Black unity stops at call for Mandela's release

The Independent Archive; 4 August 1987 Few people know what Nelson Mandela looks like. To his supporters he is the symbol of the struggle, but to the government he is an unpredictable trump card
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MOST OF Nelson Mandela's followers were not born when he was captured by the South African police 25 years ago tomorrow. Briefly, a couple of years ago, it seemed possible that they might see him "walking hand-in- hand with Winnie in Soweto", in the words of the current South African song. Now the probability is that they will never see his coffin. He will probably die in prison.

After his trial in November 1962, Mr Mandela, then a 44-year-old lawyer and leader of the African National Congress, was given a five-year prison sentence for incitement and for leaving the country illegally. In the following year other ANC leaders were arrested. And his diary and other evidence were discovered, which were to lead to his conviction for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. He began a life sentence on Robben Island, but was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in 1982.

Few people, apart from his fellow prisoners and warders, know what he looks like. The pictures that are occasionally - and illegally - displayed of him in South Africa, show him with his hair parted, a short-lived affectation among African leaders in the early 1960s. By all accounts he seems quite fit, and the only evidence of what he thinks indicates that he is at one with the ANC leadership and will not change until he is free to talk to them.

To his supporters he is the symbol of the struggle, but to the government he is an unpredictable trump card. Pretoria had hoped to neutralise him by releasing him on condition that he renounced violence and went into some kind of internal exile, but he would not agree to either.

His release might unleash a hurricane of fury from blacks who believed they were close to a knock-out, but on the other hand Mr Mandela could be the one man who could calm the hurricane and negotiate on points. That is the government's dilemma. For the time being, the army and police have suppressed the township revolt and so Pretoria reckons it is better to leave him outside.

But the government cannot find any other blacks to talk to about the future constitution. Even the black businessmen's association, Nafcoc, and the black municipal association, both conservative bodies, are demanding the release of Mr Mandela and other ANC leaders before they will participate in any consultative body. So is Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of KwaZulu, regarded by ANC supporters as a puppet and sell-out.

This unanimity is particularly remarkable at a time when the United Democratic Front, the spiritual successor to ANC, has been crippled by detentions and emergency restrictions, and the government is offering talks to black leaders and even elected places on the Consultative Council, the proposed body which is to advise on a new constitution. If ever there was a time for a individual black leader to pick up the ball and run with it, this is it.

But the unanimity on the political prisoners does not extend further among black political organisations. The government maintains that blacks are divided by tribe. In fact tribe plays little part in black South African politics, but they are deeply divided along ideological lines. Apart from its ability to co-opt homeland leaders and armies for them, the government is able to recruit extra police from the rural homelands to keep the townships under control. Government spies are acknowledged to be everywhere. The ANC holds no areas.

Radical black leaders from both traditions still at large in South Africa, who would not be quoted, say there is little prospect of resolving these divisions and forging unity by agreement. They acknowledge they are a major obstacle to liberation. And even those who spoke of "one more push" as recently as a year ago are now talking of a long haul - as much as 25 years.

Richard Dowden

From the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Tuesday 4 August 1987. The Law Report resumes with the Law Term in October