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After his capture, the Xhosa prince dons tribal regalia for a court appearance. (Cullen Library)
After his capture, the Xhosa prince dons tribal regalia for a court appearance. (Cullen Library)

How South Africa moved my soul Add to ...

Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison on Feb. 11, 1990, to redeem the South Africa that I had encountered just a few years before – one consumed with hate and stress.

That first evening, he stood on the steps of Cape Town’s baroque City Hall before 50,000 of his fellow citizens and proclaimed a country of reconciliation and salvation, a country of liberty for blacks. “We have waited too long for our freedom,” he said. “We can no longer wait. Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future.”

Amandla!”– power, he roared.

I had arrived six years earlier as The Globe and Mail’s first correspondent in Africa since the early 1960s. The continent was my domain, but the main assignment was South Africa’s last race war, its civil war over apartheid.

By then, Madiba – his clan name was Mr. Mandela’s title of respect – had spent two decades isolated behind bars for treason, first on Robben Island and then in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison; he was an icon of hope few had ever seen.

By the time I left in late 1987, barred from South Africa by its white-supremacist government, Mr. Mandela’s fortunes had risen significantly. He had been moved into a private house at minimum-security Victor Verster amid the vineyards of the Western Cape and had, in fact, turned down an offer of release. It came with a condition – that he reject violence as a political weapon – and “only free men can negotiate,” he said in a statement made public by his daughter.

I was there when Zindzi read it to a cheering crowd in a Soweto football stadium – the first words South Africans had heard from Mr. Mandela since his 1964 trial.

Then on Jan. 18, 1989, P.W. Botha, known to Afrikaners as Die Groot Krokodil (The Big Crocodile), suffered a stroke that eventually forced him from the presidency. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, soon announced that anti-apartheid groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) would be legal again – and that Mr. Mandela would be released.

But the darkness had to come before the dawn.

During nearly four years as The Globe and Mail’s correspondent, I witnessed South Africa’s slide into bloody chaos. The ANC’s 1985 call from its headquarters in Zambia to make the black townships ungovernable triggered uprisings, riots, bombings and the violent, at times lethal, overthrow of municipal authorities accused of collaborating with the apartheid state. The government retaliated with a series of states of emergency that unleashed a savage and deadly counter-assault by the army and police.

It was a compelling story, and one difficult to cover.

State-of-emergency regulations required journalists to leave the scene of any “unrest” immediately. Subsequently, the government imposed censorship, barring the media from reporting “subversive statements” deemed, among other things, to encourage foreign economic sanctions or weaken the public’s confidence in government actions. Filming or recording the work of security forces was prohibited.

But the government’s biggest hammer was held over journalists whose employers adhered to a Commonwealth resolution not to base correspondents in South Africa, but instead park them across the border in Zimbabwe.

The downside to this principled stance was that Canadian correspondents in Harare had to apply for a new visa and work permit every three months rather than once a year. If the government didn’t like what we wrote, the renewal took longer and longer until, in my case, I was told there would be none. There was nothing to do but go home.

I returned to Canada with memories of battle-zone black townships and clouds of tear gas and oily smoke from burning tires and the terrifying roar of armoured troop carriers, of mass funerals with white coffins for children, of mothers too angry to weep, of Desmond Tutu and his Anglican priests kneeling as military vehicles bore down on them.

While covering all this, I drove wounded children to get help, one little boy with his face half torn off by a police shotgun blast (the police fired at random whereas soldiers stopped and took aim). His mother and I got him to a doctor, but his nurse, standing arms akimbo at the door, said to take him elsewhere.

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