In contrast to the Emergency declared in 1960, the 1985 and 1986 crackdown resulted in more arrests than ever before. On 20 July 1985, President PW Botha declared a state of emergency in 36 of the country’s 260 magisterial districts. Within the first six months of the Emergency, 575 people were killed in political violence – more than half killed by the police. Under the provisions of the Emergency, organisations could be banned and meetings prohibited; the Commissioner of Police could impose restrictions on media coverage of the Emergency; and the names of detained people could not be disclosed. On 5 March 1986 Botha announced that he would lift the Emergency, and on 7 March the announcement was made law. 

The lifting of the Emergency was short-lived as on 12 June 1986 – four days before the 10th Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising – the government declared a country-wide State of Emergency. The crackdown differed from the 1985 Emergency in that it covered the entire national space and was more rigorous:  political funerals were restricted, curfews were imposed, certain indoor gatherings were banned and news crews with television cameras were banned from filming in areas where there was political unrest. 

This in essence prevented both national and international news coverage of police brutality and the government’s faltering attempts to contain the wave of social unrest. An estimated 26,000 people were detained between June 1986 and June 1987. 

As the process of transition from apartheid to democracy began, with negotiations between the government and ANC commencing in earnest, the NP-led government moved to normalise the political climate. On 7 June 1990, President FW de Klerk announced at a joint sitting of parliament that he would be lifting the four-year-old State of Emergency in all provinces except Natal. The Emergency was duly lifted on 8 June 1990. Four months later, in October 1990, De Klerk announced the lifting of the four-year State of Emergency in Natal – political violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) ensured that Natal was the last province to have the restrictions lifted.   

However, on 31 March 1994, Natal once more came under a State of Emergency – in an attempt to contain political violence in the province. What precipitated the declaration of the Emergency was the increase in clashes between IFP and ANC supporters as vigorous campaigning for the first democratic elections gathered momentum. While white rightwing politicians and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi opposed the government action, the ANC responded positively. Under the Emergency regulations, soldiers had the power to ban marches, detain people and seize weapons, although campaigning for the impending election was permitted. 

Source: South African History Online: 



During 1985 the climate of general violence and insurrection had reached unprecedented levels and on 20 July the government declared  a partial state of emergency which was lifted in March the following year,

However, after that the situation deteriorated rapidly and critically.  Between March and June 1986, 284 black South Africans were killed by revolutionary elements – 172 of them by means of the horrific necklace method of execution.  More than 1 400 homes and businesses belonging to black South Africans were either damaged or destroyed.  The government had also learned that the revolutionary movements were planning major demonstrations, marches into white suburbs and strikes in the period between 16 and 26 June 1986 to mark the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising.

On 12 June 1986 , President Botha declared a National State of Emergency throughout the country to counteract these developments and to restore order.  I full supported this decision, because I was convinced that only firm and decisive action could prevent a catastrophe.  President Botha made it clear that the objectives of the State of Emergency were to create a situation of relative normality so that every citizen could perform his daily task in peace, business communities could fulfil their role, and the reform programme to which the government had committed itself could continue.  I wholeheartedly associated myself with these objectives.

The State of Emergency gave the state draconian – but not unlimited – powers.  The government was required to reveal the names of all detainees to Parliament and to permit private visits to detainees by magistrates not less than once a fortnight.  As the emergency continued detainees increasingly  used the courts to challenge the government.  Nevertheless, the State of Emergency constituted a serious restriction of normal civil rights.  Up to 20 000 people were detained and many political meetings and most demonstrations were prohibited.

Controversial restrictions were also placed on the ability of the media to report freely on unrest-related incidents.  I believed that all these steps were necessary.  However, as time went by the urgency of a constitutional solution became became more apparent to my colleagues and me.   I realised that we could not continue with the State of Emergency indefinitely and that the underlying causes of the unrest had to be addressed.  Part of this would have to be acceptance of the reality of the influence and the support enjoyed by the ANC and its surrogates.

Source: “The Last Trek: a New Beginning”, FW de Klerk, pages 119 -120