Mandela united a nation seeking national pride
An extract from ‘Opposite Mandela, Encounters with South Africa’s icon’ by Tony Leon. Published by Jonathan Ball Publishers
APART from leaving most of the old order generals of the security establishment in their police and military posts – initially at least, and with ANC understudies who were intended to replace them – Mandela also lavished great attention and care on my parliamentary neighbour, General Constand Viljoen, leader of the right-wing Freedom Front.
Viljoen, white-haired and with piercing blue eyes, cut a physically compact figure.
In stark contrast to my own undistinguished and compulsory career, post-school, as a conscript in the army, Viljoen had been described both by admiring colleagues and by subordinates as “a soldier’s soldier”; he rose to the very top of the military machine under president PW Botha, ultimately serving as Chief of the SA Defence Force.
During South Africa’s military incursion into Angola at the height of the first phase of its civil war in 1975-1976, Viljoen’s hands-on military leadership – parachuting into battle with his troops during Operation Savannah – won him widespread admiration across all ranks.
After Viljoen retired from military service in 1985, his farming ventures were constantly interrupted by calls on him to lead a right-wing resistance to the reformist agenda being pursued by government. During the negotiations process inaugurated by FW de Klerk, the pressure on Viljoen intensified. He was a far more credible leader for the forces of Afrikaner reaction than the brutal and buffoonish AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche or the dour parliamentary leadership of the Conservative Party, and posed a much more serious danger to the incipient and fragile democratic order than any other figure on the rejectionist landscape.
In the tumultuous final year of negotiations in 1993, he had, with other white rightists and black homeland holdouts, including Mangosuthu Buthelezi, joined in the “Freedom Alliance”.
But his brief leadership of paramilitaries in the failed Bophuthatswana invasion convinced him that, to adapt Churchill’s phrase, “jaw jaw is better than war war”. Or, as he more earthly and colloquially, described his last-minute decision to lead a political formation in the 1994 elections, the Freedom Front: “As hulle kan veg vir Suid-Afrika, kan hulle stem vir Suid-Afrika” (If they can fight for South Africa, they can vote for South Africa).
Viljoen’s iconic status on the white right in fact saw his new movement nose ahead of the Democratic Party in the election and he led a party of nine MPs. We were seated next to each other on the parliamentary front benches reserved for leaders of smaller parties. We also shared accommodation on the fifth floor of the parliamentary building reserved for the opposition.
In the ensuing seven years, until he quit politics in 2001, I got to know Viljoen and his delightful and devoted wife, Risti, quite well. He was charming and humorous and, like Nelson Mandela, very secure in his own skin. He too was constantly singled out by the president for compliments and chats; perhaps more than many other figures then in politics, he had lessened the thunder of violent reaction by the disaffected right.
Viljoen, quite one of the most genuine and unlikely figures I ever encountered in the world of politics, was sincere when he spoke of “the great mutual trust and regard” between Mandela and himself.
I was never much troubled by the, on occasion, bareknuckled response some of my and the party’s critique of ANC governance received from Mandela in comparison to his relatively benign responses to the Freedom Front’s often more robust assessments of government missteps. But the difference in treatment did concern some in my ranks.
During a visit to Mandela’s home on one occasion, I was accompanied by close friend and senior party official Cecil Bass, who remained silent during my fairly lengthy interaction with the president until, towards the end of our discussion, he asked Mandela: “Why are you so soft on Viljoen and yet sometimes so critical of the Democratic Party?” Mandela responded: “I believe that Viljoen saved South Africa from a civil war by his lastminute agreement to participate in the 1994 elections. I am extremely grateful to him and that is why I am so gentle in my responses to him.”
Yet, as he so often made clear in our discussions, Viljoen drew a sharp distinction between his admiration for Mandela and his fundamental disagreement with the ANC. As a political tactician, he was not as astute as he had been as a battlefield commander; while he earned a very respectful hearing from the normally restive ANC ranks in Parliament, not a single suggestion he made in debate was ever acted upon.
Hundreds of stories from enthralled, and mostly ordinary, South Africans attested to (and were breathlessly reported by an admiring and largely uncritical media) the potency of the “Madiba magic”. This became the catch-all moniker for Mandela’s surefooted, feel-good touch that seemed to embrace the entire nation. He proudly boasted to me one Sunday, during a visit to his Houghton home, that he had been “out and about” recruiting members for the ANC for the forthcoming local government election. “And”, he proclaimed, “I signed up 127 of them this morning!”
Given that the area had been my political constituency for some years and was regarded as an opposition stronghold, I found this disclosure somewhat discomforting, as Mandela doubtless intended it to be. All I could think of to counter him with was the rejoinder, “Well, who can say ‘No’ to you, Mr President? But, on election day, they will still vote for us!” Happily, the large majority achieved by the DP candidate against Mandela’s man a few weeks later confirmed my prediction.
But it was on June 24, 1995, in the high citadel of South African rugby, the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, that I witnessed for myself, from a capacity-packed stand far above the field, the moment when Nelson Mandela irrevocably won the heart of white South Africa. By appearing on the field in a Springbok cap and the national squad’s green-and-gold jersey, bearing the captain’s number 6, Mandela not only earned a roaring ovation from the overwhelmingly white crowd, but also almost certainly helped edge the team to an against-the-odds victory, achieved with a heart-stopping drop goal in extra time, against the more fancied New Zealand All Blacks. South Africa had won its first-ever Rugby World Cup, and Mandela had grafted the most cherished symbol of white, and especially Afrikaner, sporting passion on to his equally cherished nationbuilding project with quite spectacular results.
Appropriately, since he was certainly one of the most gifted and courageous journalists to have covered South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, John Carlin – who later became a good family friend of ours – decided to write a book about that World Cup epiphany, Playing the Enemy, which was made into the movie Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, some years later.
When the film was premiered in 2009/2010, I had recently been appointed as South African ambassador to Argentina – the only country in the entire Americas where rugby, played at an internationally competitive level, has a mass following. We thus arranged for one of the Springbok heroes of the 1995 squad, Joost van der Westhuizen, the winning scrum-half, to do the honours at the embassy’s movie night.
Interestingly, he assured the audience that “90 percent of what you see in the film and the huge role which Mandela played behind the scenes actually happened”.
There is one piece of dialogue in the movie – whether sexed up by a Hollywood scriptwriter or based on original sources is unknown – which distilled the essence of Mandela’s selfappointed task as builder of a new nation, and why he was uniquely equipped for the role.
Mandela, played on screen by Morgan Freeman (a very impressive cinematic doppelgänger), is seen engaging with the national sports committee, which is keen on dumping both the Springbok name and emblem, precisely because both were so cherished by those the ANC-aligned committee saw as the white overlords of the apartheid era. Mandela/Freeman rejects the decision, noting: “That is selfish thinking; it does not serve the nation.”
Then, facing the camera, and presumably speaking to South Africa’s whites, he says: “We have to surprise them with our restraint and generosity.”
This “restraint and generosity” would be much required in the period following the rugby triumph, as the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – headed by the only other South African who approximated Mandela’s moral stature, Archbishop Desmond Tutu – exposed both in detail and with some selectivity, the horrors of the country’s human rights transgressions.
MADIBA MAGIC: Tony Leon with Nelson Mandela
GENUINE: Constand Viljoen was a ‘soldier’s soldier’.
WINNERS: Springbok captain Francios Pienaar receives the Rugby World Cup from President Nelson Mandela.