When South Africa came close to civil war

During the time that I was a student in Sri Lanka, South Africa was an apartheid state. Nelson Mandela was an iconic figure for us as a freedom fighter, along with Che Guevara, but he had been languishing in prison since 1962, his arrest reportedly facilitated by the CIA. (The US for a long time supported the apartheid state of South Africa while giving lip service to human rights.) White supremacy was so deeply entrenched that I thought it would never yield unless there was a violent uprising by the Black and colored population that would result in enormous bloodshed. I expected Mandela to die in prison. So the peaceful transition to a democracy that resulted in majority rule and Mandela being elected president was one of the big surprises that taught me that one should never discount the possibility of things turning out better than one might have realistically expected.

The architects of that transition were Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, the president of that apartheid regime. de Klerk had the foresight to see that apartheid had to end one way or the other and that it was better to be part of the transition than being forced out. He saw the writing on the wall more clearly than his white predecessor presidents and so he released Mandela from prison in 1990.

I was in the US at the time and I recall being glued to the TV that was broadcasting live from the gates of the prison, waiting for the moment that Mandela walked out to freedom. I still remember that moment when he came out, not the shabby and beaten figure that one might have expected given his long stint in Robben Island prison, but elegant, striding out in a dignified manner wearing a natty suit and his trademark beaming smile. I had told my two daughters to watch with me even though they were far too young to appreciate the significance of the event, because I told them that it was a historic moment. (Recently I asked them if they remembered that moment and they said that while they could not remember the details of what they saw, they do remember me telling them that what was happening on the TV was really, really important and that they should watch. That may be the only time I ever told them that they should watch TV.)

After Mandela was released, there were negotiations between de Klerk’s government and the African National Congress that Mandela had led even while in prison about how to make the transition. While those talks were never easy (de Klerk faced pressure from die hard Afrikaners to resist giving in to the ANC’s demands and similarly Mandela faced pressure from his more militant supporters to not yield anything to the government) they managed to keep talking and making progress.

Then came a crisis. Two racist white South Africans shot dead Chris Hani in the street just outside his home. Hani was the general secretary of the Communist Party and a member of the armed wing of the ANC. He was a charismatic figure who was close to Mandela and played a prominent part in his public appearances. It was he who kept the radical young Black people in check and, because of his radical credentials, managed to persuade them not to undermine the ANC’s negotiations with the government over the transition process. The goal of the killers was to derail those talks and start a civil war between Black and white people and for a while that plan seemed to be working since Hani’s death led to rioting by some Black people and calls by some white people for the police to crack down harshly.

This was a very tense moment but fortunately, in the immediate days following the murder, de Klerk and Mandela managed to avoid a catastrophe, de Klerk by agreeing to the ANC’s demands for how the transition should be conducted and elections held, and Mandela by addressing the nation and calling for calm. In his speech, Mandela pointed out that it was a white neighbor of Hani’s who had observed the murder and immediately jotted down the license plate of the killers’ car and told the police so that they were apprehended within half an hour, thus underlining the fact that people were capable of rising about their racial categories.

Elections were finally held in April 1994, a year after Hani’s death. and Mandela became president.

The radio program Fresh Air had an absorbing program in which host Dave Davies talked with journalist Justice Malala about his book The Plot to Save South Africa that goes into detail about the ten days surrounding Hani’s murder and how the crisis was averted.

You can listen to the 36-minute program below. It is well worth it.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    In the UK there was a poll in 1999 to find the public’s greatest ever TV moments. I vividly remember the top four.
    At the top, not entirely suprisingly, was the moon landing.
    Second only to that was Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom.
    Fourth was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
    Other things further down the list were the fall of the Berlin Wall, England winning the world cup, Live Aid and the death of JFK.
    In third, beating all those things, Diana’s death included, was the specific moment in the 1997 general election when former defence secretary Michael Portillo lost his safe Conservative seat. It’s hard to overstate how important and joyous it felt at the time.
    I’m hoping for a similarly seismic moment in the next election, after another seemingly endless disastrous period of Conservative rule.

  2. Keith Valachi DDS says

    This was memorable for me, too. Unfortunately assassinations too often do have the intended consequences. How different could contemporary Middle East history be if Yitzak Rabin had not been murdered by a RW Jewish zealot…?

  3. KG says

    Despite it not leading to civil war, it was an absolute tragedy that Chris Hani was murdered. Had he lived, he would almost certainly have succeeded Mandela as president. Of course one can’t be certain how he would have turned out, but he was as far as one can tell both brilliant and high-principled. As it was, the AIDS denialist Thabo Mbeki succeeded, and probably killed comparable numbers of South Africans by his ludicrous stupidity as the apartheid regime managed in its near half-century in power.

    Hani’s murder was not by any means the only near-disaster in the transitional period. I spent two months in KwaZulu-Natal in 1991, in a failed attempt to make a career move into environmental-political writing. There was a low-level civil war going on between the ANC and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s “Inkatha” movement, which had considerable support from far-right elements both within South Africa and abroad, the latter including the British zoo owner John Aspinall, Jungian fantasist and child-abuser Laurens van der Post, and the Goldsmith brothers, financier James and founder of The Ecologist Edward (I didn’t quite appreciate this at the time: the editor of The Ecologist agreed to publish one of my articles, which criticised Inkatha, then backed out -- pressured, I later guessed, by Goldsmith). To his credit, Buthelezi eventually accepted the victory of the ANC in the 1994 elections and accepted a post as vice-president.

  4. KG says

    I should add that van der Post was also a close friend of both Margaret Thatcher and Charles Windsor (as was Jimmy Saville, Britain’s answer to Jeffrey Epstein).

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