However, the world and Africa were changing.

As the tide of imperialism ebbed from Africa, South Africa found itself floundering in the last pool of white rule.  We were glaringly out of step with the new international norms of non-discrimination, equality and self-determination that had been articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On 3 February 1960 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan 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”.   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 next 30 years were dominated by escalating confrontation between what Macmillan had described as this “new” and “free” European-descended nation, on the one hand, and the rising tide of black national consciousness on the other.

Between 1960 and 1989 South Africa entered a vortex of deepening isolation and escalating conflict.

By the mid-1980s we found ourselves on the back of an increasingly angry and fractious black tiger.

The world was shouting at us to dismount – which we dearly wanted to do.  However, we had profound existential fears about the tiger-dismounting process:

We searched desperately for solutions.

During the 1960s and 1970s we tried territorial partition – but it was a complete failure: our attempt to unscramble the South African omelette proved to be impossible and led to even greater injustice.

We tried reform:

However, these reforms simply poured petrol on already inflamed expectations: the battle cry of the ANC was not “Reform!” – it was “Amandla!” – and “Amandla” means “Power”!

Nevertheless, South Africa was already changing.  Rapid economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s was impacting economic relationships and political opinions:

At the end of the 1980s history opened a window of opportunity for change:

Some right-wingers thought that we could cling to power indefinitely.  Others wanted us to carve out a white homeland somewhere in the country. Still others, wanted us to hold out for a white veto in a new multi-racial government.  None of these approaches stood the slightest chance of being acceptable to the great majority of South Africans – or to the international community.

Let me be clear:  if we had not reached a settlement as soon as possible after the collapse of the Soviet Union the balance of forces would have inexorably – and quite quickly – shifted against us. With each passing year we would have been less able to secure our core interests – which is exactly what happened to Ian Smith in Rhodesia.

Just as 2 February 1990 was not the result of a Damascus conversion – neither was it forced on us by the ANC, by sanctions or any other external factors.

We were motivated overwhelmingly by our own conviction that that a successful future could be constructed only on the foundations of justice for all South Africans.  We accepted that we had a moral duty to get rid of the policies that had brought so much injustice and suffering to so many people over so many years.  In the end, it was we ourselves who repealed the last vestiges of apartheid legislation.

We realised – on this basis – that the circumstances for successful negotiations would never again be so favorable.  So, on 2 February 1990, we opened the way to constitutional negotiations.  We leapt through the window of opportunity that had been blown open by the winds of change from Eastern Europe.

It was 30 years, less one day, after Harold Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech.

By former President FW de Klerk
1 February 2020

*First published on Netwerk24 in Afrikaans