SPEECH BY MR F W DE KLERK AT A CONFERENCE ON RESTORING HOPE: BUILDING PEACE IN DIVIDED SOCIETIES
ARABELLA, 5 MAY 2003
THE INFLUENCE OF THE INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT ON SOUTH AFRICA’S TRANSITION FROM APARTHEID TO DEMOCRACY
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:
- To counteract the threat of oil sanctions South Africa developed its own oil from coal industry and pumped billions of rands into converting marginal gas from fields near Mossel Bay into petroleum.
- In response to international arms sanctions it began to develop its own armaments industry and ironically soon became a major arms exporter.
- It greatly developed, expanded and modernised its armed forces and also developed its own limited nuclear capability.
- South African strategists began to support rebel movements in neighbouring territories – Renamo in Mocambique and Unita in Angola to counteract the threat from cross-border raids by the ANC and the PAC.
- To deal with the internal threat posed by mass unrest in the early ‘eighties, the Government developed a National Management System which co-ordinated security and social services at all levels of administration throughout the country.
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:
- The first was that, unlike whites elsewhere in the continent, South African whites – and particularly Afrikaners – regarded themselves as a nation. The pursuit of national self-determination had been the driving force in Afrikaner history for more than 150 years. Acceptance of a one-man, one vote solution would inevitably mean the extinction of the Afrikaners’ historic mission to rule themselves in their own republic.
- Secondly, most whites doubted that a one-man, one-vote solution would lead to the establishment of a stable multi-racial democracy. They feared that it would instead result in the chaos, conflict, corruption and economic collapse that had plagued so many other African countries after independence.
- The third obstacle was the influence of the South African Communist Party within the leadership of the ANC. The ANC’s military wing Umkhonto We Sizwe was almost totally under the command of members of the SACP. A majority of the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee were also members of the SACP and held key positions in trade unions and other revolutionary structures. The intelligence community was convinced – with good reason – that the SACP planned a classic two-phase revolution in South Africa. During the first national liberation phase the ANC would be the vanguard party and would lead the masses to victory over the apartheid government. During the second phase the SACP would assume the vanguard role and would lead South Africa to a full-blown socialist revolution and the establishment of a communist state.
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.
- On the economic front it was confronted each year by more effective sanctions. On the whole the government and the private sector were quite successful in circumnavigating most of the sanctions. Nevertheless, sanctions caused serious distortions to the economy and stifled growth. The most serious economic threat came with the refusal of international banks to provide further loans to South Africa in 1985. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the country managed to avert a serious crisis by negotiating a debt stand-still agreement with international banks.
- Militarily, South Africa was still unchallenged in its region. In 1984 President Samora Machel and President P W Botha signed the Nkomati Accord in terms of which South Africa agreed to end its support for Renamo on condition that Mozambique ended is support for ANC guerrillas in its territory.
- The Nkomati Accord was a serious setback for the ANC. The reality is that the ANC and PAC’s guerrilla activities at no stage posed a serious threat and by 1988 the State of Emergency had succeeded in containing internal unrest. In all likelihood the South African government would have been able to maintain itself for the foreseeable future – but at the increasingly unpleasant and unacceptable cost of almost total international isolation, economic decline, and internal repression.
- On the South West Africa/Namibia front there had been some important progress. After serious military engagements against Cuban and Russian-led forces at the end of 1987, the Angolan Government had at last accepted the withdrawal of Cuban forces from its territory. This cleared the way for an internationally brokered settlement in the region and for the independence of Namibia in terms of UN Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978.
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?
- Internally, the main force for change came ironically from the economic growth that South Africa had experienced during the 60s and the first half of the 70s. Economic growth brought more and more black South Africans into the so-called white cities and made nonsense of the idea of any form of territorial partition. It also brought more and more black South Africans into the economy at higher and higher levels. It led to the far-reaching and genuine labour reforms of the late 70s and began to give black South Africans increasing clout in the consumer economy. Also, a whole generation of white South Africans had grown up since the NP won power in 1948. Many white South Africans had moved from the blue collar and rural backgrounds of their parents into the first world. They travelled, they were better educated, they were exposed to Western media and values – and they began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with their country’s apartheid policies.
- After the unrest of the 1984 –1986 and the states of emergency of 1985 and 1986 it had become clear to thoughtful leaders on both sides of the political divide that there could be no military victory for either side. Continued conflict would simply lead to the destruction of the country and economy.
- The unexpected leadership change that occurred in the National Party following P W Botha’s stroke in January 1989 also probably helped to prepare the way for change – not primarily because it brought me to the fore – but because it suddenly released the pressure for real change that had been building up within the NP for some time.
There were also a number of international factors that helped to facilitate and expedite change:
- Sanctions on the whole was not one of them. Sanctions were not the main factor in influencing our decision to accept transformation. They were a a very serious concern – but often worked against change. The NP won a number of elections on the basis of its refusal to kowtow to sanctions and international pressure. Also, sanctions slowed down economic growth and limited South African interaction with first-world societies – factors that were in my opinion major change agents. The reality is that most governments and people react negatively to foreign pressure, particularly when they believe that their continued existence is at stake.
Some other developments were much more helpful.
- The success of the South West Africa/Namibia negotiations helped to break down the deep distrust that South African governments had developed over the years for Western governments and international institutions. It showed that it was possible to reach negotiated settlements to long-standing disputes that protected the interests of all parties. In the process negotiators on all sides learned that their opponents were not the demons depicted by their respective propaganda machines. Most importantly, the agreement led to the withdrawal of Cuban forces from southern Africa and eliminated what the South African government had regarded as its most serious strategic threat.
- A few months after I became leader of the NP I undertook an overseas visit to leading Western countries. I had constructive meetings with European leaders including Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. They assured me that I could expect strong support for a reasonable reform initiative. I also had positive meetings with President Chissano of Mozambique and President Kaunda of Zambia.
- However, by far the most important international influence on the South African transformation process was the historic transformation that was taking place in Eastern Europe at that time and that led to the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989. Suddenly, one of the greatest obstacles to a settlement – our fear of the SACP influence in within the ANC – had evaporated. Communism was thoroughly discredited and without the support of the global Soviet apparatus no longer presented the dire threat that we had perceived a decade earlier.
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.