09 December, 2013

Madiba: My "Terrorist", My Liberator

by Leon Hartwell

People have many stories about the late former President Nelson Mandela. This is my contribution: I am an Afrikaner who grew up during the Apartheid era, a time period marked by deep racism. I was raised in Roodepoort, a conservative White neighbourhood very close to Kliptown (where the Freedom Charter was adopted) before my family and I moved to Pretoria, the administrate capital of South Africa.

The Apartheid system taught Afrikaners how to hate. In the White South Africa in which I grew up, Nelson Mandela’s name was synonymous with “terrorist”. He was one of the top leaders of the “Swart” (Black) and the “rooi gevaar” (red/communist danger). The public media effectively created a hobgoblin motivated to drive all Whites into the sea.

In fact, the African National Congress (ANC) was constructed as the greatest threat to the existence of the Afrikaner nation. It was depicted as a communist movement whose chief aim was to overthrow the state, the ultimate institution tasked to provide law and order. To many Whites, the existence of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, justified the use of state violence, sometimes even pre-emptively.

Television in South Africa, controlled by the state broadcaster, the Suid-Afrikaanse Uitsaaikorporasie (SAUK), was officially launched in 1976. During Apartheid, it regularly broadcast footage of Blacks rebelling against the Apartheid system. SAUK never told the story of the true nature of their rebellion nor the truth about the pain and suffering that these people underwent. Rather, images depicted Blacks as savages: they were dirty; they lived in primitive tin houses in townships; and they were throwing stones at policemen (i.e. ‘our’ representatives of security in what we were told was a dangerous state). This made it almost unthinkable that South Africa could ever be a nation consisting of different racial and ethnic groups.

For many years, Mandela’s aspirations of equality, democracy and liberty fell on deaf ears in the Afrikaner community. Even Whites who were against Apartheid found it easier to turn a blind eye on Apartheid atrocities rather than to challenge the system. There were of course Whites that stood up to Apartheid, including a distant relative of mine, the heroic Afrikaner lawyer, Bram Fischer.

Police in Alexandra Township, 1985 (UN Photo)

I did not have a single non-White classmate throughout Primary and Secondary school. My understanding of Blacks was limited to my interaction with our gardener, Speelman, and our maid, Regina, who took care of my sisters and I. In the 1980s, I frequently accompanied my policeman father to Soweto when he inspected police stations. We drove through the township in a Casspir (landmine protected infantry mobile vehicle) witnessing large scale protests against the Apartheid regime often followed by police brutality. I was deeply saddened to see the subhuman manner in which Blacks were treated by the authorities as well as the living conditions that they had to endure.

The “dominees” (ministers) at the churches that we attended (the Gereformeerde Kerk and Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) saw no contradiction between the “equality” and “love thy neighbour” that they preached, and the inhumanity of the Apartheid system. Sometimes they deliberately suffered from biblical amnesia, selectively interpreting Christianity in accordance with Apartheid gospel.

When former President F.W. de Klerk announced at the opening of Parliament in 1990 that the ANC would be unbanned and Mandela released from prison, shockwaves radiated in the Afrikaner community. De Klerk’s speech also signalled the beginning of the transition, which for many Whites meant a journey into the unknown. Closer towards the first democratic elections, I remember Die Huisgenoot, the most popular Afrikaans magazine, carried a few articles urging readers to stock up on fuel, water, tinned food, biltong and dried fruit.

Ironically, footage of a silver haired, friendly looking Mandela walking free from Victor Verster prison near Cape Town in 1990 was in stark contrast to the terrorist image forged by the Apartheid state. Mandela’s City Hall speech, which began “all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all”, signalled the beginning of a new era.

Throughout the negotiation process there were many of spoilers. As the negotiation process unfolded, particularly the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a small group of radical Whites wanted to destabilise the democratisation process. It was a tense time in South Africa’s history and conflict could have easily escalated once more, thereby stalling or derailing the peace process. Nonetheless, it became clear that the democratisation process was irreversible. Madela continued to map out an attractive future and called for calm. In the all-White 1992 Referendum, voters were asked to vote for or against the reform and negotiation process to establish a new Constitution. The majority of Whites voted overwhelmingly “yes”.

The assassination of Chris Hani, secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, by a White racist in 1993, was another tense moment in the history of the country’s transition. The country could have descended into civil war. Throughout this intense period, Mandela showed tremendous leadership in calling on “all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy ...[freedom and democracy].”

Apartheid was designed to divide racial and ethnic groups, but Mandela succeeded in creating processes and institutions to fashion Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s idea of a “Rainbow Nation” in which differences are celebrated. During his Presidential inaugural address in 1994, Mandela stated, “Out of the experience of and extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.” On that day, I felt particularly proud of my new President and it became more and more comfortable referring to him simply as Madiba.

What I admire most about Madiba is that he linked his freedom to that of his jailor and vice versa. In Long Walk to Freedom he wrote, “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” This lesson is often forgotten by individuals like President Robert Mugabe, who continue to deliberately confuse the idea of independence with that of freedom. Madiba reminds us, “for to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Another characteristic that I deeply respect about Madiba was that he never ceased to engage his enemies. Any successful transition requires that enemies become partners. Yet, to change one’s relationship from enemies to partners is extremely difficult. Madiba opened dialogue with his gaolers which must have been extremely difficult for him. Yet, he knew that it would have been impossible to build sustainable peace in South Africa without getting hardliners and the security sector on board. These efforts eventually produced Madiba’s greatest legacy: the creation of a new democratic dispensation guided by one of the best constitutions in the world.

Shortly after the first democratic elections, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was on the horizon. Many Whites were scared of the TRC. In fact, some of my dad’s colleagues in the police force ended up in Denmar, a psychiatric institute in Pretoria, while several committed suicide. Many of the real victims of Apartheid did not have access to facilities like Denmar to deal with their past. Depression among some members of the security sector and Whites in general was largely caused by a combination of guilt (as they came to terms with being part of a vile system) and feelings of hopelessness as a result of losing power. The public mood in South Africa was very tense.  Perpetrators had to share the stage with victims. 

Madiba continued to support the TRC despite major resistance from the National Party and some ANC members. Those who judge the TRC as the only mechanism intended to promote justice and reconciliation view the model as a failure. Although the TRC was unable to once and for all reconcile the nation and deal with injustices committed during the Apartheid era, it was an initial attempt to promote transitional justice. It is significant in that it brought close to 21,000 victims and perpetrators to the table to, as Tutu said, “look the beast in the eye so that the past wouldn't hold us hostage anymore”. No one can ever again deny that Apartheid did not happen.

Address to the United Nations, 1990 (UN Photo)

Madiba was unrelentingly selfless in his efforts to challenge an unjust system. He put his own life and that of his family at great risk for his believes and principles. Today, I would like to honor Madiba, my “terrorist”, my liberator, for inspiring millions around the world. I want to acknowledge his tremendous role and leadership in bringing liberty, equality, and democracy to South Africa. He is the father of the Rainbow Nation. I hope that Madiba’s ideas will continue to guide South Africa for many years to come. He not only leaves behind great historical accomplishments, but a multitude of ideas embodied in one of the best constitutions in the world. If we do not uphold and promote freedom, equality, non-racism, non-sexism, social justice and respect for the rule of law, we will fail to truly honor his legacy.

Madiba knew that South Africa still had many challenges ahead before the country would normalise. He concluded his Long Walk to Freedom by stating; “with freedom comes responsibilities ...”. Leaders and citizens of South Africa, take notice of those words. Amandla, awethu, South Africa!

Leon Hartwell is an independent political analyst

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