I have been asked to speak to you this afternoon about South Africa’s transition to non-racial constitutional democracy – with particular attention to the role played by communication.
Twenty-five years ago we South Africans were confronted with seemingly insurmountable problems.
By the beginning of the 80s, it was becoming increasingly clear that South Africa was on the wrong course.
- We were becoming more and more isolated from the international community with each year that passed.
- The great majority of black South Africans were increasingly adamant in their rejection of the government’s policies.
- As a result, South Africa had become trapped in a downward spiral of resistance and repression that threatened at some stage in the not too distant future to erupt into full-scale conflict.
President PW Botha clearly understood the need for change – or as he put it, to ‘adapt or die’.
For some years black South Africans and the international community had been vociferously demanding that the South African government should dismount the tiger of white domination on which history and circumstance had placed it.
White South Africans had three concerns regarding the tiger dismounting process:
- Firstly, how would they be able to ensure that the reasonable rights of minorities would be protected under a majority rule dispensation?
- Secondly, how could they be sure that universal franchise would not lead quickly to the chaos and tyranny that had sadly characterised the decolonisation process in so many other parts of Africa? By the mid-80s there had already been more than 80 coup d’etats in Africa and there was only a handful of democracies on the continent.
- Finally, the government was worried about the possibility of a communist take-over. Throughout the 70s and 80s virtually all the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee had also been members of the SA Communist Party. The ANC received strong support from the Soviet Union and East Germany and 50 000 Cuban troops had been deployed in Angola.
During the mid-1980s the situation in South Africa seemed to be hopeless.
- The country was wracked by internal unrest and protests;
- The international media, sensing imminent societal collapse was circling South Africa waiting for the kill;
- There was pervasive international coverage of the situation in the country – which further contributed to the collapse of international confidence in the ability of the government to manage the situation.
- All this culminated in the decision of international banks not to rollover South Africa’s short term loans. There was a very real possibility that South Africa would be crippled internationally – and that SAA aircraft might be seized to repay our existing loans.
The country was caught in a downward spiral of violence, international isolation and economic decline. There seemed to be no common ground between the National Party Government and the African National Congress. Most people thought that a cataclysmic racial war was inevitable.
The South African government felt that it was running out of options. Since 1978 President PW Botha had been trying to implement reforms.
- By 1980 trade union rights had been extended to all South Africans.
- In 1983 steps were taken by the Government to accommodate Coloureds and Indians in a new tri-cameral constitutional system.
- In January, 1985 PW Botha had offered to release Nelson Mandela – provided he renounced violence. Mandela had refused – insisting that he would not accept freedom in a country that was not free.
- By 1986 the Government had repealed more than 100 apartheid laws.
However, by then it was no longer a question of segregated park benches and integrated sports teams: it was a question of power – or Amandla, as the ANC put it. The demand was not for the reform of apartheid – but for one-man, one-vote elections.
The Government was acutely aware of the need to assure the international community that the reform process would culminate in genuine political rights for all South Africa’s communities.
Something had to be done.
The embattled cabinet pleaded with President Botha to take urgent steps to address the situation – and to announce the far-reaching steps that would be necessary to bring peace and stability. The President agreed on the need for dramatic changes – and called for suggestions. Senior cabinet ministers submitted proposals for a historic speech.
The Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, was despatched to Vienna to meet with representatives of the United States, the UK and other leading powers to brief them on the new initiative. The American delegation was lead by Lawrence Eagleburger – whose name symbolised the essence of the US Imperium – half way between Roman imperialism and McDonalds.
In the meantime, back in Pretoria, President Botha was having second thoughts. He felt that his ministers were trying to push him into a corner where he did not want to go. He and his advisers took over the management of the project and the preparation of the final text of the speech.
On 15 August, President Botha delivered the speech to the Natal Congress of the ruling National Party in the Durban City Hall. Because of its historic importance, the speech was dubbed “the Rubicon Speech” because after it there could be no turning back.
President Botha’s real audience was, however, millions of people throughout the world – including Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan – who were eagerly awaiting his message of hope.
What they heard was completely incomprehensible. Botha was talking to his audience in the political style that had been developed over the years at South African Town Hall meetings – where forceful rhetoric was the order of the day.
The speech was an unmitigated disaster. It was the wrong venue; the wrong audience; the wrong length; the wrong formulation; the wrong style – and worst of all – the government had committed the fatal error of creating expectations that it could not possibly satisfy. It was like starting a hundred metre race a hundred metres behind the starting line.
The result was that international confidence in the country plummeted. The speech is calculated to have cost the country about three million rand – per word. During the following weeks the value of the rand fell precipitously; the country lost literally tens of billions of rands – all to a large extent because of poor communication.
The irony is that the speech did, in fact, contain an historic announcement, that the government had accepted the principle that South Africans of all races could be accommodated within the same constitutional system. However, it was hidden away at the bottom of page 11 and couched in terms that only political scientists could decipher.
Had Botha been better advised and communicated his message properly, the value of the rand would probably have risen.
The statement should have been much shorter. It should have been read from the President’s office, with the requisite bowl of flowers and photo of the family in the background. PW Botha should have looked the camera right in the eye and used the communication forms that the rest of the world understood: “Fellow South Africans, our country has come to an important juncture where it will be necessary for all of us to join hands and build a brighter future….”
The period after the Rubicon Speech was the lowest point in South Africa’s fortunes. Despite this, the situation began to change for the better.
Within a few short years all of the major parties had reached agreement on a new nonracial Constitution – and 21 years ago, on 10 May 1994 – President Mandela was inaugurated as the first President of South Africa’s new constitutional democracy.
What were the factors that made this possible? I would like to mention the following:
- The first factor was the government’s realisation that its policy of ‘separate development’ had failed to bring justice for black South Africans – the realisation that a totally new dispensation had to be negotiated.
- A critically important factor was the acceptance by all sides that there could be neither a military nor a revolutionary victory – and that continuing conflict would simply turn South Africa into a wasteland. The security forces had accepted this reality by the early 80s. The ANC did so only after the 1986 state of emergency restored order in the country.
- Discreet contacts between the ANC and the government – originally initiated through Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison – enabled both sides to explore possibilities for negotiated solutions.
- Sanctions were, of course, also a factor. They caused enormous distortions in the economy and probably cost us 1.5% growth per annum. Nevertheless, the economy actually grew at an annual rate of 2.7% between April 1986 and February 1989.
- Sanctions were often counter-productive. They increased opposition to foreign interference – and hobbled two of the greatest forces for change – economic growth and exposure to the world.
- Economic growth of the 60s and 70s was a major change factor. Between 1970 and 1994 the black share of personal disposable income increased from 29% to almost 50%. Millions of black South Africans moved to the cities and improved their standard of living and education.
- By 1989 the industrial and commercial sectors could no longer function without growing participation by black workers. Black South Africans were also beginning to play an increasingly indispensable role in the white-collar professions.
- Between 1980 and 1994 the number of black children passing matric increased from 15 000 to more than 200 000. By 1994 there were more black South Africans at university than whites.
- Changes were also taking place in the Afrikaner community. In the decades following 1960 a whole generation of young Afrikaners moved from the working class to the middle class. They graduated from university and travelled abroad – and were inevitably influenced by global values. The new generation of university educated Afrikaners no longer shared the fiery nationalism of their parents and grandparents. By the early 80s they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with many aspects of apartheid. By 1989 they were ripe for change.
- A further factor was the successful conclusion of a tripartite agreement in 1988 between South Africa, Cuba and Angola. This resulted in the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola, the implementation of the UN independence in Namibia – the neighbouring country that South Africa had ruled since 1915 under a League of Nations Mandate.
- The negotiations with the Angolans and the Cubans and the subsequent successful implementation of the UN independence plan during 1989 reassured the government that it could secure its core interests through negotiations with its opponents.
- The final – and critically important – factor for change was the collapse of global communism in 1989. At a stroke, it removed the government’s primary strategic concern.
The demise of international expansionist communism and the manifest success of the free market economies also meant that there was no longer any serious debate with regard to the economic policies that would be required to ensure economic growth in a future democratic South Africa
On 2 February 1989 I was elected leader of the National Party after the surprise resignation of President Botha. In my first speech after my election I called for “a new South Africa, a totally changed South Africa, a South Africa which has rid itself of the antagonism of the past.”
In September, 1989 I was elected President and began immediately to take the steps needed to normalise the situation in South Africa – including permission for peaceful demonstrations and the release of imprisoned ANC leaders. On 9 November, the fall of the Berlin Wall, greatly strengthened my hand. I knew that the balance of forces would never again be so favourable for successful constitutional negotiations. History had opened a window of opportunity and we decided to jump through.
The process was launched by a speech that I delivered to Parliament on 2 February 1990 – in which I resolved not to repeat the communication mistakes that President Botha had made with the Rubicon speech.
South Africa was at that time the biggest story in the world. There was a greater concentration of international media in Cape Town at the beginning of February than there had ever been, before or since. ABC and CBS were hosting their evening TV news from Cape Town. Ted Koppel of ABC was in town, as was Dimbleby of the BBC.
They had all come to South Africa because of strong expectations that Nelson Mandela would soon be released. It was the news story of the year – if not of the decade. Better still, it was taking place during February – one of the main ratings months for US TV. The world had come to Cape Town – but they had not come to listen to my speech. They had come for the first great photo op with Mandela.
We had planned the circumstances surrounding speech with the greatest care. We did everything we could not to raise expectations beforehand. We locked the foreign and South African media in conclave some hours before the speech and ensured that Gerrit Viljoen, the Minister of Constitutional Development, was on hand to brief journalist on its contents.
Accordingly, when the journalists filed their stories they had already had a full opportunity to study the speech and to ask pertinent questions. The reaction of a leading journalist was “My god! He has done it all!”.
This was one of the secrets of the speech’s success:
- We avoided the temptation of adopting an incremental approach – in which all subsequent announcements would have been seen as concessions forced under pressure.
- We had decided what total package would be necessary to open the way to negotiations and to capture the moral high ground – and we put everything on the table.
The other secret of the speech’s success was that I didn’t announce the actual date of Mandela’s release. Had I announced that he would be released the following day, the rest of my speech would have been drowned out by the news.
Instead, the Government was able to keep control of the communication ball for an entire week. The foreign media – in Cape Town at considerable expense – had nothing else to report on. Then, finally, on Saturday 10 February, came the announcement that Mandela would be released the following day.
I had informed Mr Mandela the previous evening of the planned date of release. He was shocked and insisted that it should be delayed for at least a week to give the ANC sufficient time to make all the necessary arrangements. I refused – but granted Mandela’s request to be released in Cape Town rather than Johannesburg.
Even so, we almost dropped the communication ball at the last moment. My security advisers had recommended that the release should be announced simply by way of a short press statement “because the Government should not draw too much attention to the decision”!
Fortunately, wiser counsel prevailed and I announced the release at an international press conference on Saturday evening. It was immediate global news. Several of the main international networks interrupted their usual programmes to carry the announcement.
After that the communication ball passed to Nelson Mandela and the ANC – as we knew it would be.
However, during those eight days we started to change perceptions of South Africa – and opened the way to the constitutional transformation of South Africa.
In the subsequent four roller coaster years of negotiations we experienced many crises – each requiring careful and targeted communication.
We developed an approach that served us well to handle such crises.
- The first step was to find out what was actually going on. There is an illusion that Presidents are well informed about all developments in their countries. This is not the case – especially when bureaucrats and security advisers filter information about developments in the country.
- The second step was to seize the communication initiative. It is always much better for governments to break bad news stories than to wait for big exposes in the media. This can best be done by holding a major news conference.
- The third principle is to put everything that one knows about the story on the table – and to avoid the temptation of trying to conceal harmful elements. The media will inevitably discover them – and the cover up then becomes an ongoing and very damaging story.
- The fourth step is to announce credible steps to deal with the crisis and to report back on their implementation.
By following this approach we were able to defuse many potentially damaging crises.
Finally there comes a time when one realises that even as President you will no longer be the most effective communicator. Such a time came with the assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party, on 10 April 1993. I realised that only Nelson Mandela would be able to call on all South Africans to remain calm. This he did in a masterful fashion.
In this manner we were finally able to reach agreement on an Interim Constitution in December 1993 and to hold our first universal democratic elections on 27 April 1994. We succeeded with our goal of changing South Africa forever. We established a genuine non-racial constitutional democracy that has served South Africa well to this day.
In the process we learned that new and better realities are created not only by what we do – but, just as importantly, by how we communicate.