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The reluctant president: an extract from Mandla Langa’s Dare Not Linger

Published in the Sunday Times

Nelson Mandela never finished the sequel to Long Walk to Freedom. Using his draft, notes and a wealth of archival material, Mandla Langa has completed the chronicle of Mandela’s presidential years. This is an edited extract from Dare Not Linger.

The reluctant president

‘My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me much against my advice’
- Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela spent the night of the inauguration at the State Guest House in Pretoria, which would be his temporary home for the next three months while FW de Klerk was moving out of Libertas, the presidential residence — Mandela later renamed it Mahlamba Ndlopfu (“The New Dawn” in Xitsonga, meaning literally “the washing of the elephants” due to the fact that elephants bathe in the morning).

At about 10am on May 11, the day after the inauguration, Mandela arrived at the back entrance of the west wing of the Union Buildings, accompanied by a security detail of the as-yet unintegrated units of the South African Police and MK. Two formidable women — Barbara Masekela and Jessie Duarte — who were at the heart of Mandela’s administration as ANC president, stepped along as smartly as they could, laden with paraphernalia for setting up office.

Forever in the shade, the temperature in the corridors was one or two degrees lower than outside, forcing a somewhat conservative dress code upon the staff and officials. Previously, when Mandela had met with De Klerk, the corridors had always smelled of coffee brewing somewhere. This morning there was no such smell and, except for the few people Mandela met at the entrance to the building, the place seemed deserted and forlorn, devoid of human warmth.

How Mandela charmed apartheid personnel

Executive Deputy President De Klerk had taken the whole of his private office with him, leaving only the functional and administrative staff.

But conviviality and sartorial elegance were the last things on the minds of Mandela’s staff, whose main business on May 11 was the finalisation of the cabinet of the Government of National Unity and the swearing-in of ministers. It was a small team, composed of hand-picked professionals, which had to deliver an urgent mandate.

As Duarte observed, Mandela was not passive in the selection of staff. When he sought to enlist Professor Jakes Gerwel as a possible director-general and cabinet secretary, she remembered that Mandela “wanted to know everything there was to know about Jakes. He asked Trevor [Manuel] … before he actually sat down with Jakes and said, ‘If we win, would you come to my office?’

“He also spoke to quite a number of activists [about] who this Gerwel chap was; who … would go into government with him.”

A competent cadre in the president’s office was needed to make up for the gap left by the withdrawal of the 60 people on De Klerk’s staff. At Thabo Mbeki’s prompting, a team headed by Department of Foreign Affairs official Dr Chris Streeter took on the role, with Streeter becoming Mandela’s “chief of staff” until the director-general was appointed.

Mandela was quick to dispel the illusion that he would be getting rid of the old personnel. He made a point of shaking hands with each member of staff. Fanie Pretorius, then-chief director in the office of the president, remembers the occasion: “He started from the left and he shook hands with every staff member, and about a quarter along the line he came to a lady who always had a stern face, though she was a friendly person. When he took her hand, he said in Afrikaans, ‘Is jy kwaad vir my?’ [‘Are you cross with me?’], and everybody laughed and the ice was broken.

He continued and gave the message to all the staff. There was nothing more and everybody was relieved. He was Nelson Mandela at that moment, with the warmth and the acceptance. Everybody would have eaten out of his hand — there was no negative feeling from anybody after that in the staff, at least that we were aware of.”

Mandela’s personal warmth towards people from all walks of life, from gardeners, cleaners, clerks and typists to those in the most senior roles, did not go unnoticed. Those who came across him in the course of their work described him as generous, self-effacing and easy-going; a man who knew “how to be an ordinary person”, with a sincerity demonstrated by his “greeting everybody in the same way whether there is a camera on him or not”; “there is never the feeling that he is up there and you’re down there”.

Mandela was respectful but not in awe of the world in which he found himself. Like all confident people who take their capability for granted, he was unhesitant about the road he needed to take to strengthen South Africa’s democracy.

Throughout his political life, he had never shirked responsibility, no matter how dangerous, as evidenced by his role as the volunteer-in-chief in the 1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws — inspired by the sentiment contained in his favourite poem, Invictus, “the menace of the years” had found him “unafraid”.

One term only — that’s the deal

Imprisoned for more than a quarter of a century, Mandela had become the world’s most recognisable symbol against all forms of injustice. He was initially reluctant to become president, perhaps feeling that he had accomplished what he’d set out to do with his stewardship of the heady period from release to the elections.

“My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa,” he writes, “was imposed on me much against my advice.

“As the date of the general elections approached, three senior ANC leaders informed me that they had consulted widely within the organisation, and that the unanimous decision was that I should stand as president if we won the election.

“I urged the three senior leaders that I would prefer to serve without holding any position in the organisation or government. One of them, however, put me flat on the carpet.

“He reminded me that I had always advocated the crucial importance of collective leadership, and that as long as we scrupulously observed that principle, we could never go wrong. He bluntly asked whether I was now rejecting what I had consistently preached down the years. Although that principle was never intended to exclude a strong defence of what one firmly believed in, I decided to accept their proposal.

“I, however, made it clear that I would serve for one term only.

“Although my statement seemed to have caught them unawares — they replied that I should leave the matter to the organisation — I did not want any uncertainty on this question. Shortly after I had become president, I publicly announced that I would serve one term only and would not seek re-election.

“At meetings of the ANC,” Mandela continues, “I often stressed that I did not want weak comrades or puppets who would swallow anything I said, simply because I was president of the organisation. I called for a healthy relationship in which we could address issues, not as master and servants, but as equals in which each comrade would express his or her views freely and frankly, and without fear of victimisation or marginalisation.”

The ANC — or, more precisely, President Mandela — needed to think clearly and plan well. Without this capability, it would be difficult to synthesise the old, security-oriented, bureaucratised civil service, a carry-over from the insular legacy of apartheid, and the new, somewhat inexperienced personnel, some of whom had recently graduated from overseas academies where they had received crash courses in administration and the rudiments of running a modern economy.

While De Klerk had a functioning administrative office staffed by people who had worked with him for years, Mandela and his deputy, Mbeki, had to start from scratch.

Gerwel was the first senior appointment, bringing gravitas to the presidential staff.

He also brought his extensive political background as a leader of the United Democratic Front and his engagement with the ANC in exile.

As vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, a position from which he was about to retire, he had led the transformation of an apartheid university into an intellectual home of the left. Mandela’s endorsement of Professor Gerwel shows the high esteem in which he held him. It’s even more remarkable that Gerwel came from the black consciousness tradition and wasn’t a card-carrying member of the ANC.

At the time he appointed Gerwel, Mandela had formed a reasonable idea about how he wanted his office to look. Like all obsessively orderly people — at one point he wanted to make his own bed in a hotel — he couldn’t function without a solid base.

Having Gerwel at the helm served this purpose. He respected Gerwel and would take his advice. Masekela later commented on this aspect of Mandela’s character.

“I think it requires a certain amount of humility and self-interest to want the best advice and to take it. He was a little too much admiring of educated people, I would say. He really was seriously impressed by degrees, and so on, and if you expressed some scepticism about someone like that it would be very difficult to convince him.”

Joel Netshitenzhe was a member of the ANC’s national executive committee and national working committee with a strong background in communications and strategic analysis. Deceptively casual and with an aversion to formal dress, Netshitenzhe — working with media liaison officer Parks Mankahlana, who’d come from the youth league — operated a brief that went beyond writing Mandela’s speeches: he was also the unofficial link to the various ANC and government constituencies.

Trusted by the media, mainly because he exuded confidence and candour — and was known to have the ear of the president — he worked hard to simplify the more complex policy positions in various forums.

But Mandela needed more than the cold, crisp analyses of his advisers; he also drew on the counsel of others in the ANC.

Having started a practice of marking Mondays as “ANC day” in his diary, he would spend that day at the ANC head office with the top officials and others, also attending NWC meetings. He had no set timetable, however, when consulting other ANC leaders close to him, like Walter Sisulu.

“Me, in particular,” Sisulu said, uncomplainingly, in a 1994 interview, “he likes to ring. He wakes me up, one o’clock, two o’clock, doesn’t matter, he’ll wake me up. I realise after he has woken me up, this thing is not so important — well, we discuss it, but it didn’t really require that he wake me up at that time.”

Mandela’s involvement in cabinet, however, changed over time.

Early in his tenure, he was more hands-on, keeping himself informed on almost all aspects of policy in order to maintain the coherence of the ANC in the GNU, a measure demanded by the intricate process of transformation.

100 days of meetings

Manuel remembers how, on the eve of cabinet meetings, Mandela convened ANC ministers and their deputies in an ANC cabinet caucus at his Genadendal residence in Cape Town. This he did, Manuel says, “so that we could caucus positions that we wanted to take and be mutually supportive. It afforded comrades [an environment] to have a discussion that was quite free”.

In his first 100 days in government, Mandela held meetings to guide the ministers or get their support for positions he held. He maintained a continuous interest in matters concerning peace, violence and stability.

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma observed, “I think for me he was more engaged at the beginning, but maybe it was because I engaged him more at the beginning because I myself was not experienced.”

Although Mandela had intended to announce the appointments only after the inauguration, his hand was forced by the media, which had got wind of the debate around the position of the deputy president, with the announcement of the cabinet being made on May 6 1994. It was an incomplete list and some of the names and their corresponding portfolios would be changed.

Setting up the cabinet was not uncontentious, with De Klerk piqued at inadequate consultation in the allocation of some portfolios. However, Mandela’s personal touch was unmistakable. Some of the processes, appearing haphazard at their genesis, ended up bearing fruit. A few of the cogs in the wheel of the machine geared to advance Mandela’s dream were blithely unaware of their importance and how their own lives would change

Dare Not Linger

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