To fully appreciate what former South African president Nelson Mandela was able to accomplish, it is necessary to hearken back to the South Africa he found when he emerged from prison in 1990, and what the country was like in those critical four years between his release and his election to the presidency in 1994.
Put simply, South Africa was a violent, dangerous and heavily armed place teetering precariously on the edge of an all-out race war. And in the early 1990s, it was entirely unclear which way the country would go.
On one side, embittered white rejectionists were refusing to even contemplate a future under black rule, and they were waging a campaign of subterfuge, sabotage and assassination. The racist paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement, waving its swastika-like flag, raided the conference center hosting the all-race peace talks negotiating apartheid’s end.
On the opposite side, South Africa’s black townships were saturated with violence — political killings, revenge slayings and murders by ordinary criminals. Mandela’s ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, backed by the minority white regime, were in a state of full-blown war. Disaffected black youth were becoming radicalized and primed for revenge against their white oppressors. The demobilization of the ANC’s military wing added another layer of unemployed, disgruntled blacks and left the country awash in AK-47 assault rifles. The black nationalist Pan African Congress made known their preference for murdering all white people, whom they deemed “settlers,” with their rallying cry, “One Settler, One Bullet!”
In 1993, some 55 South Africans were being killed each day; more than 52,800 died violently between 1990 and 1993 — more than twice the number of South Africans killed in the two world wars. And the very real fear of a cataclysmic race war seemed crystallized by the brutal 1993 killing of a 26-year-old white American Fulbright scholar named Amy Biehl, who was dragged from her car outside Cape Town and stabbed and stoned to death by an angry black mob shouting anti-white slogans.
From my home base in Nairobi, I traveled several times to South Africa during that period — each time convinced I was covering the opening shots of an outright civil war.
Exiting Victor Verster Prison in February 1990, Mandela, then 72 years old, found a country racially polarized and staring down the abyss of a bloody civil war. He had no official power or government title — F.W. de Klerk was still South Africa’s president, with full control over the country’s security forces. But what he did have was moral suasion, born of his 27 years of confinement.
Miraculously, Mandela found a way to thread the needle. He did it through words and simple gestures, and through the force of his own outsize personality. Each time the country seemed inescapably hurtling toward a violent cataclysm, Mandela almost single-handedly found a way to pull it back.
A full-scale race war was averted. The Rainbow Nation, against all likelihood, became a reality. And reporters like me who had predicted the worst were thankfully proven wrong.
Richburg was The Washington Post’s Africa bureau chief based in Nairobi from 1991 through 1994.