At the time it was regarded throughout the world and in South Africa itself as our greatest achievement. It was viewed as the culmination of one of the most remarkable and successful conflict resolution processes – not only in the history of southern Africa – but also in the recent history of the world. And yet this great coming together of all our people is gradually being airbrushed out of our history and is being replaced by a triumphalist narrative that 27 April marked little more than the ANC’s revolutionary victory over a defeated and discredited enemy.

The roots of our transformation process were quite different. Only a few years before 1994 the world and most South Africans feared that the country was trundling inexorably toward a catastrophic race war. And then suddenly, at the end of the 1980s, the situation in southern Africa began to show signs of promise:

And so, representatives of all the significant parties came together in December 1991 at CODESA – the Congress for a Democratic South Africa.  They did so on the basis of a historic Declaration of Intent whose first purpose was:

“to bring about an undivided South Africa with one nation sharing a common citizenship, patriotism and loyalty, pursuing amidst our diversity, freedom, equality and security for all irrespective of race, colour, sex or creed; a country free from apartheid or any other form of discrimination or domination.”

During the next two years the negotiating parties succeeded in reaching agreement on an Interim Constitution that embodied all the goals that had been included in the Declaration of Intent.  They did so despite numerous crises caused by faceless violence; assassinations, deadlocks, walkouts and boycotts.

We were able to achieve success because we all accepted the need to take into account the reasonable concerns and interests of all our communities and to make sometimes painful compromises to reach lasting agreements.

The core elements of the Declaration of Intent and the Interim Constitution were later distilled in the foundational values in section one of our present Constitution.  Every South African should know them by heart.  They include “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; non-racialism and non-sexism; supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law”; and a genuine “multi-party system of democratic government to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.”

In the intervening years we have achieved only partial success in making the foundational values a reality in the lives of most South Africans:

Now, 25 years after the founding of our new non-racial democracy, there are fears that some of the premises on which our new society was based are in danger of unravelling:

We will be able to achieve success only if we return to the approaches that enabled us to achieve agreement 25 years ago. We should all endorse the ANC’s call for us to ‘work together’ – but this requires that:

Despite all this, South Africa today is a much better place than it was 25 years ago.

All of us should now redouble our efforts to achieve the vision that we articulated in the founding values of our Constitution.  In so doing we should not forget what we were able to achieve during our great transformation process when for a magical moment we all worked together to build a new and better society.

By FW de Klerk
26 April 2019