Mandela, De Klerk clash gently in TV debate

April 15, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of the Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk squared off in an internationally televised debate last night, 80 minutes that demonstrated that the two are as much partners as adversaries at this stage of South Africa's transformation.

The debate, which most think will prove to be the most-watched program in the 18-year history of television in this country, was one of the few times in recent weeks that the country has focused on the campaign, though the country's first non-racial elections are now less than two weeks away.

Instead, the headlines have been dominated by the actual violence and potential chaos in Natal province that followed the decision by Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party to boycott the elections.

The failure of last Friday's summit among Mr. Buthelezi, Mr. Mandela, Mr. de Klerk and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini plunged the country into depression and financial markets into confusion.

During the day yesterday, the impending debate could not even edge its way into the media spotlight -- all political talk was about the almost farcical breakdown of international mediation of the constitutional differences between Inkatha and Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC).

The seven mediators, led by Henry A. Kissinger and Britain's Lord Carrington, who were welcomed with great fanfare Tuesday, left quietly yesterday when the parties could not even agree on what was to be mediated.

Mr. Buthelezi continued to insist that the date of the elections was a topic for discussion. The ANC and the government said it wasn't. The mediators said they didn't want to get involved in this matter and packed their bags.

In that atmosphere, Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk seemed to realize that their mutual cause of supporting the interim constitution and the government of national unity it aims to set up was more important than tearing each other down in order to score a few points with the electorate.

Certainly there were charges and countercharges that by some standards may well have seemed tough. But to South Africans, they were old news. Some, indeed, were years old, such as Mr. Mandela's claim that Mr. de Klerk's failure to produce a report on political violence is proof that the state is involved in that violence.

Mr. de Klerk trotted out his claims that the ANC is the party that has disrupted education and brought mayhem and killings to the black townships.

If there was a theme to their attacks and ripostes, it was Mr. de Klerk's claims of experience in government and Mr. Mandela's identification with the years of patient struggle against apartheid.

Mr. de Klerk even said at one point that the ANC and his National Party promise the same thing to South Africa, mainly jobs and economic development. The question, he said, is who can best deliver on that promise.

Mr. Mandela touted the ANC's plan, its Reconstruction and Development Program, while chiding Klerk's National Party for failing to produce such a document. Mr. de Klerk pointed to his party's years in power and its dedication to free enterprise.

Mr. de Klerk seemed to relish being in the underdog role after years at the helm of the dominant party, several times almost conceding the elections to Mr. Mandela by saying that the ANC (( would need a strong opposition in the new Parliament that will be established next month.

"We need to achieve a balance of power between the two main parties, the National Party and the ANC," he said in his opening statement. "If any one party gets too much power, it will be bad for all of South Africa."

The strongest blows were landed as the debate was beginning when Mr. Mandela, brandishing a comic that the National Party distributed among mixed-race voters, accused Mr. de Klerk of "promoting racial hatred."

When Mr. de Klerk dismissed the ANC's reconstruction plan, Mr. Mandela said, "This is the reply of a man who is not used to addressingthe needs of the majority of the population, whose government is committed to a small minority."

Even in those early stages, Mr. de Klerk said at one point that in the new government, "We should rise above our political differences and address the challenges which we face in this country, address the needs of all our people."

Indeed, for the most part, the charges and answers were so stale that it almost seemed as if the two were engaged in a carefully choreographed dance that South Africans have been watching for four years, since Mr. de Klerk released Mr. Mandela from 27 years in prison.

Even the applause, booes and cheers from the studio audience were standard fare.

Underscoring the commonality of the two debaters' cause was the fact that the most memorable moment came toward the end of the 80 minutes when Mr. Mandela reached out and took Mr. de Klerk by the hand.

He said that despite their many differences, he was proud to be working with this man to build a new South Africa.

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