/ 27 February 2024

Mandela and De Klerk: South Africa’s first election debate

Nelson Mandela Conversing With President F.w. De Klerk
Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk at peace signing ceremony during pre-election violence. Former President of South Africa and longtime political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was held by the Candela based government from 1964-1990 for sabotage. With the coming of a freer political climate, Mandela was released from his life sentence at Victor Vester Prison on February 11, 1990. (Photo by © Louise Gubb/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images)

On 14 April 1994, some 10 days before South Africa’s hugely anticipated first democratic election, Nelson Mandela, and FW de Klerk participated in a historic, 70-minute debate that was televised on the national broadcaster, radio stations and on a host of news networks around the world. 

This debate outlining the parameters of South Africa’s government of national unity and plans for a democratic future was an incredible political spectacle. Remarkably, Mandela, now 71, and limited in his exposure to this medium, having been released from prison only four years prior, undertook to challenge De Klerk on a live television forum drawing on his soaring levels of popularity and impeccable leadership credentials.

Mandela and De Klerk embodied the weight of a peculiar and almost incredulous historical moment. African and Afrikaner nationalism had converged to reach an extraordinary political settlement, ushering a transition towards a new democratic birth. In Mandela’s autobiographical writings he narrates in striking detail the significance of this debate in the final chapter on South Africa’s Long Walk to Freedom. Somewhat self-consciously, Mandela refers to himself as a “fair debater” since his early days as a student at Fort Hare University. These “debating skills”, he suggests, were further sharpened in the lime quarries of Robben Island where he participated in countless discussions while undertaking gruelling labour as a political prisoner. But a debate of this sort was something quite different. 

Mandela, however, was not overconfident, acknowledging that he received little formal coaching. In a somewhat self-flagellating moment, Mandela admits to being admonished by his campaign advisers at a mock-debate conducted a day earlier for “speaking too slowly” and “not aggressively enough”. Ostensibly, the political stakes were high as the country edged nervously on the precipice of an uncertain future. Key issues of socio-economic significance would lay to bear the structural and political cleavages of South Africa’s transition. Yet, the actual debate demonstrated Mandela’s formidable presidential demeanour. 

After an opening statement laying out his political mandate, which he described as representing the collective aspirations and struggles of millions of South Africans “who made democracy a reality” and who “inspired” him during his 27-year incarceration, Mandela shifts to the major national issues facing South Africa. He marshals a firm attack against his interlocutor on a range of issues.

Notably, in his writings Mandela singles out the National Party’s divisiveness in “fanning race hatred” and De Klerk’s critiques of the “ANC’s plan to spend billions of dollars on housing and social programmes”. Mandela was unapologetic of his future government’s plan to devote resources in addressing the reconstruction and development of the black majority. De Klerk’s criticisms of these plans, Mandela retorts, constitute “the reply of a man who is not used to addressing the basic needs of the majority of the population, whose government is committed to a small minority”. 

In a final act of statesmanship, Mandela ends the debate in a conciliatory tone, stating that these heated exchanges should not obscure one important fact about the miracle of this transition to democracy: “We are going to face the problem of this country together.” At this point Mandela reaches over and offers his hand as a gesture of goodwill. De Klerk, Mandela recounts, “seemed surprised, but pleased”.

Mandela’s humility and firm resolve are disarming political characteristics, indeed, rare qualities in a world of political showmanship. Intriguingly, 30 years later, with its political freedom more certain, South Africans will decide whether a return to power-sharing governments is the future for its hard-won democracy.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International Fellow at SOAS, University of London, working on a new book project on black intellectual history in South Africa. Her book draws from the anti-apartheid archives in South Africa and across the world.