It's time to cry farewell to the beloved country

On the day they buried Joe Slovo, John Carlin (left) looks back on six dramatic years and bids farewell to a people with an apparently limitless capac ity to forgive
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One hot winter's morning in Upington, a bone-dry town on the southern fringes of the Kalahari, Justice Bekebeke stood up in court to address Justice J J Basson. Mr Bekebeke had been baptised "Justice". The judge had acquired the title after years of service in the South African legal profession. Mr Bekebeke was being tried for murder. Mr Justice Basson was preparing to condemn him - and 13 others - to death.

The Upington 14 were deemed by the judge to have shared "common purpose" in the murder of a black policeman in November 1985. Three and a half years on, each of the 14 was taking it in turns to accept the opportunity courteously provided by the legal system to make a last statement to the judge before sentence. They knew, for their lawyers had warned them in advance, that Justice Basson would order their execution. They had no reason then to imagine that within three years they would all be freed on appeal.

Mr Bekebeke, aged perhaps 25, looked Justice Basson in the eye and,: "In a country like South Africa I wonder how justice can really be applied. I used to think that, even as a black man, I had access to real justice. But I haven't found it. So, well, mylord, what I would like to ask is: Let's forget our racial hatred, let's apply justice for all humanity. We are striving for each and every racial group to live in harmony. Is it possible? Never say it is not. I hope, my lord, that you live to see the day of a free South Africa. I would like the Lord to give you many years so that one day you can see me walking on the streets of a free South Africa. And, my lord, may the Lord bless you, my lord!"

I was observing from the public gallery when, to my left, a small elderly man in a dark suit and tie, the father of two of the accused, bowed his head and mumbled "Amen."

The date was 26 May 1989. I had been in South Africa barely five months. Till then I had been regretting my decision to move from central America, where I had spent the previous six years. The place was so stagnant. Here you had the world's greatest injustice, the United Nations' "crime against humanity", and yet there was no visible sign of change. I looked at P W Botha, the president then, and I looked at Justice Basson and I thought of a passage from Age of Iron by the South African novelist J M Coetzee. "I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school-desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their fathers and mothers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives . . . the reign of the locust family is the truth of South Africa."

I looked at the black resistance movement and I saw a twitching body without a head. The old leaders were all in exile or in jail, the young leaders in detention, victims of P W's voracious state of emergency.

But then I looked at Justice Bekebeke and I saw an image of heroic forgiveness that will remain for me the abiding image of black South Africa. That spirit, which I saw replicated in township after township, that miraculous absence of racism and rancour among the vast majority of black people, was the rock on which South Africa's democracy was built.

But it has not all been sweetness and light these last six years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes South Africans as "the rainbow people of God". The South African tourism board talks of "a world in one country". For me there has been a Shakespearean range to the South African spectacle. There has been high tragedy and low comedy, depths of sorrow and peaks of joy, high hope and abject despair. During my time here all the vices and virtues of humanity have been dramatically and intensely on display.

Hand in hand with all the finest qualities known to the species there has been cruelty, barbarism, meanness and rank hypocrisy: the common characteristics of those who went to war to stop Nelson Mandela, the embodiment of all that's best about South Africa, from becoming president. The violence Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha unleashed on the black townships during the four years between Mr Mandela's release and his election victory claimed 15,000 lives - among them Beauty Seleke's husband, mother and seven other close relatives gunned down inside her Soweto home one night in 1990.

I saw Mrs Seleke the next morning. She said she was was 33 but she looked twice her age. She spoke in shell-shocked fragments. "Five Zulu-speaking men" had come from the Inkatha hostel across the road and burst into her house demanding "money or a woman". They didn't see Mrs Seleke, who was in the kitchen. She rushed into her bedroom and locked herself in. Then she heard a fusillade of gunfire, "like thunder". She remained in the bedroom all night, hypnotised by a stream of blood that seeped in under the door.

It was daylight by the time the frightened neighbours summoned up the courage to come round and find out what had happened. They called the police, who came and took the bodies away. The police station was only 500 yards away. They had heard the gunfire.A local police colonel explained why his men had not reacted earlier. "No complaint was lodged."

Blood will have blood, and Mr Mandela's African National Congress supporters, the young "comrades", responded to Inkatha's challenge, perpetrating unspeakable atrocities themselves. The evil geniuses behind the slaughter sat at police headquarters in Pretoria and in Ulundi, Inkatha's KwaZulu base. I and a handful of South African reporters detected early on the hidden hand behind the township wars. We did our best to expose it and although those on the receiving end of the violence required little effort of persuasion, among white South Africans we felt like lunatics screaming in the wilderness.

In due course the "Third Force" was exposed. Now we all know, the affidavits having come thick and fast, that the security police had senior Inkatha officials on their payroll, that they supplied Inkatha with guns, with military training, with the logistical assistance to increase what an unguarded police officer once described to me as "the terror value" of the attacks mounted "to defend the Zulu nation''. That was the entirely fraudulent line of reasoning Mr Buthelezi employed to justify his people's actions.

The security police colonel at the hub of the Third Force was Eugene de Kock, who is in jail facing a multitude of charges. Colonel de Kock's colleagues called him "Prime Evil", but the label suits Mr Buthelezi just as well. His unique place in history derives from this: he is a black South African who battled against black liberation and kept on battling even after the apartheid regime had raised the white flag.

Today Mr Buthelezi sits in the cabinet of President Mandela's government of national unity. Mr Buthelezi's most loyal lieutenants, Colonel de Kock's Inkatha agents, are members of parliament. The lesson Mr Mandela has taught the world is that there is only one way to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts: you must sacrifice your notions of justice and pure principle, however deeply held, on the altar of political compromise.

The Afrikaners, J M Coetzee's locust family, made it easy for Mr Mandela. They repented - in deeds, if not in words. F W de Klerk, Mr Mandela's predecessor and now his deputy president, graciously evolved in four years, after half a lifetime dedicated toapartheid, from a pragmatic to a moral belief in the wrongness of legalised racial discrimination. General Constand Viljoen, the Moses of the far right who a year ago was leading the volk to holy war, has emerged as Mr Mandela's most loyal parliamentaryopponent. As an ANC cabinet minister put it, in a tribute to both men, "Viljoen has stars in his eyes when he looks at Mandela".

In the most remarkable interview I have ever done, Eddy von Maltitz, a firebrand farmer from the Orange Free State, told me late last year that he had seen the error of his ways and decided that Mr Mandela was a great man whom he would do his utmost to support. Until just two weeks before the April elections Eddy had been plotting to plant bombs around the country as part of his crusade to establish a Boer homeland, a volkstaat, insulated from "the Communists" and the blacks.

Mr de Klerk, General Viljoen, Mr von Maltitz, even perhaps Colonel de Kock, did what they did, however misguidedly, in defence of a cause. The test of Mr Mandela's noble pragmatism has been Mr Buthelezi, who did what he did - who used the rural Zulu population, the Zulu king, the resources of the white state, even his foolishly deluded backers overseas, like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher - in pursuit of his lust for power.

Somehow Mr Mandela and his supporters, among them 90 per cent of the black population, have managed to bury their loathing and tolerate Mr Buthelezi in government. That's the measure of Mr Mandela's wisdom and of his people's generous capacity to forgive. For me it passes understanding. Humbly, I salute them.