History of South Africa

Dismantling Apartheid, 1990-94

President de Klerk recognized the urgent need to bring the black majority of South Africans into the political process, and most NP moderates agreed with him in principle. He had held secret talks with the imprisoned ANC leader Mandela to begin preparations for this major policy shift. De Klerk nonetheless surprised some supporters and critics alike when he announced on February 2, 1990, not only the impending release of Mandela, but also the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC, and the SACP, and the removal of restrictions on the UDF and other legal political organizations. De Klerk also lifted the four-year-old media restrictions, and he invited former liberation fighters to join the government at the negotiating table to prepare for a new multiracial constitution. De Klerk pledged that his government would investigate alleged human rights abuses by the security forces. He also sought improved relations with the rest of Africa by proposing joint regional development planning with neighboring states and by inviting other African leaders to increase trade with South Africa.

Widely hailed as historic, de Klerk's speech was nonetheless attacked by antiapartheid critics for what it lacked--it did not mention the two most despised legislative pillars of apartheid, the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act. It did not lift all of the security provisions that had been imposed under states of emergency. At the same time, CP leader Treurnicht, calling for de Klerk's resignation, said de Klerk lacked the authority to carry out such sweeping changes, and he accused de Klerk of helping to destroy the Afrikaner volk .

As Mandela was released on February 11, 1990, at age seventy-one after twenty-seven years in prison, South Africans poured into the streets in celebration. His first words were to assure his supporters in the ANC that his release was not part of a "deal" with the government, and to reassure whites that he intended to work toward reconciliation. He also quoted his well-known statement at the Rivonia trial in 1964, "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

In the flurry of receptions and public statements that followed, Mandela enunciated other objectives that were less welcome in political and business circles. He reaffirmed ANC policies in favor of nationalization of major sectors of the economy. He refused to renounce the armed struggle immediately, refused to call for the lifting of international sanctions against South Africa until further progress was achieved, and refused to accept an interim power-sharing arrangement proposed by the government. ANC officials elected Mandela deputy president in March 1990, giving him effective control over policy decisions in consultation with their ailing president, Oliver Tambo.

Despite the ANC's strong symbolic displays of unity, like other political organizations facing new challenges, it showed widening internal fractures. Blacks who had been unanimous in their demands for Mandela's release from prison, nonetheless differed sharply in the extent of their willingness to reconcile peacefully over past injustices. In addition, militant black consciousness leaders, especially in the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), rejected outright Mandela's proposals for multiracial government and demanded black control over future decision-making institutions. At PAC offices in Zimbabwe, PAC leader Zephania Mothopeng rejected appeals by Mandela and by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe for the PAC leader to join Mandela in discussions in Pretoria.

Some of the ANC's estimated 40,000 exiles began returning to South Africa in the early 1990s, and as organizational leaders debated their future role, many militant former exiles and others rejected Mandela's conciliatory approach and insisted on continuing the armed struggle. Left-wing ANC factions pressed Mandela to demand the immediate nationalization of private-sector conglomerates. The ANC was also accused of abuse and brutality against dissidents during its nearly three decades of operating underground and outside South Africa--accusations Mandela acknowledged were based in fact. Old and young liberation fighters appeared capable of warring even against one another as the end of apartheid approached.

The Quest for Peace

Amid rising tensions and unrest, representatives of the government and the ANC--with strong misgivings--met in Cape Town in May 1990 to begin planning for constitutional negotiations. Even holding "talks about talks" was risky. The government had to grant immunity from prosecution to many formerly banned or exiled ANC members before they could safely appear in public. In a few antiapartheid strongholds, political moderates were attacked for being too conciliatory.

President de Klerk faced an increasingly divided constituency of his own. Conservatives intensified their demands for him to step down, while NP progressives pressured him to move more boldly toward multiracial government. Planning sessions for eventual negotiations were postponed repeatedly as Mandela and de Klerk had to reassure their constituencies of their determination to set aside the past and to work peacefully toward a broadly legitimate government.

De Klerk's credibility was low among his former opponents. The talks snarled over his insistence on defending what he termed the "rights of minorities"--a phrase the ANC viewed simply as a ploy to preserve white control. De Klerk's standing in the negotiations was further weakened in late 1990, when the government-appointed Commission of Inquiry into Certain Alleged Murders (Harms Commission), which he had established earlier that year, found evidence--but not "proof"--that clandestine death squads had operated within the security services. The commission's hearings were often marred by violence and by claims of witness intimidation.

The international response to change in South Africa was cautious. Several African countries, visited by Mandela within weeks of his release from prison, held to their pledge to await his signal of progress toward ending apartheid before they began to lift sanctions against South Africa. Several European countries, visited by de Klerk in May 1990, broke with European Community sanctions agreements and immediately lifted their bans on investment and travel to South Africa. International athletic teams were drawn into the controversy, as some sports organizations tried to adhere to international boycotts, while in South Africa, sports enthusiasts and athletes demanded readmission to world competitions. In late 1990, both de Klerk and Mandela again went abroad seeking political and financial support. De Klerk traveled to the United States in September 1990 and to Britain and the Netherlands in October; at about the same time, Mandela traveled to India, Japan, and other Asian countries.

Popular pressure for lifting sanctions increased in the United States. The US Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act of 1986 had specified that five conditions would have to be met before sanctions could be lifted. By late 1990, three of them had been accomplished--the government had entered into multiracial negotiations, had removed bans on multiracial political organizations, and had lifted the state of emergency in Natal. The remaining two conditions--freeing political prisoners and repealing the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act--were not met until 1991.

The climate of uncertainty spread to the homelands during 1990 and 1991. These arid patches of land were despised by many as symbols of the apartheid system. Several homeland leaders, who depended heavily on Pretoria for their legitimacy--and their budgets--faced growing dissent and demands for reincorporation into South Africa. Zulu residents of the wealthiest and most populous homeland, KwaZulu, increasingly feared that their interests and culture would be submerged in the groundswell of support for Mandela and the ANC, and that their past cooperation with the NP would be forgotten.

ANC and government leaders tried to find common ground for negotiating a new constitution, but they managed only incremental progress while they worked to rein in the extremist fringes of their respective constituencies. In June 1990, de Klerk and Mandela met officially for the first time to set the agenda for further talks. The two sides moved cautiously toward each other. In August Mandela announced the suspension of the ANC's thirty-year armed struggle. The government continued lifting apartheid restrictions, and in October--at de Klerk's prompting--the NP opened its ranks to all races. On October 15, 1990, parliament repealed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, which had sanctioned "petty apartheid" in public places such as beaches, libraries, and places of entertainment.

The talks were threatened by escalating violence throughout 1990, and in August Mandela accused the government of doing little to end it. De Klerk and Mandela continued their political tug-of-war. De Klerk sought domestic and international approval for the changes already under way, while Mandela pressed for change at a faster pace. A series of legislative decisions and political breakthroughs in 1990 moved South Africa closer to multiracial democracy, but at the end of the year, it was clear that many obstacles remained.

The ANC gradually accepted the notion of a coalition interim government, but ANC leaders insisted on determining the rules for forming that coalition. In early 1991, debates raged over various formulas for multiracial government, and over the allocation of powers between regional and national authorities, as political leaders on all sides realized that it was easier to define an illegitimate government than to construct a legitimate one. They agreed that an all-party congress would have responsibility for the most onerous organizational tasks: it would draw up broad principles on which a new constitution would rest, would determine the makeup of the constitution-making body, and would establish an interim government to oversee the transition itself.

In January 1991, Mandela met for the first time in nearly thirty years with Zulu leader Buthelezi in an effort to allay Zulu fears of ANC domination. This historic meeting did little to quell escalating ANC-IFP violence, however, and the weak police response only fueled ANC suspicions of covert police support for the IFP. Amid rising unrest, the government implemented a new security crackdown in the townships, dubbed "Operation Iron Fist." Mandela faced new demands from his militant younger generation of followers to abandon the negotiations entirely.

Finally, in February 1991, de Klerk and Mandela reached a compromise over efforts to reduce both violence and the smuggling of arms into South Africa, and to achieve the release of political prisoners. The ANC was anxious to repatriate its remaining exiles, many of whose skills were needed in the negotiations, but the logistical problems of returning refugees from countries that lacked diplomatic ties with South Africa seemed insurmountable until the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was persuaded to intervene on behalf of the ANC.

On June 5, 1991, the government repealed two more legislative pillars of apartheid, the Land Act of 1913 (and 1936) and the Group Areas Act of 1950. The 1991 legislation gave all races equal rights to own property anywhere in the country, enabled some 300,000 black householders to convert ninety-nine-year leases to full ownership, enabled suburban residents of all races to set (racially nondiscriminatory) residency standards for their neighborhoods, authorized the establishment of new townships and the extension of services to their residents, and encouraged the development of farmland and rural communities. This legislation did not authorize compensation for blacks who had been displaced from their land in the preceding thirty years; instead, it left their complaints to be dealt with by a special court or commission to be established for that purpose.

On June 17, 1991, the government repealed the Population Registration Act of 1950, the most infamous pillar of apartheid, which had authorized the registration by race of newborn babies and immigrants. Its repeal was hailed as historic throughout the world, although critics pointed to related laws still on the books that permitted inequitable treatment in voting, in pensions, in social services, and in many other areas of public behavior.

The National Peace Accord of September 1991 was a critical step toward formal negotiations. The thirty-three-page accord, signed by representatives of twenty-seven political organizations and national and homeland governments, set codes of conduct for all parties to the process, including the police. The accord also established a network of "peace committees," to contain the violence that continued to plague the townships. Ironically, the most important results of the National Peace Accord turned out to be the establishment of networks of committed individuals, the opening of communications channels, and the trust that began to be sown through discussion. The accord itself failed to accomplish its immediate goal; the violence continued and increased sporadically throughout 1992.

"Irreversible Progress" Toward Democracy

Through dogged perseverance, amid claims and counterclaims of sabotage and brutality, key political leaders began formal constitutional negotiations on December 20, 1991. Calling themselves the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), delegations from nineteen governmental and political organizations began planning the creation of a transitional government and a representative parliament. They established five working groups, each made up of thirty-eight delegates and thirty-eight advisers, to take the lead in creating a climate for free political activity; in determining basic constitutional principles; in establishing transitional procedures for the nominally independent homelands of Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda; in setting and overseeing timetables for the transition; and in dealing with new problems that would arise during the transition itself.

International organizations and other countries were torn between recognizing South Africa's impressive accomplishments and encouraging further progress. Most international sanctions were lifted soon after the Population Registration Act, Group Areas Act, and Land Acts were repealed. In July 1991, the United States Congress lifted remaining sanctions under its Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act, although laws restricting commercial ties with South Africa remained on the books in many states and cities in the United States. The EC lifted most trade and investment bans in January 1992 and remaining restrictions on sporting, scientific, and cultural links three months later. On April 6, 1992, the EC lifted its oil embargo. Other countries gradually lifted a range of boycotts, and many African governments--under pressure from their own business communities--reestablished diplomatic ties with South Africa. The United Nations General Assembly would wait until late 1993 to lift remaining UN sanctions.

Much of de Klerk's effort in 1992 was directed toward appeasing and weakening his right-wing opponents--staunch defenders of apartheid who had broken with the NP during the 1980s. He first tried reassuring them about the future. Then, as conservative resistance hardened, he called for a referendum among white voters to test his mandate for change. The question posed in the March 17, 1992, referendum was carefully worded: "Do you support continuation of the reform process which the State President began on February 2, 1990, and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?" The outcome was a resounding 68.6 percent "yes." Election analysts reported that support among Afrikaners was even slightly higher than among English speakers. Only one region of the country--the northern Transvaal (later Northern Province)--voted "no." A few militant defenders of apartheid boycotted the referendum.

Buoyed by the outcome, de Klerk presented Codesa with proposals for a two-phase transition, the first phase managed by transitional councils appointed by Codesa, and the second phase--the constitution-writing process--managed by an elected transitional government headed by a multiperson presidency and a bicameral legislature. The ANC's counterproposals called for a single-stage transition, a committee elected by proportional representation to draft the constitution, with a two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional provisions. Negotiations were suspended as both sides sought to refine their proposals and to unify their constituencies.

In mid-1992 escalating violence, allegations of police brutality, and government financial scandals threatened to derail negotiations. After a particularly brutal attack on June 17, 1992, by IFP supporters on ANC sympathizers in Boipatong, a township near Johannesburg, the ANC suspended negotiations and threatened to withdraw entirely unless the government made greater efforts to end the violence and to curtail covert police support for the IFP. Mandela took his complaint to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the UN, where, on July 15, 1992, he accused the government of "a cold-blooded strategy of state terrorism." Finally, in September 1992, de Klerk and Mandela arrived at a Record of Understanding affirming police responsibility for protecting residents in workers' hostels, where support for the ANC was high. ANC fears lingered, however, especially in late 1992, when the Commission of Inquiry Regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation (Goldstone Commission) released its findings of a "dirty tricks" campaign against the ANC, apparently sanctioned by senior figures within the South African Defence Forces (SADF).

In protest against the Record of Understanding, Zulu leader Buthelezi established an alternative to Codesa to include the leaders of groups disadvantaged by the ANC's strong lead in the Codesa forum--i.e., white conservatives and black homeland leaders, whose power bases were eroding. The resulting Concerned South Africans Group (Cosag) pressed for a federal constitution to preserve the rights of ethnic minorities, especially the Zulu and whites.

Negotiations resumed on March 5, 1993, but the fragile process was again threatened a month later, when Chris Hani, the popular general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), was murdered. ANC leaders joined the government in trying to stem outbreaks of retaliatory violence, and several white extremists were arrested within weeks after the murder. With a new sense of urgency, political negotiators tried to speed the process and set the date for nationwide elections no later than April 27, 1994.

The draft constitution published on July 26, 1993, contained concessions to all sides--a federal system of regional legislatures, equal voting rights regardless of race, and a bicameral legislature. Negotiators were undeterred by the storm of protests that followed, and they went on to establish a Transitional Executive Council (TEC), a multiracial body that would share executive responsibilities with President de Klerk during election preparations. Cosag boycotted the TEC and formed the Freedom Alliance to demand equal status with the government and the ANC. Sensing new momentum, however, the government cracked down on right-wing violence and tried to reason with white extremists, without slowing the pace of election preparations.

Preparing for Elections

In November 1993, negotiators endorsed the draft of the interim constitution calling for a five-year transitional government, and the tricameral parliament endorsed the draft in December. The timetable for elections remained firm after that. Mandela and the ANC, sensing their imminent rise to power and to responsibility for the country's welfare, called for the immediate lifting of remaining international sanctions and sought new donors and investors for South Africa. But the ongoing violence, which was frightening away investors, also threatened to delay the April elections.

In December 1993, the multiracial TEC was installed as part of the executive branch of government--over the objections of the Freedom Alliance and the PAC. The TEC quickly established seven subcouncils with specific responsibilities during the transition. It also approved the formation of an eleven-member Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to organize and to verify the planned elections, and it deployed police and army units to northern Natal to try to end the violence.

Other countries and international organizations began mobilizing support for South Africa's historic vote. The United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa (UNOMSA), which had deployed in small numbers to quell township violence in August 1992, expanded its mission to about 2,000 personnel to coordinate the teams of election observers that were being sent by the OAU, the European Union, the British Commonwealth, and several individual countries.

The antielection Freedom Alliance began to unravel in early 1994. White conservatives stepped up their demands for a separate, whites-only homeland--dispelling any illusions of support for their Freedom Alliance partners. The government of Ciskei, a homeland where the ANC's popularity exceeded that of the appointed president, broke away from its alliance partners and declared its intention to permit homeland residents to vote. The government in Bophuthatswana--another Freedom Alliance partner facing strong popular opposition--sought armed support from the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging--AWB), prompting the SADF to intervene and to remove Bophuthatswana President Lucas Mangope from office. With the Freedom Alliance severely weakened, PAC President Clarence Makwetu--another election holdout--announced that group's suspension of its armed struggle, thus opening the way for election participation by its members.

Violence continued, mostly between supporters of the IFP and the ANC, and the TEC authorized rapid training for a 10,000-member national peacekeeping force--an effort that eventually failed. The force was disbanded as the elections began. The Goldstone Commission found evidence of serious police complicity in the continuing unrest, and the government suspended several officers pending investigations. The country appeared poised to launch into violence-wracked balloting, when de Klerk imposed a state of emergency in Natal and KwaZulu on March 31, 1994, deploying 3,000 SADF troops to allow residents of the area to defy the IFP election boycott and to go to the polls.

On April 12, 1994, a team of international mediators headed by former British foreign secretary Lord Carrington and former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger arrived to attempt to break the logjam that was keeping the IFP out of the elections. After two days of fruitless discussions, their effort was declared a failure, and the mediators left. Only days later, however, on April 19, Buthelezi--under intense pressure from trusted local and international figures--relented and agreed to allow the IFP to be placed on the ballot.

When the elections finally took place on schedule, beginning on April 26, 1994, the government and the ANC had several thousand security forces, with varying degrees of training and authority, in place to prevent serious outbreaks of violence. Remarkably, the violence subsided. A few "exceptional" votes were cast by voters who were disabled or were living outside South Africa on April 26. During the next two days, more than 22 million voters stood in line for hours at some 9,000 polling places to exercise their newly won right to vote. Balloting was extended through April 29. There was no voter registration list, so IEC officials marked voters' fingers with indelible ink to prevent fraud.

For days after the elections, tensions remained high, and some accusations of election fraud surfaced--especially in Natal. As the counting proceeded, the IEC prompted party leaders to negotiate agreements over disputed results that would allow the IEC to certify the elections as "substantially free and fair." The official results, released on May 6, 1994, gave the ANC 62.6 percent of the vote; the NP, 20.4 percent; and the IFP, 10.5 percent. Seven political parties won seats in the National Assembly. Three parties won the 5 percent of votes necessary to participate in the cabinet of the coalition government.

Mandela was unanimously elected president by the National Assembly on May 9, 1994, in Cape Town. His two deputy presidents, former ANC chairman Thabo Mbeki and former president de Klerk, stood with Mandela when he was inaugurated on May 10 at ceremonies in Pretoria. Representatives of 140 countries were present. Mandela's inaugural address stressed the need for reconciliation, both within South Africa and with other countries, and once again he quoted his own words at the Rivonia trial that had preceded his long imprisonment, and he reaffirmed his determination to forge a peaceful, nonracial society.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress