News / Africa

Why Did It Take a Prisoner to Bring Down Apartheid?

FILE - President Nelson Mandela dances at a celebration concert following his inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, May 10, 1994.
FILE - President Nelson Mandela dances at a celebration concert following his inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, May 10, 1994.
Anita Powell
South Africa’s despised apartheid regime ended in a surprising way: not with the type of violence that distinguished the oppressive system, but through compromise and negotiation. Two prominent South Africans who were at the forefront of the discussions -- and on opposite sides of the negotiating table -- say it was the courageous act of one man, Nelson Mandela, that made that possible.
What would lead to the end of apartheid began secretly, with informal talks in the 1980s between Mandela - then a prisoner at Robben Island - and members of South Africa’s intelligence service. Mandela had by then spent more than two decades in prison for fighting white racist rule.
Mandela later wrote that he made a unilateral decision to reach out to the apartheid government he had spent his life fighting. It was possibly the most astute political decision of his life, leading to the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize -- and later, his election as the nation’s first black president.
Dave Steward, the executive director of the F.W. De Klerk Foundation, said Mandela’s move was not welcomed by his more militant colleagues in the African National Congress, but was nonetheless the right move. Aside from ending the racist system, the move showed that the ANC was a mature political force that could be taken seriously.
At the time, Steward was the chief of staff for de Klerk, the South African president who participated in the later part of the talks and shared the Nobel prize with Mandela.
“I think that the role played by Nelson Mandela at this juncture was extremely important. Sitting at Pollsmoor Prison, he reached the conclusion, by himself and often against the advice and wishes of his colleagues, that there was not going to be an armed or military outcome to the struggle in South Africa, that there would have to be a negotiated solution... I think it took a lot of courage and insight on the part of Nelson Mandela to take that decision. The results, I think, speak for themselves. He was, I think, way ahead of the rest of the ANC in realizing and accepting that there could only be a negotiated settlement,” said Steward.
Anti-apartheid activist Jay Naidoo said that only Mandela had the credentials to pull off such an unpopular move within the ANC. Naidoo was then head of the nation’s largest trade union coalition.
“The apartheid regime could not defeat us and we could not defeat them. We were at a stalemate. The alternative was a scorched earth. So in that context, leaders rose on both sides of the conflict to say, ‘How do we lay the basis for a peaceful settlement?’ And there was no better person to lead our side than Nelson Mandela, someone who had spent 27 years in jail for our freedom,” said Naidoo.
Naidoo also said that while Mandela’s participation was critical, the movement was aided by many star negotiators from the trade union movement. Those include Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, and the ANC's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
“We had a whole decade of negotiations on very tough and adversarial issues before the political negotiation process started. So I think generally speaking, the environment and the conditions for negotiations towards a peaceful settlement of the racial question and apartheid issues in South Africa, was led in very different places,” said Naidoo.
Steward said that once negotiations started, Mandela came out swinging -- a tactic that might have failed with a different adversary.
“In fact, some of his attacks on de Klerk were quite brutal... These issues could have led to serious complications in the negotiating process if different personalities were involved. If P.W. Botha, for example, had been the leader of the National Party at that stage, well, that would have been the end of it. He wouldn’t have tolerated attacks of that nature. But de Klerk, had a, I think, a much longer term view. He wasn’t particularly concerned, although he was angered at the time, by the vitriolic attack. But he realized that the really important thing was to get the negotiations underway. So he just rolled with the punches, so to speak,” explained Steward.
Both men also cited two other factors that often come up in discussions about Mandela: his outsized charisma and his humility.
It was that rare combination, they said, that allowed this most unusual man to take a brave step that changed the world around him.

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