South Africa 1990

Courtesy Reuters

In February 1990, twenty-seven and a half years after he was captured by police along a lonely road in Natal province, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison before a live international television audience. While in jail, Mandela had reached the stature of a messiah for many black South Africans. Once released, he became a mere mortal. "Forget the saintly Mandela who was going to soar above politics to bind the wounds of South Africa," said The Economist. "That was the invisible, jailed Mandela who lived mainly in the imagination of his hagiographers."

South Africa did not need a messiah. It had had enough of holy war, righteous rhetoric and crusading. What South Africa needed was a pragmatic lawyer to search for compromise.

Within days of his release, Mandela the man proved to be infinitely more useful than Mandela the symbol. Even before setting foot outside the prison farm where he was last held, Mandela helped persuade the new South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk to free most of the leading political prisoners and legalize long-banned political organizations including Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party. De Klerk also lifted restrictions on 33 other groups, including the United Democratic Front (UDF). Three other changes soon followed during the dizzying first eight months of the year: the four-year-old national state of emergency was lifted, the ruling National Party opened its membership to blacks and the ANC suspended its armed struggle.

Something about it all appealed to the human longing for great men and grand gestures. And what better suited duo could there be than Mandela and de Klerk for the final act in a long, bitter morality play.

De Klerk had been a conservative member of the previous cabinet who had championed apartheid and tried to expel dissidents from the country's more progressive universities. Then in late 1989 he emerged, Gorbachev-like, from the ranks of the party faithful to renounce a bankrupt ideology and search for a new

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.