Obituary: Washington Okumu, professor who saved SA from war in 1994

27 November 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Washington Okumu, who has died in Kenya at the age of 80, saved South Africa from a possible bloodbath when he persuaded IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, against all odds, to take part in the democratic elections in 1994. Buthelezi was holding out for a federal form of government in the new South Africa in which regions such as KwaZulu-Natal, where he was confident of a majority, would be pretty much self-governing.The constitution that emerged from the negotiations at the World Trade Centre, which Buthelezi had walked out of, provided for a unitary government with limited devolution of power to the regions.With the elections fast approaching, Buthelezi refused to budge.Not even moderates within the IFP could sway him.There was a stark indication of how volatile the situation was when, on March 28 1994, one month before the election was due, thousands of Inkatha supporters armed with spears, pangas and knobkerries marched through the centre of Johannesburg and were gunned down by ANC security officers outside the ANC headquarters at Shell House.Fifty-three people, mostly from Inkatha, were killed.It was a bloody reminder of how devastating the consequences of the IFP's non-participation in the elections might be.Prior to this had come Judge Richard Goldstone's chilling revelation that South African and KwaZulu police had been supplying weapons to the IFP.Nelson Mandela asked an international team of mediators for help in breaking the deadlock.They arrived in the country two weeks before the scheduled election, led by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former British foreign secretary Lord Carrington. Okumu was a junior member of the delegation.Born in Kenya on February 20 1936, Okumu at the time was an ebullient, larger-than-life 58-year-old economics professor and former diplomat who had worked for the UN and been Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta's private secretary.A graduate of Cambridge university, which he attended on a Commonwealth scholarship, and Harvard, he had spent many years studying African economics and politics with a focus on apartheid.This experience and the fact that he had known Buthelezi for 20 years and knew Mandela, whom he met in London in 1962, had led to his inclusion in the high-powered team.Their mediation was doomed before it could properly begin. The ANC and IFP could not even agree on the terms of reference.Okumu said a major obstacle was that the left wing of the ANC, led by Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj, actually didn't want Buthelezi to participate. They believed that his boycott of the elections would provide an ideal opportunity to crush him once and for all.Kissinger and Carrington decided they were wasting their time and flew out of the country in despair, if not disgust. Okumu was waiting for a flight to Nairobi and Buthelezi was on his way back to KwaZulu-Natal.But Okumu's plane developed mechanical problems and was forced to return to Johannesburg. When he saw Buthelezi at the airport, Okumu felt, he said later, that it was "an act of God".He talked Buthelezi into dropping his demand for an independent Zulu nation and returning to the negotiation venue."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."The Rwandan genocide was into its second week and Okumu told Buthelezi it would "look like a picnic in comparison to a failed South Africa".After four days of frantic shuttling between FW de Klerk, Mandela and Buthelezi, during which Okumu used a private jet made available by the US, he hammered out an agreement which the three leaders signed on April 19, one week before the elections were due to begin.According to the agreement, the status of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini would be enshrined in the constitution, something Mandela had previously refused to accept, and Buthelezi would reject violence and participate in the election.This caused a bit of an administrative nightmare with the IFP's name having to be added to 80million ballot papers that had already been printed.Okumu had no doubt that the alternative would have been unimaginably worse. "Chief Buthelezi always believed he had enough money and weapons to cause chaos, and was preparing for guerrilla war. He was prepared to do that," he said.Buthelezi said the IFP had decided to make compromises "in order to avoid a great deal more bloodshed and carnage".Okumu is survived by his children. His wife, Rispah, died in 2011.1936-2016..

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