He looked to his left, he looked to his right. His head had never turned to see, nor his eyes ever captured, such an expanse of humanity at one go as he now saw.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, fresh out of 27 years in jail, was in Calcutta, in the winter of 1990, on his first-ever visit to the country that had supported his struggle with passion. The Eden Garden cricket stadium was packed to far more than capacity, the green completely covered, the stands overflowing.
To say South Africa’s man of destiny was stirred would be to say the obvious. He was stirred beyond his expectation, his experience. To his host, West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, seeing such a large gathering was nothing new. But even for the veteran Communist leader, there was something exceptional about that day. Jyotibabu had not seen such wild enthusiasm exploding in a public meeting, at least not since the time Calcutta greeted the then “just released” Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Neither host nor guest forgot the experience, nor the real meaning that lay behind it—the turning of one of history’s most stubborn pages.
Here was a leader of leaders whose charisma and influence, strength and impact, had grown with each year that the apartheid regime had him jailed, and who had become a symbol not just for South Africa’s human rights struggle but for human rights across the world. Here was a man whose perseverance had led him to be released by a sobered regime that was, at last, seeing all its delusions collapse. Here was a man who stood tall at the end of a struggle and at the start of its consequence: responsibility.
A major apartheid thesis, apart from its lies, was “the Bantu can agitate, the Bantu cannot govern”. The use of that racist term was in itself misapplied in the case of South Africa’s varied population. But it was the propaganda in it that did the greatest damage. It was meant to, and did, demoralise a people who knew time was on their side but were mystified by the working of the clock’s innards.
Mandela, on this, his first visit, was asked by people he met, and not just the inquisitive media, how he planned to vestibule struggle into power, agitation into governance. The query came from concern, not cynicism. Mandela did not give elaborate answers but his demeanour showed he was in some tension. And in Calcutta, meeting the progeny of struggle, the local Marxists, in power, was an opportunity for him to learn something. The CPI(M) was at the head of a Left coalition. That, for Mandela, was a crucial fact—coalition. “Commies can agitate, they cannot run an administration”, was a remark that had been heard in the early and mid-1970s until the Left Front showed it could do so and—until the milk curdled in the 2010s—with flair.
And so, for Calcutta, there was more to Mandela than an icon. There was in him an ‘amader moto’ quality...a ‘like us-ness’. It was seeing a man whom the South African Communist Party, known the world over as the SACP, had accepted as ‘amader moto’ and more, had turned to for what can be called a leadership-on-loan. Mandela was not a Communist, but the SACP knew of no one more sensitive to the class struggle than him, no one more committed to an egalitarian order. The SACP had an ideology, its cadres had commitment. But what of a leadership that captured the South African political imagination? That the SACP did not have, whereas the ANC had not a few mass leaders, the greatest of them being NRM, hailed by the world as Mandela and by his very own, as ‘Madiba’, a teacher who had the depth of a deep aquifer.
The Triple Alliance between the African National Congress, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the SACP was to embody a working alliance between a national movement and the Communists such as had not been seen anywhere. “I am told the Communists are using us,” Mandela was to say famously. “Maybe they are but then are we not using them as well?”
‘Using’ is a pejorative expression. Mandela knew that but he was not going to waste time being politically correct when he needed to be politically frank, politically wise, politically courageous. Joe Slovo, leader of the SACP, than whom there could not have been a more orthodox Communist, saw the need for mutual ‘usage’.
There are times when tactics, strategy and ideals coalesce. There are times when instincts, intuitions and intentions are in a flux. There are times pluck, spunk and plain dare hit it off and hit big. The first five years of the 1990s were such times for South Africa and at the joinery for all these comings together lay trust. Plain, old-fashioned trust—the kind that makes one leaves one’s home keys with someone merely because he inspires ‘yaqeen’.
The SACP was going to place its trust in the transformation that was taking place under Mandela’s leadership. Not just that, it was going to join the Government of National Unity, the GNU. I would like to believe that Mandela’s encounter with, and study of, what was happening in West Bengal had something to do with what came so historically to transpire in South Africa.
Slovo was to conceive the ‘sunset clause’, a procedure in which certain features of the departing order would decline gradually, rather than be overthrown. The scarlet core turning to orange and pink in the ‘sunset clause’ was that the GNU would include all parties which obtained over five per cent of the vote in the imminent democratic elections for the first five years. This meant the inclusion of the National Party, which had ruled Apartheid South Africa.
And so it was not just with the SACP that Mandela was planning cooperation. Risking huge misunderstanding, courting the danger of his Triple Alliance coming apart, Mandela worked towards a partnership with what ordinarily would be called ‘the enemy’, in this case, the National Party. And, surprise of surprises, President de Klerk was invited by president-elect Nelson Mandela to be vice-president. Surprise of even greater surprises, de Klerk agreed.
Mandela then turned to the party that dominated political life in KwaZulu Natal, the Inkatha Freedom Party. ‘Gatcha’ Mangosuthu Buthelezi is a name to reckon with in South Africa’s history. In the 1990s, this founder of the ifp and premier of KZN, who played the role of his maternal great grandfather, the legendary King Cetshwayo kaMpande in the film Zulu, was a major force. Declining at first to join the GNU, Buthelezi relented and became another vice-president, with de Klerk.
The large and enterprising Indian community in South Africa was as complex an entity then as it is now. Its impulses for security and privacy have been prominent. A great many of them, however, participated in the struggle, with courage and sacrifice, notably, the Mahatma’s son Manilal Gandhi, Monty Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo. The African majority respected the Indians for their many skills and their contribution, but wished so many of them were not so coy about making common cause with it, an ‘issue’ that goes back to the times of Mohandas Gandhi. Confounding sceptics, Mandela appointed a very large number of Indian South Africans to his cabinet, made one the first speaker, another the first chief justice. When asked if the Indians’ number in the architecture of the new state was proportionate to their population (which it was not), he said “It is proportionate to their contribution to the struggle”.
So, every player in South Africa, almost, was therefore on board—a huge difference from India’s experience in 1947. Partition had in any case truncated the transfer of power. But in the first five years of his prime ministership, Jawaharlal Nehru was a lonely figure in many other ways, as well, with Dalit India dissatisfied under a brilliantly irritated B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Hindu’ India bristling over the death of Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, ‘Muslim’ India disorganised and confused by the dismissal and arrest of Kashmir’s prime minister Sheikh Abdullah.
South Africa was whole, unified if not without faultlines, optimistic if not contented, exuberant if not “on a high” because of the change.
Serving as India’s high commissioner to Mandela’s South Africa was a signal honour from the moment I landed in Johannesburg to the hour of my departure, but the high point for me was Jyotibabu’s visit. I called on Madiba to brief him about the proposed visit of his host in Calcutta. The Eden Gardens experience seemed to waft across his mind’s eyes. Agreeing, of course, to meeting the CM of West Bengal, which was, in terms of strict protocol, not really de rigueur, the president gave instructions to the effect that Jyotibabu was to be given all the courtesies shown to a visiting head of government. But when he arrived, Jyotibabu’s sole interest was not in the grade and rating of his protocol privileges but—in a reversal of Mandela’s 1990 priorities in Calcutta—to study how South Africa was now managing its coalition! He visited the SACP offices, COSATU, neighbourhood ANC offices to (in his words) “see for ourselves how a left-centre government functions in conditions of an elected democratic order”.
To ‘trust’, by 1996-7 had been added the imperative of ‘proving ourselves’. This meant, in domestic affairs, displaying an ability to manage the transition administratively and, more difficult, fiscally. The old regime had kept its fake cards close to its chest and the new government could well have stumbled over an empty treasure-chest. That is where having NP in the GNU made sense.
‘Proving ourselves’ in foreign policy meant showing all powers that South Africa would not be coopted, much less coerced into any pre-existing policy nostrums. This also meant that India would be given respect, not blind support. If New Delhi thought Pretoria would be an automatic ally vis-a-vis Pakistan and China, it was mistaken. Nelson Mandela was not building trust across divides in South Africa to take partisan roles on the world stage. Did this mean that he would soft-pedal criticism when something, in his eyes, went terribly wrong? No, far from it.
Mandela showed what he alone among world leaders had the moral authority to show, which was, the ability to take each issue on merits, each contention at its face value, and call a spade a spade. Did this mean that he made no mistakes? No, far from it. His trust was misplaced when, for instance, it came to Gaddafi and Mugabe. Not every spade-looking shovel is a spade.
In an age when idealism and pragmatism look north and south, ethics and political decision-making are at cross-purposes, the ‘good’ is regarded as naive, Nelson Mandela showed a different example. His goodness was not simple-minded, nor his idealism made of rose-water. He knew it was smart to be good, good to be smart. He had said, during the struggle, that his non-violence was tactical, not philosophical. Be that as it may, it was effective. Nelson Mandela was by training both a lawyer and a boxer. He knew when to advance, when to retreat, when to step aside. He also knew the value of surprising his opponent. But above all, he knew that combat has codes, just as protocol does. His personal and political conduct was, if anything, supremely brave and supremely ethical, both values coming from his mind, not his heart.
Let us not fix a halo over Mandela’s head. To make a saint of a supremely cerebral man does no credit either to sagacity or cleverness. Let us see in him, rather, the possibility of moral successes through intelligent action and the breakthroughs for intelligence in ethical choices.
(Former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, served as India’s high commissioner in South Africa)