Magic man still at the top
LUCKILY the photographers and television camera crews fighting for elbow-room watched where they put their heavy boots and none of the children were trampled in the crush. President Nelson Mandela’s grey head disappeared from time to time as he stooped to bestow his trademark greeting: “Hello, how are you?”
South Africa’s president made his way slowly around the vast chamber hung with bunting, banners, flags and birthday cards, crunching spilled popcorn underfoot while his bodyguards flinched at every staccato pop of a balloon bursting.
Oblivious to the commercial hype that necessarily attends such affairs, Mandela’s eyes and greetings were only for the 1 000 or so ill children, many of them in wheelchairs or on crutches, whom he had invited to Cape Town to help him celebrate his 79th birthday this year.
As parents and their afflicted offspring jostled for position amid the surging pack of hacks, Mandela gave each child he greeted the kind of attention a visiting head of state would be flattered to receive.
For Rachel Boltney, in the wheelchair she has had to use since the stoep wall at her home fell on her and snapped her spine, it was “the best day of my life”. And Mandela, in his ineffable way, made it seem as though it was an extra special day in his.
There are not many world leaders who make a point of first greeting the waiters at official functions, before proceeding to the line of dignitaries. And while some heads of government might see the public relations pluses in throwing a birthday party for disadvantaged children, one can be sure the event would be overly stage-managed, with no chance of sticky fingers attaching themselves to the presidential tie. But then, Mandela is no ordinary world leader - and he doesn’t usually wear ties.
As he enters his 80th year, it is with the knowledge that in December, when the African National Congress meets for its 50th national conference in Mafikeng, he will hand over the presidency of the organisation to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.
Rumours that Mandela would also like to retire as head of the government before 1999 get short shrift from his representatives. In reality, however, he has already handed over much of the day-to-day business of running the government to Mbeki.
He still works at a pace so punishing that many CEOs wouldn’t survive, but the division of labour between his office and that of Mbeki has become more pronounced, with Mandela now the ultimate, rather than hands- on, authority.
This forms part of the ANC’s strategy to ensure a smooth transition and to counter the M-factor - the belief, widely held among foreign investors, that without Mandela’s glue the country would become badly unstuck.
The strategy kicked in soon after a dose of presidential sniffles in 1996 sent the rand into free-fall and has now achieved a momentum which sees Mbeki emerging with a greater profile, as a man with his own vision.
But Mandela is still the first call for ministers seeking advice or help in resolving a conflict, and it is still his office through which all decisions are processed, and will be until 1999, when he retires as president. He also still has the right (and it’s one he exercises) to intervene whenever he sees a problem - but the day-to-day meshing of politicians and departments is increasingly handled by Mbeki, whose office is expanding to cope with the extra workload.
Given that Mandela now functions more as chair of the board, with Mbeki managing the stresses and strains of being its chief executive, it is timely to reflect on the triumphs and failures of the three-and-a- half years Mandela has spent at the helm of the government.
His ability to inspire ordinary men and women with the belief that they can and should make a difference has given his presidency a lustre lesser politicians would kill for. But there is more to governing a country, particularly one as troubled as ours, than getting smeared with birthday cake.
When he took up the reins of power in 1994, the world was holding its breath, expecting the racial tensions splitting the country to explode into a bloodbath. Instead, the world witnessed a miracle.
Mandela’s achievement is colossal. Introspection can’t be said to be a South African characteristic, but casting the mind back to before 1994 is a salutary exercise, especially if one takes the time to imagine how badly things might have gone.
Even the National Party has found itself having to salute the role he played during negotiations, the respect and loyalty he evokes among the majority of South Africans, the effort he has put into nation-building and reconciling people across the thorny hedges of race, language and culture.
He has ensured a stable transition and shown an amazing capacity to take along with him a broad section of society, awakening a common patriotism and unity of purpose.
It is true that one still gets the dinner parties where the well-off whinge about rampant crime and declining standards, and shore up their analysis by asserting that nothing has changed for the majority of poor South Africans. But for the woman in the taxi shuttling between Khayelitsha and Cape Town, things are looking up.
Millions of people now, for the first time, have water laid on, and proper drains for sewage, and electricity. Legally and constitutionally, we have been through a revolution.
Mandela’s government inherited a civil service of 13 bulky fragments, which has been amalgamated, rationalised and reorganised into 11 different units, cutting across the boundaries of the past. Which is not to say that things are running smoothly - but what multi-national would manage a complete organisational restructuring and the infusion of a new organisational ethos in as brief a space of time?
Key to the way Mandela works is his grasp of presidential politics and statesmanship, and a deference to the democratic process that sees him conspicuously refraining from running kitchen Cabinets - informal inner circles of enormous power.
Year one saw him raising the curtain on South Africa’s brave new world, with his hand outstretched in particular to embittered whites. Year two saw him spelling out the way forward, putting flesh on the bones of a macro-economic strategy. This year he’s delivered the equivalent of the chair of the board’s annual report, telling the country how the government is doing in a refreshingly frank assessment (making progress, but must try harder).
But there have been hiccups. Loyalty to old friends has seen him fending off brickbats from the opposition, hurled in response to his invitation to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the interview he granted the controversial American Muslim leader, Louis Farrakhan, who has referred to Adolf Hitler as “a great man” and to Jews as “bloodsuckers”.
Closer to home, his determination to stand by Minister of Health Dr Nkosazana Zuma at the height of the scandal concerning R14- million squandered on an Aids musical that sent the wrong message laid him open to allegations of cronyism.
His silence on the ANC’s denial that hotel magnate Sol Kerzner had given the party R2- million for its election coffers also raised questions about his judgment; it took 80 days before he confirmed the donation had been made.
He exhibited extreme loyalty to the Taiwanese, who also helped the ANC fill its election coffers, when every sane analysis of the Two Chinas dilemma pointed to the inevitability of South Africa having to recognise the mainland.
Foreign affairs have proved marshy terrain. Links with Indonesia - a country with an appalling human rights record that stands accused of genocide in East Timor - have raised questions about Mandela’s commitment to human rights. And he found himself out on a limb in Africa when other leaders on the continent refused to back his call for sanctions against Nigeria in the wake of the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa.
Back home, there was the furore sparked by his assertion that senior black journalists functioned as lackeys for the white owners of their newspapers, furiously disputed by the journalists themselves.
At the same time, ANC MPs in Parliament were expressing growing concern with his leadership style, citing mismanagement of crises (the Zuma scandal and the Bantu Holomisa affair), a consolidation of central authority and a clampdown on dissent.
Kaizer Nyatsumba, The Star’s political editor at the time, wrote: “The truth, at last, is out, and it is frightening: our saintly emperor has no clothes! He publicly hurls insults at black journalists critical of him and his government; he summons a black editor to his organisation’s head office to remonstrate with him; he makes much of his commitment to collective leadership, but rules his organisation with an iron fist, with people who do not agree with him falling out of favour.”
But if Mandela had given a hint of the iron fist beneath the velvet glove, he later confounded his critics by giving a remarkably frank assessment of where the ANC had gone wrong, detailing the organisation’s shortcomings not only as a political movement, but as the majority party in the government.
In a speech marking the ANC’s anniversary celebrations at the beginning of the year, he said the ANC was far too concerned with denying it had made any mistakes and too reluctant to move to put things rights - and he urged a return to the “culture of democracy and debate” within the ANC.
He also appealed to ANC officials and public representatives to focus more on people on the ground, allowing time to hear their concerns - in a bid to close the worrying gap opening up between the governors and the governed.
A dramatic slump in ANC membership and survey results showing voters’ mounting unhappiness probably prompted his frank talk - but Mandela didn’t take the gap most favoured by political leaders, which is to hang the blame on a scapegoat.
When he sets aside his prepared script and talks off the cuff, his aides hold their collective breath. But Mandela’s frankness is one reason most South Africans have taken him to their hearts: they can trust him because he speaks from the heart.
His tireless efforts at spreading the word of reconciliation now focus less on reassuring ethnic minorities and more on the recognition that there are good men and women in the country who, while they may not share political philosophies, can yet work together - providing the rules of the game are clearly drawn and adhered to.
Mandela has set the tone and the rules for playing the game in the new South Africa. Peace is breaking out in KwaZulu-Natal; Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi has been corralled by recognition of his abilities, marked by his regular swearing-in as the country’s deputy president.
For Mandela, the focus now is less on averting a racial war, more on promoting national unity and purpose.
Managing the transition saw Mandela really worried at one stage about the focus being on him and him alone. He was perturbed that he was seen as the sole key to continued stability and that if he were to resign, or die, the country would disappear under a tide of dissension. He’s putting a lot of energy into demonstrating that the new government is competent, that policies are in place - and he is consciously promoting his succession.
There have been exposes of corruption, there has been some bullying, there have been ethnic squabbles, but generally the country has had an extremely smooth ride.
The reason for this lies with Mandela, a leader with an extremely strong will. Nobody thinks of him as a benign despot (especially not those who have seen him lose his temper). But, at the same time, his graciousness and sheer generosity of spirit have ensured for him a place in the hearts of most South Africans.