Ever wonder how South Africa's former leaders justified apartheid?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The death of Nelson Mandela was not unexpected but it has caused many of us to pause and consider the life of a man who spent three decades in prison but went on to lead his country. Mandela's death has certainly caused the BBC's veteran reporter John Humphrys to think about that. He knows South Africa well and he reports now on some of the pivotal events he witnessed there.

John Humphrys: I began reporting from South Africa a few years after Mandela was locked up and I lived there in the '70s as Apartheid tightened its grip. Black people had their very citizenship stolen from them, and were forced to become citizens of so-called "black homelands". The apostles of Apartheid wanted a white South Africa made up of white cities, blacks allowed on sufferance as servants of the white masters, and when they protested, many paid in blood. The young men threw stones and the police replied with bullets. Their leaders were arrested, and some, like the young Steve Biko, died at the hands of their thuggish captors. I went to Biko's inquest. "It's the circumstances of his death and captivity that have kept the name of Biko in the international headlines. During the morning, a crowd gathered outside the courthouse, giving the black power salute and shouting 'What have we done? Power is ours'". The protests from outside South Africa's borders grew louder, and those of us inside counted the days to what most were convinced was the inevitable outcome: bloody revolution - even civil war. And yet, the white rulers seemed almost detached from reality. After all, wasn't God on their side? They were led by the hard-line Africana P. W. Botha. He was to be the country's last Apartheid prime minister. I interviewed him in 1979.

Botha: We cannot just let everyone go in South Africa where they want to go. We have housing problems. We have work problems, and we cannot just allow people to move where they want to. South African conditions are quite different from European conditions.

Humphrys: But doesn't simple justice suggest that blacks should be treated exactly the same as whites?

Botha: Simple justice suggests that you must allow a black man with his family to live a healthy, decent life. And you must provide the work where possible for him, and not allow him to come and squat on your doorstep and then, in the name of Christianity, say "now that you've done your duty towards him."

Humphrys: Many people say South Africa inevitably faces internal revolution because of its racial policies.

Botha: People have said so over the period of 300 years, and today South Africa is one of the most peaceful countries in the world to live in.

Humphrys: Of course, South Africa was anything but peaceful, and Botha's successor F. W. de Klerk knew it. He offered one concession after another to try to hold back the rising anger of 40 million black South Africans, but they were never enough. On February 11, 1990, he bowed to the inevitable.

"...goes up from the crowd. Everybody's now rushing up to the prison gates. And now, Mr. Mandela walks through the gates - He's a free man..."

Humphrys: Free after 27 years. Apartheid was dead. Four years later it was formally bedded when the country's first free elections were held. They had opened the polling booths a day early, and as the sun rose over Soweto, the nations biggest black township where so much blood had been spilled in the dark days of Apartheid, I watched the birth of the new South Africa.

Humphrys: "...and you have just voted. You've been in and you've cast your vote, the first in your life."

"Yes. I must say that I'm very happy. After 30 years of my life, this is the first time I've voted, and to make it special, I've just voted with somebody in my womb.

Humphrys: "Somebody in your womb! So two of you voted!"

"Two of us voted! That's what makes it very special."

Humphrys: "Life is going to be very different for your son or daughter to what it has been so far for you, isn't it?"

"Actually, I know it's a son, so -"

Humphrys: "You know it's a son! Well, congratulations!"

"Maybe, who knows, he might be the future president of this country!"

Humphrys: "The next black president of South Africa!"

Humphrys: Mandela's majority was overwhelming. And it wasn't only black people who voted for him.

"...Shine South Africa! Shine! Viva Mandela! Viva democracy!"

Humphrys: Mandela was president for five years. He failed to achieve one of the two great aims that he spoke of at his inauguration - to bring prosperity to black South Africans. The fact is that millions still live in the most appalling poverty. But he succeeded in his other great aim - to reconcile a country divided by race for so long. To create a rainbow nation of people, as he put it, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity. The South Africa of today may be far from perfect, but he never pretended otherwise. But it is still a young nation, if you date its birth from the creation of its democracy, and there is hope for the future. Without Mandela, it might have been very different.

Werman: The BBC's John Humphrys there, with that report.