Nelson Mandela: my life

Fifty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the President of South Africa talks to John Carlin about reconciliation

John Carlin
Sunday 06 December 1998 01:02 GMT

Nelson Mandela has the most famous smile on earth. Since his release from prison on 11 February 1990, a million photographs have captured that frank expression of pure delight. But when you sit before him, his face is a stony mask. The eyes are fixed on a far distant place, the lips are pursed obdurately tight. His head is as motionless and solemn as a Roman emperor's bust.

You are intimidated. You cannot tell if he is paying any attention to your question at all. But at another, more profoundly disconcerting level you are intimidated by the sense that you are addressing yourself to a monument, an image of eternity - a sense deepened by your certain knowledge that the man before you is the moral colossus of our age.

Mandela is listening, however. With immense relief you discover, when you have finished your babbling inquiry, that what passed for the abstraction of a statue was a study in concentration so absolute that a bomb could have gone off and he would not have blinked.

He talks with animation, gesticulating with his hands, his eyes opening wide to emphasise what he considers to be a great truth, almost shutting altogether when he seeks to stress a fine argumentative point. And while the expectation might be that at eighty years, and towards the end of a uniquely arduous life, his faculties might have waned just a touch, he speaks with force, clarity and a remarkable grasp of detail, both historic and contemporary.

He smiled once during our one-hour conversation in his lavish presidential residence on a Pretoria hillside, once the bastion of imperial white rule. He chuckled, as if telling a joke against himself, when he recalled reading the "disturbing" news, during the famous Rivonia Trial of 1964, that he might be sentenced not to life in prison, as turned out to be the case, but to death by hanging.

Otherwise he was serious throughout, for the subject at hand was not one that admits of pleasantries. It concerned the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose spirit he embodies more than anyone else alive. In October this year he displayed his fidelity to that spirit, in particular to his passion for justice and the rule of law, when he opposed his own party, the African National Congress (ANC), and expressed vocal support for the work of South Africa's remarkable Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission spent three years investigating 31,000 cases of human rights abuses during the apartheid years and came up in October with a report a million words long which will go down - fittingly on this 50th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration - as one of the century's most remarkable documents.

When the ANC, the organisation to which he has remained studiously loyal all his political life, challenged the report in court, seeking to block its publication, Mandela did not hesitate to disagree publicly, seeing in the work of the TRC a necessary exercise in catharsis whose value to the nation exceeded any narrow party political interests.

Then, since the report's publication, voices within his own party and beyond have called for the government to ignore the TRC's recommendation that charges be brought against suspected perpetrators of human rights abuses who refused to appear before the commission and confess. Those voices have called for a general amnesty to be granted, a call that Mandela himself - in this interview - flatly rejected.

Carlin: The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was announced to the world in 1948. In South Africa, in that same year, the National Party came to power and, under the label "apartheid", set about converting racism into law. Did this United Nations document make any impact on you at the time?

Mandela: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was given wide publicity, and especially in view of the policy of South Africa because the National Party government came to power only three years after the end of the Second World War - a war which was fought in order to destroy fascism and it is a war that raised the expectations of blacks - especially in this country - that their participation against an evil which emphasised racial superiority and the atrocities committed against the Jews, that now this would lead to changes in our own country. It was also a time of decolonisation, and these expectations were therefore very high. Now we remembered that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as against that background, especially because of the contribution that was made by India. The ink was hardly dry on the new Constitution of that country, when it took up the question of the treatment of the people of Indian origin in South Africa, and later expanded it to deal with all the people who were suffering under apartheid. It was through India's intervention that we became aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But mainly because the world was now moving forward towards a new dispensation, where the ethnic factors would not be emphasised, where people would be treated as equal. Meanwhile South Africa was taking a step backwards. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights became a bible which we quoted in order to condemn the policies of apartheid.

You mentioned India. Now in those early days of your political life you were known to have a very Africanist position and to not be at all sympathetic to the idea of non-Africans participating in the liberation struggle. Weren't you being a little bit inconsistent with the Declaration of Human Rights?

Well, it was partly a question of lack of political maturity, especially because the Indian community consisted of people who were absolutely outstanding in their ability and they had more resources than we had. I said that it would be a mistake for us to join hands with them because they would immediately take command and our own contribution would not be seen or heard. But at the time I was also in contact with very outstanding Indian intellectuals with whom I had many debates. I soon realised that, no, my views were wrong, because the important thing was not the colour of a man, but the ideals for which he stood. They engaged you as an individual and said, "We are fighting racial oppression. Why should we be fighting among ourselves. What have you got against us?" They were very clever in that way because then I had no pavilion, because when you are attacked among people, you want to defend yourself, but when you are alone and somebody says to you "Look we are fighting against the same evil against which you are fighting, what have you got against us?" you are absolutely disarmed. They eventually convinced me that my line was wrong, and I had to go back to my organisation to say, let's examine our stand.

Where would you put apartheid in the scale of twentieth century atrocities?

With the exception of the atrocities against the Jews, during the Second World War, there is no evil which has been condemned by the entire world as unanimously as apartheid has. And it became worse when a community - a minority which decided to suppress the overwhelming majority of the country - used the name of God to justify the commission of evil against the majority of the people. I don't think in modern times there is anything which has aroused so much revulsion as apartheid, with the exception of the atrocities, as I say, committed against the Jews.

However, there is a nuance here in the sense that in terms of actual, physical human rights abuses, as opposed to the institutional phenomenon of apartheid, the experience of South Africa was not as terrible as it was, to take examples from recent history, in the countries of Latin America like Chile, like El Salvador, like Argentina.

You can't say so in the light of the revelations before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have unearthed the graves where people were slaughtered simply because they dared to oppose white supremacy; men, women, children, the aged. One person killed is one too many. But if you listen now to the atrocities that were committed here against innocent individuals you will not make that distinction. It was horrible, and this is only part of the story. To a lot of people a lot of suffering was imposed and sometimes the actual physical assault is not as serious as the psychological oppression black people endured under apartheid. It is a psychological torment which is beyond words. You cannot describe it.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has spoken much of the value of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in terms of cleansing, purging. How do you understand that?

I think that we must regard the healing of the South African nation as a process, not as an event, and that the TRC has contributed magnificently to that process because the families of the victims of these atrocities now know what happened to their beloved, and some of them have been magnanimous in the sense that they have listened to the confessions of the agents of apartheid, and said "we excuse you". And of course there were those who were so bitter that they cannot forget the pain of having lost their beloved ones. But I think, generally speaking, the TRC has done a magnificent job and that helped us to move away from the past to concentrate on the present and the future. Desmond Tutu has done a remarkable job, even with all the imperfections of the TRC.

It seems to many people around the world that the TRC's report is, as you say, magnificent. But in South Africa there is talk in the air of the possibility of a general, of a blanket, amnesty. Is this an issue on which you are prepared to comment?

No, that debate is futile. Because we have already gone into this question and dismissed it. During one of the very first cabinet meetings of our government we discovered that [former president FW] De Klerk had given about 3,000 members of the security police blanket amnesty for what they had done. We said we are going to cancel that general amnesty. Everybody must apply for amnesty as an individual. According to the instructions of the TRC we said everyone must state what crime he had committed and we would then decide whether to grant amnesty to that person, and I say, you can't now change mid-stream. All of them must apply as individuals, and there is no question, as far as I am concerned, of a general amnesty. I will resist that with every power that I have. We cannot have that. Everybody must apply.

Now the TRC has proposed that certain people who haven't come forward should be prosecuted. But don't the political realities complicate the search for justice?

Well, you know, as a movement, when we were fighting for liberation, all that we were required to do was to mobilise the masses of our country, and to make a concentrated attack on white supremacy. But as a government we have taken a different attitude. We now have a constitution which enshrines the rule of law where everybody is subject to the constitution. Not only that, we have taken steps to ensure that this is not just an ordinary piece of paper that can be torn up at any time. We have made it a living document. We have created structures so that even the government, when it does not like something, is bound by the constitution. We have got the Public Protector to whom any citizen who is aggrieved can go and complain and seek relief. We have the Human Rights Commission, composed of the most outstanding South Africans, including people like Helen Suzman. Above all we have the Constitutional Court, which has over-ridden, for example, decisions of the government. You know that Parliament gave me power to issue a proclamation about the elections in the Western Cape, which is a province ruled by the National Party. Hernus Kriel, the premier, took me to the constitutional court. The constitutional court overruled my action and within an hour I made a public statement to say that the constitutional court is the final arbiter on constitutional matters. "They faced a difficult matter; they have taken a decision unanimously. It is our duty to respect that decision." And I called upon the country, especially my followers, to give an example of how to obey the institutions that we have set up under the constitution.

Secondly, a judge subpoenaed me to go to court. There was opposition from our people - members of the cabinet, my legal advisers - that legally I could stop my appearance in court, but I said "No, let's not do that. Let's do it the other way. Let's obey the institutions that we have set up. I can take care of myself outside and inside court." I did the right thing. I obeyed the judge's decision even though we had serious reservations about it. We obeyed it because we wanted to establish the rule of law. We have done that, and therefore we have no problems at all about obeying the decisions of the TRC because it is also one of the institutions which we have set up. We can't set up an institution and then defy it, and the action of the ANC, by the way, was no defiance. Anybody is entitled to go to court when he feels that his rights have been violated. The opposition has gone to the constitutional court to block some of the bills and legislation that were passed in Parliament. Some they have lost. Other times they have won. Nobody blames them for going to court to seek relief. That is what the ANC did. That action shows that the ANC regards itself as separate from the government. They issued a statement. I issued a different one in my capacity as the president of the country. Again, the ANC did not seek to burn that report which shows how even-handed they are, however much they may be criticised for going to court. So the TRC is a respected institution and the men and women in that body did a marvellous job under difficult circumstances. We must respect all of them without exception for what they have done for the country.

In Britain, when Robin Cook came into office in Tony Blair's new government, he said he was going to launch what he called an "ethical foreign policy". I am sure that you would very much like to consider South Africa as also having an ethical foreign policy, abiding by the Universal Declaration. But certain national concerns sometimes muddy the waters, such as the need for trade and foreign investment. What are your thoughts on that dilemma.

I don't think it is a dilemma. You know when I went to the United States for the first time, George Bush and I addressed the press after we met - we addressed the press, and he then said "I don't see why you should work with countries like Cuba and Libya. Secondly, I don't see why you should use violence." In regard to the question of violence I said "The history of the world shows that methods of political action that are used by the oppressed are determined by the oppressor. If the oppressor, say, the apartheid regime in our case, used dialogue and persuasion and criticism, the oppressed people would never think of resorting to violence. They would use the same methods in order to solve their problems. But where the oppressor closes all channels of communications, of expression, and tightens oppression and uses violence, they are saying to the oppressed, 'if you want to change your position, if you want to overthrow white supremacy, use the same methods that we are using'." And I say that is the lesson of history. That is the lesson of the United States of America, of their history. And I say as far as Cuba and Libya are concerned, no freedom fighter with any principles would work with, and receive support from allies, when he was all alone in the darkest hour of his struggle, and then, on the eve of victory, dump his allies on the advice of the friends of the enemy. You, yourself, would never trust me if I could do that, because I would do that to you. I dismiss that. I reject that. My friends are my friends whether I am a freedom fighter or in government. I have got morals. I will not do that. And I have told the United States of America when they protested against my going to Libya, I said they can withdraw their aid. No country, no matter how powerful, is going to dictate my foreign policy. My foreign policy is determined by the past; the relations I have had with the country, the contributions that they have made to our struggle. I will not now desert them simply because those South Africans who have been on the opposite side now feel I should not have any relations with countries like Libya. I will not do that. Your foreign affairs are determined by the relations between you and that particular country in the past and the present. And you look at it from your own interest, the interest of your own country. Cuba has helped us tremendously in the struggle. And now they are helping us by training our people in various fields. They are sending doctors to this country. Why should I break my relations with them? I will not!

The United Nations recently approved by a vast majority of votes the creation of a new body, the International Criminal Court, to pursue human rights abusers around the world. Now, interestingly, the United States was among those which voted against.


I wonder if you would like to venture any thoughts on this seeming contradiction, given what the United States believes it stands for?

Well, you see, there are countries, rightly or wrongly, that want to control international bodies. An international criminal court of justice, if it is going to get approval from various states before it functions ... that would be to kill it. That is why the attitude of the United States was rejected. We were in the forefront of opposing that, saying that the court must be totally independent of control by any country if it is going to carry out its duties. And we succeeded. Now, I like to maintain harmonious relations with all countries, including the United States of America, especially because of the contribution by President Clinton himself. Before he became president I interacted with him in a number of respects and he helped me tremendously. He has changed the face of American politics. He has the support of blacks, minority groups, women, the disabled, and that's something new in the history of the United States of America. And I like him, I respect him, but I will not allow the United States of America to dictate our foreign policy.

When you came out of prison, South Africa, like the United States, was high up on the international league of legal executioners. When you came into power one of the first things you did was to abolish the death penalty. But in light of the high crime rate in South Africa there are people, even within your own organisation, who mutter about restoring the death penalty in order to combat crime more effectively. What is your position on this issue?

I am totally against the death sentence, because it is a reflection of the animal instinct still in human beings. There is no evidence that the death penalty anywhere has brought down the level of crime. What brings down the level of crime is the knowledge, on the part of criminals, that if I commit an offence I will end up in jail. In other words, an efficient police system with the capacity to detect crime, that is what is required. And that is why we have taken steps to improve the capacity of our police force. We have invoked the assistance of the FBI, of the British Foreign Service. We have established a detective academy - something unknown in the history of our country - to upgrade the capacity of our detectives to detect crime. That is why we have brought down the level of bank robberies, for example. The capacity of our police force is improving every day and so the death penalty is not the answer. This is also linked to the history of our country. Because the death sentence has been used as an excuse to slaughter human beings in this country because it applied most to blacks and did not affect whites to any large scale.

But it did very nearly apply to you...

Yes, I know. You know, there was nothing as disturbing as to read in the newspaper an editorial in the Rand Daily Mail during the Rivonia trial, which said Africans have no leaders: "Chief Luthuli is banned and confined to his area. The leader of the PAC, Robert Sobukwe, is in jail. Sisulu and Mandela are facing a capital charge and they might be hanged." [Here he chuckled.] There was that aspect, but nevertheless, I don't think we will gain anything by bringing the death sentence back. At the back of the minds of the white minority - although there are some blacks who support it - is the idea that the death sentence is going to be used against blacks, not really against whites. Because that is the tradition of the country, even if it is one that we have put behind us now.

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