A score year ago – on the eve of the first democratic elections in South Africa, supporters of two top leaders in South Africa: Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) were on the verge of war. Many top diplomats including US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his British counterpart Lord Carrington were making frantic efforts to avoid the looming violence, but never quite earned the trust of the two leaders and as such their efforts remained futile.
It would however, take a Kenyan former diplomat, Professor Washington Jalang’o Okumu to craft a deal that was agreeable to both Mandela and Buthelezi and succeeding where Henry Kissinger and Lord Carrington had failed. The deal would pave way for South Africa independence elections that brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power.
In interviews years later after the historic deal, Prof. Okumu recalls that the intensive peace talks between Mandela, Buthelezi and himself lasted for five days and took place in Johannesburg at a concealed location.
In Okumu’s words at the time, Rwanda’s genocide would have been a picnic in comparison to South Africa, had the two leaders failed to reach a consensus. The then US Secretary of State Warren M Christopher said more than two million lives would have been lost.
The big man, as he was fondly known by his peers in the diplomatic world at the time, recalls cooling his heels on the tarmac at the international airport in Johannesburg, waiting to catch a flight to Nairobi when the plane carrying Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi suddenly developed mechanical problems mid-air. “It was an act of God,” notes Prof. Okumu.
“Dr Henry Kissinger and a former British Prime Minister James Callaghan who were part of the negotiating team had surrendered and flown out of South Africa in despair. I managed to convince Buthelezi to return to the negotiation venue with Nelson Mandela and drop his Inkatha Freedom Party’ push for an independent Zulu nation that had caused the impasse. I told Buthelezi to think of the bigger picture and how history would treat him harshly if South Africa imploded into a slaughterhouse because of his intransigence.” He says.
But the problems were not only with Chief Buthelezi. The professor said that the left wing of the ANC, and in particular Mac Maharaj and Joe Slovo, wanted to crush Chief Buthelezi militarily after the election. Mr Mandela at first refused to accept that the position of the Zulu king should be enshrined in the national constitution because he was afraid other chiefs would want similar status. But he finally gave way
In an astonishing last-minute climb-down, Chief Buthelezi began to waver and asked Professor Okumu to stay on. After four days of frantic shuttling – in a private jet provided by the United States – between President F W de Klerk, Mr Mandela and Chief Buthelezi, the three leaders signed a declaration yesterday which enshrined the status of the Zulu king in the constitution. In return, Chief Buthelezi agreed to take part in the elections.
President de Klerk wanted Inkatha to vote as part of the National Party in the national elections and stand in KwaZulu only in the provincial elections. In the end both men gave way. The deal Professor Okumu worked out was Inkatha should participate, Chief Buthelezi would call off Inkatha’s mass action and reject violence, and the king’s status would be recognised and institutionalised.
The agreement promised an eventual end to political violence in South Africa, virtually guaranteeing free and fair elections and provide a platform for lasting peace and stability. ‘This agreement is a leap forward for peace, for reconciliation, for nation-building and the inclusivity of the elections,’ Mr Mandela said. ‘We have made fantastic progress.’ The agreement, he added, honoured the human spirit. It also ensured that on 10 May, Mr Mandela would be inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.
President de Klerk described what had been accomplised as ‘a triumph for the South African nation’. The agreement removed ‘the last main reason for tension and violence in the country’.
Chief Buthelezi, who appeared more relaxed than he had done in public for a long time, said Inkatha had decided to make compromises ‘in order to avoid a great deal more bloodshed and carnage’. ‘South Africa may well have been saved from disastrous consequences.’
Professor Okumu first met Mr Mandela before the ANC leader was jailed in 1962. He had also known Chief Buthelezi for 20 years. Both sides wanted someone they could trust. Prof. Okumu would be their man.
Prof. Okumu recalls the moment he presented the deal to the parties: “Mandela stopped me and argued that no peace deal had been reached. I shouted him down. A few minutes later Mandela calmed down. The peace deal was then announced to the excitement of not only South Africans, but also millions of people across the world.”
After the first democratic election, Mandela created a government of national unity and appointed Buthelezi a minister. In an amazing gesture of reconciliation, Mandela made Buthelezi acting president on 22 occasions, when he and his deputy Thambo Mbeki were out of the country.
Okumu said Mandela invited him to South African in 2009, and with then Mali President Toumani Toure, and that of Cape Verde Pedre Pires and former Tanzanian president Ali Hassan Mwinyi. He nostalgically recalls that Mandela told former President Thabo Mbeki to change his sitting position, during the event. “He told him to move to a few seats from him to create space for me. I was completely humbled by the gesture.”
The professor remains one of Africa’s proudest sons, with indelible spoors in the sands of the continent he once straddled in the diplomatic sphere like a colossus. Ostensibly, a legend from the peace he brokered to convert apartheid South Africa into the prosperous rainbow nation it is today, Okumu watches the twilight glow of his days from his rural home at Nyang’oma village near Bondo township, Siaya County, ailing but cheerful