It was a classic Thabo Mbeki performance - making a contentious and divisive situation as inclusive as possible. He neutralised his opponents and got them to agree with what he wants.
Having all political parties represented on a reference group to consider pardons from both freedom fighters and apartheid perpetrators is pure Mbeki finesse and in line with recent ANC tactics and strategy. The reference group will consider all applications and recommend who should be pardoned.
Consider how Mbeki, with colleagues such as Cyril Ramaphosa, managed in the early 1990s to counter the aggressive war talk of Freedom Front Plus leader, and former army general, Constand Viljoen who wanted an Afrikaner volkstaat and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who wanted international mediation over the role of Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini.
Of course there were other factors involved which forced Viljoen and Buthelezi back to the talks. This included the violence that threatened to destabilise KwaZulu-Natal and the spectacular humiliation on national television of the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweeging's (AWB) during their ill-fated raid of Bophuthatswana. In addition, the ANC made friends with King Goodwill Zwelithini, further isolating Buthelezi. Mbeki later offered Buthelezi the important Home Affairs Department, which ended badly when the two fell out. But the purpose to marginalise Buthelezi was achieved. The volkstaat dream ended much the same way.
Mbeki told Mark Gevisser in his excellent biography The Dream Deferred:"Part of what has informed our behaviour for so many years, to keep talking, is because you have a feeling that these things that you are saying and doing are right. So somebody else might differ, fine. But you are quite convinced that if you actually sat and discussed that, they would change theirminds."
So is this whole move a con, as Viljoen so crudely described his sidelining over the volkstaat idea? It certainly has the whiff of a huge dollop of cynicism about it. Here you have politicians sitting around a table talking about an issue over which they will have no power at all because in the final analysis, as Mbeki stressed in his speech in parliament on Wednesday, he has the final say, as the constitution allows.
Despite his love-hate relationship with the media, Mbeki knows all about spin, having once been the ANC's head of information and propaganda. This is why a joint sitting of both houses was the ideal platform for making the announcement. And to give a soft-focus to the whole affair, he says it is all in the interest of "nation building and national reconciliation".
Already, the rules of engagement have been drawn up by Mbeki. Political parties have until December 10 to give their names to his director-general, Frank Chikane. Then the reference group will be set up to ready themselves for the window period between January 15 and April 15 next year. They will in all likelihood also have to engage with Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla over the terms of reference of the group and its time frame for getting the work done.
Party leaders will also have to do the spade work to get together all their members who want pardons, most likely spending valuable resources and time in doing so, while Mbeki deals with more important matters like the ANC conference and the troublesome matter of countering his arch-opponent, Jacob Zuma.
In addition, there are further guidelines: No pardons for those who were refused amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which excludes Chris Hani's killers and probably many others too. This means that the National Prosecuting Authority can continue its work in chasing those people who were refused amnesty by the TRC for gross violations of human rights.
There will also be no pardons for those convicted of domestic violence; dealing in, possessing or using drugs; and sexual assaults. This might exclude many more because many of those imprisoned are likely to have other cases pending, even though they might have committed some offences that could rightly be claimed to be politically motivated.
It also now seems patently clear that Mbeki will have achieved one of his main aims, which is to get two men off his back, the PAC's Motsoko Pheko and the IFP's chief whip Koos van der Merwe. The two men will in all likelihood drop their pending Pretoria high court case which is considering charges of human rights violations against Mabandla and Mbeki because it has now been rendered meaningless. Pheko, his voice trembling with emotion, went so far as praising his political opponent as a man with "courage" and the "voice of reason". This even before an outcome has been achieved.
Van der Merwe was less conciliatory, slamming Mbeki and Mabandla for taking so long in setting up a framework for the pardons. He rightly pointed out that a framework for pardons was in place a long time ago, but was done so especially for ANC and PAC operatives. He referred specifically to pardons in 2002 of 33 Eastern Cape prisoners, some of whom were denied amnesty, thus "undermining" the TRC process as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said afterwards.
And then there was the controversial pardon and the wiping out of the criminal record of convicted fraudster Allan Boesak, Mbeki's longtime friend from his exile days, which caused much anger and loathing.
Mbeki has clearly won this round, but it will be a while still before a true measure can be taken of his decision, particularly whether it does help nation building and reconciliation.