By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Tuesday, May 3, 1994
JOHANNESBURG—This day was never supposed to come.
Nelson Mandela was never supposed to return from life imprisonment to divert South Africa from the ruinous path apartheid has laid for its peoples.
And blacks in this country were never supposed to vote in an election. Hendrik Verwoerd—one of architects of the apartheid system—guaranteed these things. Yesterday, he was proven spectacularly wrong, and Mandela was the one proven right.
He spoke from the heart and danced like a boy. It was a victorious day for all South Africans, he proclaimed, ever the unifier. “The people have won.”
They call him father of the nation. But he knows the nation has yet to be built, and that it must be constructed out of many diverse parts.
But the people do know it is he who has brought them this far.
“I am not prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free,” they remember him saying once, when his jailers offered to release him from jail—on condition he give up the fight. He received, and rejected, numerous other such offers during the years 1963 to 1990.
South Africans of all racial backgrounds behold him reverentially. Ghaleb Cachalia, a 38-year-old Johannesburg businessman, grew up knowing Mandela as “uncle” because his family knew Mandela before he went to jail.
“As I speak about him now, the hair on the back of my head stand up and I have goose bumps,” he said. “I’m moved beyond belief at what this man has done, the sacrifices he has made and the path he has traveled, longer than 27 years, to bring us, together with his organization, to a state where I could vote and for the first time in my life be proud to be a South African.”
The days before Mandela is to assume leadership of South Africa have seen him at his political and statesman-like best. He’ll govern by conciliation rather than by force, he said, offering members of the nation’s security forces amnesty for crimes committed in defense of apartheid.
He showed strength backing Inkatha Freedom Party’s Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi against the wall, then savvy by appealing to the chief’s trump card, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, father-to-son to end the great conflict that threatened to send their nation into civil war.
It worked. Buthelezi flinched, entering the election while settling for less than he had bargained for.
And at every turn, Mandela has reassured whites about their place in the new South Africa.
The reason for this last effort is simple. He needs the whites, who benefited greatly under apartheid, if he is to help the black masses and the colored and Indians in this society.
During the 27 years he served on Robben Island, his legend grew almost too great for one man. He appeared to the world, as if in apparition, from behind prison walls four years ago and his fame grew still.
How could anyone spend 27 years in prison and come out not bitter at his jailer, many have asked since.
“It is a tragedy for any man to spend 27 years of his life in prison,” he said last week, adding: “They say there is a silver lining in every cloud. There were moments where we were able to take advantage of that situation to improve our own understanding of the situation in the country, the mistakes that were made in the past.
“We came out of that harsh experience very much enriched. It was an experience which was worthwhile.”
Four years out of prison and a Nobel Peace Prize later, Mandela will become this week the first president of the new Republic of South Africa, and his party, the African National Congress, will be running the country.
“I am your servant,” he said yesterday. ‘I don’t come to you as a leader, as one above others. We have a great team.
“I stand therefore before you humbled by your courage, with a heart full of love for all of you. I regard it as the highest honor to lead the ANC at this moment in our history and that we have been chosen to lead our country into the new century.”
Mandela was born 75 years ago to one of the royal families of the Transkei, the eldest son of a Temba chief. His family ran the village. His elders prepared him to follow in their path, but Mandela carved his own.
With additional tutoring from English missionaries, he became a lawyer, then an activists and finally an armed opponent of apartheid—which caused the white government to put him on trial for treason in 1963.
At his sentencing, Mandela gave this eloquent defense of his ideals:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African People. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to life for and achieve. But, if I needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
But, he lived, and yesterday, he paid tribute to people around the world who took up his cause.