Modern South Africa was forged in the wars of conquest that the British fought during the 19th century against the three dominant peoples of the sub-continent – Mandela’s people, the Xhosas; Zuma’s people, the Zulus; and my people, the Afrikaners.

At the beginning of the 20th century Britain found itself in possession of an assortment of vexatious territories in Southern Africa – that one historian quipped it had acquired in ‘a fit of absent-mindedness’. Its solution was to create a union or federation along the lines of the recently established federations in Canada and Australia. A National Convention was assembled in 1908 and reached agreement on a draft constitution, which was adopted by the British parliament in September 1909 as the South Africa Act.

The South Africa Act established the political framework for the following 84 years – most notably because it failed to protect the rights of non-white South Africans. As Keir Hardie, the Scottish Socialist leader, observed, its purpose was “to unify the white races, to disenfranchise the coloured races and not to promote union between the races of South Africa.”

On 31 May 1910, nine months after having been conceived in sin, the Union of South Africa was born. Like so many other imperial creations in Africa its artificial borders encompassed widely disparate peoples with divergent interests. However, the South Africa Act, at the avid insistence of the white national groups, put them firmly in control of the new country by making the white-elected parliament sovereign.

The ebbing tide of European imperialism after World War II left South Africa increasingly exposed as the last white ruled country in Africa. By 1978 the National Party government under PW Botha had accepted the need for far-reaching reforms – or to “adapt or die” as he put it. However, it was no longer a question of removing the offensive signs on park benches; of bringing coloureds and Indians into a tricameral parliament – or even of accepting a qualified franchise for blacks; it was all about power (Amandla!).

It was clear that whites were riding a tiger and would, sooner or later, in one way or another, have to dismount. However, the dismounting process was fraught with peril.  Whites had four main concerns:

Naturally, the stalwarts of the anti-apartheid movement – who participated in the parliamentary debate – did not care a fig about any of these concerns. They had wanted an ANC victory as soon as possible. However, a (very unlikely) ANC victory before the mid-1980s could have been achieved only after a devastating racial war and, in all likelihood, would not have resulted in a genuine constitutional democracy – but in the imposition of a communist regime.

Margaret Thatcher understood this. Although she was a consistent critic of apartheid, she had no illusions about the challenges that we faced. She doggedly resisted demands for more sanctions and always gave me – and our negotiating partners – strong support for the achievement of a genuine non-racial constitutional democracy. Further sanctions would have substantially weakened those in favour of negotiations and would have strengthened conservatives who were grimly prepared to resist foreign pressure to the bitter end. It is a pity that the Conservative Party has subsequently apologised for Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions.

The approach adopted by Margaret Thatcher and her friend President Reagan helped to buy essential time for South Africa. During the 80s the prospects for a balanced negotiated settlement ripened:  the right wing of the NP broke away in 1982; the ANC – at the initiative of Nelson Mandela – accepted that there could be no ‘armed struggle’ victory and that there would have to be negotiations involving painful concessions from all sides; the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola and the successful implementation of the UN’s independence plan for Namibia showed that negotiations could produce positive outcomes; and finally, the collapse of Soviet communism at the end of 1989 created an entirely new geo-strategic situation. All these developments helped to convince us that the best option would be a common constitutional dispensation in which whites would inevitably lose exclusive power – but in which the fundamental rights of all South Africans would be protected by a strong constitution.

The stage was set for Nelson Mandela to emerge from prison and to play his historic role.  He did so with extraordinary grace, conviction, goodwill and success. Our non-racial constitutional democracy is his greatest monument – but it is not his monument alone. It belongs to all South Africans – from all parties and communities – who worked for constitutional transformation.

By FW de Klerk  

** Lucky Cavey ** / / CC BY-NC-ND