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

China Announces Corruption Probe into Senior Ex-Leader

Former security chief and member of Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, being probed for suspected 'serious disciplinary violation' More

India, US Look to Reset Ties During Kerry Visit

This week's talks will be first high level interaction between two countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge More

Video Young African Leadership Program Renamed to Honor Mandela

YALI program, launched by President Obama in 2010, aims to build skills in business, entrepreneurship, public management and civic leadership More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid