The Firebrand Beneath Mandela’s Halo

mandelaThe British Prime Minister Harold McMillan deserves some credit for the transformation of Nelson Mandela from convicted terrorist to the father of his nation. So does Bob Hawke. So does President Ronald Reagan and especially, so does the man Mandela replaced, the last Afrikaner president of South Africa Frederik W. de Klerk.

My African years lasted from 1959 until 1966, the last two of them on the Africa desk of Agence France Presse. They were years when the Union flag came down and the flags of independent African States went up and the violence erupted that continues to this day.

McMillan spoke at a fair in the Orange Free State of the “wind of change” blowing through Africa. It did, at gale force from time to time, and it still is, and Africans have died by their tens of thousands. A forecast by a visiting Fleet Street journalist, James Cameron, who was a bleeding heart, has stayed in my mind. One day, Africa would be a giant, soggy pawpaw, he observed as we waited for Kenya’s new president Jomo Kenyatta. He never wrote that, and neither did I. We wanted it to work, and the Kenya newspaper where I was employed did work and as far as I know still does.

My recollection is that nobody said when Mandela was gaoled for 40 years that he was not guilty of being a revolutionary. Nor is it right to say that no whites were opposed to the transitions from colonial rule that spread across Africa. Mandela’s address at his trial was drafted for him by a white journalist,   it was said at the time. The anti-apartheid cause was always represented in the South African parliament.

Australia’s part was significant. South Africa withstood sanctions using clever international financing. Under Bob Hawke, an equally clever official at the Australian Treasury, Tony Cole worked it out, and left South Africa stranded.

Equally surreptitiously, that Nationalist government headed by de Klerk was preparing for transition, following established British decolonisation procedure. In two colonies where I worked, Cyprus and Kenya, they went to the nationalist leader, Archbishop Makarios in the case of Cyprus (he was in exile in the Seychelles) and Jomo Kenyatta, who was detained at Maralal in northern Kenya, and transferred them to presidential mansions.

The Afrikaner government went to work on Mandela, even to the extent of fixing him up with a suit when Malcolm Fraser called on him, as we learnt the other day. They wanted him to be the saviour of his country, and Mandela rose to the occasion.

President Ronald Reagan summoned a black American diplomat, Ed Perkins, and told him that he had six times asked for a list of possible US ambassadors to Pretoria, and that Perkins’ name was on every one of them. Perkins accepted the job, which he defined as attending funerals and trials. He sat in the body of the court, constituting a disapproving American presence.

So Mandela had friends, among them De Klerk who attended his funeral, and he lived up to their expectations. That is Mandela’s great achievement. That is why the gushing encomiums are justified. After 27 years on a windswept prison island, he put it behind him and became the great healer. He went to the white sports matches, rugby and cricket. He did his best, and although South Africa is a violent country, his best was good enough.

He visited Australia, spoke at the National Press Club, and took a question from Bernie Freedman, the correspondent of the Australian Jewish News, who wanted to know about his attitude towards Israel.

Most unsympathetic. Mandela’s eyes flashed, and his voice rose in a vehement response. The Palestinians had been allies of the South African revolutionary movements, and they had his loyalty.

It’s the only occasion of which I know that his loveable mask slipped, and we saw a glimpse of the youthful revolutionary who was sent to Robben Island.

Perkins, a grid-iron player in his younger days, was rewarded with a posting to Canberra where he had his knees done.  As a result of their practice repairing Rugby players, our surgeons lead the world in fixing mashed knees.

David Barnett is a journalist and farmer



1 comment
  • Davidrees@optusnet.com.au

    David Barnett argues:
    “Australia’s part was significant. South Africa withstood sanctions using clever international financing. Under Bob Hawke, an equally clever official at the Australian Treasury, Tony Cole worked it out, and left South Africa stranded.”
    Dear Mr Barnett
    This is pure fantasy.
    Sanctions against South Africa assumed various forms – sporting sanctions against specific individuals and/or teams; financial sanctions, largely imposed by US banks such as Chase Manhattan, and trade sanctions which were probably the least effective – although restricting South Africa’s competitive coal exports was certainly helpful to Australia’s mining industry.
    Sanctions caused inconvenience largely to two groups of people – rich white people who found overseas travel embarrassing and poor black people who lost their jobs. In general however the South African economy was intact. Apartheid was not the flimsy affair you seem to imagine. South Africa’s whites would not have thrown in the towel due to a modest economic slowdown.
    No serious commentator (that I am aware of) has credited Australia with “leaving South Africa stranded”. Many people have claimed the credit for ending apartheid (Malcolm Fraser springs readily to mind) but the nomination of Tony Cole as a major actor in the drama (!)surely moves the discussion from comedy to burlesque.
    A better explanation of the collapse of apartheid would probably start with long term demographic and economic trends. A strong economy through the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s did two things, Firstly, it drew millions of Blacks people into the towns where jobs were available, giving the lie to the National Party fantasy of “separate development”. Secondly, many whites got rich and even unskilled whites no longer needed the protection of apartheid legislation in employment, housing and education markets. As the shortage of postmen, nurses, policemen and tradesmen became more severe the colour bar lifted to allow blacks to take up these jobs. By the late 1980s the strains on the apartheid system had reached breaking point. you are right the Prime Minister de Klerk did a brave thing. But it was possible because enough whites no longer needed to defend their status with racist legislation and were willing to support change – compare the tragic situation in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.
    Your article is a helpful corrective to a lot of the gushing obituaries for Nelson Mandela. He was a great figure in South African history – but neither, he nor Bob Hawke, nor Tony Cole, nor Malcolm Fraser were as critical as some people think.
    Thank you for a stimulating article. Regards

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