SPEECH: LOOKING BACK 30 YEARS ON THE SOUTH AFRICAN TRANSITION, ITS STRUCTURES AND PROCESSES

200131 TE1. Background

It is generally acknowledged that the first cracks in the apartheid system appeared in 1976, when the youth of Soweto (near Johannesburg) started to protest against the system that they experienced as unjust. The ANC in exile claimed credit for this uprising. This was met by stern measures by the South African government. That, however, did not quell the internal or external resistance. When the National Party Government used the 1983 General (but whites only) Election to get a mandate to establish a tricameral parliament, thereby including so-called coloureds and South Africans from Asian descent, but cementing the exclusion of Africans, the resistance increased. A variety of internal organisations, ranging from labour unions to community organisations, formed the United Democratic Front (UDF) to channel the resistance. The UDF was, cleverly, established in such a way that it was very difficult for the government to ban it as an organisation.

The mid-1980's therefore saw South Africa in increasing and more regular conflict. The ANC’s armed struggle intensified and the war on the Namibian borders against Swapo and its Angolan allies started to sap the energy of the South African armed forces. The then president, PW Botha, responded to the internal resistance by building a very sophisticated security bureaucracy and declaring a number of states of emergencies, that gave the state (including the military) almost unlimited powers. As a consequence, the international community’s pressure on the apartheid government increased and it was especially the introduction of financial sanctions that hurt the government and the economy as a whole. PW Botha’s intransigence gave no hope to reformed-minded members of the government, and when he suffered a stroke, he was asked to step down as president. 

The then Minister of Education, FW de Klerk, was appointed as his successor in 1989. At the time seen as a conservative, De Klerk surprised even his closest allies by unbanning the main political organisations and releasing almost all political prisoners on 2 February 1990. Much has been written about the driving forces behind De Klerk’s decision, but it can be assumed that the fact that a military solution and victory was not imminent (for either side), that the economy was suffering badly and that international pressure (even from benign countries) was mounting, were all contributing factors. De Klerk himself also cited the fact that it was a morally correct decision, although he has consistently denied a quick Damascus-like conversion (Keynote address at the conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 2nd February 1990 speech, Cape Town, 3 February 2015). In addition to all the internal pressures that lead to this decision, the fact that the Berlin Wall had fallen and that communism was internationally discredited thoroughly, made it easier for De Klerk to take this dramatic and brave step.

All of the above set the scene for a period of transition. Allister Sparks in “Tomorrow is Another Country (1994:116 onwards) describes some of the processes behind the scenes, given that discussions between the ANC’s leadership in exile and the Government’s intelligence service had already started before 2 February 1990.  These meetings were now more focused, dealing with issues such as the return of the exiles and planning for the first meeting between the ANC leadership and the Government inside South Africa.

In an atmosphere still filled with tension and mutual suspicions, the first meeting took place from 2-4 May at Groote Schuur, an official house at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town. It resulted in the “Groote Schuur Minute”, detailing agreements that would facilitate the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles and the amending of security legislation. At the next meeting in Pretoria on 7 August, Mandela announced the unilateral suspension of the ANC’s armed struggle (Sparks, 1994:124). 

The scene seemed to be set for more substantive negotiations, but the question remained: How? As a liberation movement the ANC had been in exile for decades and had no reason to negotiate. The UDF had some experience in negotiations in the labour arena. The National Party Government did not have outstanding negotiation skills. Despite the progress made in the abovementioned bilateral accords between the SA Government and the ANC, the biggest stumbling block was the violence that was still plaguing the country, and linked to that the state of emergency in Natal. The major parties (ANC, IFP and Government) blamed each other for the violence. It was clear that no constitutional negotiations were possible before violence, including the role of the armed forces (on both sides), had been addressed.

Speech by Dr Theuns Eloff, to the FW de Klerk Foundation Annual Conference, Radisson Blu Hotel, Granger Bay
31 January 2020

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