Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mandela: the Man Who Kept the Darkness at Bay

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. 

More articles by:

Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

October 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall
Ipek S. Burnett
The Assault on The New Colossus: Trump’s Threat to Close the U.S.-Mexican Border
Mary Troy Johnston
The War on Terror is the Reign of Terror
Maximilian Werner
The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
David Macaray
Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination
Jeffrey Sommers
“No People, Big Problem”: Democracy and Its Discontents In Latvia
Dean Baker
Looking for the Next Crisis: the Not Very Scary World of CLOs
Binoy Kampmark
Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem
Chris Wright
The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting
Muhammad Othman
Daunting Challenge for Activists: The Cook Customer “Connection”
Don Fitz
A Debate for Auditor: What the Papers Wouldn’t Say
October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail