A quarter of a century has passed since 2 February 1990 when I rose in Parliament to make the announcements that would change South Africa forever.
My speech was not the result of some Damascus Road conversion. Neither was it made because of domestic or international pressure. It was motivated by our realisation that if we wanted there to be a future for South Africa and for all our children, we would have to find real and lasting solutions to the problems that had for so long divided us.
We had tried reform within the framework of the broad National Party policies of the 1980s. From 1978 onwards PW Botha embarked on a wide-ranging process of reforms – including trade union rights and the Tricameral Constitution. By 1986 we had repealed many of the core apartheid laws.
However, by the mid-1980s we realised that such reforms were inadequate – that we had to embrace a new vision of inclusivity. We began to accept that the only solution to our problems lay in negotiating a new constitutional system that would protect the rights of all South Africans on the basis of equality and non-discrimination. We admitted to ourselves that the old system was morally indefensible.
In the end, my speech 25 years ago was motivated by my conscience and not by pragmatism. And that applies to my colleagues in the National Party too.
In addition, at the end of the 1980s there was also a conjunction of events that made it easier for us to break the political logjam:
- All the major South African parties – including the ANC and the Government – had accepted that there could not be an armed solution to the problems of the country.
- The Soviet Union had lost its appetite for surrogate wars in southern Africa. In 1988 South Africa, Cuba and Angola agreed on the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola and on the implementation of the UN independence plan for Namibia.
- The successful implementation of the Namibian independence plan showed that positive outcomes could be achieved through negotiations – provided that there was a strong constitutional framework.
- The collapse of Soviet communism created an entirely new geopolitical situation. It removed what had been our primary strategic concerns: the intrusion of the Soviet Union in southern Africa and the influence of the SACP within the ANC Alliance.
- Finally, the country was changing rapidly behind the scenes: between 1970 and 1990 the black share of disposable income rose from 28% to 45%. By 1994 there would be more blacks at university than whites and three times as many blacks as whites would be passing matric. Our political and economic destinies had become inextricably intertwined.
We realised that the balance of forces would never again be so favourable for constitutional negotiations. We had embraced a new vision of inclusivity and history had opened a window of opportunity. We did not hesitate. On 2 February 1990 it was my privilege to jump through the window and open the way for negotiations on a new constitution.
I spelled out the following goals in my speech:
- A new democratic constitution;
- Universal franchise;
- No domination;
- Equality before an independent judiciary;
- The protection of minorities as well as of individual rights;
- Freedom of religion;
- A sound economy based on private enterprise;
- Better education, health services; housing and social conditions for all.
Within four years we had agreed on an interim constitution that secured virtually all these goals.
The success of our constitutional process was one of the most remarkable achievements of the latter part of the 20th century.