He reminded his audience of how desperate the situation in South Africa had been in the mid-1980s. Efforts to reform apartheid had failed. The country was beset with internal unrest and increasingly violent protests. International banks had refused to roll over South Africa’s short-term debt. There were increasing demands for comprehensive economic sanctions and the SADF was confronted with escalating border wars.
De Klerk said that there had been “no signs of light on the dark and stormy horizon”.
However, by 1990 South Africa had clawed its way back from the precipice:
- The SADF’s victory at the battle of the Lomba River in September 1987 had finally convinced the Soviets, the Cubans and the Angolans that there was no prospect of a military victory.
- By 1987 the ANC had accepted that revolution would not succeed and that the only path to the future lay through negotiations;
- The successful independence process in Namibia in 1989 showed that it was possible to negotiate positive outcomes with enemies;
- Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union – symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 – signaled the arrival of an entirely new global paradigm.
De Klerk said that by the beginning of 1990 these events had opened a historic window of opportunity for a peaceful and negotiated settlement. “We did not hesitate. We jumped through – and after almost four years of roller-coaster negotiations we were able to reach a national accord on our future. It was our proudest moment”. The 1993 and 1996 constitutions were the outcome of the genuine give and take process. The agreements contained all the basic rights that were needed to maintain a free and prosperous society.
De Klerk then listed South Africa’s “many, many successes” since 1994 – many of which had resulted from government action.
At the same time, he added that one could hardly disagree with the diagnosis of the National Planning Commission regarding the challenges that South Africa now faced. They included:
- High unemployment – closer to 40% than the official figure of 25.6%;
- poor education – especially for black South Africans;
- poor public service delivery;
- rising levels of corruption; and
- the fact that South Africa was still a divided society. De Klerk said that another growing problem was the increasingly destructive role that was being played by militant trade unions. “It is one of the main causes of unemployment and of our failure to attract the foreign investment that we need for sustained economic growth”. He observed that
- South Africa had the worst labour relations in the world. “According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report it is the worst of 144 countries assessed in terms of co-operation in labour-employer relations”;
- COSATU had continuously raised labour costs without commensurate productivity increases – which had inevitably resulted in job losses. South Africa’s flexibility of wage determination was the fourth worst in the world.
- South Africa’s labour legislation was amongst the most onerous anywhere. South Africa’s hiring and firing practices were the second worst in the world.
- COSATU’s campaign to abolish labour brokers could lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
- COSATU had steadfastly opposed proposals to open labour markets to the unemployed.
- It was destroying jobs by alienating foreign and domestic investors through its confrontational stance and open support for nationalisation.
De Klerk added that on top of all this had come the Marikana massacre of 16 August last year; the subsequent wave of violent and uncontrolled wildcat strikes and hopelessly unrealistic wage demands. All this had been compounded by the precipitous fall of the rand against the US dollar.
In turning to the future, De Klerk observed that although predicting the future was difficult in rapidly changing times there were a number of salient factors that would undoubtedly influence the future course of events.
- Whatever happened in South Africa would continue to take place within the framework of macro-developments on the global stage;
- Current developments within the ANC’s ruling alliance would play a key role. “The question is whether the leadership will be able to hold together an alliance which now encompasses the whole spectrum from Stalinism to social democracy; from exclusive black nationalism to inclusive non-racialism; from genuine commitment to sound governance to crony capitalism and rampant kleptocracy?” De Klerk asked whether the ANC would be able to continue to plaster over these gaping cracks – or would it split?
- Another determining factor was whether it would be possible to moderate the behaviour of South Africa’s rampant and wildly irresponsible trade unions?
- Also, would government be able to break away from its race-based ideology and accept that the skills of all South Africans would have to be used if the country wanted to address its problems and achieve its potential?
- Finally, a critical factor would be South Africa’s ability to maintain its excellent Constitution and the institutions that it created including free and impartial courts; an independent National Prosecuting Authority; and government that was accountable, transparent and responsive.
De Klerk said that he remained an optimist. He believed that South Africa would be able to surmount the challenges that confronted it – just as it had been able to overcome the much greater problems that it faced 25 years ago.
Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation Cape Town
16 September 2013