News / Africa

20 Years On: Why Did It Take a Prisoner to Bring Down Apartheid?

A Visit to Soweto, Decades After Anti-Apartheid Strugglei
X
April 24, 2014 4:13 AM
It was 20 years ago, on April 27, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of a fully democratic South Africa - formally ending the racist regime known as apartheid (Afrikaans for 'separation'.) One of the symbols of racial segregation was Soweto - a sprawling series of Black townships in southwest Johannesburg. It was a hub of anti-apartheid protests and where Mr. Mandela once lived. VOA's Brian Padden went along on an inconspicuous tour to see what has changed in two decades.
Watch related video from VOA's Brian Padden.
Anita Powell
The 20th anniversary of the end of South Africa's despised apartheid regime falls on April 27. It came about in a surprising way: not by violence or revolution, 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.

You May Like

VOA Exclusive: Interview With Myanmar President Thein Sein

Thein Sein calls allegations that minority Muslim Rohingya are fleeing alleged torture in Rakhine state a media fabrication More

Video Better Protective Suit Sought for Ebola Caregivers

Current suit is uncomfortable, requires too many steps for removal, increasing chance of deadly contact with virus More

UN Rights Commission Investigates Eritrea

Three-member commission will start collecting first-hand information from victims and other witnesses in Switzerland and Italy next week More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concernsi
X
November 19, 2014 11:39 PM
The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.
Video

Video What Jon Stewart Learned About Iran From 'Rosewater'

Jon Stewart, host of the satirical news program "The Daily Show" talks with Saman Arbabi of Voice of America's Persian service about Stewart's directorial debut, "Rosewater."
Video

Video Lebanese Winemakers Thrive Despite War Next Door

In some of the most volatile parts of Lebanon, where a constant flow of refugees crosses the border from Syria, one industry continues to flourish against the odds. Lebanese winemakers say after surviving a brutal civil war in the 1970s and 80s, they can survive anything. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Video

Video China's Rise Closely Watched

China’s role as APEC host this week allowed a rare opportunity for Beijing to showcase its vision for the global economy and the region. But as China’s stature grows, so have tensions with other countries, including the United States. VOA’s Bill Ide in Beijing reports on how China’s rise as a global power is seen among Chinese and Americans.

All About America

AppleAndroid