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Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)
Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)


Indelible global icon Nelson Mandela dies at 95 Add to ...

He basked in his celebrity and gloried in his ability to indulge a wanderlust that had been brutally suppressed. After a whirlwind tour, including a high-level visit to Canada in June, 1990, a personal appearance at another massive concert at Wembley Stadium, a private audience with Pope John Paul II and a rare address by a private citizen to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, he returned home to negotiate the transition to majority rule.

The stumbling blocks were massive. The ANC had to transform itself from a revolutionary and military organization into a political party able to run the country. During the traumatic struggle against apartheid, black students had studied philosophy, law and political science rather than more practical subjects such as engineering or commerce. Consequently, operational skills were in serious deficit when the ANC sat down to negotiate. And, of course, the white minority led by de Klerk had to be persuaded to share power, a problem made no easier by Mandela’s refusal to renounce violence or dismantle the MK guerrillas until democratic elections had been guaranteed.

Despite the barriers, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa opened in Johannesburg in December, 1991, with 228 delegates representing 19 political parties. The negotiations, which stretched over two years, were stained by bloodshed, especially in April, 1993, when a far-right Polish immigrant, armed with a pistol supplied by a Conservative Party MP, assassinated Chris Hani, the senior ANC member who had succeeded Joe Slovo as head of the Communist Party.

Alerted by a quick-thinking Afrikaner neighbour, the police soon captured the killer, but mass violence seemed inevitable. Delivering a speech that many saw as “presidential,” Mandela appealed for calm: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being,” he said. “A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who... wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”

There were riots, but the killing seemed to spur the negotiators to achieve a workable compromise. By late 1993, the elections had been slated for the following April 27, although Mandela and de Klerk looked like “two exhausted heavyweight boxers at the end of a long title bout, both bloodied and badly bruised,” Anthony Sampson reported in The Guardian. The two men were barely speaking when they arrived in Oslo in December as joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

At 75, an age when most politicians have retired to play golf and build their personal libraries, Mandela became a first-time candidate for public office. As he cast his vote for the first time, he spoke of his dreams of racial harmony in “one nation,” as millions of newly enfranchised blacks waited patiently in lines that snaked back from the polling booths. “This is for all South Africans an unforgettable occasion,” he said. “It is the realization of their hopes and dreams that we have cherished for decades. We are starting a new era of hope, of reconciliation, of nation-building.”

When the votes were counted, the ANC had taken 62 per cent for a majority win. On May 10, 1994, Mandela became his country’s first black president, leading a Government of National Unity with the help of two deputies: de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki, the polished son of Govan Mbeki, his old friend and fellow prisoner on Robben Island.

Always the strategist, he saw the significance of including de Klerk in his government, despite their personal antipathies. In the same way he intuitively knew that supporting such a reviled symbol of apartheid as the overwhelmingly white national rugby team would build solidarity. After years of being banned from international competition, South Africa was in the media glare when it played host to the World Cup in June, 1995, and the under-dog Springboks made it to the finals against New Zealand’s All Blacks (whose name refers to the colour of their shirts, not their skin).

After South Africa won the hotly contested game in overtime, Mandela appeared on the field wearing a team shirt and cap to present the cup to victorious captain François Pienaar, while the predominately white crowd roared Nel-son! Nel-son! in approval.

Although not burdened with baggage like most politicians, Mandela felt obliged to support those who had helped in the struggle, including such rogues as Fidel Castro of Cuba and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya. He also lacked legislative experience, as did most of his cabinet, and found his principles softening under pressure from his wily opponents.

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