The Great Debate

Mandela and De Klerk: Essential partners

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.

On meeting Mandela

Journalists are not easily impressed. We pride ourselves on our skepticism. (Most advisable of us, may I add.)

But I confess to having been in awe of Nelson Mandela, and not just in theory. I met him, spent about an hour with him — or, to put it more accurately, I spent about an hour in his presence.

It was in October, 1994, Mandela was the new president of South Africa and on a visit to the United States, seeking financial investments for his country. While in New York, he stopped in to speak to the editorial board of the New York Times, as people ranging from heads of state to political candidates did on a regular basis.