The Night That Nelson Mandela Became The De Facto President Of South Africa

By Carl Niehaus



On the fateful Easter Sunday morning of the 10th of April 1993 Chris Hani was assassinated by Janusz Waluš, a Polish immigrant. Comrade Chris was next to comrade Nelson Mandela probably the most popular leader of the ANC and General Secretary of the South African Communist Party.

A most terrible blow was delivered to our liberation Movement, and as Chris’ lifeless body was laying in a pool of blood in the driveway of his Dawn Park home, our nation was literally bleeding too.

In townships throughout South Africa, within seconds of the news spreading that Chris was assassinated, thousands of people were out in the streets giving vent to their grief and anger. The negotiations between the African National Congress and National Party had been dragging on, while violence by vigilante groups (generally called the ‘Third Force’) escalated and tore African communities apart. Evidence mounted that the apartheid regime was not only sponsoring them, but was also directing their actions. Already the people of South Africa were becoming tired and deeply frustrated, but the brutal assassination of this leader who was the very embodiment of their hopes for a liberated future, was the tipping point for their pent-up anger to explode. South Africa was teetering on a precipice from which it would have been almost impossible to return to relatively peaceful negations, once we have plunged over it.

It was in the midst of this crisis, with huge angry crowds marching and mobilising and violence erupting everywhere that Madiba in his capacity as President of the African National Congress called the then (still) South African President, FW de Klerk, and insisted that he be given the opportunity to address the nation on the main SABC TV news at 8 pm that evening.

In any normal society one would have expected the President of the country to make such an address, especially so in the midst of the magnitude of the kind of crisis that we were faced with. However, De Klerk had no democratic or moral authority to do so, the only person who had the authority to speak on behalf of the majority of South Africans at that point – to express our grief and pain and to call for calm – was Nelson Mandela. To his credit De Klerk did not resist – he understood that he was only in name still President of South Africa, but the person on whose shoulders the people of South Africa had already bestowed the power to determine the destiny of South Africa was Madiba.

It was agreed for Madiba to pre-record a short four minute message to our nation, and that it would be broadcasted as the first item of the evening’s main news broadcast.

Such were the levels of suspicion between the ANC and the NP government that we insisted on Madiba’s message being pre-recorded by the ANC’s own television unit and that it be delivered to the SABC only for them to broadcast it without any editing.

It was critical that Madiba’s message had to be carefully constructed with the correct balance between expressing indignation and anger at the assassination of Comrade Chris, and also calling for calm. Madiba insisted that it had to be pointed out that although it was a white man who pulled the trigger killing Comrade Chris, it was a white woman who courageously came forward and provided the evidence that lead to the arrest of Waluš.

Thus the following two sentences were included:

“A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster.

A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin.”

In this manner Madiba was trying to avoid that angry black South Africans would direct their rightful anger at whites, and thus for a race-war to erupt that could tear South Africa apart.

It was difficult, nigh impossible, to get this careful balance right in four minutes. As it turned out the final recorded message was just short of six minutes.

To make the recording was not easy, all of us were shaken up and emotional. While doing the recording the camera team, those of us working on the text and those directing the recording, were all in tears. Everyone knew Chris intimately, many having spent long harsh years in exile with him.

What made it even more difficult is that Madiba dealt with his grief in a very stoic manner. It was as if he was bottling up all the grief and anger that he felt deep inside himself, with his face having become almost expressionless and his voice monotone. He understood the massive responsibility that rested on his shoulders, one too angry word – one momentarily uncontrolled expression of the emotions that were boiling inside him – could ignite an inextinguishable raging fire throughout the country. To get the right balance between deeply felt – but controlled – grief and anger was difficult, and several recordings had to be made.

Just in the nick of time we rushed with the final recording to the SABC, only to be met by an unctuous Johan Pretorius, the SABC TV News-Editor in Chief. Pretorius was an apartheid lackey of note. He got the job as the SABC’s chief journalist as a reward for being spokesman, flack-catcher, and apologist for the apartheid regime of former President P. W. Botha (who was known without affection, as The Big Crocodile.)

That evening the pathetic narrow mindedness of this little Goebbels was in full display. Red-faced and hyperventilating he told us that he was told that Madiba’s message was to be four minutes long, if it was now longer he would not be able to broadcast it. For less than two measly minutes this apartheid apparatchik was prepared to let the country go up in flames. He was so out of touch that I do not think he even realised the magnitude of the disaster that he could have unleashed.

The whole afternoon messages went out that Madiba would address the nation at 8 pm, all over the country people were gathering in front of their televisions and radios waiting to hear what the message of our leader was. For that message then not to be broadcasted would have been the final straw. People would have immediately realised that Madiba was muzzled, and one can only hold your heart at the thought at what would have happened then.

We just could not let this mean little man with his pink smooth face do this, so an urgent phone call was made to Madiba who in turn phoned De Klerk.

What exactly Madiba said to De Klerk at about 7:55 pm that evening remained between them, but it was enough for Pretorius to receive a phone call within seconds. Whether it was De Klerk himself on the other side of the line, or one of his ministers, I do not know but it was someone big enough in Pretorius’ little world to have made him jump up behind his desk saying: “Ja meneer”, “Goed meneer”, “Ek maak so meneer” (‘Yes sir’, ‘Right sir’, ‘I will do so sir’), and as he put the phone down he grabbed the video recording with Madiba’s message and ran to the broadcasting studio, with the rest of our team running after him to make sure that he did actually get it to the studio and broadcasted. There were now literally only seconds left to spare.

I decided to stay behind and to watch on the television in Pretorius’ office how the broadcast actually looked when it went out to the millions of South Africans who were waiting. Exactly on time the newsreader introduced the message of Mr. Nelson Mandela, President of the African National Congress, to the nation and a stoically faced Madiba started: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being…”

(The full text of that historic message can be read at: http://m.news24.com/news24/NelsonMandela/Speeches/FULL-TEXT-On-Chris-Hani-20110124, and the full recording can be seen at: https://youtu.be/_1uG2NDwzZU)

As I caught my breath and listened I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. In the midst of this immense tragedy I was looking at the great leader of our people bringing a massage of grief, but also of determination and hope that we would none the less succeed in our quest for justice and freedom. The true President of South Africa was speaking and saving our Nation!

At that moment I knew no matter how evil the plans of the assassins were, and no matter how cruel the bullets that tore comrade Chris’ body apart, they have failed. Now it was only a matter of time before the people would speak through the ballot box and these evil racists would be vanquished once and for all.

This story would not be complete without telling about a bitter-sweet phone call that came about halfway through the broadcast of Madiba’s message. The phone in Pretorius’ office rang, and I thought although it was not my office I should answer it in case it was one of the comrades who ran after him to the broadcasting studio, trying to get hold of me. As I picked up the phone there was the voice of an angry Afrikaans woman on the other side, and without even asking who she was talking to, saying: “Het die ANC nou oorgeneem daar by julle? Ek is naar om te moet luister na hierdie blêrrie ou Mandela!” (‘Has the ANC taken over there. I am nauseous having to listen to this bloody old Mandela!’). In her racist rage she was clearly unable to realise how Madiba was actually saving her own white skin… I was taken aback and did not immediately respond. Not getting a reply she hesitated and asked: “Met wie praat ek nou!” (‘Who am I talking to?’). I could not resist to answered back in Afrikaans: “Met Carl Niehaus van die ANC” (‘With Carl Niehaus of the ANC’). There was a long, shocked, silence and then she exclaimed: “O Here God!” (‘O Lord God!’), and the phone went dead…

Obviously the woman phoned to complain about the Madiba broadcast, and in the tense and chaotic atmosphere that prevailed that night at the SABC the switchboard operator told her that she is being put through to the office of the Head of News, and then this white Afrikaner ‘traitor’ of the ANC answered. I can just imagine what she told her family and friends: “Dis verby, die ANC het oorgeneem!” (‘It is over the ANC has taken over!’)

And yes, in a way, it was actually over that night. De Klerk had to acknowledge that he had lost control, and that only Madiba had the moral and personal authority to restore calm. In that brutally cathartic moment of our nation mourning the death of one of our greatest liberation fighters, the batton of power passed from the white hands of De Klerk and the NP to the black hands of Nelson Mandela and the ANC. The blood of Comrade Chris that was spilled that day ensured that the National Party could no longer drag the negotiations out, and gave the ANC the leverage to secure the election date of the 27th of April 1994.

Securing that iconic date of our first democratic elections was the final gift that Comrade Chris secured with the sacrifice of his life for all of us. In remembering this we should also remember that no-one among us was clearer than Comrade Chris that securing our non-racial one-person-one-vote democracy, was only the first big step in our National Democratic Revolution (NDR). In Chris’ mind there was no doubt that ultimately our liberation would only be secured by economic justice, with the control of our country’s economy in the hands of the broadest possible cross-section of black (African) South Africans.

Memories such as these should serve to ensure that we will work even harder to secure Radical Economic Transformation. We dare not fail comrade Chris and the many other liberation fighters who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

*Carl Niehaus is a former member of the NEC of the ANC and MK veteran.

All Carl’s articles can also be found on his blog, Carl’s Corner: www.carlniehaus.co.za

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  1. I love reading Carl’s opinion pieces, they are a refreshing insight into the history of our democracy.

  2. The voice of reason tirelessly scratching on the conscience of our beloved movement quietly reminding every comrade and cadre that the precipice we are at is neither the first nor the last and politely yet ferociously calling for a revival of the spirit that was the embodiment of our forebears.

    We salute you comrade Carl history will reward you with eternal recognition. Soldier on in the knowledge that your wise words and counsel do find resonance in many a minds and lodge securely in every heart they touch. The seed will germinate quietly in many more as we seek to share your comments as widely as possible and attempt to give meaning to those few minds we are won’t to share with. Alluta!

  3. Wow Carl is taking me back 24 years. Watching that broadcast by the then President of the ANC, i wanted to do anything he would have told us to. Great was my surprise when he called on us to be calm and await our chance of liberation. That Comrade Chris had paid the supreme sacrifice for me and everybody else, black and white, is extremely humbling, to this day. We dare not fail either Comrade Chris and former and late President Nelson R Mandela. Thank you Comrade Carl for narrating this story most eloquently.

  4. As the narrative continues by Crde Carl, i cant hold my memories of that night. The Xhosa Zulu news were read by Noxolo Grootboom as she could hardly contain her tears her self that night. It was a well placed and strategic message from Crde Nelson which really soften the anger most of us felt on that day.
    The legacy of Crde Chris must be uphold at all times, which at this point the SACP should be strongly pushing rather than the rhetoric msg we hear on the removal of the president. Vission is currently lost and one wonders as to what happen to dialectical observation and understanding of contradictions so as to have a clear abstract of the intelectual view and direct positioning of the NDR. Some thing really must be done. Thanks Commander Carl for such vivid and lively memories.

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