11 February 1990, South Africa:
Apartheid and After
The man comes walking, tall and solemn and slow. One of his hands bends into a fist, an old
fist, tight with stamina and ash. He raises it before the crowd, which presses in on him and
takes possession of his name. (Hirson 1996: 10)
‘One long ocean away’ from South Africa, the expatriate poet Denis Hirson views in these extracts the global relay of images which accompanied Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
There are only a few yards to go now, the ground widens under his feet. It is February 11th,
1990. History waits for him like a big smart car and he gets in … (Hirson 1996: 4, 11)
The moment, as Hirson’s poem attests, was one of undeniable, even redemptive, power. So much so, that some commentators see it as having inaugurated ‘the civilised twentieth century’ – belatedly, yet not without consolation (Asmal, Asmal and Roberts 1997: 1). This judgement makes the slow and as yet precarious dismantling of apartheid, with its anticipation of moral repair and material reparation, into the occasion for an impromptu realignment of the century. In a stroke, the familiar invocation of the apartheid State as a powerful token of moral reproach is reversed, for ‘civilisation’ – or at the very least, democracy – will soon enough take up residence in South Africa. ‘One more/ news programme and Mandela comes walking, behind/ him the unsealed door of an entire country’ (Hirson 1996: 12).
Within that country, however, unqualified optimism would become progressively harder to sustain. In the months following the euphoria of release, massacres, political assassinations, and the daily testimony of black South Africans bore constant reminders that death had become a silent partner at the negotiating tables where South Africa’s new identity was being forged. What became of the hints of redemption amid this devastation? In one tangible sense, they were concentrated in the figure of Nelson Mandela whose incisive political agency was augmented now by sheer visibility as the very incarnation of transition. A character in Pamela Jooste’s post-apartheid novel People Like Ourselves reflects on the moment:
For all of his young life you weren’t allowed to see Nelson Mandela at all. Some or other
Department put a stop to all that as if it was dangerous just to look at his face, but things have