By Kevin O’Sullivan
I woke up this morning with a song in my head. ‘Freeeeeeee Nelson Mandela. Free. Free. Freeeeee Nelson Mandela.’ Twenty years and one day since the ANC leader left prison? Now there’s an anniversary worth celebrating. Too often in recent times we in the West have been quick to criticise the rainbow nation. Has violent crime damaged the reputation of a diverse and massive country, confusing Cape Town with Durban or Johannesburg in the minds of Westerners? Yes. Will the World Cup be ruined by the noise of the vuvuzela? No. Did Thabo Mbeki talk a lot of nonsense about HIV/AIDS? Undoubtedly. Has the polygamous Jacob Zuma sent out a stereotypical message about African men? Probably. Could both have done more to halt Robert Mugabe’s destruction of neighbouring Zimbabwe? Yes. Has the concentration of economic power in the hands of a small group of businessmen caused difficulties for the country’s continued growth? Possibly. Is positive discrimination hindering economic and social development? Maybe. Was it better under apartheid? Eh, no.
There have been thousands of column inches, a film, and much hot air expended on the Mandela anniversary, but there’s one interview that stands out as the most interesting thing I’ve read, seen or heard in the last two weeks. On 22 January the Financial Times published a chat over lunch with FW de Klerk, the man who as South African President made the decisions to lift the ban on the ANC, release Mandela from prison and begin the process that led to majority rule after the first free elections in South Africa four years later. By then de Klerk had won a Nobel Peace Prize (1993) for his initiatives. But did he, in 2010, believe that apartheid was wrong?
Even now this National Party scion chooses his words carefully. The idea of separate homelands for South Africa’s black tribes – “nation states”, as he describes them – was “morally defensible”, he says. But it failed for three reasons: the whites were too selfish; as the economy grew so the races became intertwined – “we became an omelette and you can never unscramble an omelette”; and the ANC did not want to accept division along tribal lines. “In the end, because we failed we ended in the place which was totally morally unjustifiable.”