On 31 August Dave Steward, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation, addressed a well-attended meeting of the George U3A on South Africa’s constitutional transformation between 1978 and 1994. He told the audience that it was important that all South Africans should have a good understanding of the process that had given birth to our constitutional democracy.

Steward said that National Party rule could be divided into four clear periods:


According to Steward, PW Botha’s reforms ignited revolutionary expectations throughout the country that led to the establishment of the United Democratic Front and countrywide protests aimed at making South Africa ungovernable.  Reform came to a halt while PW Botha attempted to restore order by imposing a draconian countrywide state of emergency. The unrest – which was widely covered by international media – and PW Botha’s disastrous Rubicon speech  – resulted in crippling sanctions, the collapse of the rand, impending bankruptcy and the deepening of South Africa’s international isolation.  At the same time, South Africa was dealing with the escalating conflict in Angola that culminated in 1987 in major battles against Soviet and Cuban-supported forces at the Lomba River and Cuito Cuanavale.

PW Botha’s intransigence had its roots in existential fears regarding the consequences of accepting insistent demands for a one-man, one-vote solution. White South Africans wanted to dismount the “tiger” of minority rule – but if they did so


At the end of 1986 – following the failure of the Eminent Persons Group mission – the future seemed hopelessly dark.

Then, glimmers of light began to appear:


After his inauguration on 20 September 1989, President De Klerk immediately launched his transformation programme by permitting demonstrations in South Africa’s cities and by releasing nearly all the remaining high-profile ANC prisoners.  His hand was greatly strengthened by the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 – signalling the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union.  He realised that the balance of forces would never again be so favourable for the commencement of negotiations.

Accordingly, on 2 February 1990, he removed all possible obstacles to negotiations by unbanning the ANC, SACP and other revolutionary organisations and by announcing the imminent release of Nelson Mandela.

The first negotiations between the ANC and the Government took place at Groote Schuur (2-4 May 1990) in Pretoria (6 August 1990) and DF Malan Airport (12 February 1991) and dealt primarily with the return of exiles to South Africa and the suspension of the ANC’s armed struggle.   However, the path to constitutional negotiations was obstructed by breaches of these agreements – revealed by the uncovering in July 1990 of the ANC’s secret operation Vula and continuing secret security force support for the Inkatha Freedom Party (Inkathagate) in July 1991.

Businessmen and churches addressed the problem of escalating violence with the National Peace Accord in September 1991 which included a code of conduct for all political parties and the establishment of the “Goldstone” commission to investigate violent incidents.

The National Peace Accord opened the way to the first session of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) on 21 December 1991.  CODESA included 19 political parties which all signed a Declaration of Intent to write a genuine human-rights-based democratic constitution.

However, before CODESA could begin its work, the process was again interrupted when the ruling National Party lost two important by-elections to the right-wing Conservative Party (CP).  De Klerk immediately called for a referendum on 17 March 1992 among white voters to counter CP’s claims that he had lost his mandate to continue with negotiations.  He received the support of almost 69% of the voters.

The negotiations at CODESA I and II made substantial progress – but broke down in May 1992 over differences of the majority by which the final constitution would have to be adopted.  The ANC broke off all talks after it (wrongly) accused the Government of having been involved in the Boipatong massacre on 17 June – in which 49 people were hacked to death by residents of a nearby IFP hostel.

The ANC then embarked on a programme of “rolling mass action” that included huge demonstrations and crippling strikes throughout South Africa.    The idea of the ANC’s “Leipzig Option” was that if enough people demonstrated against the government for long enough, it would collapse – just as the East German government had collapsed in 1990 after continuing demonstrations in Leipzig.

Rolling mass action brought the country to the brink of civil war on 6 September when an ANC march on Bisho, the capital of Ciskei, resulted in the deaths of 28 marchers.  Moderates on both sides accepted the need to recommence negotiations.  On 26 September the ANC and the Government agreed, in the Record of Understanding, that


The IFP was incensed – and together with the Concerned South Africans Group (COSAG) – which included right-wing Afrikaner parties and the Ciskei and Bophuthatswana governments  – withdrew from the talks.

Negotiations recommenced in April 1993, in the Multiparty Negotiating Process (MPNP)  which included 26 parties and 11 observers. The negotiations were, however, almost brought to a halt by the assassination of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993 and the disruption of the negotiations by the AWB on 25 June.

Nevertheless, the negotiations continued to make progress.  On 1 June, the MPNP announced 27 April 1994 as the date for the first inclusive democratic election; on 16 November President De Klerk and Nelson Mandela reached an agreement on the last six contentious issues; the draft constitution was adopted by the MPNP on 18 November and by Parliament on 23 November.

Earlier that month, on 10 December, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

The last months before the election was marred by further crises:


South Africa’s first fully inclusive election took place, as scheduled, on 27 April 1994.  87% of registered voters cast their ballots: the ANC won 62,6% of the vote; the National Party came second with 20,6%.  The IFP received 10,5%, the Freedom Front 2,2% and the Democratic Party, 1,7%.

The election marked the birth of South Africa’s non-racial constitutional democracy.