South Africa came very close to civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but instead of a bloodbath there was the negotiated settlement, also known as the 'miracle'. In fact parts of the country were in a state of civil war, and the miracle is that it didn't engulf the country.
Many at the forefront of the struggle did not think a peaceful settlement was possible. Was Mandela decisive in this outwitting of history? And if so, what was it about him?
Jonny Steinberg says Madiba was the difference, because he redefined, through his person, what freedom meant:
Mandela's genius was to show that forgiveness was not a magnanimous gesture, or the equivalent of a little loose change dropped into a bucket as an afterthought after freedom is achieved. He showed that a humiliated people might recoup its self-respect by forgiving, that forgiveness is a route to genuine power. It takes an unusual person to live and perform this idea. It could not be done merely by political calculation. A self-doubting person loses himself when he tries to forgive; he burns with humiliation. Mandela could really and truly forgive, without flinching, without losing his honor or his self-respect... It is not something one learns. It was him: the right person at the right time.
When Steinberg compares Mandela to a self-doubting person he gets at the heart of what made Mandela what he was. It was Steve Biko who, in Black Consciousness, gave theoretical formulation to the idea that to win their freedom black people had to liberate themselves from the psychological chains of internalised inferiority. In his early years as an African nationalist, Mandela advocated similar ideas of self-sufficiency, but his was less a philosophical stance than elemental: he simply never doubted that he was the equal of any man. Mandela's secret is his absolute self-confidence.
There are curious questions unanswered. Mandela was from an early age aware of his 'destiny' to follow his father as key counsellor to the Tembu chiefdom. Yet he has never explained, given that he was the youngest of his father's four sons, why it was he chosen for this responsibility. Perhaps it was a coincidence, or perhaps his outstanding quality was recognisable even then. In Long Walk to Freedom he writes that 'even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonouring them'. In Tom Lodge's fascinating biography of Madiba a childhood contemporary Dalibungu Joyi confirms that 'even in his childhood' Mandela won magnanimously.
On a daily basis all of our insecurities conspire to have us competing. Doesn't jealousy sometimes elicit pettiness from us, insecurity nastiness, fear aggression? Even if we resist, we measure ourselves in silence. We recognise our best self when anxiety is far distant. But these are the rules Mandela rewrote as the world's most self-possessed human. He showed us the generous meaning of true self-confidence; to delight in other people's strengths as assets in a collective struggle, and not to fear them as reflections of our own failings. What a gift!
This does not mean that Mandela was always gentle and warm. That is the myth. The man was also a political strategist, and a sometime imperious force stiffened with royal prerogative. A key milestone in the negotiations for a democratic South Africa was the Record of Understanding signed on 26 September 1992. To secure the ANC's demands Mandela phoned FW de Klerk, and issued him a brutal warning: "Because you know in the end you are going to give in. Because if you don't we are going to humiliate you. And I will see to it that that happens." Needless to say, de Klerk caved. Mandela didn't make idle threats and de Klerk knew it. He would have remembered being humiliated the previous year at CODESA, when, after abusing the final speaking slot of the day to place the responsibility for political violence on the ANC, Mandela made a devastating unprepared speech in which he reminded de Klerk that "even the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime as his, has certain moral standards to uphold."
Even more impressive was a speech he gave in Katlehong two years before the elections. Inkatha members, armed and supported by the white state, were carrying out attacks on the ANC. In various cases there were retaliatory attacks, and as the situation began to approach civil war Mandela was increasingly worried that the entire road to democracy was at risk. So concerned was Mandela that he made a number of public attacks on de Klerk's integrity, strongly implying that the government was orchestrating the violence. As Lodge relates, Mandela took the stage to find a note from his own supporters saying, "No peace, do not talk to us about peace. We've had enough. Please, Mr Mandela, no peace. Give us weapons. No peace." Mandela made the following remarks off the cuff:
There are times when our people participate in the killing of innocent people. It is difficult for us to say when people are angry that they must be non-violent. But the solution is peace, it is reconciliation, it is political tolerance. We must accept that blacks are fighting each other in the townships . . . we must accept that responsibility for ending the violence is not just the government's, the police's, the army's. It is also our responsibility. We must put our house in order. If you have no discipline you are not a freedom fighter. If you are going to kill innocent people, you don't belong to the ANC. Your task is reconciliation. Listen to me. Listen to me. I am your leader. I am going to give leadership. Do you want me to remain your leader? Yes? Well, as long as I am your leader, I will tell you, always, when you are wrong.
The relationship between the conditions of history and the human beings whose actions bend its course - the so-called objective and subjective factors - has long been a subject of fierce debate. Serious scholarship from all schools of thought has always recognised the interplay of multiple drivers of events. In 1845, Karl Marx made a famous call for humans to intervene into history: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it." Seven years later, writing about Napoleon, he cautioned: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
Many years later, after Marx's death, Engels explained: "That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for such a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found."
But in 1990 South Africa could not afford the long run.
The country was close to war. Those of us who were young, who didn't live in the townships, in the mining hostels, in KwaZulu-Natal, have no idea. Max Coleman and the Human Rights Committee (HRC) estimated that between July 1990 and June 1993, an average of 101 people died per month in politically related incidents in Kwa-Zulu Natal - a total of 3,653 deaths. Between July 1993 and the election in April 1994 the killing increased to 2.5 times its previous levels. In the area which is today Gauteng some 4,756 people were killed in politically related violence between July 1990 and June 1993, after which the death toll rose to four times its previous levels. It was on the brink.
A moment of historical possibility may open only briefly. "The conditions of war and revolution, however, would not allow the party a long period for fulfilling its mission. Thus it is by no means excluded that a disoriented and split party might have let slip the revolutionary opportunity for many years. The role of personality arises before us here on a truly gigantic scale." That was Trotsky's assessment of Lenin's role in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Apartheid South Africa was defeated because urbanisation concentrated black majorities in the white cities, where the people built the mass democratic movement on the back of the workers' organisations which were above all decisive. But Mandela's leadership was probably irreplaceable.
At a recent Equal Education debate with Ronnie Kasrils, Rob Petersen considered what a failure to reach agreement may have meant:
The alternative would, in my judgement, have entailed a descent into racial and tribal civil war, with the most likely outcome (even if you could call it a "victory") being a ruined country, a population more fundamentally divided, a harshly repressive regime, and an impoverishment much more dire and intractable.
Petersen was at that time a leader of the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC, a grouping which engaged in the efforts to arm and organise ANC-aligned workers in Alexandra for the purposes of self-defence. At that time he held the view that a negotiated settlement would not succeed in avoiding civil war. "In retrospect," he says, "I hold to the view that Mandela's assessment of the relationship of forces was the correct one."
The emphasis on Mandela's assessment of the balance of forces is important, because the founder of MK had not been converted to pacifism, but had reached the conclusion that greater gains were likely through negotiations.
Steinberg's point is that Mandela's genius lay not only in assessing the balance of forces, but in embodying the mission he had decided to undertake. Trust me, he seemed to say. The future is unclear, hard to believe in, but you can believe in me. You're not yet ready to find each other, but you can all find your way to me, meet through me. This applied as much to the clashing class interests in the ANC and South Africa's tribal rivalries as it did to racial reconciliation. His risk was not only to be the believer amongst the faithless, but to become the one in which everyone believed. Or at least suspended their disbelief. It was a project of extraordinary arrogance, if you think about it. That he managed it is why we celebrate and mourn him, but that he made it look not like arrogance but humility is the clue to his secret; his belief in the dignity of every person, beginning with himself.
Doron Isaacs is Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education. Follow him on Twitter @doronisaacs.