History of South Africa

Government in Crisis, 1978-89

The Contradictions of Apartheid

By the middle of the 1970s, apartheid was clearly under strain. The popularity of black consciousness and the massive levels of participation in the Soweto demonstrations illustrated profound discontent among the black population, particularly the young, and an increasing readiness to challenge the system physically. Indeed, hundreds of young Africans slipped across South Africa's northern borders in the aftermath of Soweto and volunteered to fight as guerrilla soldiers for the ANC and the PAC. In the late 1970s, some of these people began to reenter South Africa secretly and to carry out sabotage attacks on various targets that were seen as symbols of apartheid.

Labor discontent had also grown. The combination of discriminatory legislation and employer reliance on the use of inexpensive labor meant that African workers were poorly paid and were subjected to an enormous number of restrictions. Economic recession in the early 1970s, followed by inflation and a contraction in the job market, resulted in a dramatic upsurge in labor unrest. In the first three months of 1973, some 160 strikes involving more than 60,000 workers took place in Durban; in the early 1970s, no more than 5,000 African workers had struck annually, and in the 1960s the average had been closer to 2,000. Labor unrest spread to East London and the Rand and continued. In addition to the high level of participation they engendered, the strikes were also noteworthy for other features. Fearing that the police would arrest any person who organized a strike, the workers chose not to form representative bodies or to elect a leadership. Rather than entering protracted negotiations, they also engaged in sudden "wildcat" strikes, thereby limiting the ability of employers and police to take preventive measures. Over time, an African union movement developed out of these strikes, but it did so on a factory-by-factory basis rather than through the establishment of a mass-based industrial movement as had been the case in the 1940s.

Urban-based African strikes drew attention to the fact that, despite the segregationist ambitions of apartheid, the South African economy depended on blacks living and working in supposedly white areas. Nearly three-quarters of South Africa's urban population in 1980 was black. Only half of the African population lived in the homelands, and even then the rural land available was so inadequate that population densities were far greater than they were in the rest of the country. At least four-fifths of the homeland dwellers lived in poverty.

Yet the South African government persisted in arguing that Africans were really rural dwellers and that they should exercise political rights only in the homelands. In 1976 the government proclaimed the Transkei an independent nation-state and followed this move by granting independence to Bophuthatswana in 1977, to Venda in 1979, and to Ciskei in 1981. Citizens of these states, including the half who lived outside their borders, were then deemed aliens in South Africa. Another six ethnically based homelands were granted limited self-government in preparation for eventual independence: they were KwaZulu, Lebowa, Gazankulu, QwaQwa, KaNgwane, and KwaNdebele. None of these states received international recognition.

Within South Africa, there was great opposition. Blacks viewed the homelands as a way for whites to perpetuate a form of "divide and rule." Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi, the government-appointed head of the KwaZulu homeland, while building up an ethnically oriented power base with his Inkatha Freedom Party, argued that independence should not be accepted on the government's terms because that would mean Africans would be giving up claims to the bulk of South Africa forever. He proposed instead the development of a unified multiracial South African state.

South Africa's international borders also became much less secure. Until 1974 South Africa had been part of a largely white-ruled subcontinent, with the Portuguese still governing their empire in Angola and Mozambique, and Ian Smith and his white-settler regime controlling Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). Botswana had achieved independence soon after Lesotho in 1966 and Swaziland in 1968; however, they were surrounded by white-ruled areas, and their economies depended on that of South Africa.

The 1974 overthrow of the government of Premier Marcello Caetano in Portugal dramatically changed matters. Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique in 1975, and both countries gained independence with governments that were avowedly Marxist and that strongly denounced apartheid. These events directly threatened South African control of South-West Africa (called Namibia by the United Nations [UN], which in 1969 had terminated South Africa's trusteeship over the territory and had demanded its return to the international organization). South African forces invaded Angola in 1975 but were forced to pull back by the arrival of Cuban troops. Seeking both to destabilize the Angolan government and to prevent infiltration of guerrilla fighters into Namibia where the South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) was fighting actively against South African forces, South Africa maintained a military force in southern Angola.

In Rhodesia, Africans fighting against Ian Smith's government began to turn the tide, and by 1979 Smith was forced to the negotiating table. In 1980 Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party won a landslide election victory and formed a government that, like those in Angola and Mozambique, was Marxist and antiapartheid. The South African government thereafter pursued a policy of occasional armed intervention in Zimbabwe and other frontline states and sent in strike teams periodically to destroy what it considered to be bases for guerrillas planning to infiltrate South Africa. South Africa also expanded military support for the Mozambican National Resistance movement (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana--MNR or Renamo), an organization originally formed by Ian Smith's security forces to destabilize the Mozambique government.

Crackdowns on opposition groups in South Africa and the country's readiness to invade neighboring states led to increasing international condemnation of the apartheid regime. The administrations of United States presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, including United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, had favored working with the National Party government. They saw South Africa as a key strategic ally in the Cold War and had both encouraged the invasion of Angola and promised United States military support. President Jimmy Carter, however, considered South Africa a liability for the West. His vice president, Walter Mondale, told John Vorster that the United States wanted South Africa to adopt a policy of one person, one vote, a principle that the ANC upheld but that no white group in South Africa, not even those opposed to apartheid, supported. Antiapartheid sentiments also grew in Britain and in Europe, while the UN, composed of a majority of Third World states, had in 1973 declared apartheid "a crime against humanity" and in 1977 had declared mandatory the existing embargo on the sale of arms to South Africa.

Such criticism had a considerable material impact. South Africa had to invest large sums in the development of its own armaments industry. Because of an embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), it also had to pay more for oil and purchased most of its supplies from the shah of Iran until his overthrow in 1979. Foreign investment in South Africa, on which the country depended for much of its economic growth, also became increasingly expensive and uncertain in the second half of the 1970s. A growing sluggishness in the South African economy, coupled with concerns about the country's political stability in light of the Soweto demonstrations, caused most investors to seek out more attractive ventures for their capital in other countries. Foreign capital still flowed into South Africa, but it was primarily in the form of short-term loans rather than investments. In 1976, for example, two-thirds of the foreign funds entering South Africa were in short-term loans, usually of twelve months' duration.

Divisions in the White Community

Increasing economic and political pressures caused splits in the white political parties. In 1968 Vorster had dismissed three conservatives from his cabinet. One of these, Albert Hertzog, a son of J.B.M. Hertzog, founded the Reconstituted National Party (Herstigte Nasionale Party--HNP). Hertzog and the HNP argued that no concessions should be made in pursuing the full implementation of apartheid, whereas Vorster and his allies argued that compromise was necessary. The split was commonly labeled a division between the verligtes (the enlightened) and the verkramptes (the narrow-minded), although the differences often seemed to be primarily tactical rather than ideological. The HNP contested elections in 1970 and in 1974 but without winning a single seat from Vorster. In 1978, however, the unfolding of a major national scandal brought about Vorster's downfall. An official investigation determined that Vorster, together with a small group of supporters including the head of the Security Police, General H.J. van den Bergh, had secretly and illegally used government funds to manipulate the news media in South Africa and to try to purchase newspapers overseas, including the Washington Star . Vorster resigned his position as prime minister for the largely ceremonial post of president; his preferred successor, Connie Mulder, was purged from the National Party, and P.W. Botha, minister of defence since 1966, became prime minister.

Botha, strongly supported by Afrikaner businessmen and by the armed forces leaders, initiated a self-styled program of reform. He tried to do away with aspects of "petty" apartheid that many had come to regard as unnecessarily offensive to blacks and to world opinion, such as the allocation of separate public facilities and the use of racially discriminatory signs to designate who could use the facilities. Hoping to develop a black middle class that would be impervious to the socialist message of the ANC, Botha also accepted in large part the recommendations of two government commissions appointed to investigate the way labor and pass laws were applied to Africans.

The Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation (Wiehahn Commission), established in the aftermath of the strike wave of the early 1970s, argued that blacks should be allowed to register trade unions and to have them recognized as part of the official conciliation process. The commission also recommended the elimination of statutory job reservation. Legislation incorporating these recommendations was passed in 1979 and resulted in a huge growth in African trade unionism in the early 1980s.

The Commission of Inquiry into Legislation Affecting the Utilisation of Manpower (Riekert Commission), accepting the fact that poverty in the homelands would continue to push tens of thousands of Africans into the cities, recommended in 1979 that instead of using the pass laws to punish Africans who were illegally entering urban areas, the government should prosecute employers and landlords if they gave jobs or housing to blacks who lacked documentary proof of their right to live in the cities. Botha accepted this recommendation, although it was not until eight years and more than 1 million arrests later that he introduced legislation abolishing the pass laws.

At the same time, Botha pursued harsh measures against those he deemed his enemies in order to ensure the maintenance of white power. The late 1970s and early 1980s were marked by numerous military interventions in the states bordering South Africa and by an extensive military and political campaign to eliminate SWAPO in Namibia. Within South Africa, vigorous police action and strict enforcement of security legislation resulted in hundreds of arrests and bannings and an effective end to the ANC's stepped-up campaign of sabotage in the 1970s. Botha also continued to support the homeland policy, arguing as his predecessors had done that Africans should exercise political rights only within what were deemed to be their own communities, which in the 1980s continued to be as small and fragmented as they had been in the 1950s.

Yet one issue loomed ever larger in the eyes of apartheid's architects, and that was the matter of demographics. Whereas whites had accounted for 21 percent of South Africa's population in 1936, by 1980 they constituted only 16 percent. Future projections estimated that by 2010 the white proportion would be less than 10 percent and falling, while the African population would make up 83 percent of the total and would be increasing. In light of these projections, Botha's government proposed in 1983 that political power in South Africa be shared among whites, coloureds, and Indians, with separate houses of parliament to be established for each racial group. This proposal caused angry opposition among a number of National Party members, sixteen of whom, including Andries Treurnicht, were expelled when they refused to sign a motion of confidence in Botha's leadership.

Treurnicht formed the Conservative Party of South Africa (CP), bringing together old enemies of Botha such as Connie Mulder and supporters of the verkrampte faction of the NP. Botha proceeded with his plans, calling for a referendum in which only white voters would be asked whether or not they approved of the prime minister's plans for constitutional change. Some liberal opponents of the government, such as Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), and Harry Oppenheimer, head of the Anglo American Corporation, denounced Botha's plans because they would permanently exclude Africans from having any political role in South Africa. Many other politicians and businessmen, English- and Afrikaans-speaking alike, argued that any change in apartheid would be an improvement. Most white voters agreed, and two-thirds of those who participated in the referendum voted "yes."

Limited Reforms

The new constitution came into force in 1984. In place of the single House of Parliament, there were three constituent bodies: a 178-member (all-white) House of Assembly, an eighty-five-member (coloured) House of Representatives, and a forty-five-member (Indian) House of Delegates. Whites thus retained a majority in any joint session. Presiding over the three houses was the state president, a new office quite unlike the ceremonial position that it replaced. The state president was chosen by an eighty-eight-member electoral college that preserved the 4:2:1 ratio of whites:coloureds:Indians. The president could dissolve Parliament at any time and was authorized to allocate issues to each of the three houses. P.W. Botha became the first state president, occupying the position from the beginning of 1984 until late 1989.

Most blacks strongly condemned the new constitution. Rather than viewing it as a major step toward reform, they saw it as one more effort to bolster apartheid. It reinforced the apartheid notion that Africans were not, and could never be considered as, citizens of South Africa, despite the fact that they constituted 75 percent of the country's population and the vast bulk of its labor force. The constitution's negative impact was compounded by the fact that Africans could not buy land outside the homelands and that government services for blacks, especially in education, were deliberately inferior.

Indians and coloureds argued that the continued existence of a white majority in Parliament and effective white monopolization of the state presidency made their incorporation into the political process little more than window-dressing. Although the (coloured) Labour Party of Allan Hendrickse and the (Indian) National Peoples' Party of Amichand Rajbansi participated in elections in 1984 for the House of Representatives and the House of Delegates, only 30 percent of registered coloured voters and only 20 percent of registered Indian voters cast ballots.

Opposition to the government's plans consolidated. The United Democratic Front (UDF), which was formed in late 1983 as 1,000 delegates representing 575 organizations--ranging from trade unions to sporting bodies--aimed to use nonviolent means to persuade the government to withdraw its constitutional proposals, to do away with apartheid, and to create a new South Africa incorporating the homelands. In early 1984, the UDF claimed a membership of more than 600 organizations and 3 million individuals; and two respected religious leaders, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Allan Boesak, emerged as its prime spokesmen.

Black trade unions, many formed after the Wiehahn Commission, took an increasingly prominent role in economic and political protests in the mid-1980s. They organized strikes in East London and on the Rand protesting economic conditions as well as the constitutional proposals. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), newly formed under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, successfully enlisted the support of almost all African miners in bringing work to a stop in a dispute over wage increases. NUM also joined with thirty other nonracial unions in December 1985 to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), an umbrella organization that represented more than 500,000 trade union members and won new members almost every month. By the end of 1985, there had been more than 390 strikes involving 240,000 workers, and industrial unrest was increasing.

Conflict was even more intense in the townships, where residents attacked and burned government buildings and sought to destroy all elements of the apartheid administration. Numerous attacks were made on the homes of black policemen and town councillors, whose participation was necessary to the government's operation of township administration. Violence broke out in some of the homelands, particularly in Lebowa, KwaNdebele, and Bophuthatswana, involving struggles between supporters and opponents of homeland "independence." Sabotage also increased, including bombings of police stations, power installations, and--in one particularly dramatic instance in May 1983--the headquarters of the South African Air Force in Pretoria. Deaths from violence increased, many of them at the hands of the police. Whereas in 1984 there had been 174 fatalities linked to political unrest, in 1985 the number increased to 879, and it continued to rise after that.

International pressures on the South African government also intensified in the mid-1980s. Antiapartheid sentiment in the United States, fueled in large part by television coverage of the ongoing violence in South Africa, heightened demands for the removal of United States investments and for the imposition of official sanctions. In 1984 forty United States companies pulled out of South Africa, with another fifty following suit in 1985. In July 1985, Chase Manhattan Bank caused a major financial crisis in South Africa by refusing to roll over its short-term loans, a lead that was soon followed by most other international banks, fueling inflation and eroding South African living standards. In October 1986, the United States Congress, overriding a presidential veto, passed legislation implementing mandatory sanctions against South Africa; these included the banning of all new investments and bank loans, the ending of air links between the United States and South Africa, and the banning of many South African imports.

President Botha activated security legislation to deal with these crises. In mid-1985 he imposed the first in a series of states of emergency in various troubled parts of South Africa; this was the first time such laws had been used since the Sharpeville violence in 1960. The state of emergency was extended throughout the nation the following year. The emergency regulations gave the police powers to arrest without warrants and to detain people indefinitely without charging them or even allowing lawyers or next of kin to be notified. It also gave the government even greater authority than the considerable powers it already possessed to censor radio, television, and newspaper coverage of the unrest. Botha deployed police and more than 5,000 troops in African townships to quell the spreading resistance. By February 1987, unofficial estimates claimed that at least 30,000 people had been detained, many for several months at a time.

South Africa's complex and fragmented society became increasingly polarized around antiapartheid groups, who expressed a growing sense of urgency in their demands for an end to the failed system of racial separation, and white conservative defenders of apartheid, who intensified their resistance to change. Facing mounting international disapproval and economic stagnation, the government tentatively began to signal its awareness that its plan for separate development by race would have to be substantially altered or abandoned.

In January 1986, President Botha shocked conservatives in the all-white House of Assembly with the statement that South Africa had "outgrown the outdated concept of apartheid." The government undertook tentative, incremental change, at a carefully controlled pace, and, as it began to yield to demands for racial equality, it severely limited the activities of antiapartheid agitators. The government tightened press restrictions, effectively banned the UDF and other activist organizations, and renewed a series of states of emergency throughout the rest of the 1980s.

As the inevitability of political change became apparent, conservative whites expressed new fears for the future. The CP swamped the PFP in parliamentary by-elections in May 1987, making the CP the official parliamentary opposition. Liberal whites and other opponents of apartheid reorganized to broaden their popular appeal, first as the National Democratic Movement (NDM) and later as a new United Party. This coalition tried unsuccessfully to win support from the progressive wing of the NP. Within the NP, progressives were outmaneuvered by conservatives, who bolted from the party to join the CP in an attempt to prolong apartheid. In early 1988, the government, seeking to stem the erosion of its NP support, tightened press restrictions and further restricted political activity by antiapartheid organizations. Still excluded from national politics, blacks sought new avenues for pressing their demands, and their demonstrations often erupted in violence. Supporters of the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the banned ANC clashed in an upsurge of "black-on-black" violence that would cause as many as 10,000 deaths by 1994.

President Botha suffered a stroke in January 1989. Choosing his successor almost split the NP, but when Botha resigned as party leader a month later, NP moderates managed to elect Minister of Education Frederik W. (F.W.) de Klerk to succeed him. A few weeks later, the NP elected de Klerk state president, too, but Botha stubbornly refused to step down for several months. Soon after he resigned under pressure on August 14, 1989, the electoral college named de Klerk to succeed him in a five-year term as president.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress