Face-off in S. Africa_Mandela, de Klerk Share Debate Stage

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Friday, April 15, 1994

DURBAN, South Africa—In what was unimaginable just four years ago, a black man and a white man seeking to lead this country into democracy appeared on the same stage last night and asked South Africans for color-blind support.

The two candidates—Nobel Prize winners Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk—went at each other like the clubhouse pros they are, but at the end of this nation’s first legitimate presidential debate, they shook hand and appealed for national conciliation.

“I am proud to hold your hand—for us to go forward together,” Mandela, leader of the African National Congress Party, told de Klerk. “Let us work together to end division and suspicion . . . Let us work together for reconciliation and nation-building.”

“The whole world is waiting for us to succeed,” said de Klerk, leader of the National Party.

The historic American-style debate—televised to an audience of 40 million people nationwide and abroad—unfolded against gathering fears of civil war.

Meanwhile, international mediation, aimed at stemming those fears, collapsed after only two days when Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi pulled out of talks because his demand to postpone the April 26-28 elections was rejected.

Of the 22 million South Africans expected to vote, 18 million are blacks granted the vote for the first time. Mandela’s party is expected to score a runaway victory, but polls say about 20% of potential voters are still undecided.

Mandela, 75, who spent 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid, and his liberator, de Klerk, each sought to portray himself as the leader best equipped to bring peace and prosperity to this violence-plagued nation.

The tough road that de Klerk, 57, has to hoe is selling his party as a reborn one committed to nonracial democracy after serving as the force behind apartheid since 1948.

“We’ve cleansed ourselves from within,” de Klerk said. “We’ve admitted that the polices of the past led to injustice, and we’ve apologized for that.”

Mandela’s toughest hurdle was defending his party against violent behavior and political intolerance of some of its members.