South Africa: Hope and Pity

GWYNNE DYER

July 06, 1993|By GWYNNE DYER

London. -- Even Winnie Mandela deserves pity, but that's not why the South African Supreme Court reduced her five-year jail sentence for kidnapping to a modest fine last month. It was mainly to avoid causing worse distress to her estranged husband, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.

Nobody really doubts that Winnie Mandela was guilty not just of kidnapping four innocent black youths in 1988, but also of murder. (Her chief bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, was convicted of murdering one of the four, Stompie Seipei, almost certainly on her orders). But Nelson Mandela has to stay alive for at least four or five more years, so don't burden him with further misery.

Why four or five more years? First, Mr. Mandela must survive until next April 27, when South Africa will hold its first fully democratic, non-racial election. This election is meant to perpetuate the fragile but vital alliance between the African National Congress and the formerly all-white party that invented apartheid, President F.W. de Klerk's National Party. It is intended to produce a coalition government, with Mr. Mandela at its head, that has both black and white support during the transition process.

But few white voters will buy the idea of a coalition government unless Mr. Mandela, the only black politician most of them trust, is firmly in charge of the ANC. And Mr. Mandela will be even more indispensable after the election -- to keep impatient blacks from wrecking the deal.

The coalition government is scheduled to run until 1999, when there will be winner-take-all elections. If South Africa should get that far without a fatal rupture of public order, it will probably be home and dry. But there is a great crisis it has to pass on the way.

Two or three years after the election, when it has finally become clear to everybody that the end of white minority rule cannot instantly eradicate black poverty, black radicals will begin to incite revolt against those who made the deal.

Most revolutions go through this phase where the moderate leadership, having made a deal and gained power, has to use force to contain the extremists who reject any compromise. And that will require an ANC leader with the credibility to use the state's security forces against other blacks.

Chris Hani is dead, and Joe Slovo is dying. Cyril Ramaphosa is a fine negotiator, but hardly a charismatic figure. The only ANC leader who can be counted on to give the order to shoot some of the more violent rebels and put the rest in detention, when the crisis comes, is Nelson Mandela.

He would doubtless give that order in great anguish, but it would be obeyed. Many blacks would revile his name ever after, but the mass of the black population would accept his decision, and the new South Africa would be saved.

For all this to happen, however, Mr. Mandela must be alive to play his role -- and he is an old man whose personal tragedies are close to overwhelming him.

Do you remember those pictures of a vigorous young Nelson Mandela that protesters used to carry during his 27 years in apartheid's prisons? And the shock you felt when the Nelson Mandela who finally emerged into the television lights two years ago turned out to look like that strong young icon's father?

Imagine for a moment what it feels like to be Nelson Mandela. Most of his adult life has been spent on the run or in jail. All he really had left by way of a personal life was Winnie, the woman he married not long before he disappeared into prison.

Now he is an old man with crushing responsibilities and not much time left. Moreover, he is intelligent enough to foresee that even harder decisions await him once he assumes power, decisions for which many black South Africans will never forgive him.

All the rest of his life he will be besieged by supplicants, advisers, petitioners and sycophants in every waking hour, and yet at the same time he will be utterly alone. For his wife has turned into a public and private nightmare.

Winnie Mandela is a legitimate object of pity herself: Years of house arrest were not the best preparation for the instant celebrity status she acquired as Nelson Mandela's surrogate when she was finally unbanned. But she has become a monster.

She openly sneers at Nelson Mandela's politics of compromise and reconciliation, and goes around shouting the South African equivalent of ''Burn, baby, burn.'' She takes pleasure in flaunting her affairs with other men. And she is, of course, a murderer.

Still, though Nelson Mandela no longer lives with her, he cannot utterly reject her; she is all that is left of his life. It is hard to die of sorrow, but sometimes, looking at Nelson Mandela, you think he just might.

The South African Supreme Court was probably thinking exactly that thought when they canceled Winnie's jail term and let her off with a fine. They weren't doing it for Winnie. They were doing it for Nelson.

Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on foreign affairs.

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