Mandela and De Klerk: Essential partners

By Princeton N. Lyman
December 9, 2013

When Nelson Mandela and South African President F.W. De Klerk began their historic negotiations to end apartheid, each man professed respect for the other. Indeed their relationship appeared not only professional, but personal.

Yet as the negotiations dragged on through 1992 and 1993, tempers grew short, and South Africans grew increasingly frustrated with the slow progress toward the liberation that had seemed so promising just a few years ago. Most worrisome, violence was growing between the supporters of Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkhatha Freedom Party.

Much of the turmoil flamed in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, but it also spread dangerously into the outskirts of Johannesburg, which soon turned into a patchwork of no-go areas. On my effort to visit the area, for example, we were stopped by gunfire and forced to retreat. By the time of the elections in 1994, at least 3,000 people would be killed.

Mandela was convinced that De Klerk could stop this violence. There was widespread suspicion among South Africans that agents of the government were conspiring in the violence. Even if that were not true, Mandela felt De Klerk had both the responsibility and the capability to stop it.

De Klerk told Mandela, however, that he was not able to do so. Mandela was furious and his anger spilled over into the public. It was visible at times when the two were together. On one occasion, Mandela appeared to be lecturing De Klerk angrily.

Many in the international community, as well as many South Africans, became concerned that this deep rift would jeopardize the negotiations. These fears persisted even though the two leaders had agreed in 1992 — after a long interruption in the talks provoked by violence in the township of Boipatong — that thereafter no acts of violence, whatever their origin, would stop the peace process.

But Mandela was now angry, and under pressure from his people. Was this violence a deliberate effort by the government to undermine the negotiations? Was De Klerk too weak to override his own security people? Mandela told me it was inconceivable to him that a president had no power to stop such violence.

One night, I was at a dinner at the home of Helen Suzman, who had been for years the lone outspoken opponent of apartheid in the South African parliament. Mandela, who adored her, was also there. After the meal, Mandela agreed to answer some questions. One guest asked Mandela his view of De Klerk.

I think all of us anticipated a strong criticism of the president. Instead, Mandela replied, “My worst nightmare is that I wake up one morning and he is not there.”

Mandela understood that whatever their personal relationship, and whatever mutual respect had been lost, De Klerk was his essential partner for peace.

Even under these circumstances, Mandela would not jettison the best opportunity for ending apartheid and for achieving — at last — his and his people’s long struggle for freedom.

I was not surprised to witness this evidence of his courage and strength of commitment, but I was in awe nonetheless. In that moment, Mandela demonstrated the character that had brought him through so many crises in the past, as well as the quality of leadership that would enable him ultimately to prevail.

Footnote: It was later revealed that elements within the government had indeed been training and arming Buthelezi’s people. Years after the negotiations, Mandela told me that his government had discovered that the ANC’s number two official in KwaZulu-Natal at that time was also an undercover government agent — provoking violence from the other side.

Mandela readily moved past his feud with Buthelezi just as he reconciled with those who had supported apartheid. He made Buthelezi a minister in his new government and, appointed him acting president at certain times. Buthelezi never abused Mandela’s trust while in office.


PHOTO (TOP): Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk hold their hands high as they address a huge crowd of people in front of the Union Building after the first presidential inauguration on May 10, 1994. REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya

PHOTO (INSERT 1):Former South African Presidents Nelson Mandela (L) and FW de Klerk chat as Mandela arrives for de Klerk’s 70 birthday celebrations in Cape Town, March 17, 2006. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Helen Suzman in an undated photo. REUTERS/File


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