The Presidential Years

Beyond the annual fixtures of the parliamentary calendar, some issues were so integral to the transition that they claimed the attention of Parliament in the form of special debates or statements. Among them were the dissolution of the RDP office; the Constitutional Assembly’s adoption of the constitution; and parliament’s debate on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ’s report, the detail of which is dealt with elsewhere.

The closure of the RDP office and the consequent cabinet reshuffle could have been announced by means of a press release and media briefing. Instead Mandela chose parliament as the appropriate place to announce a change of that magnitude. The burden of the statement, emphasised throughout the remaining years of his presidency, was that the institutional change did nothing to displace the Reconstruction and Development Programme from the centre of government’s overall programme.

When the two houses of Parliament sitting jointly as the Constitutional Assembly adopted the final constitution, Mandela took the opportunity to remind Members of Parliament and the country of the principles that had guided negotiations to a successful conclusion and which would be needed to navigate the transition.

Another special debate came about when the opposition called for a snap debate. Just as the situation in the then Natal had cast a constant cloud and threat over the negotiations process before the 1994 election and over the Constitutional Assembly, developments in the province of KwaZulu-Natal intruded into Parliament. The immediate catalyst for the snap debate was Mandela’s response to a senator who raised a question about the progress of police investigations into the killing of Inkatha supporters outside Shell House, the ANC Headquarters in Johannesburg, in March 1994 just before the first democratic elections. Intending to close the matter by taking responsibility for the Shell House events, Mandela said he was responsible for the shooting. In fact, as it emerged when the ANC’s guards applied to the TRC for amnesty, he had not ordered them to kill, only to protect the building.327 But the consummate leader he was, and angered by what he perceived as deliberate provocation, he decided to take direct responsibility.

Regarding the question of the so-called massacre at Shell House, the members of the NP have stood up on the IFP's side. This is in spite of the fact that on the day before the event, I telephoned President De Klerk, as he then was, Gen Van der Merwe, and Gen Calitz. I told them that there was going to be that so-called demonstration, and that a lot of people were going to die. I asked them to put up roadblocks around Johannesburg, so as to protect lives.

They all undertook to do so. Mr De Klerk actually interrupted me and said: ‘Have you told Van der Merwe about this?’, and I said ‘Yes, I have.’ He then said that he would also tell him. No roadblocks were put in place. Those people were allowed to come into the city with their weapons. By 07:00 Radio 702 had announced that Inkatha had killed 32 people in Soweto. By the time they came to town, we already had that information.

They came to Shell House, past the spot where they were supposed to have the meeting. We knew why, therefore I gave instructions to our security that if they attacked the House, then they must please protect it, even if they had to kill people. It was absolutely necessary for me to give that instruction.

What is important now is that the NP and the DP, which is now to the right of the NP, were not once able to say who killed the 45 people in Johannesburg. Their sole occupation was the nine people who were killed in self-defence. That was the sole purpose of the point of view of the NP and the DP. They showed no concern about the 45 other people who were killed, thus encouraging the perception that Whites do not care about Blacks.328

Public and political response to Mandela’s statement told him he had made a mistake. When Thabo Mbeki and Sydney Mufamadi came to see him, even before they raised the matter, he said, ‘I know why you have come. You are diplomats. I am not a diplomat because I have spent my time fighting with warders. What should I do about my statement?’329 After their discussion a special meeting of top ANC officials was called to strategise the response and to plan for a parliamentary debate. His notes for the meeting convey how seriously he regarded the situation.

1. Call for a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.

a. will need careful planning of our strategy, an equally careful selection of our speakers in the debate;
b. whatever plans we recommend must be placed before the meeting tomorrow;
c. I have requested Joel to draft the speech & indicated to him some of the points I would like us to make & the tone thereof;
d. I would prefer that that draft be submitted to you by Monday at a time suitable to all of you.

2. Then I would like us to examine the full implications of the statement I have made, especially with regard to the demand that I should be prosecuted for the statement. (No doubt the statement was unfortunate and made an inappropriate moment)

3. I am informed that the statement has embarrassed the defence team who have been arguing that I could not be sued for damages. The statement has changed the picture completely.

4. I would like to hear, especially from Sydney, whether the situation flowing from the statement will affect the investigation by Col Dutton’s unit.

5. I insist that every member of the Cabinet must attend the cabinet meeting on Wednesday and the debate in Parliament


7. Rupert suggests private meeting between Buthelezi and myself; told him that normally I would welcome such a step, but that I have had numerous meetings with Buthelezi, all of which have been fruitless. May also convey a wrong message.

8. Finally the opinion of the media is important & sin some respects crucial. We must always treat it with respect; the whites have powerful weapons and propaganda which we ignore at our peril. But we must never forget the people out there and our strategy must not ignore their feelings on the point.330

What he said in the snap debate added further context to what he had said in the Senate, but concluded with a reminder of the fundamental goals of transition and the imperative of a national effort to achieve them:

Shell House was not a bolt from the blue. Before the march on that day, the ANC had received information that some of the marchers were to be directed to attack Shell House, destroy information and kill members of the leadership.

The day before the march, we had called the then State President, the National Commissioner of Police and the Regional Commissioner, and proposed to them that roadblocks should be set up and the marchers disarmed. All of them agreed. But as events were to unfold, this was not done. By the time the marchers reached Shell House, we had already received reports that more than 30 people had been killed in their wake.

Needless to say, the surging columns on Shell House, away from the routes to their destination, the shots fired, and the fact that the few policemen deployed there decided to run away, gave credence to the information we had gathered. It is in this context that this incident happened.

And it is in the broad context outlined above that the President had issued the instruction [referred to in the Senate debate] to security at Shell House.’

This is nothing more nor less than a statement of the common law right to self-defence.

…we regret the loss of life, anywhere and under any circumstances. But what parties involved in this vendetta need to pause and reflect on, is what would have happened, if the intentions of these plotters had been realised: if indeed Shell House had been invaded, documents destroyed and ANC leaders killed!331

He concluded his opening remarks on a practical note – the Cabinet, he said, had that morning discussed plans under way ‘to arrest the terrible trends in KwaZulu-Natal and bring safety and security to citizens.’ Closing the parliamentary debate, he had this to say:

The right to life, to peace and security, were amongst the fundamental goals which engaged the ANC and the majority of South Africans over so many years, an aspiration which led thousands to prison, and forced so many into exile.

It is concern for the improvement of those lives that lies at the heart of the new political and social order. South Africans took part in the democratic elections of April 1994. They elected this Government of National Unity precisely because they wished to make this country a better place for all citizens.

We called for today's debate in order to affirm this, our central belief. It was to reaffirm the absolute need to create and defend institutions and circumstances that will ensure that sanctity of human life.

In the end, this debate must be judged by its contribution to entrenching these goals in our hearts. It must be assessed on the basis of whether it has strengthened us in our resolve to work together as South Africans. Each one of us will be judged by our own contribution.

Now that we have expressed our views and our feelings, we face the question: How do we move forward? One of our most important goals, and a necessary condition for achieving all others, is national unity and reconciliation. We have been charged by the nation with the task of addressing the basic needs of our people. This requires that we should see to it that we bring more visible change in providing housing, education, health care, transport, access to water and electricity. It means achieving the sustained economic growth that is required for these things to happen, and for jobs to be created. These are not simple tasks, but enormous challenges. They require the collective resources of our whole nation.

We can succeed only if we emerge from debates like today's stronger than before; if we are ready to cement the common ground we occupy. We have come, not in a spirit of vanquishing anyone. South Africa must emerge from this debate the victor.

Let us therefore dedicate ourselves, in memory of all the lives lost in conflict, to working together to seek solutions to the problems which generate conflict. We must bring an end to violence. The existence of no-go areas, controlled by whatever party, is a shame to our nation. We must see to it that they no longer exist. Above all, we must save human lives.

As long as we fail to tackle these problems, we will fail in our responsibility of ensuring that the November elections are free and fair. We will undermine our capacity to improve the quality of life of our people, millions of whom still live in abject poverty. We will be hampered in our drive to ensure that all South Africans enjoy the climate of safety and security which is their right.

The nation has set itself the task of reconstruction and development, nation-building and reconciliation. It expects of its representatives in these hallowed Chambers, the seriousness of purpose and the application to duty which success requires. We wish the investigations well, and we will continue to co-operate. It is in this spirit that we view the comments that have been made. On my part, I call on all parties to join us in working for a better life for all South Africans.332