He said that Afrikaans was also the language “in which we discuss, debate and negotiate” and it was this aspect of Afrikaans that wanted to deal with during his speech.

De Klerk said that 30 years ago nearly all the experts had predicted that the growing confrontation between the National Party government and the disenfranchised majority would inevitably culminate in a devastating race war. In 1985, from his cell at Pollsmoor Prison, Nelson Mandela had concluded that “if we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would soon be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war.”

The South African government had already reached a similar conclusion. The SADF had advised it in the early 80s that there could be no long-term military solution to the gathering conflict in the country.

By the time De Klerk had become President in September 1989 the National Party was committed to fundamental transformation. “We had reached the conclusion that the best – indeed the only – prospect for a positive future for us and for all the people of South Africa lay in the negotiation of a strong constitution that would protect the rights of all South Africans.”

On 2 February 1990 De Klerk made the announcements that had removed all the remaining barriers to negotiations. The ensuing process was one of the most successful demonstrations of the power of discussion, dialogue and negotiations in recent history. It showed that conflict and irrationality could be overcome and need not necessarily determine human destiny.

23 political parties with widely divergent philosophies and histories had come together to  negotiate a new Constitution. “It was never easy. Throughout, there were elements on all sides who chose violence rather than negotiations.”

In June, 1992 the ANC had abandoned negotiations and had opted instead for what was called the ‘Leipzig Option’. The ANC reasoned that if it could mobilise millions of people in a  rolling mass action, the South African government would collapse – just as the East German government had collapsed only three years earlier in the wake of similar mass demonstrations.

Fortunately, Nelson Mandela had led the ANC back to the negotiating table after the Bisho incident in September 1992 had brought the country to the brink of catastrophe. By December 1993, agreement had been reached on an interim Constitution in terms of which the national elections were held on 27 April 1994.

Two years later, after more intensive negotiations, the final Constitution had been adopted.  De Klerk said that it rested on the values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; non-racialism and non-sexism; and the supremacy of the Constitution and the Rule of Law.” It also made provision for “a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness”.

According to De Klerk these constitutional values were the guarantor of our freedom – “they are the blueprint for our future success; they are the best hope for millions of South Africans for justice, security and prosperity.” He said that they should be committed to memory by every citizen and should be fiercely defended whenever they were threatened.

Nevertheless, there were some people who now said that these constitutional compromises had served their purpose during the so-called “first phase of the political transition”. They were apparently no longer necessary or sufficient during the “second phase” of radical reconstruction of society and of the economy.

According to De Klerk, some people, filled with passion and bitterness, had declared that the time for reconciliation between black and white South Africans had passed and that the time for social and economic struggle had arrived. Such people had turned their backs on discussion, debate and negotiations and had instead opted for confrontation and conflict.

De Klerk said that there were nevertheless many pressing questions that should be the topics of a new national dialogue:

These – and many other questions – should be the topic of an intense national dialogue.

De Klerk said that he had thought that such a constructive dialogue would be conducted in Parliament. “However, it has now become clear that Parliament is no longer a neutral area dedicated to rational and constructive debate”. Sadly, representatives were not accountable to the voters who elected them – but to their respective political bosses. The Speaker could also not be neutral while she served as the Chairperson of the ruling ANC.

De Klerk concluded by saying that “we – the people – should once again seize the initiative and conduct our own dynamic national debate on these and the many other important questions that will decide the future of our country. In so doing, we should say a decisive “no” to those – on all sides – who wish to lead us back to confrontation and conflict.”

Photo credit: Woordfees