiments. And quite untrue.

Between 1985 and 1996 deaths from political violence in South Africa exceeded 20,000, with a large number taking place in the KwaZulu/Natal area. In Poland by contrast deaths from political violence of different shapes and sizes during the Solidarity period and through to the first free elections were very rare, to the point where individual killings of pro-democracy activists such as Father Popieluszko were a major mobilising event.

That small death toll did not make the Polish transition from communism ‘peaceful’. During the Martial Law period thousands were beaten or tortured or imprisoned or harassed or otherwise brutalised. From the outside it probably looked relatively calm and restrained. For Poles at the receiving end of this nationwide oppression it did not feel that way.

The point is that the world sees South Africa as a ‘peaceful’ transition only because not many pale-skinned people were killed. The fact that tens of thousands of dark-skinned people died in a disgusting civil war between Mandela’s African National Congress plus its Communist Party ally with every other African political tendency across the political spectrum is too ghastly to contemplate. So we don’t contemplate it...

Mandela with his lofty Xhosa royal status and businesslike strict missionary education started off opposing these laws on the grounds of basic unfairness. He later became part of a much more virulent ‘anti-imperialist’ Marxist-led movement. The tension within the ANC/SACP tradition of revolutionary ‘the worse the better’ violence and a much more cautious, even forgiving approach came to a head as apartheid declined.

In the 1980s the ANC launched a calamitous campaign of township murders of political enemies led by teenagers or even children that helped create the generation responsible for the sky-high murder rates across South Africa we now see today.

Mandela in prison managed to avoid being associated with that madness and on his release worked in a spirit of steely magnanimity with F W De Klerk to preside over the change to a more or less democratic order based on simple one-person-one-vote fairness.

Given what had happened in South Africa and the wider region over the previous decades, this was an unambiguously huge political and moral achievement. The world is right to praise it and the man who symbolised it.

I then give my own story of meeting Mandela, first publicly recorded here.

So we sat and waited. I, lowly First Sec Pretoria, a very small ant crawling on the vast dunghill of world history, had the most famous person in the world and a couple of his people, all to myself!

We talked mainly about the ghastly violence in KwaZulu, where ANC/SACP members and Inkatha supporters of Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi were killing each other in large numbers.

At one point Mandela sharply said "Would you people support Buthelezi as President?"

I replied, "If he wins a free and fair election of all South Africans, why not?"

There was a long awkward silence.

Then one of Mandela's people spoke through gritted teeth: "Good answer!"

The second Commentator piece is here. It looks closely at the 1985 Thatcher letter to P W Botha from the point of view of diplomatic technique, and finds much to admire:

The central point of diplomatic technique here is that in the 1980s the UK had influence in South Africa because we refused to follow the madding crowd and impose sanctions. That meant that we were able to keep these highest level channels of private dialog open with the Afrikaner leadership, and indeed with the ANC/SACP leadership exiled in Lusaka, keen to hear what we were saying to Botha and our impressions of what Pretoria was thinking.

Plus this way of spelling out British concerns privately, subtly and frankly helped our key messages hit the target: P W Botha would ignore letters from international leaders who had publicly thrown their support behind the Soviet-backed ANC/SACP.

That said, private top-level diplomatic messages have to be drafted especially well – they are serious business. This Thatcher one stands as a supreme example of the art, achieving a warm personal tone while explaining in a sophisticated, businesslike and even rather blunt way that standing still is going to do no-one any good.

Language that openly acknowledges the other side’s true concerns and suspicions (“this is the most difficult since it involves an outsider presuming to trespass on your affairs”) is always disarmingly effective.

Fine. But did it work to the point of getting Mandela out of prison? No. Of course not.

P W Botha was ready to end laws crudely discriminating between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’, but he had no plan for negotiating seriously with the African majority to move to a new constitutional dispensation.

Margaret Thatcher knew that this was the core dilemma. She also knew that the Afrikaners would do best if they negotiated a new constitutional order from a position of strength. Her letter and other such messages were all about trying to get P W Botha to grasp that – and then act on it. An effort well worth making.

Finally, my piece today for Telegraph Blogs looks at the whole sweep of Western engagement with the apartheid regime and concludes that (alas) we did not really have a clear plan:

The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989. Soviet-style communism was discredited. Within a few weeks South African President F W De Klerk summarily unbanned the ANC and all other banned organisations, setting in motion a negotiated transfer to some sort of majoritarian system. The National Party led by De Klerk proved to be startlingly inept at negotiating with the ANC and its artful communists, and achieved a far less creative and pluralistic settlement than was desirable. At its heart was a cynical deal with the major corporations: in return for substantively Africanising their operations (ie giving top jobs to ANC loyalists), life would go on much as before.

Thus in 1994 Mandela won the country’s first free elections. The Trafalgar Square demonstrators drifted away. All hail Mandela for presiding over a glorious peaceful transition to democracy! Alas not. In the years before the ANC took power some 30,000 Africans were shot or hacked to death in a dirty and unnecessary civil war that Mandela did nothing to stop, mainly between the ANC/SACP and the moderate Zulu Inkatha party.

The key thing to understand about UK and wider Western policy towards South Africa as apartheid ended over these years was that it was curiously ambiguous. Did we want pluralism in South Africa?  Did we want one man one vote – once?  Did we want democracy? Did we want Nelson Mandela to be President? Did we want the end of apartheid then not care what happened? Did we just want all those demonstrators to leave Trafalgar Square?

These options had radically different implications for South Africa’s future stability and prosperity. Yet the choices were scarcely articulated or even much discussed. This played into the ANC/SACP hands. They more or less scooped the pool, with the clumsy corrupt results now seen today.

My own feeling is that we and our Western partners should have aimed for a notably higher moral quality of outcome, pressing for voting systems that encouraged power-sharing and devolved pluralism in a strong market economy that encouraged grassroots entrepreneurship. But maybe it was not worth the effort. Why strive for a better outcome than the Afrikaners and ANC/SACP were prepared to negotiate?

It was, as it always had been, their country and their problem.

Enough of me on all this. If you want to know more about the fascinating and important story of Mandela's intriguing with Soviet-backed communism, read the peerless Rian Malan in the Spectator:

All that is clear is that Mandela’s brief infatuation with the Red faith delivered the ANC into the hands of Communist hardliners who exercised almost total control over the organization for decades thereafter. This in turn caused the Boers in Pretoria to adopt a policy of merciless reaction. 
The upshot was a bloody stalemate that endured until in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the collapse of the Soviet empire. Realizing that without Soviet backing the ANC would have to abandon its dream of military victory, SA president F.W. de Klerk unbanned the liberation movements and freed Mandela. Within weeks, South Africa had resumed its unsteady quest for a happy ending.

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