Tue, 08 Feb 2000

Ten years on, Mandela knows legacy is safe

By Brendan Boyle

CAPE TOWN (Reuters): In the 10 years since his walk to freedom, Nelson Mandela, now 81, has packed more into life than most young men.

Mandela, who spent 27 years in apartheid jails as the world's most important political prisoner, walked free from Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on Feb. 11, 1990.

Last Friday he watched his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, opening the parliament's 2000 session knowing that the democracy he had fought for was soundly on track.

The fact that South Africa was stable enough to allow Mbeki to use his first state of the nation address to crack down on labor unions and repudiate Communist Party fiscal policies was testimony to the success of Mandela's lifelong campaign for a just, non-racial democracy.

With South Africa's successful move from oppressive white apartheid rule to robust, non-racial democracy fading, historians and political analysts are beginning to portray Mandela as a man of remarkable political judgment rather than a saint with the power to work political miracles.

"Mandela has shown considerable gifts of leadership," said veteran analyst Tom Lodge of Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.

"One should give him his due for that, but he was not a magician. He did not perform conjuring tricks and the South African change wasn't a miracle. There were particular moments when Mandela's judgment and sense of timing and his particular moral authority were very important, but he was a politician at work."

Lodge points out that the notion of a peaceful transfer to democracy is partly a myth.

"The transition was relatively peaceful but it is worth remembering that more people died after Mandela's release than in the 30 years before he was freed. Between the time that Mandela was released and the first elections in 1994, about 15,000 to 16,000 people died in political conflict."

It was Mandela's steadying hand at key moments, such as the assassination of Communist Party leader Chris Hani, that imbued him with a reputation for almost superhuman forgiveness.

Hani, regarded by many as a likely successor to Mandela, was murdered during the last stages of the talks between the mainly black African National Congress and the predominantly white National Party about terms for a transition to majority government.

Mandela's intervention prevented Hani's killing from derailing the delicate negotiations.

Mandela was African enough to keep his huge following in line and yet Western enough to reassure whites who had spent centuries in fear of black domination.

The humiliation of his divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela endeared Mandela to the nation.

He also allowed the country to watch his tentative courtship of Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday in July 1998.

"He allowed us to see him, to be with him, during some moments of incredible emotional vulnerability," Lodge said.

Kehla Shubane, an analyst with the Center for Policy Studies who spent time jailed with Mandela, said his isolation from the street war against white rule had made it possible for him to mediate better than others when he emerged at 71 to lead his country to democracy.

"South Africa was extremely lucky to have had a person like Mandela to lead the country out of apartheid. Because he was not part of the conflict that took place in the 1970s and the 1980s, he was better able to forgive, he was better able to be magnanimous.

"He did things that people who were part of that conflict would never have dreamt of doing, like the decision to halt the armed struggle and then to give up their weapons," he said.

Shubane said Mandela's combination of self-assurance and humility kept him in touch with the mood of his people but gave him the courage to move sooner than his followers might have wished.

"He is a guy who doesn't forget easily, but forgiving comes very easily to him.

"If Mandela had not been around, the conflict would have been much sharper. There would have been a lot more blood spilled and coming to terms with the fact that we all have to live in this country would have been a lot more difficult."

Former president F.W. de Klerk, who announced his decision to release Mandela in a speech to parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with him.

De Klerk acknowledges that he and Mandela were not friends at the end of the process of change, but said he had never lost respect for the man his party kept jailed for nearly three decades.

"Whenever it was really necessary, when we found ourselves up against the wall, when really big crises threatened, President Mandela and I found it possible to rise above that rancor and the sourness which had crept into our relationship.

"At no stage, did we really lose respect for each other," he said, adding that they had agreed to meet soon for lunch.

"We still owe it to the country to show that we can take hands as elder statesmen in helping to lead our country towards lasting reconciliation," he said.