Courtesy Reuters

Strange Bedfellows: Mandela, de Klerk, and the New South Africa

When President Clinton welcomed Nelson Mandela to Washington in 1998, he spoke of the universal nature of suffering and hatred, the "apartheid of the heart." The world adulates Mandela, he continued, because it seeks "wisdom from the power of his example É to do whatever we can, however we can, wherever we can, to take the apartheid out of our own and others' hearts." Mandela, along with the heinous system he negotiated out of existence and the country he led into freedom, have lost all specificity and become universal metaphors.

In his definitive biography of Mandela, Anthony Sampson notes that "cynical politicians" are wont to "wipe away tears in Mandela's presence, perhaps seeing him as a secular saint who makes their own profession seem noble, who rises above their failings." Despite all the regal pomp that surrounds Mandela on his world travels, "he still manages to appear as the plain man with whom anyone could identify, like a Gary Cooper or a James Stewart, embodying simple values in a cynical world of technicians and manipulators" that bypassed him as he spent 27 years in jail. The Mandela story is "the world's favorite fairy tale." South Africa's transition to democracy is mythologized as a miracle and Mandela as the saint who made it happen. But Sampson -- a British journalist who helped Mandela craft his famously ringing statement in the 1964 Rivonia sabotage trial -- enlists the aid of Albie Sachs, one of the architects of South Africa's democratic constitution and now one of its Constitutional Court judges, to pull his subject -- and South Africa -- back to reality. The "South African miracle," Sachs has written, was in fact "the most predicted and consciously and rationally worked-for happening one could ever have imagined, and certainly the most unmiraculous."

Sampson's biography is authorized and thus sets out to explain, rather than deconstruct, its subject. His book soars, like any good biography should, on the wings of detail. It is written with an affectless lucidity and is both acute and cool-headed in its assessments. But perhaps because of its own emotional reserve and eschewal of the tools of psychoanalytic biography, it does not quite succeed in what it sets out to do: "penetrating the Mandela icon."

Nonetheless, especially when read together with The Last Trek, F. W. de Klerk's recently published autobiography, Mandela offers a powerful and compelling account of the grit that went into the forging of the South African democracy. The story is more exhausting than exhilarating; stripped of its mythos, it loses the cathartic qualities Clinton sought in it and becomes, rather, the inelegant, incomplete, and inconclusive tale of a difficult and not particularly significant country and its great but flawed leaders.

THE STRUGGLE IS MY LIFE

One of the pleasures of reading Mandela together with The Last Trek is getting two sides of the story -- the parallel and barely intersecting realities of the two men who would one day free South Africa together. There is some unexpected common ground: each grew up imbued with a nationalistic ideology and a prophetic need to redeem his people, each sees his life as having been a sublimation of personal desires and needs to the service of his respective nation, and each acknowledges the personal costs thereof.

Indeed, one of the Mandela biography's greatest achievements is its subtle illumination of its protagonist's dismal failure as father and husband -- and his own final redemption in the great love affair with Graa Machel, whom he married in 1998. The most revealing assessment comes from the estranged Winnie Madikizela-Mandela herself (by no means an objective assessor but certainly an informed one), who told Sampson in 1996, "My children still wait for the return of their father. He has never returned, even emotionally. He can no longer relate to the family as a family. He relates to the struggle which has been his lifetime."

Sampson notes that Mandela blamed himself for "being an absent head of the family," Winnie's difficulties, and her resultant excesses. In prison, "Mandela was often racked by remorse as he looked back over earlier years." Accounts of Mandela before his captivity emphasize his arrogance and combativeness; in the 1950s, his partner and comrade Oliver Tambo reportedly said, "When I want a confrontation, I ask for Nelson."

But Sampson believes that Mandela's years in prison "transformed him into a much more reflective and influential kind of leader" who came to see that "law, not war, was the basis of his hopes for his country's future." Because Mandela "was cut off from mass audiences, public images, and television cameras, stripped down to man-to-man leadership and to the essentials of human relationships...he learned about human sensitivities and how to handle the fears and insecurities of others, including his Afrikaner warders. He was sensitized by his own sense of guilt about [the] family and friends he had used during his political career."

Reading Sampson, one comes to understand how Mandela learnt his almost inhuman lack of bitterness and desire for reconciliation in the intensely controlled environment of prison, where he came to see that this approach not only got him what he wanted from the warders but actually lifted the scrim of prejudice from their eyes and transformed them into human beings. "The Department of Prisons has failed to apply its mind to the matter," he once wrote imperiously to the minister of prisons when he was refused more time out of his cell. Almost ignoring his captivity, he never behaved like a prisoner and thus convinced his warders that they need not behave like his captors. In the process, he discovered a reservoir of personal power he did not know existed.

Mandela's reconciliatory mission has included taking tea with the widow of apartheid's architect, H. F. Verwoerd, and even inviting Percy Yutar, the ruthless prosecutor who called for his hanging in 1964, to lunch. Might this have been motivated as much by ego, by a personal need to make his enemies love him, as by the political mission of presenting himself as a role model for national reconciliation? Sampson is far too reticent to even attempt an answer -- partly because of Mandela's own modesty. The closest the biographer comes in getting a grip on Mandela's personality is citing Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., on Franklin Roosevelt: "He combined extreme heartiness with impenetrable reserve."

In well over 600 dense pages, the only incontestable signs of Mandela's spontaneity are his searing letters to Winnie from jail. Beyond that, separating the man from the mask is impossible. Unlike Oliver Tambo, who preceded him as president of the African National Congress (ANC), and Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded him as South Africa's president, Mandela is more the activist than the intellectual. Despite his mellowing in prison, his leadership is regal and intuitive rather than judicious and considered. He was put in charge of the ANC's armed struggle in the early 1960s because he was a street-fighter who could think on his feet; he brought peace to South Africa from his jail cell for the same reason. A member of the Tembu royal family, he has a sense of right and destiny -- and a total lack of self-doubt. As Albie Sachs says, "Tambo was a natural democrat; Mandela had to learn."

A DRY WHITE SEASON

"Ours had never been a marriage of love," de Klerk writes in The Last Trek of his government partnership with Mandela after South Africa's first free elections in 1994. "We had come from very different backgrounds and our families didn't get on very well with one another. We had been forced together to legitimize the new South Africa. Now the honeymoon was over. We greeted each other politely; we ran the household jointly, and tried to keep up appearances. We only remained together for the sake of our joint offspring."

Although Mandela and de Klerk were often presented as South Africa's reconciled Janus, their relationship was fraught and confrontational. The subtitle of The Last Trek might just as well be "How Mandela Wronged Me" for its detailed documentation of the slights and abuses de Klerk suffered at the old man's hands. But South Africa's last white leader has never been able to wrap his head around the fundamental shift in power that he initiated. In the eyes of Mandela, the ANC, and South Africa's black majority, de Klerk was more a midwife than a parent, and not an altogether trustworthy one at that.

Mandela initially saw de Klerk as "a man we could do business with" and an Afrikaner politician who "listened to what I had to say, [which was] a novel experience." De Klerk's background was complicated: he had in fact been a critic of P. W. Botha's reforms and won the leadership battle to succeed him as the candidate of the National Party's right wing. But de Klerk explains quite convincingly that he opposed Botha's reforms because they were "piecemeal." Upon coming to power, he showed himself willing to go far further than Botha ever imagined.

But Mandela came to rue the moment he called de Klerk "a man of integrity." He seems, ultimately, to have preferred the finger-wagging, autocratic Botha, whom he could relate to as one straightforward "chief" to another. According to Sampson, Mandela's frequent intemperate public outbursts at de Klerk before 1994 were motivated by his belief that the South African president was fueling political violence while talking peace and being "less than frank" in negotiations with the ANC. Bluntly put, Mandela thinks de Klerk wanted to prolong the transition -- and white rule -- for as long as possible.

De Klerk's alleged complicity in state-sponsored violence remains one of the great mysteries of South African politics. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that he was culpable but was forbidden to say so in its final report by a judicial order sought by de Klerk. At best, he was totally unable to control the apartheid juggernaut he inherited. In his book he denies all allegations, excoriates Mandela for his "bluster and bullying tactics," and gives several examples of how he refrained from rising to the bait of his counterpart's provocations and thus plunging South Africa into crisis.

The former president does show some understanding that Mandela was playing a political endgame, presenting the requisite toughness to his skeptical constituents even as he talked to the enemy. But de Klerk, a formidable strategist, is ultimately disingenuous: he never acknowledges that he might have been playing a similar game. The overriding sentiment in The Last Trek is aggrieved righteousness. Why, de Klerk asks again and again, has he been so vilified when he voluntarily gave up his power and birthright for the sake of justice? His greatest failing is an inability to get beyond the forensic legal debate at which he excels into the world of sentiment. De Klerk's brilliance as a reformer, and downfall as a politician, is that he sees positions, not people. As such, he was never any match for Mandela.

THE ESSENTIAL GESTURE

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was not exaggerating when he told Sampson that "if that man [Mandela] wasn't there, this whole country would have gone up in flames." Having negotiated apartheid out of power, Mandela navigated South Africa through its transition to democracy and -- knowing, unlike so many other African liberators, how important his departure would be for preserving the new republic -- chose not to serve a second term as president.

Mandela's legacy is a country where the rule of law is entrenched in a virtually unassailable bill of rights, where predictions of racial and ethnic conflict proved wrong, and where the political violence that claimed thousands of lives annually in the decade before 1994 has almost entirely ceased. But if the Mandela presidency was inspired, it was also incoherent. Like Julius Nyerere, the only African statesman who comes close to him, Mandela was a far better nation-builder than governor. South Africa is in the throes of a recession; it has a minimal growth rate; 35,000 jobs were lost in the past two years, bringing unemployment to a staggering 37 percent; its murder, rape, and hiv-infection rates are among the highest in the world; and the postapartheid redistribution of resources, particularly in health and education, has been chaotic.

There has thus been some relief, both within and outside the ruling ANC, at Thabo Mbeki's succession. Mbeki is a backroom operator who has sold himself as a can-do technocrat far more interested in making things happen than in providing the kind of inspirational imagery at which Mandela excelled. Whereas South Africans loved Mandela unreservedly, they treat Mbeki with a mixture of respect and fear. Whites display more of the latter at Mbeki's avowed intention to accelerate social transformation -- which ultimately means giving more of the country's funds and jobs to its black majority.

Mbeki, a pragmatic Sussex-trained economist, has a far more profound understanding of the global economy than his predecessor did. He believes firmly in the market, balanced budgets, and fiscal discipline. He drove the government's Growth Employment and Reconstruction program despite huge opposition from the ANC's leftist allies, and the largest achievement of his first few months in office was staring down the powerful public-service unions in mid-1999 and refusing to negotiate a wage increase above the rate of inflation.

At home, Mbeki's profile is very low; Mandela is in the press far more. Internationally, however, Mbeki is getting noticed. His well-reviewed September speech to the U.N. General Assembly demanding a reorientation of the United Nations toward Africa and the developing world was very much a part of his campaign to secure a permanent Security Council seat for South Africa. He does not balk at criticizing African despotism and lecturing other leaders on why human rights and multiparty democracy are preconditions for his much-vaunted "African Renaissance" -- a phrase he sold to Clinton, who used it extensively in his 1998 Africa tour. Mbeki's greatest, perhaps quixotic, personal mission is resolving the interdependent wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mbeki's training is as a diplomat. He was more responsible than anyone else for selling the ANC to the West as a legitimate liberation movement rather than, as Margaret Thatcher had it, a horde of murderous communist terrorists. Mandela's approach to foreign policy, Sampson shows, was both more intuitive and more scattershot: witness his furious denunciation of American hypocrisy for criticizing his friendships with Muammar Qaddafi and Fidel Castro, his inspired call for sanctions against Nigeria after the hanging of the dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa, his failed attempts to remain close to both Chinas due to Taiwan's huge contributions to ANC coffers, his ties to Indonesia's Suharto (again, because of campaign contributions), his mediation efforts with the East Timorese, and his ultimately successful obsession with ending Libya's standoff with the world over the Lockerbie bombing.

Crowds will never idolize Mbeki the way they did Mandela during his ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue in 1990, or outside the Royal Palace in Oslo when he went to pick up his peace prize in 1995, or along Pall Mall when he rode a carriage with Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. South Africa has again become a real place, gritty and grubby, its unemployment and crime wave no longer cloaked in the robes of international adulation that Mandela had draped over them.

In the face of their social and economic difficulties, mutual suspicion and loathing, South Africans found a common patriotism, embodied in the saintly parent-figure of Mandela, to pull them over the hump of 300 years of colonialism and 50 years of apartheid. But in September 1999, six months after Mandela retired as president, a black soldier -- a liberation-era guerrilla integrated into the South African Defence Force -- ran amok at a military base, killing seven white colleagues before being killed himself. This manifestly racial incident (he pushed blacks out of the way before gunning down whites) sent shock waves through the nation, symbolizing just how fragile Mandela's program of racial reconciliation was. In a powerful 1995 speech to parliament, Mbeki used Langston Hughes' famous poem to warn of the dangers of failing to bridge the gap between white and black in South Africa: "What happens to a dream deferred? It explodes." Mandela will go down in history as the man who, like Martin Luther King, Jr., before him, gave the world a dream. South Africa finds itself strung between deferring and redeeming it.

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