The Plot to Save South Africa by Justice Malala Review

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Reviewer: Richard Stengel (The Guardian UK)

The Nelson Mandela we meet in Justice Malala’s gripping and important book, The Plot to Save South Africa, is the man in full. This is the Mandela I knew, two years out of prison, at the height of his influence and fame. Malala tells the story of the seven days after the assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993, when, he argues, South Africa came closest to tipping into civil war. Mandela believed that too. Hani was the popular head of the African National Congress’s military wing and the South African Communist party, and a man often hinted at as Mandela’s successor.

Malala, a well-known South African journalist and author, describes Hani’s death as a “Where were you when” moment in the country’s history. I remember where I was, as Malala notes in the book: I was with Mandela at his home in the Transkei when he got the call telling him Hani had been killed. We had just come back from an early morning walk and I had no idea what the call was about. But I watched Mandela’s face freeze into a deep frown of concentration and concern. He didn’t panic. He didn’t raise his voice. Everything he did was slow and deliberate. People wondered whether he became emotional after he learned of Hani’s death – he saw him as a protege. He didn’t. He became focused.

The killing happened at a delicate time. Talks between the government had been suspended for months and had just restarted nine days before. No election date had been set. The constitution was not yet written. There was violence every day. A peaceful outcome was never inevitable. Hani was beloved by young Black South Africans, but demonised by older white South Africans. For white people, he was the epitome of the swart gevaar – the Black threat. Then president FW de Klerk feared the killing would bring forth violence from the militant left; Mandela feared it would ignite a violent counterrevolution from the right. In the end, they both saw the killing for what it was: an attempt to derail the peace process.

Malala brings forth many new details about Janusz Waluś, the Polish-born killer and his links to absurd but dangerous figures such as the South African Conservative MP Clive Derby-Lewis (who was jailed for life for his part in the assassination). Malala also sketches out the threat from the right: the white-supremacist neo-Nazi group the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, or Afrikaner Resistance Movement) had 127 training camps within South Africa. Mandela always believed that the shadowy rightwing groups known as the “Third Force” were clandestinely supported by the government. Malala makes that case too.

So many saw the moment Mandela spoke on television after the assassination – both his wooden remarks on the night of the killing and the more moving speech three days later – as a watershed moment in South African history, when the balance of power and authority passed from De Klerk to Mandela. But Malala suggests that De Klerk understood that only Mandela’s words and image could keep the peace and save the country, and so he ceded the spotlight. That’s leadership too.

Malala does not depict Mandela as flawless – he didn’t always know the right thing to do; he waited and prevaricated, but he kept at it. That was true throughout his life. Mandela also benefited from some of the real but unchronicled drivers of history: inertia, incompetence, luck. Throughout that week he was for the most part pitch perfect, which may have been his superpower. “Let us not be provoked,” he said at Hani’s funeral, and he rarely was. In the end, he did not let a crisis go to waste, and not only did Hani’s killing not lead to civil war, it hastened the path to democracy. It’s also, as Malala says, a darn good yarn.

Malala presents Mandela as the man whose vision and calmness saved his country. Steinberg ends his book by noting that to many young Black South Africans, Mandela is not seen this way at all, but as a timid, grey-haired sellout who spent more time trying to placate white people than lift up Black people. They identify more with Winnie, Steinberg says, with her anger, her bitterness, her unrepentance. History is a pendulum, reputations swing back and forth. But at the moment we are living in a time when millions of people have come to identify grievance and vengeance with leadership, instead of reasonableness and compromise. That’s a dangerous world, and not the one Nelson Mandela tried to create.

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