The man who kept im­pend­ing chaos at bay

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - TOM CLIF­FORD The au­thor is a se­nior copy ed­i­tor of China Daily.

They were fear­ful days in 1992 and 1993. Nel­son Man­dela was free but not elected. Apartheid had been scrapped, the 8 pm bull­horn telling blacks to get off the ur­ban streets had been si­lenced, but civil war seemed a real pos­si­bil­ity. Guns were on the streets. At the Star news­pa­per where I worked in Jo­han­nes­burg, an empty desk sug­gested not some­one pulling a “sickie” but a prob­a­ble vic­tim of vi­o­lence. Be­fore mo­bile phones were ubiq­ui­tous, if some­one was miss­ing from work, it was pre­sumed that they had been mugged, or worse. There was a pro­ce­dure. Col­leagues and the HR depart­ment would ring friends to check. Then hos­pi­tals. Then the po­lice.

Vi­o­lence was ran­dom and com­mon. A taxi driver, drop­ping me off at Sauer Street where the Star news­pa­per was lo­cated, pulled out a gun as some black pedes­tri­ans were cross­ing the road. He shouted in­sults at them as they crossed. But the days when blacks were sim­ply in­tim­i­dated were thank­fully draw­ing to a close. They too had guns, and pointed them at the driver. This was lunchtime, broad day­light. I begged and pleaded with the driver to put his weapon down.

From my desk by a win­dow, I saw three peo­ple killed in four at­tempted bank rob­beries over a pe­riod of two years. The ex­treme right wing group, the so-called Afrikaner Re­sis­tance Move­ment, known as the AWB, had sup­port among the mil­i­tary top brass. Ru­mors of mil­i­tary ac­tion against the “be­tray­ing” de Klerk gov­ern­ment were con­stant.

The black com­mu­nity was also deeply di­vided, with mil­i­tant Zu­lus in Natal tak­ing up arms against the African Na­tional Congress.

The tec­tonic po­lit­i­cal plates were shift­ing against each other.

I rented a house in Orange Grove. All the other houses on the street had been bro­ken into. Walk­ing with my part­ner one day, I saw a man across the street.

“Look,’’ I said, “he has a shirt just like mine.” “Tom, let’s talk,” my part­ner said. Ap­par­ently, when I was work­ing nights, Ni­amh, my part­ner, was as­sist­ing the lo­cal black com­mu­nity, giv­ing them clothes, tea and food. We had no weapons in our house, not even a phone. We found out later that in­struc­tions had been given not to touch the house of the woman “who gave out clothes”.

Then Chris Hani was shot on Satur­day, April 10, 1993. It was one of those days when the glo­ri­ous weather seemed to mock the con­cerns of mere mor­tals. Surely some­thing this grotesque could not hap­pen on such a day. Hani was the leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Na­tion, the armed wing of the African Na­tional Congress. He was young and charis­matic, ex­tremely ap­proach­able and was spo­ken of as a fu­ture pres­i­dent.

On that April morn­ing, a Pol­ish im­mi­grant as­sas­si­nated him, but an Afrikaner woman helped po­lice cap­ture him.

The af­ter­noon and early evening of that ter­ri­ble Satur­day, South Africa seemed des­tined for civil war. The nor­mally busy streets of Jo­han­nes­burg were quiet. Peo­ple were sub­dued. News re­ports said that Nel­son Man­dela would make a tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion. It al­ready seemed too late to save the day.

But the words Man­dela spoke that night on TV helped haul the coun­try back from the abyss.

“Tonight I am reach­ing out to ev­ery sin­gle South African, black and white, from the very depths of my be­ing. A white man, full of prej­u­dice and hate, came to our coun­try and com­mit­ted a deed so foul that our whole na­tion now teeters on the brink of dis­as­ter. A white woman, of Afrikaner ori­gin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to jus­tice, this as­sas­sin. The cold-blooded mur­der of Chris Hani has sent shock waves through­out the coun­try and the world ... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand to­gether against those who, from any quar­ter, wish to de­stroy what Chris Hani gave his life for — the free­dom of all of us.’’

Those words, pre­cious words, gave South Africa time. Just over a year later, South Africa elected an ANC gov­ern­ment.

Some months af­ter the TV ad­dress, I had the honor of meet­ing Man­dela, briefly. Ir­ish jour­nal­ist Mag­gie O’Kane was giv­ing a speech at Wit­wa­ter­srand Univer­sity. One of the bravest and most in­sight­ful jour­nal­ists of her gen­er­a­tion, her re­ports from Sara­jevo cap­tured the tor­ment of the for­mer Yu­goslavia as it dis­in­te­grated. Now she was ad­dress­ing an au­di­ence at Jo­han­nes­burg’s top univer­sity, a bas­tion of Afrikaner ed­u­ca­tion. The com­par­isons were ob­vi­ous. South Africa too seemed close to break­ing up.

Af­ter she spoke, Man­dela, who had just turned 75, got up to speak, praised her work and high­lighted the chal­lenges fac­ing his coun­try. Then in a mo­ment of spon­tane­ity, the au­di­ence sang Happy Birth­day. Af­ter­ward, he min­gled, chat­ting, laugh­ing, giv­ing hope. Peo­ple pa­tiently queued to shake his hand, to be in his grace­ful pres­ence. His se­cu­rity de­tail were ner­vous, eye­ing ev­ery­one, ready to in­ter­vene at the slight­est hint of trou­ble. We shook hands. I tried to say how much I ad­mired him, to thank him. But my words came gush­ing out. I made lit­tle sense. As the crowd pressed ever closer, his min­ders were grow­ing vis­i­bly edgy. He was still shak­ing hands as his guards ush­ered the man who kept chaos at bay into the Jo­han­nes­burg night.

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