The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan talks about the life and legacy of former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

To fully appreciate what former South African president Nelson Mandela was able to accomplish, it is necessary to hearken back to the South Africa he found when he emerged from prison in 1990, and what the country was like in those critical four years between his release and his election to the presidency in 1994.

Put simply, South Africa was a violent, dangerous and heavily-armed place teetering precariously on the edge of an all-out race war. And in the early 1990s, it was entirely unclear which way the country would go.

On one side, embittered white rejectionists were refusing to even contemplate a future under black rule, and they were waging a campaign of subterfuge, sabotage and assassination. The racist paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement, waving its Swastika-like flag, raided the conference center hosting the all-race peace talks negotiating apartheid’s end. A right-wing Polish immigrant assassinated the charismatic anti-apartheid stalwart Chris Hani. White militants tried to prop up a black puppet dictator in the so-called “homeland” of Bophuthatswana and stirred up black-on-black violence in the townships. A bombing spree by white supremacists, targeting Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts airport and the African National Congress (ANC) offices, killed and wounded dozens.

On the opposite side, South Africa’s black townships were saturated with violence — political killings, revenge slayings and murders by ordinary criminals. Mandela’s ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, backed by the minority white regime, were in a state of full-blown war. Disaffected black youth were becoming radicalized and primed for revenge against their white oppressors. The demobilization of the ANC’s military wing added another layer of unemployed, disgruntled blacks and left the country awash in AK-47 assault rifles. The black nationalist Pan African Congress made known their preference for murdering all white people, whom they deemed “settlers,” with their rallying cry, “One Settler, One Bullet!” It was a slogan, one member helpfully explained, that simply meant they didn’t want to waste ammunition.

In 1993, some 55 South Africans were being killed each day; more than 52,800 died violently between 1990 and 1993 — more than twice the number of South Africans killed in the two world wars. And the very real fear of a cataclysmic race war seemed crystallized by the brutal 1993 killing of a 26-year-old white American Fulbright scholar named Amy Biehl, who was dragged from her car outside Cape Town and stabbed and stoned to death by an angry black mob shouting anti-white slogans.


Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba, led the struggle to replace South Africa's apartheid regime with a multi-racial democracy. See key moments in his life.


Listen to an excerpt of Mandela's famous speech.

From my home base in Nairobi, I traveled several times to South Africa during that period — each time convinced I was covering the opening shots of an outright civil war. I had covered several of those already in Africa, most notably in Somalia, as well as tribal conflicts in Kenya and beyond. But the battle looming in South Africa was bound to be bigger, even more violent; both sides, black and white, were armed to the teeth and fighting for their existence.

On one visit in 1993, I visited the poor, teeming black township of Alexandria, in Johannesburg, and spoke with a peace activist named Linda Twala. At the time, he sounded downright pessimistic.

“One day, if the fire breaks out, many blacks are going to start killing whites,” he told me. “To cross over to the white area, you don’t need a car. You can walk and carry your AK-47. And what could they do? Nothing.”

Exiting Victor Verster Prison in February 1990, Mandela, then 72 years old, found a country racially polarized and staring down the abyss of a bloody civil war. He had no official power or government title — F.W. de Klerk was still South Africa’s president, with full control over the country’s security forces. But what Mandela did have was moral suasion, born of his 27 years of confinement.

His task was a delicate one. He had to at once reassure the country’s terrified white minority that there would be no black reprisals, and that there was a place for them in the new South Africa that was coming. Mandela seemed to have taken to heart the advice of Mozambique’s president, Samora Machel, imparted to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at the time of that country’s independence: “Keep your whites.”

Yet, at the same time, Mandela had to persuade the restive black majority to be patient after centuries of injustices under apartheid, to reject violence — even as blacks continued to be subjected to violence by the security forces and white right-wing paramilitaries.

Miraculously, Mandela found a way to thread the needle. He did it through words and simple gestures, and through the force of his own outsize personality. Each time the country seemed inescapably hurtling toward a violent cataclysm, Mandela almost single-handedly found a way to pull it back.

One such turning point came in April 1993, when Chris Hani’s assassination seemed like the spark that would ignite the fire. Mandela took to national television that night to soothe the nation and appeal for calm.

“Tonight, I am reaching out to every South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being,” Mandela said. “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for — the freedom of all of us.”

He called on whites to join in the many memorial services and commemorations. He called on the police to exercise “sensitivity” and restraint. And he asked blacks to show “discipline” and conduct the funeral service and rallies “with dignity.”

“This is a watershed moment for all of us,” Mandela intoned. “We must not let the men who worship war, and who lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country into another Angola.”

South Africa managed to pass through that pivotal moment. A full-scale race war was averted. The Rainbow Nation, against all likelihood, became a reality. And reporters like me who had predicted the worst were thankfully proven wrong.

Keith B. Richburg was The Washington Post’s Africa bureau chief based in Nairobi from 1991 through 1994.