Was Mandela’s Hand Forced During the Apartheid Negotiations?

Was Mandela’s Hand Forced?
Decades after the end of White apartheid Whites still control most of south Africa’s economy

AFRICANGLOBE – On October 19, South Africans celebrated Press Freedom Day which, prior to 1994, was marked as Black Wednesday. On that day in 1977, media outlets and organisations supportive of the liberation struggle were banned. In the 1970s, African journalists, inspired by Bantu Biko’s Black Consciousness, not only reported news exposing evil visited upon African people, but also articulated perspectives that were informed by the African experience.

As I pondered over the relevance of “African journalism” in post-apartheid South Africa, my mind turned to the ailing Nelson Mandela and how we, as African journalists, have not given his life story an African perspective. The dominant and celebrated perspective is that of the forgiving Mandela who did not insist on reclaiming what he has been robbed of.

Whatever his motive is, it is Julius Malema who argues that as a result of the celebrated “African forgiveness” Africans are left with nothing but self-hate and the inability to forgive themselves when they cannot provide for themselves and their children.

While the world media celebrates Mandela’s forgiveness, it does not highlight how the capitalist world has punished him at every turn when he attempted to seek redress for the evil inflicted by White racist capitalism on Africans. This task, among others, I think, is the responsibility of African journalists.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, reminds us that shortly before Madiba’s release in 1990, he wrote a two-sentence-long note to settle a debate over whether or not after 27 years in prison he still held on to nationalisation: “The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and the change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.” However, shortly after he became president in 1994, Madiba made a U-turn on his previous declaration: “In our economic policies… there is not a single reference to things like nationalisation, and this is not accidental.”

For taking this stance, some in the liberation movement have denounced Madiba as a sell-out. Is that really true though?

My reading of literature chronicling the negotiation process that led to the 1994 elections suggests that things were more complex than that. Klein observes that as it became clear to the then-ruling National Party that Parliament would soon be firmly in the hands of the ANC, they began to focus more on the economic negotiations. It was in this area that the plan to withhold economic power from the oppressed was “successfully executed under the noses of the ANC leaders, who were naturally preoccupied with winning the battle to control Parliament”, Klein tells us.

On the negotiation table, the ANC accepted an agreement where the central bank would be run autonomously and headed by the same man who ran it under White apartheid, Chris Stals. Derek Keyes, the White apartheid finance minister, would also remain in his post. To Klein, this came about because the-then ruling National Party was “trying to find a backdoor to hold on to power even after elections”.

What this means is that the compromised position in which the ANC found itself was not by chance. In Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom’s book, The Super Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond, we learn that White apartheid’s masterminds had decided as early as the late 1970s that White apartheid would have to go. But the main preoccupation of the Afrikaner Broederbond (AB), in the words of veteran journalist Allister Sparks, was “how to abandon apartheid and come to terms with the Black majority without losing control of the country and ultimately the national identity of the Afrikaner volk”.

The AB’s objective was materialised by the last White apartheid president, FW de Klerk, the man hailed as one of the architects of the “miraculous” transition. In the negotiations for a post-apartheid South Africa, De Klerk tried to “preserve as much power as possible” by trying “everything – breaking the country into a federation, guaranteeing veto power for minority parties, reserving a certain percentage of the seats in government structures for each ethnic group – anything to prevent simple majority rule, which he was sure would lead to mass land expropriations and the nationalising of corporations”.

The ANC conceded to the insertion of a clause in the new constitution that protected private property, making land reform a distant prospect. The ANC also agreed to pay apartheid debt, resulting in the government paying R30 billion annually in the first years of the ANC takeover. Between 1997 and 2004, almost half of the $4bn received from selling state-owned firms went to servicing apartheid debt. This meant that the ANC’s dream of building houses, of making sure that there would be quality schools for the children and creation of jobs, was undermined even before the ANC could do much.

The retreat took place because, as Klein points out: “Every time a top party official said something that hinted that the ominous Freedom Charter might still become policy, the market responded with a shock, sending the rand into a free fall… When, shortly after his release, Mandela once again spoke out in favour of nationalisation at a private lunch with leading businessmen, “the All Gold Index plunged by 5 percent”.

Faced with this shock treatment from the market, Klein tells us that rather than call for the nationalisation of mines, Madiba and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, began meeting regularly with Harry Oppenheimer of the mining giants Anglo-American and De Beers, “the economic symbols of apartheid rule”. To Oppenheimer, after the 1994 elections, “they even submitted the ANC’s economic programme… for approval and made several key revisions to address his concerns, as well as those of other top industrialists”.

Compelling Africans to enjoy the right to vote while economic power that determines political direction lies with capitalists is not uniquely South African. On the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence, the British compelled the future government of Robert Mugabe to allow the land to remain with White Rhodesian invaders for the first 10 years of independence, thus aborting the Africans’ potential economic freedom.

Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba’s resistance to this maneouvre cost him his life. Six months after gaining independence, at the instigation of the Congo’s former coloniser, Belgium, Lumumba was overthrown and brutally killed. Lumumba’s letter to his wife, Pauline, best describes his insight into the maneouvres of imperialists:

“But what we wished for our country – its right to an honourable life, to unstained dignity, to independence without restrictions – was never desired by the Belgian imperialists and their Western allies, who found direct and indirect support, both deliberate and unintentional, amongst certain officials of the United Nations, that organisation in which we placed all our trust when we called on its assistance. They have corrupted some of our compatriots and bribed others.”

In his book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Chinua Achebe makes a very interesting observation: “The British clearly had a well-thought-out exit strategy, with handover plans in place long before we noticed.” When Britain decided to hand over power to the Nigerians, they simultaneously brought in from Sudan a new governor general, James Robertson. This man used his position to recruit and try to bribe Harold Smith, an English junior civil servant, to rig Nigeria’s first elections in favour of Abubakr Tafawa Balewa “who had been built up into a great statesman by the Western world”.

Accurately, Achebe observes that in a sense, in Nigeria “popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from its birth… Within six years of this tragic colonial manipulation Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule.

Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation’s wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged. The subsequent national census was outrageously stage-managed, judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power. The politicians themselves were pawns of foreign business interests”.

While, rightly so, the media in general should investigate and expose the failures of African governments to serve African people, we must also examine the causes, both external and internal. Failure to do this will feed the world’s prejudice against African people, that being that our failure is biological, while the truth is that it is historical. African journalists must not fail in this regard, or our children will spit on our graves when we are no more.


Dr. Simphiwe Sesanti is a Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism. He writes in his personal capacity.