Mandela and the New Republic - insights from the 2nd volume of his memoir
Why is it that Mandela seemed to give so little attention to driving change in South Africa while he was president? Was he a sell-out or a coward as some contend? Or did his view of the balance of forces mean he was constantly playing rear-guard, protecting the democratic revolution from an ambush?
Debates on Mandela’s legacy will smoulder and sometimes explode in this, the centenary year of his birth.
To celebrate the centenary, several researchers and writers prepared the second volume of Mandela’s “memoir”. Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years is a collaborative work, at the base of which is a shorter manuscript written by Mandela himself, entitled “The Presidential Years”.
Added to that is material from Mandela’s speeches, his own notes in preparation for meetings and reflecting on meetings, interviews with Mandela’s staff and associates, and other primary and secondary material. The final author was Mandla Langa, but preparatory work for the book was done by Mandela’s staffers at the time, Tony Trew and Joel Netshitenzhe.
What does this new volume add to our understanding of the man and his times? Which of the narratives of his legacy does it confirm, and which does it confound? We cannot always find definitive answers because of the fragmentary nature of this work - it is not a comprehensive study of the period, and its contents lean towards the accidental bias of the written record. Nevertheless, it is a rich and exciting book and it is a valuable guide to our understanding of the man and the era.
There is a well-chosen quote from Mandela in the preface: “…it has been the basic tenet of our approach that despite our people’s achievement in stabilising the democratic settlement, we are still involved in a delicate approach of nursing the newborn baby into a state of adulthood”.
The image of the newborn resonates - Mandela, as the first president, saw himself as having to gently nurture and fiercely protect this infant from danger. Nothing was guaranteed - survival was not certain.
In a note he wrote preparing for an ANC caucus meeting early in 1996, Mandela reminded his colleagues that we did “not win through military victory where we dictate terms”.
Survival meant not simply the survival of the ANC or the nation; it meant survival of the non-racial, non-sexist, pro-equality democratic state. Mandela knew how fragile new states could be - democratic South Africa was born in the shadow of the violence post-Yugoslavia, and the catastrophic genocide in Rwanda which began twenty days before the first democratic election. As he said to the nation on the death of Chris Hani: “We must not let the men who worship war, and lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country into another Angola.”
Fierce protection of the infant entailed ensuring that the security apparatus would protect the fledgling democracy. It is clear that Mandela’s priority was to defang the defence force, police and intelligence services. His preparatory notes on a report he wanted from the National Intelligence Service shows his attention to detail regarding some of the secret activities of the apartheid state.
He demanded to know where the records were, and what activities were being continued. He even asked for confirmation of the Goldstone Report findings on the payouts to former Vlakplaas Unit members. He paid great attention to the leadership of the police and the defence force, and while he allowed continuity of leadership, he moved decisively against defiance.
The gentler mode was reconciliation. In an interview for the book, Thabo Mbeki put it like this:
“[The] reconciliation business had to do with [Madiba’s wish to say] ‘let’s protect the democratic gains from this potential threat,’ and therefore this became a preoccupation not so much because he was a worshipper of reconciliation in itself but it served a purpose in terms of protecting what we had gained… He had to attend to this issue of Afrikaners and showing he was not a monster….”
His visits to Betsie Verwoerd and PW Botha served not only the reconciliation agenda, but also to show that he was in charge.
Mandela engaged with Bantustan and traditional leaders with a similar purpose - to disarm a potential threat.
As the unifier of the nation, did this mean that (with the exception of security issues) he left the governing and policy implementation to others? After the first few months of government when, as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma says, “he was more engaged”, Thabo Mbeki ran most Cabinet meetings, even when Mandela was present, and played a prime-ministerial role. Mandela clearly relied on his deputy and his senior ministers to engage with the nitty gritty of legislating a new republic.
On economic policy he was diffident. Faced with a proposed loan from the IMF, having established that no conditions were attached, he left the decision to Mbeki who expressed some misgivings about the loan and said no.
He did sometimes get directly involved, as recalled by Tito Mboweni. When Mboweni, then Minister of Labour, threatened to resign if his legislation was blocked, Mandela called the ministers involved, including Trevor Manuel, in to a private discussion where he told them, in spite of Manuel’s protestations, that they must support the bill because he did not want “this young man to resign”. Unity could be placed ahead of consistency of policy.
Mandela nevertheless demonstrated a firm commitment to cautious fiscal and monetary policies. After describing a fall in the budget deficit from 7.2 per cent in 1993 [it was higher if one incorporated Bantustan debt] to 2 percent in 2001, Mandela writes, “Had the government not followed this course, our economy would not have performed as well.”
After he came out of gaol, Mandela endorsed nationalisation. It was never entirely clear whether he believed fully in it, or if he was using it as a lever over white domestic capital during the transition. Nevertheless, when he went to the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1992 with a pro-nationalisation text, the premier of China and the prime minister of Vietnam encouraged him to drop nationalisation. A few months later at the ANC’s Ready to Govern conference in Nasrec, Mandela intervened to water down a pro-nationalisation statement in the proposed text.
The lasting impression of Dare Not Linger is that Mandela saw his primary role as the first president to disarm the enemies of a non-racial and non-sexist democracy. The twin strategies were powerful reconciliatory public gestures and commitments, combined with the firmest possible control, in that context, of the security apparatus of the state. Everything else was secondary to those objectives and certainly did not get his full attention.
- Alan Hirsch is professor and director of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at UCT.
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