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

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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.

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