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

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike in Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid