The Presidential Years

These issues coalesced in Mandela’s engagement with Afrikaner society, which, as he noted in notes on the national mood which he wrote in early 1996, were ‘breaking into areas once far beyond reach.’469

The major political representative of Afrikaner sentiment, the National Party had become a (minority) partner in a transitional government. The heads of the security forces, public service and reserve bank had been retained temporarily in the name of stability. The organisation representative of the main conservative current, the Freedom Front, had agreed to pursue its objectives by legal and constitutional means.

But the social bases of those political formations remained largely intact. At a reception hosted by the mayor of Pretoria soon after the inauguration, Mandela noted that apartheid was supported not just by white politicians, but that cultural, educational, religious and agricultural organisations among others provided the base of white power.470

That power was still embedded in South African society. Reconciliation had, therefore, to reach beyond the formal political and constitutional institutions into direct engagement with the different sectors and formations of Afrikaner society. It had at one and the same time to affirm inclusion; shift allegiances within the social base of apartheid political power; demobilise defence of past privilege and achieve involvement in reconstruction and development. To do these things it had to deal with the very issues pitting negotiators against each other in the Constitutional Assembly.

So, beyond the institutional scaffolding of reconciliation and national unity, there was intensive interaction with every section of white society, in particular, as Mandela observed, the Afrikaner community. It was most intense in the early years while the constitution and new policies were taking shape, and when he felt that the new democracy was under pressure. It reached into the territory of parties that claimed to represent Afrikaners.

There were structured meetings with organisations representing sectors of Afrikaner society with particular interests. And there were highly symbolic initiatives that made powerful public impressions and helped ease the more substantive engagements. Though not the first such gesture, Mandela’s dramatic and unexpected show of support for the national rugby team in the 1995 Rugby World Cup had huge impact in particular within the Afrikaner community for whom the sport and its Springbok insignia held powerful emotions. Appearing at the end of the match on the rugby field in a Springbok jersey and lifting the trophy hand in hand with the team’s captain in celebration of victory became an iconic moment in the shifting of attitudes, both in its immediate impact and in what it still left to be done.

Soon thereafter he hosted widows of leaders from both sides of the struggle to tea at his official residence in Pretoria (some reluctance on both sides had to be overcome) and went to visit those who couldn’t travel to the tea party, including the widow of Dr Verwoerd in her home in Orania, a small and remote enclave of whites wanting a Volkstaat. He visited PW Botha in his retirement home in George in the Cape. By ensuring that television and other media covered these symbolic moments, the sight of Mandela patiently listening to warnings by PW Botha of the consequences of government policies or helping Betsie Verwoerd read a statement in Afrikaans demanding a Volkstaat, the message of inclusiveness got national profile and, more subtly, so did the sub-text that the ANC president was in command.

The meetings with representatives of organisations gathered impetus after the Rugby World Cup moment. A few days afterwards Mandela met representatives of twenty mainly right wing or conservative organisations in an interaction initiated by Constand Viljoen. Challenged by a journalist as to the point of such a meeting, he explained that it was within the framework of nation-building and reconciliation. It was important, he said, ‘to keep the lines of communication between such organisation and the government open, to remove any misunderstandings that could lead to tension.’ In this spirit the main issues canvassed were language, education, affirmative action, property rights, security, culture and symbols.

Each meeting heard his message of inclusiveness and reciprocity, and each discussed issues preoccupying those adjusting to the loss of power and privilege.

To the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereniging (ATKV) (Afrikaans Language and Cultural Association) – Mandela said he recognised their fears of a language policy that would prejudice Afrikaans, but assured them that the protection and promotion of all the country’s languages, including Afrikaans, was an unshakable policy of the government and ANC. 471The Ruiterwag – the youth-wing of the Broederbond that had at the height of apartheid effectively controlled the state and Afrikaner society – invited him to a conference of young Afrikaner leaders, whom he urged to lead their communities in becoming active agents of reconstruction and development.472

He sought to communicate the message to society as a whole. For instance, he rushed from the Ruiterwag meeting to the stadium in Johannesburg where the football African Cup of Nations was starting. Although the programme strictly timed his speech opening the event, to make sure that he completed it as airplanes flew over the stadium, he over-ran the time while explaining to the soccer fans that he had just come from the meeting with the Afrikaner Ruiterwag – but was drowned out by the planes, to a combination of chagrin and amusement among the organisers.

He went to universities which, though no longer exclusively white or Afrikaans, had historically been so: Stellenbosch University, University of Pretoria, and Potchefstroom University. He attended Afrikaans speaking church services, usually on invitation but on at least one occasion uninvited, to the delight of the congregants.473 There were meetings with business and agricultural organisations and more broadly with representative of Afrikaners, national or local.

While each meeting had specific emphases, the tenor of Mandela’s message is illustrated by what he said to representatives of Afrikaner organisations invited – not for the first time – to his Presidential residence in Pretoria in March 1996. Constitutional negotiations were drawing to an end and the meeting wanted to talk about language, one of the most persistent matters in these meetings and among the issues taking negotiators to the brink.

For me it is of the utmost importance that we all engage in serious discussion about our common future in this country.

When last I spoke of the testament of reconciliation and national unity which I want to leave behind me, the markets almost crashed. I hope it won't happen again. But I do want to repeat that I see it as one of my most important tasks to work for national reconciliation, and to leave behind me a country in which there is lasting peace because all the people and groups in the country live together in mutual acceptance, respect and national consensus.

Acknowledging the concern amongst Afrikaners about Afrikaans education and Afrikaans schools, he gave them each a copy of the Freedom Charter by way of introduction to the discussion

[The Freedom Charter], drawn up and accepted in 1955 at the Congress of the People, is the basic policy document of the ANC. Today it is still the basic guideline for the organisation. So when I speak reconciliation and respect for all the languages and cultures of our land, it is not, as is often claimed, simply an individual position. It is a position contained in the basic policy of the ANC, the majority party in the Government of National Unity. Respect for the variety of our society has deep roots in the political organisation that is in office in our country today.

As South Africans, we have certain shared goals as well as shared constraints:

We are committed to the maintenance and flourishing of all South Africa's languages, including naturally Afrikaans;

We are committed to the promotion of multilingualism amongst South Africans, and non-racialism;

We work under particular constraints: there are restricted resources available to us, and the population that must be educated is spread throughout the country.

What is now needed on the part of all who have the best interests of our country at heart, is to accept each other’s; integrity. They must come together and, in the broader national interest and taking our constraints into account, seek solutions which are both practical and principled. It does not help to label as racist all those who express concerns about Afrikaans; no more than it helps to present the ANC or the Government as bent on the destruction of Afrikaans.

As South Africans we have already set such a shining example to the world in the way that we have addressed problems and found solutions through negotiations and compromise. We owe it to ourselves once again to set about seeking solutions in that spirit. Future generations will blame us if we prove so narrow and group-oriented in our thinking that we are unable to find creative solutions.

The liberation struggle which has been fought for eight decades in our country, was underpinned by deep thought and searching for answers to questions about the nature of our society. The so-called ‘national question’ is one which has constantly occupied the liberation movement. How are the interests of the different national groups to be accommodated within non-racial unity? And it is important, before [discussing] Afrikaner interests, to bear in mind that the ‘national question’ concerns not only Afrikaners. If one asks about the place of a language group or culture in our shared land, then one must at the same time also consider the interests of others.

Concern for the future of Afrikaans cannot be equated with racism. At the same time there is a minority of people who do indeed exploit the question for racist purposes. There is a minority that uses the pretext of concern for Afrikaans to try to protect existing privileges by standing in the way of changes which are in the interest of the nation as a whole.

Those who are genuinely concerned about Afrikaans should speak out against such an approach and against those who adopt it. [That] will also help to ensure that the majority do not suspect a hidden agenda whenever the question of Afrikaans is raised.

But let us conduct this discussion in a positive spirit! We are here to listen to each other and to seek solutions to any problems that may exist.474

Days after the Constitutional Assembly adopted a draft of the new constitution Mandela met some Afrikaner organisations in Cape Town. Referring to notes, he addressed the fact that the constitution ruled out state funding of exclusively single-medium educational institutions and qualified the right to mother-tongue education in terms of feasibility.

One of the burning issues in the constitutional negotiations was the issue of language as medium of instruction in education, specifically the demand for single-medium institutions. … Both sides compromised on this matter. The way is now open to implement that constitutional compromise to ensure that all interests are met. It is now a question of the political will to succeed.

The big concern around single-medium schools was that they could be misused to perpetuate racism in a hidden form, and to entrench past privilege. On the other hand, there is the fear and suspicion that the reluctance to provide for single-medium schools amounts to a secret plan to destroy Afrikaans. The challenge is to ensure neither of evils transpire within the new constitutional dispensation. Just as the continuation of racism and race-based privilege is evil, so too would be any attempts to destroy Afrikaans.475

When the University of Stellenbosch conferred an honorary degree on him he elaborated on this principle.

In common with all languages, no doubt, Afrikaans must attribute credit or blame for its particular history to the power relations in society. In any case, the fact of the matter is that Afrikaans is highly developed as a scholarly and scientific language. And as the Commission for Higher Education has said: Afrikaans as a language of scholarship and science is a national resource.

The real issue therefore is not the eradication or preservation of Afrikaans as an academic medium. Rather, the question is this: amongst ourselves, how are we to negotiate a dispensation for the South African university system that meets the following three criteria? Firstly, that a milieu should be created and maintained for Afrikaans to continue growing as a language of scholarship and science. At the same time, that non-speakers of Afrikaans should not be unjustly deprived of access within the system. And moreover, that the use and development of no single language medium should - either intentionally or unintentionally - be made the basis for the furtherance of racial, ethnic or narrowly cultural separation.

Within a system comprising more than twenty universities, it must be possible to reach an accommodation to the effect that there will be at least one university whose main tasks will include that of seeing to the sustained development of Afrikaans as an academic medium.

How that institution is to accommodate languages other than Afrikaans is one of the details that can be settled through a process of negotiation. If we could manage to resolve the major political conflicts through negotiation, then surely the country's men and women of learning need not view a matter of this nature as posing some insuperable obstacle...476

That the language question might not be as amenable to resolution as this principle suggested, was made clear by the polarised public debate that followed Mandela’s comments in Stellenbosch. Similarly, a memorandum from the South African Students Congress (SASCO) which he had received on the eve of a visit to Potchefstroom University earlier in the year pointed to the extent to which the language of learning was embedded in the character of institutions along with other aspects that were experienced as exclusionary by the increasing number of students who were not Afrikaans speaking.477