Twenty Years Ago Today: The Presidential Debate

FW-de-Klerk-and-Nelson-Ma-001Twenty years ago today, two political titans clashed live on television. In the grand tradition of pre-election debates across the world, the two main candidates for the role of President of South Africa traded verbal blows and challenged each other's policies, all so that voters could get a sense of what these two people were offering the nation should they take charge of the country. Except that everyone already knew who was going to win. The next president would be Nelson Mandela. His rival, F.W. de Klerk, stood absolutely no chance. It was widely presumed that he would be offered a senior position in a coalition government following the election. So why even bother with the debate?

Because this was going to be a free and fair election, and having a debate is one of those things commonly done in a free and fair election. The fact that the outcome was already known was simply a function of just how popular Mandela was at that moment, now that the whole population was going to get a chance to vote. Mandela and de Klerk weren't really rivals; they'd been partners ever since Mandela walked free in 1990, working together to build the post-apartheid South Africa. It didn't make for the most enthralling of debates, although it swiftly became clearly that de Klerk had the greater skill, which he'd presumably honed during the 27 years that Mandela had been locked in a prison cell. It's doubtful that anyone changed their mind as a result of the debate - but the simple fact that it was happening was an achievement in and of itself.

However, there was still one major problem, which you could spot from the list of parties that ran up the screen at the end. The list was meant to include every single group participating in the elections, but one was missing: the Inkatha Freedom Party, which was still clashing violently with the ANC and refusing to take part in the elections. One of Mandela and de Klerk's more interesting clashes during the debate came as a result of this, as Mandela reminded his rival that Inkatha's fighters had been trained and funded by the police in order to create divisions within the black population of South Africa.

Despite everything, the story of the first free elections in South Africa were not over yet; with Inkatha still refusing to take part, there was still a chance that it could all go horribly wrong.

Here's a video of the debate if you'd like to watch.

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Shell House Massacre

Twenty years ago today, 20,000 or more Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrators converged on Shell House, the headquarters of the African National Congress. The demonstration was angry, and loud. Security staff inside the building were nervous. There'd already been violence between the IFP and the ANC. Then the shooting began.

Eyewitnesses (including a journalist) inside Shell House said that pistols and shotguns were fired towards the building from the crowd, shattering windows and forcing people to take cover. Inkatha disagreed, and stated that there was no provocation for the security guards to blast the crowd with bullets from assault rifles. Either way, nineteen people lay dead once the shooting was over, and all of them were from Inkatha. The scandal rumbled on for years. Nelson Mandela admitted in 1995 that he had given an order for the security guards in the building to defend it with lethal force if they felt it necessary. Amnesty was eventually granted to eleven people by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the massacre remains a sore point between the ANC and IFP.

Yet both of these parties were opposed to Apartheid. Both of them had much to gain from its end, and the elections that were soon to come. The leader of the IFP, Mangosothu Buthelezi, had been a member of the ANC in his youth. You'd think they had a lot in common. But in spite of everything, Inkatha was planning to boycott the elections in protest. How did it come to this?

I can't give a full account of the differences between the two parties, but I can give you a quick summary. So far as I can make out, this is what happened...

The ANC was formed more than a century ago, in protest at the white domination of South Africa. It has a long tradition of opposing Apartheid - sometimes violently, through the Umkhonto weSizwe paramilitary organisation, formed because they despaired of ever achieving anything through political means. The Inkatha Freedom Party was created more recently, in 1975, building on the foundation of a cultural organisation in KwaZulu. Unlike the ANC, it pursued a peaceful path to power - but only on a local level, and through a system that used ethnic differences to ensure that native peoples would be kept divided.

Map showing the Bantustans, just before they were dissolved

Bantustans were areas in which black ethnic groups were given varying degrees of autonomy by the Apartheid government. But they were not particularly good places to live. Their governments were usually corrupt, and most people lived in poverty, forced to travel to South Africa proper for horrible, underpaid jobs. Inkatha came to represent the Zulu monarchy, and held power in the KwaZulu 'homeland'. This wasn't the worst Bantustan, but Inkatha was certainly complicit in the Apartheid policy of 'divide and rule'. With the end of white rule came the end of the Bantustans, which were folded back into South Africa during the course of 1994, and the people there given full citizenship so they could vote in the elections. KwaZulu became part of the KwaZulu Natal region, and the power base of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The ANC, though, wanted to represent everyone, and they weren't always bothered with whether or not people wanted this. So they campaigned against Inkatha in KwaZulu Natal, which inevitably annoyed Inkatha in the extreme. This wasn't a new problem; they'd been butting heads on this issue since the 1980's. When right-wing elements of the police offered military training and weapons in order to fight back, Inkatha accepted (as we saw earlier in the year). And thus two groups of people that could have been working together ended up trying to kill each other.

The Shell House Massacre was not the beginning of the enmity, nor was it the end. It was just one more horrible step along a path of rivalry that was only growing worse as the elections drew near...

Here's a 2013 news report on a protest to commemorate the massacre:

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Conspiracy Ran Deep in South Africa

Inkatha Freedom Party supporters at a rally in 1994 South Africa in 1994 was on the rocky road to ditching the old system of apartheid. But it wasn't a simple process; both the white minority who had been running the country and the black majority who had endured systematic oppression were riven by divisions. In particular, there was a deep divide between the Khoi-San people who made up the bulk of the ANC, and the Zulus who formed the Inkatha Freedom Party; a divide that some within the white security forces sought to take advantage of.

Twenty years ago today, it was revealed that a whistleblower from the police had approached a judicial commission with evidence that hard-liners within the police had been deliberately supplying Inkatha with weapons, and training their fighters to use them against the ANC - all in the hope that the movement to end apartheid would dissolve in a black-on-black civil war. This conspiracy was not unsuspected; and in this case the conspiracy theorist who suspected it was Nelson Mandela himself (along with quite a lot of other people, no doubt). But until this day twenty years ago, his suspicions had been disregarded as mere paranoia, at least as far as the authorities were concerned.

It had been going on since at least 1989. Weapons used in a war against Namibia were cleaned in acid and their serial numbers were removed. They were distributed to Inkatha, along with some that were manufactured by members of the police force. The effort was led by a group of senior police officials, including one who had once led Vlakplaas, a notorious police assassination unit that had since been disbanded (though some members were still working in hit squads with the collusion of the police). Violence in townships and massacres on trains had been the result, and the situation between the ANC and Inkatha remained tense at a time when it was desperately important that they co-operate in ensuring peaceful elections.

The National Party government was swift to deny any involvement, and, at least as far as the leadership was concerned, this seems credible. F. W. de Klerk, the president of South Africa at the time, was doing his level best to manage the transition to majority rule peacefully, and had made an effort to prevent the police from continuing their murderous activities. That he was being undermined by forces within the police just goes to show how desperate some people were to maintain their tyranny.

Here's a film about Eugene de Kock, one of the unpleasant people behind all this:

Twenty Years Ago Today: A Rainbow Flag Flies

South_AfricaTwenty years ago today, the government of South Africa finally decided what the design of the new national flag was going to be, something that had become imperative since the release of Nelson Mandela and his insistence that the old flag be abandoned if he was going to take part in the democratic process. Flag of South Africa, 1928-1994

The old flag was a compromise, but not one that made any concessions to Africans. It reflected the Dutch and British heritage of the Afrikaaner nation, being composed mainly of the old Dutch flag with a few teensy flaglets in the middle that came from the UK and the former republics on the same territory as South Africa. If you were black, it represented you not at all, and that was something that needed to change.

And so a competition was announced, and the public were invited to send in their designs for a new national flag. 7,000 entries were submitted, of which six were picked to be put before the public and the negotiators working to manage the transition to majority rule.

Nobody liked them.

So it was back to the drawing board. A new solution was fast-tracked: get the expert in. The expert in this case was Frederick Brownell, a retired state herald and vexillologist - someone who designs flags, and understands the symbolism that goes into them. He'd already sketched out an idea on the back of a cigarette packet while in a Zurich restaurant. So he dug that out, messed about with the colours a bit to find something that worked, and presented his design: a "Y" shape that symbolises two cultural traditions and people coming together as one, featuring the colours used widely by black resistance groups (including the ANC) alongside those of the European colonists.

Nobody liked it.


When it was announced, it was immediately derided as the 'Y-Front' design and thought to be a singularly ugly compromise. But it was too late to start the process again before the elections in May, when it absolutely had to be flown across the nation and at embassies worldwide. So it was announced to the world with the proviso that it was only going to be the temporary state flag for the next five years. If it didn't work out - well, they'd come up with another one. The flag went into production, and there were barely enough completed in time for Nelson Mandela to accept the presidency of the new South Africa on May the 10th.

And then something odd happened. People started to get used to the flag and think that it wasn't that bad. The symbology actually works, while still keeping a form that looks like a proper national flag - and one that happens to be completely unique. You can't mistake this for anything other than South Africa. It became the branding for the rainbow nation, recognised across the globe - and when the time came to decide whether or not to ratify it as the permanent national flag, it wasn't even a question. It became part of the South African constitution with hardly any need for debate.

In the end, everybody liked it.

Of course, the success of the flag doesn't mean the path to majority rule was easy - there were violent clashes between the ANC and Inkatha, a terrible fear of Afrikaaners turning to terrorism, Bantustans dissolved in acrimony, grinding poverty and rising crime - and yet somehow they made it.

You can easily add another layer of symbolism to the flag: because just like Frederick Brownell's design, no one expected the new South Africa to work. And yet it does. It's far from perfect - but it's even further from the descent into anarchy that the world was dreading.

Twenty Years Ago Today: News Roundup

Christmas Day 1824 no foreign news of material importance in the Manchester Guardian Twenty years ago today, it was a Sunday. And a bit of a slow day for historical events. Well, it was actually a pretty hideous day for the 200 people who drowned when a ship sank off Thailand (most of them Thais who had been working illegally in Myanmar), but sadly this is not one of those stories that English-language newspapers (and ultimately the English-language internet) record in any great detail.

So let's have a quick look at a broader range of stories that the papers are mentioning today...

  • The three surviving Beatles are being offered £2.5m to appear in a festival this summer at the Isle of Wight. This offer may have been inspired by reports that McCartney, Harrison and Starr were getting back in the studio - but as it turned out, this had more to do with the Anthology documentary series than any original music.
  • Gerry Adams went on ITV's Walden programme to say that Sinn Fein might not join in with last year's Downing Street Declaration - and if that's the case, then the hoped-for ceasefire from the IRA will fall through. Adams wanted the UK government to do more to persuade the Unionist side to accept the possibility of Irish unity, which the UK government was refusing to do. We'll be coming back to this story later in the year.
  • In southern Sudan, 100,000 people were on the move, fleeing refugee camps due to continued fighting and random attacks from both the government and SPLA rebels. This part of the world is no stranger to conflict, although in recent years it's been successful in breaking away from Sudan to form a new country, South Sudan - which has then resulted in renewed fighting over internal conflicts.
  • In South Africa, the process of moving towards a post-apartheid state continues. There are elections coming soon, but some groups are still not happy; King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus made a statement in Durban insisting that they have the right to their own country, while thousands of Zulus (many in traditional clothes and carrying ceremonial spears) demonstrated on the streets outside.
  • John Thanos, a murderer awaiting execution in Maryland, has given the go-ahead for his death to be videotaped so that another inmate can argue that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, Maryland speedily amended their laws to give condemned prisoners the right to choose lethal injection rather than the gas chamber - so speedily, in fact, that Thanos was able to select this option for his own execution on May 17th.

Many thanks go to Coventry Libraries for making newspaper archives available to anyone with an internet connection and a library card (although sadly this means that I can't link directly to the archives). I've found this rather useful for this little series, although I do tend to get bogged down reading articles that I'm not even going to use. It's just too interesting!