Profile: What makes him great: Neal Ascherson on the qualities that make a liberator: honesty, stoicism and perfect timing

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The Independent Online
MORE than 60 years ago, a young English intellectual called Margery Perham visited South Africa. Her views were liberal. She went to see Fort Hare, the college for blacks which is now a famous university, and did what she thought was a risky thing. She talked politics with students who came to her in the night.

They asked her why King George did nothing to help them, why Britain was allowing white supremacy to establish itself. She said that she thought it wrong, but that they should understand the white fear of being swamped by a black majority. ' 'Are they afraid of us?' It seemed a new idea. They were spellbound. I began to get a cold feeling . . .' She was speaking to the first university-trained generation of black South Africans, those whose struggles were to lead, after infinite suffering and disappointment, to the liberation of April 1994. They had much to learn. Whites had much more.

Nelson Mandela, a generation later, was a student at Fort Hare. The college expelled him for his politics. But a part of his success, perhaps of his greatness, has been that he grew to understand white fear. That does not mean that he thought it justified. The African National Congress, providentially, was founded so long ago - in 1912 - that it grew up around one of the traditional principles of European socialism: that racial politics, black or white, are a reactionary diversion. As a result, the ANC never became a 'black power' movement; long before Mandela, the party held that it was in the ultimate interest of all peoples of all colours to create a classless world of equality and justice. But Mandela saw that white fear was an objective reality, even if its nightmares were baseless. The path to liberation in South Africa could not be a straight black line.

It was not just a matter of recruiting white radicals into the ANC. It was a manoeuvre so ambitious that even 10 years ago it seemed sheer fantasy. White politics itself would have to be moved into some kind of alliance with the black cause. Now this has happened. The main force of Afrikaner politics, the Nationalist Party itself, has consented to assist in the dismantling of its own power.

Last week, millions went to vote for the first time, rejoicing but also mourning that the dead had not lived to see such glory, such fulfilment. These scenes did honour to democracy, 2,500 years after the Athenians invented it. They put to shame, for a moment, our own disillusion with electoral politics. They came about, none the less, as the result of one of the most improbable structures of compromise ever erected. The man who has managed at least to save that structure from premature collapse is Nelson Mandela.

THE WORD 'hero' is empty. Mandela is a liberator. But although history has a phalanx of liberators, it is not easy to find one who is like him. Martin Luther King was a great orator, operating within an existing democracy; Mandela is not and did not. Gandhi always had a quality of maddening elusiveness and - rightly, in his situation - never sought to win the trust of the British. Mandela radiates a steady, honest authority which has tempted his enemies to risk putting their confidence in him. Simon Bolivar, the first man to win the title of 'liberator', conquered mostly by force of arms. Mandela, although he became the military leader of the ANC before his imprisonment, cannot claim that armed struggle overthrew white supremacy in South Africa. That was brought about by more than 40 years of civil resistance and the decision of the United States to apply terminal economic pressure to the apartheid regime.

Mandela does have some of the qualities of Thomas Masaryk, who brought the Czechs and Slovaks to independence in 1918. There is the same fanatical attachment to truth, as if freedom achieved by lies, bombast and deceit were not worth having. Liberty, to Mandela and Masaryk, is a clean thing which improves the soul if properly used: as Masaryk said to a Czech nation nervous about the prospect of independence, 'Don't be afraid - and don't steal]' But Masaryk's problem was to stiffen the national backbone, not to restrain millions of deprived and inexperienced people tormented by violence and dazzled by a vision of apocalyptic escape from poverty.

Above all, Masaryk did not spend 27 years in prison. Robben Island in a sense created Mandela, both as a personality and - on his emergence - as a political magnet which pulled the whole situation round into a new pattern. He was there so long that he came to dominate the prison, and it is not his smallest achievement that, as an old man, he was able to leave that tiny precinct of total predictability and order and enter the stormy, erratic world outside without cracking up. But, as Matthew Parris noted in the Times, the South African authorities did him an unwitting favour by keeping him off the scene for so long. Especially during the 1970s and early 1980s, the ANC and the rest of the resistance to the white regime were devastated by fierce internal quarrels and schisms. Mandela was spared all that. Instead, he and his prison comrades sank their differences and worked out a broad, ecumenical approach to the freedom struggle. Meanwhile, his name and his reputation rose slowly over all South Africa and the outside world like a moon. He became the leader, mighty through absence.

Old men who return to lead have a shaky record. Marshal Petain, Jozef Pilsudski and the Ayatollah Khomeini are discouraging examples. Archbishop Makarios and Charles de Gaulle did better. But Nelson Mandela, aged 71 when he was freed in 1990, turned out to have precisely the qualities which the historical moment demanded. His timing was faultless. He took command of his own captivity and delayed his release until President De Klerk met his conditions. He showed what was really taking place in South Africa: the captor was turning into the captive.

'We must develop absolute patience and the ability to understand the fears of others,' Mandela said the other day. But his success was knowing not only how to understand white fear but to manipulate it. The Nationalist Party were induced to transfer their fear from black majority rule to an even more terrifying prospect: the uncontrolled collapse of the unreformed South African system into chaos.

Mandela's relationship with De Klerk through the transition has been perfectly managed. A year ago, many people suspected that De Klerk was in control, stringing Mandela along while he engineered a civil war between the ANC and Inkatha which would preserve white supremacy for another generation. But Mandela called his bluff. His sudden outbursts of accusing anger, at once terrifying and well-calculated, brought the last white President to heel. His exchanges with De Klerk on television have grown almost comic. 'In spite of my criticisms of Mr De Klerk, Sir, you are one of those I rely on to face these problems together]'

'Thank you for those kind words, Mr Mandela . . .'

BLACK nationalism in British Africa always had a biblical quality. Those vast, faithful queues waiting to vote thought of themselves as the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea out of captivity. Mandela's mighty predecessor, Chief Albert Luthuli, had the massive simplicity of a prophet, sure that the Lord's covenant with his people would one day be fulfilled. Nelson Mandela is not quite the same kind of leader. He is not a religious man, but a man of action; at first a lawyer, then the military commander of armed struggle. He spreads about him, wherever he goes, the calming sense of an entirely good man, ascetic, without illusions, stoic about his age and the frailties of others - including his wife Winnie. The son of chiefs, he enjoys the special African prestige of an ancient. But he remains above all a politician. Beyond the Red Sea begins the journey to the Promised Land, which leads across a desert. President Mandela, like Moses, may not last the distance.

All through the last four years, he has fought to hold back the impatience and anger of his followers. At Katlehong township, the other day, the crowds shouted against his injunctions to non-

violence: 'The solution is peace, it is reconciliation, it is political tolerance.' When he beseeched them to go in peace to their Inkatha neighbours, they grew so angry that he had to fall back on the ultimate argument: 'Listen to me]

Do you want me to remain your leader?'

In the desert, when the new President seems to have moved away from his people and when the new houses and jobs and schools seem never to arrive, when white farmers stay immovably on the best land and the children of the poor continue to die of preventable diseases, the answer to his question may not always be yes. But Mandela knows this well. He was once a boxer - a good one, who still keeps his body spare and fit. He wrote (in this paper) that his hero was Muhammad Ali. On two grounds: that Ali did not let defeat break his spirit and came back, but also that he knew when to retire as the master, making way for others.

Nelson Mandela is where a man and a slogan meet. While he was kept on Robben Island, his name travelled all over the world as a hieroglyph meaning freedom. He was a street and a square in a dozen cities, a song in many languages, a bronze head on embankments, a block of flats, a T-shirt. Then an old, upright man with grey hair walked into the glorious Cape sunlight and began to speak: unhurriedly, in severe words. At first there was only the voice. Then the hieroglyph opened out into a message which has remained always the same: patience, discipline, reconciliation. The township banners cried 'The Time Is Now]', and his own time is short. But Mandela met South Africa's freedom at the right time, because he knew how to wait.