The extraordinary spectacle of the South African Government and the African National Congress socialising and bantering with each other for the first time needs to be decoded for its psychological implications. Politics is about the manipulation of symbols as a precondition for the exercise of real power. Not only was the ground laid for irreversible negotiations and compromises between two deadly enemies, but the antagonists also established a cordial relationship during three days of talks at the foot of Table Mountain. They discovered, in Thabo Mbeki’s words, that to their mutual amazement they ‘had no horns’. Members of the dreaded Security Police who guarded the ANC delegation became buddies with their enemies and were soon on a first-name basis. While white and black South Africa wondered about respectable ‘terrorists’ being invited into the official residence of South African prime ministers, a flabbergasted correspondent observed: ‘When Mbeki began to crack jokes, accompanied by some boyish elbow-tugging with General Basie Smit, the chief of the Security Police, the unusual appeared to become elevated to the sublime.’

The NP-ANC instant love affair replicates an experience many South African exiles from different political backgrounds have encountered when they met abroad. Free of the apartheid framework, they discover their common South African-ness. A psychological explanation of the cordial relations between former arch-enemies would point to the rediscovery of bonds of origin, of a repressed kinship. Children of the same soil realised what they had in common. Meanwhile the forgiveness of the ANC means renewed legitimacy for a beleaguered regime. The State President can now travel through the front door of the world. South African bankers can again collect long-term loans. Celebrated as peacemakers with strategic foresight, apartheid’s former engineers occupy a new moral high ground.

This constellation also explains the remarkable cohesion which the National Party displayed during the process of change. Most seasoned observers expected defections to the right, if the leadership were ‘to go so far’. Yet the party caucus endorsed the Cabinet’s moves unanimously and issued encouragement and congratulations. Such support was particularly surprising because the caucus was left in the dark about the precise contents of the President’s 2 February speech. The crucial last-minute input and consultation came about, not within his own constituency, but with an opponent in prison. The potential coalition and government of national unity was born at this moment. As a result, a sense of relief, even euphoria, swept the land. Light at the end of a dark tunnel was finally in sight. One of the most frequent utterances quoted on both sides stressed the foolishness of not having undergone the exercise of reconciliation years ago.

A more remarkable feature of the process lies in the victims’ forgiveness. Without bitterness about decades of suffering, with no word of revenge for horrendous crimes, Mandela publicly declares: ‘let bygones be bygones.’ With this attitude, Mandela is, in fact, manufacturing a new myth: that the past no longer matters. But it does. It may be forgiven, but it can’t be forgotten. By legitimating the perpetrators of past apartheid crimes in the interests of future peace, conversion without repentance is condoned. Not without reason does the religious practice of cleansing from past sins insist on confession and restitution as a symbolic demonstration of the sincerity of conversion. Neither an apology nor an offer of compensation has been heard from the official power-holders. So far, there has been only the cynical admission that apartheid has failed. To declare apartheid unworkable is not the same as to denounce it as criminal.

Mandela may indeed, by this course of action, have gone some way towards compromising his credibility among his radical constituency. It is not enough to demand compensation in the form of nationalisation. And even on this issue the ANC has compromised after a howl of protest from the market and the monopolies. Nationalisation will be considered only if the experts who are to study it find it feasible. This feasible socialism may make economic sense, but it will not be understood by a deprived constituency which demands tangible benefits now.

Instead, it is fed with the imagery of a dual presidency. De Klerk and Mandela assure each other of their mutual respect at a joint press conference. Stephen Gray accurately describes De Klerk and Mandela as ‘two propped-up grandfathers, both smiling awkwardly at the camera’. The country’s largest paper, on the other hand, editorialises glowingly: ‘the youngish, imperturbably calm and sure-footed State President and the tall, dignified and articulate black leader sitting side by side, making history together’. The chairman of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, the South African Communist Party, joins the celebrations of harmony at the back of a polished Mercedes and at the bar of the luxury Lord Charles Hotel. The papers dwell in infinite detail on the refined menu, not failing to notice the visitors’ preference for the carvery. How much it costs the taxpayer to accommodate the ‘poor ANC’ in style provides another headline.

In the meantime, fifteen miles down the road from Somerset West in Khayelitsha and the infamous Crossroads, thousands of shack dwellers freeze in cardboard shelters in the cold winter rain. The occupants of the vehicles in the ANC convoy, with police in front and behind and a helicopter overhead, drive quickly past. Their air-conditioned comfort spares them the stench of overcrowding and poor sanitation. Thabo Mbeki addresses the well-heeled members of the press club over lunch at the Cape Sun Hotel and a large, enthusiastic audience at the élite, white-washed Stellenbosch University set in the midst of charming vineyards. The occupants of the Cape Flats hear about the ANC being in town, but, apart from a poorly-attended rally at Mitchells Plain, don’t see their liberators. Langa, the oldest African township, is rumoured to have become a stronghold of the rival PAC. Adventurous journalists in search of evidence report graffiti: ‘One settler, one bullet!’

For security reasons, the ANC delegation cannot live in the dilapidated townships or even visit the winding lanes of shacks which they pass with expressions of horror. But the greying gerontocracy of the ANC, in their impeccable business suits and Gucci shoes, with two token women included, must find themselves as alien in the cesspool of Khayelitsha as the white designers of this alternative to influx control. The ANC image is modelled on white expectations, not on the aspirations of the lumpenproletariat. ‘Statesmanlike’, they must impress the oppressors that they are no longer the ‘terrorists’ they were made out to be.

The pace of this political metamorphosis has not yet allowed its implications to be grasped by those likely to be left out of the new alliance. Even the downtrodden borrow from the glory of their leaders being accepted in the halls of power. But there is disaster, looming under the surface of this sensible trend towards reconciliation: the closer the ex-prisoners get to their jailers, the further they move from their own power-base. In South Africa, gaining political power means losing support at the same time. By restricting political education for decades, and suppressing attempts to organise for liberation, the apartheid regime has sown the seeds of its liberators’ destruction. ‘The Nats and the ANC are rapidly delegitimising each other by rubbing elbows,’ exaggerates the American sociologist Pierre van den Berghe, who nonetheless senses a real danger.

The random violence in Natal and elsewhere gives a foretaste of the anarchy ready to emerge if the rational charterist project of non-racialism fails. How often can Mandela afford to be ignored when he calls for arms to be thrown into the sea? South Africa’s bitter history may exact such a revenge, regardless of the noble intent to suppress it. Are those who act for the oppressed aware of this dialectic? Or have they been blinded by the taste of power in the seductive Rhodes mansion in the shadow of magic Table Mountain?

If a professional public relations agency had been asked by the South African Government to design a campaign to discredit the ANC, it could not have conceived of a better script. Yet both the Government and the ANC now need each other. Neither can afford to weaken a moderate partner for fear of extremist rivals taking over and South Africa falling apart in a murderous civil war. The indefatigable Pik Botha is reported to have pressed the emerging partnership ideology on an ANC dinner partner with the analogy: ‘We are in one boat, and the sharks to the left and the sharks to the right are not going to distinguish between us when we fall over.’ Mandela ominously speaks of the NP and the ANC as the ‘major actors’ and ‘senior partners’, relegating the junior rivals to the other side of the table, opposed to ANC hegemony.

The leader of a past Stalinist party as Mandela’s right-hand man – Joe Slovo, that is to say – obsesses white South Africa. In fact, dedicated, bright SACP members occupy most of the influential positions in the ANC and the Unions as a separate vanguard underground. Disclosure of its secret membership, which would be normal under democratic conditions, could embarrass the SACP, for it would show its dominance in the ANC and thereby vindicate government propaganda. What white South Africa has not yet understood is the recent development that turned rhetorical Stalinist ideologues into a pragmatic and moderate force within the ANC. With a disintegrating Soviet bloc seeking peace and investments instead of world revolution, South African Communists have nowhere else to go but home. This makes them unexpected allies of Pretoria’s negotiation project, whether or not Slovo was being candid when he said, during the first Groote Schuur talks, that there was no ‘hidden agenda’.

The arrival of a socialist government in the second stage, after democracy has been achieved, depends, in Slovo’s words, on the ‘class forces in play’ at that time. In practical terms, this puts socialism on ice: once non-racial capitalism has delivered the goods, Marxist socialist parties shrink or turn into social democrats, as has been demonstrated the world over. Because of its past radical image, the SACP leadership can entice sceptical youth into the negotiation process. From this perspective the Government should welcome the red flag rather than fear it. If anything can prevent a latent counter-racism and make a rational colour-blind attitude prevail, it is the ideological indoctrination in internationalist universalism by traditional Marxists. That is the historical merit of South African Communists, their Stalinism notwithstanding.

In the meantime, new stories about past clandestine police atrocities daily strain the imagination of thriller-readers. They have difficulty distinguishing between fiction and the reality reported in the Cape Times. The purpose and usefulness of the revelations is that they will establish, not the criminal liability of individual perpetrators, but a political and administrative liability that allowed and encouraged the crimes. If the new order is to be qualitatively different from the old, it will have to alter those institutional frameworks rather than appropriate them. That was the error Zimbabwe made: simply continuing with the emergency legislation of its predecessor.

One thing that has not so far been explained is why apartheid’s leading victims have not been preaching revenge. The ANC’s Barbara Masekala, who has spent most of her exile in the US, has highlighted a crucial difference between American and South African blacks: ‘The average black South African is not alienated,’ and South Africa lacks the US racial polarisation. South African blacks have been subjugated but not conquered spiritually. They can relate to their oppressors as equals. Mandela’s demeanour and discourse display a pride and self-confidence that equal those of his oppressors. He even learned their despised language – but not to gain entry as a colonised subject. Black consciousness, as a sense of identity that has rid itself of the inferiority complex of an internalised slave mentality, has reaffirmed a genuine non-racialism among black activists of all political strategies. There is no counter-racism among blacks. This universalism, this transcendence of narrow group thinking, is something the South African Government has experienced for the first time. It was the precondition for a remarkable moderation.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences