Madiba kept the faith

THE story of Nelson Mandela and my involvement in the campaign for his release is more than a political issue. Throughout his incarceration, until 1989 - just before his release - I was one of the few people with whom Mandela corresponded.

Some of these letters are in The Prisoner in the Garden. But our friendship began many years before.

I grew up in the ANC Youth League at the University of Fort Hare, where I met Oliver Tambo and the then general secretary of the ANC, Walter Sisulu. Sisulu introduced me to Mandela.

At one point Mandela lived at Wenela Compound in Eloff Street Extension, Johannesburg, and was a frequent visitor to the home of my father-in-law, Zacchariah Mzila. When my father-in-law died, Mandela and Tambo, being attorneys, wound up my his estate.

I could never come to Johannesburg without Mandela inviting me to his home in Orlando, Soweto. He extended this hospitality when he was married to Evelyn (Mase) and later to Winnie (Madikizela). The Rivonia Trial came as a blow to the liberation movement and to us personally.

In 1974, as head of the KwaZulu government, I met prime minister John Vorster and raised the issue of Mandela's release. Vorster was intransigent. He claimed Mandela had boasted in court that he was a communist. This I could not believe.

Vorster said his father had taught him never to put a snake in his bosom and, as long as he was prime minister, he would never release Mandela.

I founded the Inkatha Freedom Party the following year and started a campaign for Mandela's release, addressing rallies in Soweto, Umlazi and Langa in Cape Town.

I celebrated Mandela's 70th birthday with a rally in Umlazi, and continued to correspond with him.

After president PW Botha resigned, president FW de Klerk approached me to start negotiations to work out a new political dispensation.

A committee was appointed to identify the preconditions and parameters of that dialogue. My team included Dr Oscar Dhlomo, Dr Frank Mdlalose and Rowley Arenstein, who was the longest banned South African. Together we set one non-negotiable condition; the release of Mandela and other political prisoners. Consequently, on February 2 1990, announcing the release of Mandela, De Klerk made the following statement:

"To those political leaders who have always resisted violence I say thank you for your principled stands. This includes . leaders of important organisations and movements, such as Chief Minister Buthelezi . Through their participation and discussion they have made an important contribution to this moment in which the process of free political participation is able to be restored. Their places in the negotiating process are assured."

I must admit, it was hard to believe this was happening. I had always found it remarkable how, throughout our correspondence, Mandela always referred to what would happen after his release. Despite his long incarceration, he never doubted that ultimately he would be released. He never abandoned hope, as if he believed what RL Stevenson said, that "It is better to travel in hope than to arrive".

In his last letter in 1989, he lamented the political violence which had grown into a low-intensity civil war between ANC/UDF (United Democratic Front) members and members of IFP. He wrote that, when he was released, we should do something together to stop the violence.

On February 11 1990 I sat with my eyes glued to the television. I had hardly slept the previous night in anticipation. Six days later, Mandela phoned me. He arranged to come and see me so that together we could visit the Zulu king.

It is one of the saddest disappointments which I shall carry to my grave that that never happened. When traditional leaders in the then Transkei asked Mandela why he and I had not met, since our friendship was not a secret, Mandela answered that the leaders of the UDF and ANC had prevented him from seeing me.

It was not until the 29th of January 1991 that Madiba and I met in Durban, with our delegations, almost a year after his release. Thabo Mbeki was the ANC's scribe at that meeting, and Walter Felgate was ours.

In a joint communique it was agreed that Mandela and I would, from that day forward, address joint rallies of ANC and Inkatha members. A few days later I was invited to address a rally at Taylor's Halt near Pietermaritzburg. I immediately phoned Mandela and suggested that we go together in terms of our agreement.

I was disappointed a few days later to learn that Mandela was no longer coming because ANC leader in the province, Harry Gwala, had taken a bus-load of KwaZulu-Natal leaders to tell Mandela that he should not go and should not address a joint rally with me.

Even with these disappointments, it was a privilege to serve in president Mandela's cabinet as the first minister of Home Affairs under our democratic dispensation.

Today I remember the 11th of February 1990 as a landmark in our history. On that date we felt the doors were opening to a democratic South Africa. And from there, together, we started the long process of negotiations towards democracy.

l Buthelezi is a member of Parliament and president of the IFP