The Presidential Years

Even before the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) declared the election results, indeed even before the day that the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated victory and F W De Klerk conceded, Nelson Mandela, confident of a decisive ANC majority, moved in public and behind the scenes to spell out the priorities and agenda for his presidency and ANC-led government; to secure the peace that was needed for a democratic transition; and to recruit key people for his office and assemble a cabinet of the Government of National Unity.

The historic moment of political transition had arrived, and his single-minded focus was on fostering a climate for the first steps in the new vista of the long walk, towards the goals for which the ANC had dedicated its entire existence – in actual practice and from the citadels of political power, to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic nation out of a deeply fragmented and divided society.

He attended to every aspect, big and small, systematically and in detail. In the two weeks before the counting of votes was completed and before the inauguration he was ‘obsessed about administrative things’, planning what had to be achieved each week.3

As he moved around the country he registered again, as he had done on his release, and now on the eve of becoming president, the vastness of what had to be done to restore people’s dignity, shocked by the extent of rural poverty. Visiting the area in which he had been born and grown up, he commented, ‘There’s no development here, there’s is nothing; Transkei is as barren as it was when I left it as a child.’4

For the country and the world the inauguration was a time of intense and varied emotions – suspense as the elections moved uncertainly to a peaceful conclusion only weeks since the potential for civil war had apparently been defused and just days since two parties with significant constituencies, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Freedom Front had finally agreed to take part in the election. The spine of the bombing campaign aimed at stopping the election had only been broken during the election itself, after arrests of right-wingers at several locations.

It was a time for celebration as the ANC victory was claimed and conceded without challenge; a time of relief as the IEC declared the elections to have been substantially free and fair. It was a time of exhilaration as Mandela was elected by the first democratically elected parliament as president-designate. The gravitas, multifaceted composition and enthusiasm of both the National Assembly and the Senate spoke of renewal. Jubilation, tinged with near incredulity, greeted the display of police and military loyalty to the new president and the new social order. The atmosphere was pregnant with symbolism everywhere: once again, South Africans had drawn back from the precipice. Yet another hurdle had been jumped and the transition from conflict, division and oppression to freedom, dignity, stability and the promise of a better life for all had started in earnest.

Nelson Mandela had to take all this in his stride. Exhilaration, a sense of mission fulfilled from those early stirrings of defiance; the entry into resistance politics at school in Healdtown and at the University of Fort Hare; the moments of solitude on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison; the ambition to rise to the very top – all these may have come flashing by. But he was no longer a man in and for himself. He was the personal representation of that South African trapeze act; and so sitting there alone, still and in deep reflection, the period of the inauguration was a time to exercise the practical responsibilities of leading the transition. It was a time of intense consultations, cold calculation, as well as reassurance and calming of friend and foe alike. The consultations were as much about policy priorities as positions and personnel; the meetings as much about unity as mobilisation; the communication as much about the imperatives of reconstruction and development as about nation-building and reconciliation. It was a time to manage the expectations of fellow leaders and cadres; to reassure an apprehensive adversary; in brief, to confront the consequences of a successful struggle for freedom of the oppressed majority and the implications of accommodating the fears of the former oppressors.