At the end of the War white South Africans were viewed by the international community simply as another component of the British Commonwealth alongside the other dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In both world wars South African forces fought alongside other commonwealth troops in the Western Desert and Europe. Jan Smuts was one of the most revered leaders in the victorious aliance. Nobody questioned the legitimacy of the Union Government or the right to self-determination of its white population. The primary difference between the Union and the other dominions was that it had a far larger indigenous population – but, shockingly, in accordance with the values (or lack of values) of the time indigenous populations, wherever they lived, were not regarded as part of the political equation.

However, the world was about to experience a seismic shift in the mindset of humanity. Before the war, racial, gender and class discrimination had been regarded as natural and acceptable facets of relationships between human beings:

After the War these attitudes began to change.  The liberal and egalitarian value systems that western societies had long professed began to percolate into their national consciousnesses.

The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 gave new impetus to this process. In one of history’s more ironic moments Field Marshall Jan Smuts drafted the preamble to the UN Charter. It reaffirmed “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” 

At the end of May 1948 The National Party swept to a surprise election victory on a platform of ‘apartheid’ – or rigid racial separation and undisguised racial domination. Six months later the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) which proclaimed that

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status.”

This was one of the most important advances in human history. Within two or three generations it led to a world that was better, kinder and fairer for billions of people.

It also had profound implications for South Africa.

After the Suez debacle in 1956 and the collapse of the last vestiges of Anglo-French imperial will, the process of decolonization gained unstoppable momentum. In February 1960 Harold Macmillan Harold told the South African parliament that “the wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.” Interestingly, in the same speech he gave recognition to the nationhood of white South Africans: “…here in Africa you have yourselves created a free nation. A new nation. Indeed, in the history of our times yours will be recorded as the first of the African nationalists.”

The following thirty years would be dominated by escalating conflict between white and black nationalisms – within the framework of the emerging global values that had been articulated in the UNDHR.

Hendrik Verwoerd’s response to Macmillan was, yes, he was aware of the ‘wind of change’ and that was why South Africa had decided to embark on its own process of internal decolonization. The first period of National Party rule (1948 – 1958) had been characterized by unadorned and unapologetic racial discrimination and domination. The second period (1958 -1978) had evolved into “separate development” in terms of which South Africa would grant independence to the ten black ethnic groups in the 13,7% of the country that, according to the government, they had originally occupied. There was no provision for black South Africans who would remain in the so-called white areas – or for the constitutional accommodation of the Coloured and Indian minorities. Rigid segregation was retained – except in the national states – and more than two million people were forcibly moved from their homes as part of Verwoerd’s grand design. 16 million black South Africans were arrested for pass offences. A generation of NP supporters was deluded into thinking that they had found an equitable solution to the country’s problems.

The third – or ‘reform’ – period of National Party rule (1978 – 1989) was characterized by PW Botha’s acceptance that Verwoerdian notion of separate development was not working and that white South Africans would have to “adapt or die”. It was based on the view that the white South African nation – to which Macmillan had referred – would have to dismount the tiger of increasingly angry black nationalism if it wished to survive. But how would it be able to perform this maneuver without being devoured – and without sacrificing the right of the European-descended South African nation to self-determination?

The world – and the great majority of South Africans – were demanding with increasing vehemence that the NP government should accept the outcome of one-man, one-vote elections. The Botha government regarded this as suicide. It feared that this would mean the end of Afrikaner’s long struggle for national self-determination; it was deeply concerned about the influence of the SACP supported by Soviet intrusion in the sub-continent; and it was worried about the prospect of chaos that had afflicted so many other newly liberated African countries.

Botha launched reforms that extended trade union rights to black workers; that sought to accommodate the constitutional rights of Coloureds and Indians in a Tricameral Parliament (whether they wanted this or not); and that repealed more than 100 apartheid measures – including the hated pass laws. However, PW Botha was evidently not a student of De Tocqueville: he did not understand that revolutions are driven by precisely the kind of expectations that his reforms had ignited. Protests flared across the country; sanctions tightened; international banks pulled the plug on South Africa’s short term loans; and Botha declared a draconian state of emergency. The reform process came to a grinding halt – compounded by PW Botha’s incomprehensible and disastrously presold Rubicon speech.

The fourth – ‘transformation’ – period of NP rule (1989 -1994) commenced with the election of FW de Klerk as leader of the NP on 2 February 1989. By this time the ANC and the NP had concluded that there would have to be a negotiated settlement; Soviet influence in southern African was rapidly waning following the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola in conjunction with the successful implementation of the UN independence plan for Namibia. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, precipitated the wholesale rout of international communism.

FW de Klerk realized that the circumstances for successful negotiations would never again be so propitious. On 2 February 1990 he initiated the negotiation process by unbanning the ANC and SACP and by announcing the imminent release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners. It was thirty years – minus one day – after Macmillan’s ‘Wind of change’ speech.

After many crises caused by faceless violence, walk-outs by the ANC and the IFP and the assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993, the Multiparty Negotiating Forum finally reached agreement on an Interim Constitution in December 1993. By that time, the De Klerk government had removed the last vestiges of apartheid legislation from the country’s law books. This paved the way for South Africa’s first universal elections on 27 April 1994 and the installation of the Government of National Unity – from which the New National Party withdrew in June 1996.

South Africa was, at last, in step with the new values of equality, non-racialism and non-discrimination that had been proclaimed in the UNDHR. White South Africans had dismounted the tiger – apparently without being devoured – but at the cost of their right to national self-determination. Henceforth they would have to depend on the constitutional accord that they had negotiated with the ANC for the preservation of their rights, their language and their cultural identity. The new Constitution – that they hoped would secure these rights – was adopted by parliament on 8 May 1996 – exactly 24 years ago and 51 years after the end of World War II in Europe.

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By Dave Steward, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation