Maclean's archives: Nelson Mandela and the dawn of a new era

Nelson Mandela assumes the mantle of power in May 1994

From the Maclean’s archives, May 23, 1994: Scott Steele on the day Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black president: 

Less than five years ago, he was officially considered a “non-person.” During the darkest days of apartheid, those who dared to quote him, keep his photograph, or even publicly speak his name, could end up in jail. But last week, in an emotional ceremony that ranked among the most remarkable events of the 20th century, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela–whose African National Congress won a landslide victory in April’s multiracial elections–was sworn in as South Africa’s first black president. Under tight security, a crowd of about 150,000, including kings, princes, heads of state, government leaders and officials from 169 countries, assembled outside Pretoria’s stately Union Buildings to hear Mandela herald the dawn of a new era in his homeland. “The time for the healing of wounds has come,” declared the 75-year-old president in an inaugural address that brought tears to the eyes of black and white alike. “The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”

While a choir sang the country’s two official national anthems, Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika (God Bless Africa) and the Afrikaner song Die Stem (The Call), South African air force jets flew overhead, leaving smoke trails in the black, green, gold, red, white and blue of the new national flag. Behind Mandela stood former president F. W. de Klerk who in February, 1990, approved his release from prison after 27 years. That launched the country on the road to reform that ended 342 years of white domination–and extended the vote to 30 million blacks. At a banquet held in Mandela’s honor the night before his inauguration in Pretoria, de Klerk, who along with ANC chairman Thabo Mbeki will now serve as deputy president in a five-year national unity government, gave his final speech as South African leader. “This is the capital city of a country that had the guts, the courage, at a great moment in its history to rise above its divisions and break through to peace and reconciliation,” he said.

Among the many dignitaries who travelled to Pretoria for Mandela’s inauguration were Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Ezer Weizman of Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. Elsewhere, at a reception in Ottawa hosted by the South African Embassy, Prime Minister Jean Chretien congratulated the nation on its “triumph of negotiation over violence, of tolerance over hatred.” Trade Minister Roy MacLaren and Finance Minister Paul Martin, meanwhile, announced that Ottawa will grant preferential tariffs to imports from South Africa–resulting in at least a 33-per-cent reduction in duty on those goods.

But as world leaders toasted the birth of a nation and many South Africans danced in the streets, not everyone was celebrating. In the whites-only town of Ventersdorp, 200 km west of Pretoria, where Eugene Terre’Blanche’s neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement is headquartered, the streets were eerily quiet. Across South Africa, counselling services were inundated with calls from distraught whites concerned about their sudden loss of status. And Constand Viljoen, an advocate of an exclusively white Afrikaner homeland whose right-wing Freedom Party won nine seats in the 400-seat National Assembly, declared tersely after Mandela’s inauguration: “Today is not so important. What is important is what follows.”

Mandela is acutely aware of the difficulties ahead. He and his new 27-member cabinet–which includes his estranged wife, Winnie, as a junior minister–must tackle 40-per-cent unemployment and a 50-per-cent illiteracy rate. The black majority, 75 per cent of the population, is anxious for Mandela to make good on election promises to provide jobs, houses, education, health care and basic utilities to millions. Meanwhile, he must confront the violence between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal region–not to mention the threat of right-wing white terrorism. But Mandela went out of his way last week to stress his message of inclusion. “We shall build a society,” declared the new president, “in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity–a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”