How white South Africans came to terms with Mandela

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CAPE TOWN, S.A. — February 11, 1990 saw the world celebrating the release of a former terrorist to some in South Africa, but a hero to most throughout the world.

Before I discuss the response of white South Africans, to the release of Nelson Mandela, I feel it important to create a context.

Many white people in South Africa feared Mandela and his African National Congress because of the juxtaposition of his name with television footage showing political violence in the black townships.

Fear of the ANC

For many years, images of black people stoning police officers and burning tires to not only blockade roads but also to kill informants, beamed into South African households, courtesy of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

This combined with government rhetoric that the ANC was a terrorist organization, supported by the communists and hell bent of hurting their families, shaped many white opinions.

While most whites supported the racist regime because they bought into the rhetoric, there were some whites who simply were downright racist, and there were liberals who spoke out against the racism.

Many liberal white South Africans belonged to a political party called the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), who through its sole representative in parliament, Helen Suzman, took on the apartheid (National Party) government.

On the other side of the equation you had the Conservative Party, a mainly Afrikaner (Afrikaans speaking) party, hell bent on maintaining apartheid and the divisions between black and white, and the AWB, a racist organization, which firmly believes that black people are inferior.

The majority of white people, however, supported the ruling National Party.

Given this context, it is not surprising that many white South Africans met the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, with a high degree of fear.

It was very clear to them that if the ANC turned into a political party they would win elections, as the vast majority of South Africans are black. This created fears of reprisals.

Mandela’s ‘charm offensive’

Mandela, however, set the tone for what was to come, during his first speech on the day of his release:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

A landslide majority of whites voted in favor of the National Party reaching a negotiated settlement with the ANC, in a “whites only” referendum.

This gave the National Party President of South Africa, FW De Klerk, the mandate to reach a negotiated settlement with the ANC, giving birth to South Africa’s first black president. Mandela was inaugurated on May 10, 1994.

When Mandela assumed the top job, he made it very clear that his job was one of nation building. One of his first acts as president was appointing a white Afrikaans woman, Zelda La Grange, as his secretary, with her eventually assuming the position of personal assistant. Right through this month, 19 years down the line, Zelda remained at his side, including working at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1995 under the Mandela government, to heal the hurt South Africa underwent through apartheid, focusing on the period 1960 to 1994. This process gave amnesty to both apartheid and revolution operatives, if they came totally clean about the atrocities committed during apartheid.

President Mandela even went on a charm offensive of note, embracing springbok rugby, a ball sport similar to American football, and previously the home of white-only players. During the 1995 World Cup he famously held up the rugby world cup trophy along with Pienaar, the springbok captain, with Mandela wearing a springbok jersey, after South Africa’s win.

This was a hugely significant gesture as rugby was seen mainly as a sport for white Afrikaans people. It was yet another masterful, and genuine move by a remarkable man to dilute white misconceptions and fear of him.

Many white people saw that President Nelson Mandela was genuinely extending a hand of good will to them, despite reservations about those close to him.

Nelson Mandela genuinely cared about equality, and even when Black Economic Empowerment was adopted and implemented after the negotiation process, he continued making his point by giving a young white young boy a study bursary, after he was rejected because of his race.

On another occasion, after the adoption of the new national anthem, which today incorporates the old apartheid national anthem and an African hymn, “Nkosi Sikelele’ iAfrika”, President Mandela rebuked the audience for only singing the Nkosi Sikelele part and omitting the old apartheid anthem. He made it clear that the South Africa that he fought for, should take into account not only the majority but also the minorities.

These gestures collectively and significantly succeeded in reshaping the perception ordinary white people had of the former state president.

An ‘icon other presidents are measured by’

Today, many white South Africans view Mandela as an icon all other presidents are measured by. Many white people often refer back fondly to the days of his presidency, especially when comparing him to former President Thabo Mbeki, or current President Jacob Zuma.

South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, has been plagued by claims of corruption and has allowed racist rhetoric by the former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema to go mainly unchallenged. He also has not managed to contain mining strikes which have adversely affected South Africa’s economy.

In short, white South Africans, and their black counterparts ask the question: where have we gone wrong? While President Mandela later admitted that his administration could have done more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, and to combat HIV AIDS, his legacy far outshines current president, and former President Thabo Mbeki.

In his waning days, as Mandela struggled with his health, white and black South Africans agreed that he was the only glue that kept this nation together.

Kieno Kammies is a talk radio presenter in Cape Town, South Africa, and a consultant to NBC News. Follow him on Twitter at @KienoKammies.

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