There can be little doubt that the international environment in which South Africa found itself between the end of the Second World War and 1989 played a central and often determining role in the dynamics that ultimately led to the country’s transition to democracy in 1994.


The reality is that most of the major developments in South African history have had their origins overseas.


The first European settlement in South Africa did not arise from any intrinsic attraction offered by the country – but rather because it was a convenient revictualling post between the Netherlands and the Dutch trading empire in the East Indies.  Control of the Cape passed to the British at the beginning of the nineteenth century – not because the British had much interest in colonising South Africa, but rather because they wanted to ensure that the Cape did not fall into the hands of the French.  Much of South Africa’s history during the nineteenth century was generated by the expansion of the British Empire – including the wars that led to the destruction of Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaner states in the sub-continent.  The greatest crises that South Africa experienced during the first half of the twentieth century – the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War – all had their origins on the global stage – and not in South Africa itself.


The world that confronted South Africa after the Second World War was dramatically different from the world that it had known before 1939.  The Atlantic Charter and President Roosevelt’s insistence on the right of all peoples to self-determination presaged the end of the great European colonial empires.  Even so the process occurred far more rapidly than most observers had anticipated. The independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 created the first major crack in the imperial dam.  The trickle of newly independent states from Ghana’s independence in 1956 onwards became a flood during the first half of the 60s. After bitter resistence, the final buffers of White rule collapsed in Angola and Mocambique in 1975 and in Zimbabwe in 1981.  All this left South Africa high, dry and exposed as the last white-ruled states in Africa.


With each newly independent state, the ranks of third world grew in the United Nations and other international forums.  As their numbers grew, their demands for the ending of apartheid and the total liberation of all of Africa became more and more insistent.   The third world majority was equally insistent that the mandate that the defunct League of Nations had granted South Africa to rule South West Africa was no longer valid.  They demanded that the territory should be placed under the UN trusteeship system in preparation for independence.


With each year that passed South Africa became more isolated and more out of step with the rest of the world.


After the US Supreme Court ruling in 1954, the concept of ‘separate but equal’ was thrown on the trash-heap of history.  Racial discrimination in any form became increasingly unacceptable.  Segregation of the races in South Africa – which before the Second World War raised few European and American eyebrows – became quite rightly anathema in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies.  Instead of joining the tide of history South Africa with its rigid apartheid laws was seen to be swimming doggedly against it. This led to an unprecedented global condemnation and a tightening net of international sanctions.  Hardly a week went by without some major anti-apartheid conference or demonstration somewhere in the world.  Generations of children in northern Europe were brought up to support the anti-apartheid crusade.


By the late 70s the ANC and the PAC had begun to launch guerrilla raids against South Africa from neighbouring countries.


All this led the South African government to conclude by the end of the 70s that it was confronted by a ‘total onslaught’ and that the only appropriate counteraction would be the development of a ‘total strategy’ that would marshal all the resources of the state to meet the growing external and internal threat:


All these activities culminated in 1985 and 1986 in the declaration of draconian States of Emergency which succeeded in containing unrest – but only after the detention of tens of thousands of activists.  However, SADF strategists were themselves the first to advise the government that only a comprehensive political solution would ultimately neutralise the threats that confronted the government.


The problem was to find a political solution that would not at the same time plunge the country into chaos, dictatorship or a race war.  The South African government had for a number of decades been looking about for some kind of settlement that would enable it to ‘normalise’ the situation in the country – for some way of dismounting the tiger without being devoured.


Why did the Government not simply accept the demands of the international community for a one-man, one-vote solution as envisaged in the Freedom Charter and the Lusaka Declaration?


There were three main obstacles:


It was one thing to negotiate the establishment of a genuine democratic system with constitutional safeguards for minorities and a strong bill of rights.  It was quite another thing to be duped into participating in a process that would lead to the establishment of a communist dictatorship.


By the end of the ‘eighties the South African government found itself in a grim position in its region and in the international community.


The need to achieve a comprehensive and internationally recognized settlement for the problems of South Africa itself became more pressing with each year that passed.


What circumstances internally and externally changed between the mid 80s and the end of the decade that made it possible for me to initiate our transformation process on 2 February 1990?



There were also a number of international factors that helped to facilitate and expedite change:


Some other developments were much more helpful.


The collapse of international communism also signalled the beginning of a new era of globalisation.  In terms of the new global realities governments could no longer behave as they wished.  If they wanted to be successful, they had to play by rules that required responsible free market financial, economic and fiscal policies; stability, good governance and democracy.


This was the kind of international framework within which all the contesting South African parties could do a deal.


We are proud that in the final analysis it was a deal that we South Africans conceived, negotiated and implemented ourselves.  We were in the fortunate position of not requiring international mediators to assist us. The international community did, indeed, play a helpful role as bystanders and election observers – but at the end of the day our successful transformation was a home-made South African product.  This I think is one of the reasons why our transformation process received such widespread support from all our communities.


Now the challenge for all South Africans is to ensure that we continue to work toward the ideals and vision in our constitution of a better and fairer country for all our people.