While the Mercury was engaged in active internal change, the South African community was engaged in a far more dramatic and difficult effort to change. In 1991, when I arrived at the Mercury, though a year had passed since the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, apartheid structures were still in place and could only be dismantled as negotiations paved the way to a better future.
Newly freed political organisations were jostling with each other and with established parliamentary parties for political advantage, with the result that the political climate was often a lot darker than it should have been after de Klerk’s landmark speech of 1990.
The state of education in the country, for instance, was a cause for major concern, something that has persisted into the new democracy. At the start of 1991, the matric results from the previous year showed a pass rate of only 36,4%.
The state of security for the general public was in many cases threatened by mindless acts of savagery, the Sebokeng massacre of 35 people in March 1991 being a typical example at that time of violence in the black community. A few months later, police opened fire on right-wing demonstrators at Ventersdorp, killing three AWB members and a black man in an example of violent political rivalry among whites.
But, while more acts of violence were still happening, the process of political reconciliation was being advanced by the release of activists for their past acts of violence or public disturbance. In March 1991, 40 prisoners were released, including the right-wing extremist Piet Rudolph and ANC activist Tony Yengeni.
The Mercury indicated that for many, if not most, peace-loving people, it went against the grain to see convicted terror activists indemnified and freed. But it admitted that, “to supplant force with peaceful negotiation and a return to democratic methods of working for change must involve a clearing of the decks of the past . . .” So the government’s decision to release reactionary and radical activists among the 40 prisoners “must be welcomed as a constructive step to remove remaining obstacles to peaceful negotiation”.
In August 1991, the government agreed to a general amnesty for all exiles, opening the way for the United Nations Human Rights Commission to bring them home. It was part of the process of normalisation and also part of making further negotiations possible between all parties who wanted to choose their own representatives.
By late that month, the National Party had a constitutional plan on the table radically different from all its apartheid blueprints of the past. The Mercury complimented it on “a remarkable and praiseworthy conversion”. Points the Mercury approved of were its efforts to balance countrywide strength by giving regional safeguards in an upper house, and its plan to put the constitution in the hands of the courts. But it argued that “the abandonment of the constituency system is a mistake. Proportional representation based on a list system gives party bureaucrats powers that properly belong with the voters, to choose election candidates . . .”
By early 1992, constitutional negotiations were running into snags at Codesa because of the IFP’s demands for the inclusion of the Zulu king in the negotiations, something the ANC would not allow. The wrangle between the two parties over the position of Zulu royalty in the new constitution dragged on for months, later turning into a tug-of-war between the two parties for the king’s affections and for his influence over Zulu voters. Much violence in Natal originated with this wrangle over the place of royalty (and of traditional leaders generally) in the new democratic system.
A further complication in the negotiation process was the defeat of the National Party in one of its traditional strongholds, Potchefstroom, at a by-election in February 1992. The Conservative Party took the seat by more than 2 000 votes, but its victory forced de Klerk into a bold counter-attack. He called a referendum among the white electorate on his reform policies. As the Mercury put it, the poll “will remove uncertainty following the Potchefstroom by-election over who should represent whites in negotiating the future, and whether the government still enjoys their overall confidence”. The 11% swing the Potchefstroom result had shown was big enough, if extrapolated across the country, to allow the Conservatives to claim that they actually already had majority white support.
The Mercury argued that the Potchefstroom result showed the CP’s victory was one of “fear over reason” and said salvation for whites and all other groups lay in conciliation.
Even before this pronouncement, the Mercury’s liberal policy was causing trouble with certain right-wing readers, who kept up a barrage of critical letters about the tone the paper now had. One F Buckman wrote: “From your first dictatorial ‘Head On’ article, in which you labelled separatists as ‘bigots’ and the tone of your editorials and articles since, it has been clear that you are so very pro-leftist, pro-liberal, pro-black . . . The fact that you have so often condemned even the ‘mild’ right in politics has indicated your bigoted outlook.” Though I did not often put footnotes to readers’ letters, I did to this one, saying: “Liberal we may be, leftist not. The time for favouring one race above another has passed. But readers are free to express their views.”
De Klerk’s decision to hold a referendum only among the white electorate, at the very time when he was negotiating to include all races in a new South African democracy, was controversial and also increased the risk he was taking. By gambling on the white electorate giving a go-ahead for further reform away from apartheid, he was placing the onus once more on the white minority to decide the future for the whole multi-racial society. Importantly though, de Klerk would not have made the gamble if he thought he might lose, so the decision was really to put the Conservatives in their place as a minority, and to cut their claims to speak for the majority of whites from under them.
By June the Codesa negotiations were deadlocked and de Klerk’s headaches were increased by the ANC’s threat of mass action “to unlock the doors of democracy”. The Mercury argued that urgent steps were needed by both the Nationalist government and the ANC to make mass action unnecessary. “White rule must give way to non-racial rule, with civil rights security for all. The government must not try to cling to power, nor the ANC to snatch it. Time is running out. The need for real talking, real concessions, is now.”
To add to the tension, Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi threatened civil disobedience from his followers unless King Goodwill Zwelithini was admitted as a delegate to the Codesa talks.
A real crisis then emerged as 39 people were killed in a township massacre at Boipatong, resulting in the ANC pulling out of the talks altogether. Boipatong was seen as an IFP revenge exercise against ANC hounding of IFP adherents in the hostels, but there were also strong allegations of police complicity with the IFP. Mandela said about the ANC withdrawal: “I can no longer explain to our people why we continue talking to a government which is murdering our people.”
The Mercury said: “We would support the ANC in its decision, for one reason only: the political climate is no longer conducive to negotiation. All parties need a substantial re-think of their positions before talks go on.”
Blame for the breakdown, however, was apportioned by the Mercury to all the major parties – the Nationalists for holding to extraordinarily tough conditions for passing majority decisions in the constitution-making process, deliberately delaying the establishment of an interim government and trying to hang onto power by a virtual white veto. The ANC, for its part, was censured for violent and provocative action, and was seen as the “main instigator” with the IFP of much of the violence occurring.
But the violence and the tensions continued. In November, the government actually declared Richmond and Umbumbulu unrest areas to try to halt the killings. At that time, the ANC Midlands deputy chairman Reggie Hadebe was assassinated in an ambush on a country road outside Ixopo. The Mercury wrote a leader which received considerable praise from several quarters following this death, the editorial being displayed in some business premises in Durban for workers to read, as an example of the way forward.
The editorial was modelled on Alan Paton’s wonderful description of the Ixopo area in his novel “Cry the Beloved Country”, quoting: “The great valley of the Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there . . . But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
The editorial asked if there could be anyone who did not know the killing of Hadebe was wrong and solved nothing. “It is reason for the Beloved Country to cry, to weep close to despair.”
There would be those in the IFP who would exult at the killing of Hadebe, a leading ANC figure in an organisation responsible for the deaths of scores of Inkatha leaders. “There is, in fact, no room for exultation. The death of Reggie Hadebe personifies a tragedy that is bringing Natal (and SA) to its knees. For every Hadebe there is an IFP leader who has died.
“Who can challenge Reggie Hadebe’s commitment to a better SA? They would be foolish to do so. He was a partisan, but he cared . . . enough to put his life on the line, enough to lose his life for the cause. And there are many like him – as many from the IFP as from the ANC. They are all our brothers. So weep for them. In their death lies a little dying for every one of us.
“The killers do not see the light. The great valley of the Umzimkulu – and of the Umkomaas, where Reggie Hadebe died this week – is still in darkness, and the light must still come there. The light from the dawn is available to all who will see it. It is time the politicians stopped to look.
“There is indeed a lovely road running from Ixopo into the hills, where the rains feed the streams in every kloof. But today those streams should run with the tears of the nation for compatriots dead and dying in futile combat . . . and the titihoya sings forlornly.”
With violence breaking out all over the place, and negotiations at a virtual standstill, church leaders joined forces in November 1992 to make a call for peace before Christmas. It was a call the Mercury responded to immediately, starting a “Push for Peace” campaign and calling on readers to contribute ideas that could have practical effect in bringing the community to peace. In addition, the Mercury staged a “Push for Peace” fun run through the streets of Umlazi township and called on readers from all communities to participate.
The fun run was supported by the mayor of Durban, Margaret Winter, who personally turned out to walk the course. Leading figures in the sugar industry were also there, as also were certain Western diplomats who wished to associate themselves with the campaign. The fun run was a resounding success, well supported by thousands, who were greeted with warmth and affection by the residents of Umlazi. The New York marathon champion, Zulu runner Willie Mtolo, turned out at the fun run to lend his support, without asking for any fee.
The fun run coincided, by chance, with celebrations the Mercury was holding to mark its 140th anniversary of publication. The mayor kindly stood the Mercury an official cocktail party to help the celebrations. On November 25, the 140th anniversary, the Mercury recalled that the paper as a political influence had gone through several phases – first as a settler paper, then as a champion of Natal responsible government, and after Union as a fighter for Natal’s provincial rights. After the republic was formed in 1961, it put economic growth as a greater priority than politics, which we admitted had given it a more conservative feel than other English-language newspapers.
“Through all these changes, the Mercury intends to remain a credible, responsible source of information and entertainment for its readers, and to lead the way to the new South Africa by strongly promoting cross-racial and cross-cultural co-operation and harmony. It remains firmly on the side of economic growth, opposed to unfair discrimination, a campaigner for democratic practice and a champion of Natal’s place in the sun . . .”
The same weekend the Merury held its “Push for Peace” fun run, and at a time when new moves were afoot to get the negotiations back on track for a political settlement, the country was subjected again to a murderous terror attack, this time on whites attending an innocent Saturday night party in King William’s Town.
The Mercury commented that what made this unprovoked attack the more alarming was that it had come “at a time when the main body of white opinion has already moved away from confrontation.”
If it was true that the main body of white opinion was moving towards conciliation, the Mercury was shown it did not have the wind blowing entirely with it in these sentiments and campaigns it was participating in. A reader, J.L. Buys, wrote: “As far as your ‘liberal outlook’ is concerned, you have certainly achieved monumental success in turning what was once a politically balanced, fair newspaper into an NP/ANC propaganda sheet . . . I know you see all political events in South Africa through pitch black lenses.”
The fact Buys linked the NP and the ANC together as a common political force – in spite of the active opposition they showed to each other - strongly suggested his views came from the very far right. The Mercury had definitely offended people of that ilk with the changes it had introduced.