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Dare Not Linger: The presidential years by Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa

02 March 2018

John D. Davies looks at what it took to put South Africa in order

NELSON MANDELA planned to publish a memoir of his years as first President of a democratic South Africa. It was to be entitled The Presidential Years. He wrote, and rewrote, several chapters, but he was not able to complete the project. This book, Dare Not Linger, has been compiled from his drafts, supplemented from the text of many of his speeches, in parliament and around the world. The editing has been done brilliantly: the book flows clearly and with very little sense of scissors-and-paste.

The book is not a chronological history; nor is it, in the usual sense of the word, biography: there is hardly any reference to Mandela’s personal or private life. Mandela’s intention was to give an account of his presidential years in the form of a series of reports concerning the sectors of responsibility which his office required him to fulfil.

The overwhelming impression is of the huge task that his government had to undertake. There could be no neat transition from an old administration to a new. Every sector of the inherited administration was vitiated by the toxic ideology of apartheid; every sector had to be recreated from top to bottom; and there was very little resource of experienced staff to call on for servicing a new ideal.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was one of the great achievements of his time in office. That is known around the world. It was made possible by the availability of Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine to conduct it. That Commission is indeed featured in the book; but it occupies only about half the amount of space that is given to the reconstituting of the police and security institutions of the new State. That is a measure of the scale of the new administration’s task. It had to pass more than 500 new laws during Mandela’s presidency. About 800 executive orders were handled each year.

Mandela knew that he was accountable to the whole population, to those who had been enfranchised in the past and those for whom democracy was a new world. But he also knew that he owed his place as President to his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC); that constituency had a right to monitor his agenda and identify his priorities. He was the ANC’s servant; but he was also able to insist on his own authority as President.

Further, Mandela was determined that his government should be by consensus rather than by victory in adversarial combat. He believed that to create peace you had to work with your enemy. That required long and tortuous negotiation with, for instance, his Deputy President, ex-President F. W. de Klerk.

British readers might ponder the even more difficult negotiation with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the InKhatha Freedom Party, based in kwaZulu. For nearly 30 years, Buthelezi had been seen as a unique figure of integrity and political skill, the only leader of an authorised tribal authority who had not become a mere stooge of the apartheid regime. A leading layman of the Anglican Church, he made a deep impression on Michael Ramsey when the latter was Archbishop of Canterbury. Buthelezi visited Britain with two other leaders of so-called “homeland” authorities. After a thorough meeting with them, the Archbishop remarked, “It was Mangope and Matanzima versus Buthelezi and me.”

David Brauchli/APNelson Mandela salutes the crowd at an election rally in Galeshewe Stadium, near Kimberley, in 1994. From the book

But Buthelezi also became a friend of Margaret Thatcher, who had significant personal interests in South Africa. She strongly influenced Buthelezi to oppose the international movement of economic sanctions against South Africa, as advocated by the ANC and Bishop Tutu of the South African Council of Churches. A deep wedge was driven between Mandela’s ANC and Buthelezi’s IFP, between Zulu and Zulu, and between Zulus and the rest of black South Africa. The resultant violence, costing tens of thousands of deaths, was the great tragedy that disfigured the process towards liberation.

In the run-up to the 1994 election, it was only at the very last minute that Buthelezi abandoned his boycott of the election, and thus avoided wrecking the democratic process at its outset. (This is evidenced by the way in which the IFP and Buthelezi’s name were tacked on to the end of the voting paper.) Yet, in spite of all this obstructiveness, Mandela took Buthelezi as his Home Secretary, and occasionally even as his deputy as President, when visiting overseas.

This is a factual book; there is little emotion in it. But there is one intensely moving element, where the publishers include several photographs of Mandela’s own manuscript. His handwriting has the clarity, and the beauty, that one might expect from an artistic undergraduate. That it was produced by a man of Mandela’s age, physically hammered as he had been on Robben Island, is a marvel. And it also is evidence of one of the characteristics recognised in Mandela, that he was “obsessively orderly”.

This book has to be required reading for anyone who wants to know something of the process, and the costs, of the creation of the new South Africa.

The Rt Revd John D. Davies was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa, 1956 to 1970, and an office-bearer in the South African Council of Churches.


Dare Not Linger: The presidential years
Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa
Macmillan £25
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