Free At last. Thirty years after Nelson Mandela’s release, we reveal the small part I played in what happened next.

10 February 2020 By Paul Martin

On the balmy afternoon of February 11 1990, we stretched our arms out of our car window and had our hands slapped again and again by exuberant crowds lining the motorway.  We were in a slow-moving traffic jam from Nelson Mandela’s prison in Paarl to the centre of Cape Town about thirty miles away. 

The hundreds of thousands who had come out to get a glimpse of the country’s most famous prisoner or ex-prisoner were unaware that Mandela was being driven to Cape Town by a back route.   It took Mandela’s security people  half an hour to get him out his parked silver BMW and into the old City Hall.

From its balcony he delivered a rousing speech, his first in public since, three decades before, he had told a court  that “if necessary I am willing to die” for his country’s freedom and his people’s rights.

The Cape Town City Hall balcony speech itself, while the sounds of looting and occasional police gunfire wafted across from the nearby streets, contained some apparently hardline statements.

“I salute the Communist Party of South Africa”, Mandela told a crowd of 50 thousand. “Now is the time to intensify our struggle on all fronts.” His remarks added to the nervousness of the country’s white rulers who feared violent upheavals nationwide.

The real clue, though, to Mandela’s approach to dealing with and overcoming white supremacy, came the next day – in the gardens of Desmond Tutu’s elegant Anglican Church-owned mansion, appropriately named Bishopscourt. (He was the first black Archbishop of Cape Town and had special permission to live in a “white area”.)

Despite a gap of 27 years since his last meeting with the media, Mandela was being astonishingly witty and on-the-ball.  When a journalist from the local Cape Argus newspaper introduced himself, Mandela quipped: “Oh John.  I used to read your articles in my prison. Funny, I imagined you were short and fat.”

Still wearing my ‘Free Mandela’ T-shirt I asked Mandela what I thought was a straightforward question: “In your future negotiations with the apartheid regime what will your tactics be?”  He answered: “In negotiations it’s important that you make concessions on strategy. Not tactics.” 

I thought he had just got things the wrong way round: concessions can be made for tactical reasons but there could be no yielding on matters of strategic importance, I assumed he meant.

Later, I understood.  He meant: to succeed you sometimes need to climb down from things you had previously regarded as strategic, unchangeable, unthinkable.  

That approach was why the seemingly impossible deal became reality. It took tortuous negotiations and four occasionally violent years for the outline of a solution to be hammered out.  Yet, astonishingly, against all odds, Mandela and his people attained power in 1994.  

The predominantly black African National Congress, under Mandela, even agreed to bring their old oppressors into government alongside them.   Mandela and FW De Klerk had deservedly received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before.

I marvelled at Mandela’s skills as a wily politician able to say the right things to the right audience. 

Running for election in 1994, he spoke toughly one morning to farm workers, accusing their bosses of oppress and exploitation. Then he had afternoon tea with their highly suspicious white employers – and within minutes had turned on the charm. As he glad-handed the farmers and their excessively made-up wives. one of these ladies gasped: “He really is a very nice man!”

 I also continued to play a small role in another of his strategic masterpieces: bringing whites the international sporting involvement they had craved. 

The idea may have germinated on a Cape Town to Johannesburg flight a few days after Mandela’s release.  I was checking in, economy class (of course) on a flight when I saw Mandela walking at the Business Class check-in desk.  I rushed to upgrade my ticket, and sure enough, on the plane, Business Class contained only two passengers:  Mandela and me.   Instead of talking politics, I pulled out a photo from my bag and showed it to him. 

He was delighted: it was him as a young man in 1957, holding up his boxing gloves.   “Sport puts people on a level playing-field,” he told me.  “Can you help me get the whites on our side – through sport?”

During our several subsequent meetings we discussed tactics – or was it strategy?  He always seemed to agree with me, but that’s because he had already thought about it anyway – without my help!

Remember ‘Invictus’?  I can confirm that the film was really true to life. 

When his country won the World Cup in 1995, Mandela famously donned a South African green-and-gold jersey and danced on the pitch with South Africa’s white rugby captain. The next day we met up at Mandela’s home, and he threw me an imaginary rugby ball. “You see, Paul,” he beamed.  “It worked.”  Then he clenched his fist and raised it skywards – just like the photo that I had shown him on our first plane journey.

Alas,  the country’s troubles were not over. “Amandla Awehtu”, (Power is Ours) the ANC slogan of defiance, had become a reality.  The decades of outright white racism were no more, but changing a society and brining education, jobs, and true equality eluded even Mandela, let alone his vastly inferior successors. 

Many disillusioned blacks felt Mandela was too much in the pocket of white big business, and basked too much in overseas adulation while the poverty gap failed to narrow.   They forget that it really was largely because of Mandela’s willingness to forgive, and his willingness to compromise, that a bloodbath was averted.

Thanks to Mandela South Africa is, for all its faults, a far far better place today than when we drove behind him, excited but unsure,  exactly thirty years ago.

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