They were fearful days in 1992 and 1993. Nelson Mandela was free but not elected. Apartheid had been scrapped, the 8pm bullhorn telling blacks to get off the urban streets had been silenced, but civil war seemed a real possibility. Guns were on the streets. At the Star newspaper where I worked in Johannesburg, an empty desk suggested not someone pulling a “sickie” but a probable victim of violence. Before mobile phones were ubiquitous, if someone was missing from work, it was presumed that they had been mugged or worse. There was a procedure. Colleagues and the HR department would ring friends to check. Then hospitals. Then the police.
Violence was random and common. A taxi driver, dropping me off at Saeur street where the Star newspaper was located, pulled out a gun as some black pedestrians were crossing the road. He shouted insults at them as they crossed. But the days when blacks were simply intimidated were thankfully drawing to a close. They too had guns, and pointed them at the driver. This was lunchtime, broad daylight. I begged and pleaded with the driver to put his weapon down. Almost reluctantly, he did and drove off from the lights.
From my window desk, I saw three people killed in four attempted bank robberies over a period of two years. Journalists going to a popular watering hole, about 15 meters across the road form the office, required an armed escort. The extreme right wing group, the so-called the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, known as the AWB, had support among the the military top brass. Rumors of military action against the “betraying” de Klerk government were constant, often dotted with rugby parlance. “Kick-off is on Monday, I heard from a friend.” “No, it’s planned for Wednesday, they are waiting for the air force to come onside.”
The black community was also deeply divided, with militant Zulus in Natal taking up arms against the African National Congress.
The tectonic political plates were shifting against each other.
I rented a house in Orange Grove. All the other houses on the street had been broken into. Walking with my partner on day, I saw a man across the street.
“Look,’’ I said, “he has a shirt just like mine.”
“Tom, let’s talk,” my partner said.
Apparently, when I was working nights, Niamh, my partner, was assisting the local black community. Giving them clothes, tea and food. We had no weapons in our house, not even a phone. We found out later that instructions had been given not to touch the house of the woman “who gave out clothes”.
Then Chris Hani was shot on Saturday, April 10, 1993. It one of those days when the glorious weather seemed to mock the concerns of mere mortals. Surely something this grotesque could not happen on such a day. Hani was the leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the African National Congress . He was young and charismatic. Extremely approachable. The ANC had its head office in Shell House, around the corner from the Star. Their leaders would often come in, Hani among them, and talk to journalists. Often they would go out for drinks with the journalists to a nearby pub with their security guards. No need for armed escorts. Hani was spoken of as a future president. On that April morning, a Polish immigrant assassinated him, but an Afrikaner woman helped police capture him.
The afternoon and early evening of that terrible Saturday, South Africa seemed destined for civil war. The normally busy streets of Johannesburg were quiet. People were subdued. News reports said that Mandela would make a televised address to the nation. It already seemed to late to save the day. As I drove into work, the office blocks of central Johannesburg appeared on the horizon, resembling a graph. A policeman pulled me over at a security check. As I rolled down the window, he leaned in and said my tires were bald and I had to change them. I was driving a battered Mazda, hired from a company called “Rent a Wreck”.
I replied, that today of all days, surely, bald tires did not really matter.
He smiled in agreement. It was a moment of brief respite from the tension.
“Go well,” he said in a heavy Transvaal accent. “But watch out for disturbances. We know there is fighting on the road up ahead.”
When I arrived, the journalists in the Star were huddled together. Some were distraught. A senior editor told us to prepare for the worst and suggested we should go home and get our affairs in order. But the words Mandela spoke that night on TV helped haul the country back from the abyss.
“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. … Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.’’
Those words, precious words, gave South Africa time. Just over a year later, South Africa elected an ANC government.
Some months after the TV address, I had the honor of meeting Mandela, briefly. Irish journalist Maggie O’Kane was giving a speech at Witwatersrand University. One of the bravest and most insightful journalists of her generation, her reports from Sarajevo captured the torment of the former Yugoslavia as it disintegrated. Now she was addressing an audience at Johannesburg’s top university, a bastion of Afrikaner education. The comparisons were obvious. South Africa too seemed close to breaking up. After she spoke, Mandela,who had just turned 75, got up to speak, praised her work and highlighted the challenges facing his country. Then in a moment of spontaneity, the audience sang Happy Birthday. Afterwards, he mingled, chatting, laughing, giving hope. People patiently queued to shake his hand, to be in his graceful presence. His security detail were nervous, eyeing everyone, ready to intervene at the slightest hint of trouble. We shook hands. I tried to say how much I admired him, to thank him. But my words came gushing out. I made little sense. As the crowd pressed ever closer, his minders were growing visibly edgy. He was still shaking hands as his armed, strapping guards ushered the man who kept darkness at bay into the Johannesburg night.
Tom Clifford is a journalist. In the early 1990s, he was working at the Star newspaper in Johannesburg.