South Africa-Apartheid to Democracy (Part- 2)

(e) The end of apartheid

The system of apartheid continued without any concessions being made to black people, until 1980.

1. P. W. Botha

The new prime minister, P. W. Botha (elected 1979), realized that all was not well with the system. He decided that he must reform apartheid, dropping some of the most unpopular aspects in an attempt to preserve white control.

What caused this change?

  • Criticism from abroad (from the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity) gradually gathered momentum. External pressures became much greater in 1975 when the while-ruled Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique achieved independence after a long struggle. The African takeover of Zimbabwe (1980) removed the last of the white-ruled states which had been sympathetic to the South African government and apartheid. Now South Africa was surrounded by hostile black states, and many Africans in these new states had sworn never to rest until their fellow-Africans in South Africa had been liberated.
  • There were economic problems – South Africa was hit by recession in the late 1970s, and many white people were worse off. Whites began to emigrate in large numbers, but the black population was increasing. In 1980 whites made up only 16 per cent of the population, whereas between the two world wars they had formed 21 per cent.
  • The African homelands were a failure: they were poverty-stricken, their rulers were corrupt and no foreign government recognized them as genuinely independent states.
  • The USA, which was treating its own black people better during the 1970s, began to criticize the South African government’s racist policy.

In a speech in September 1979 which astonished many of his Nationalist supporters, the newly elected Prime Minister Botha said: “A revolution in South Africa is no longer just a remote possibility. Either we adapt or we perish. White domination and legally enforced apartheid are a recipe for permanent conflict.” He went on to suggest that the black homelands must be made viable and that unnecessary discrimination must be abolished.

Gradually he introduced some important changes which he hoped would be enough to silence the critics both inside and outside South Africa.

  • Blacks were allowed to join trade unions and to go on strike (1979).
  • Blacks were allowed to elect their own local township councils (but not to vote in national elections) (1981).
  • A new constitution was introduced, setting up two new houses of parliament, one for coloureds and one for Asians (but not for Africans). The new system was weighted so that the whites kept overall control. It came into force in 1984.
  • Sexual relations and marriage were allowed between people of different races (1985).
  • The hated pass laws for non-whites were abolished (1986).

This was as far as Botha was prepared to go. He would not even consider the ANC’s main demands (the right to vote and to play a full part in ruling the country). Far from being won over by these concessions, black Africans were incensed that the new constitution made no provision for them, and were determined to settle for nothing less than full political rights. Violence escalated, with both sides guilty of excesses. The ANC used the ‘necklace’, a tyre placed round the victim’s neck and set on fire, to murder black councillors and black police, who were regarded as collaborators with apartheid. On the 25th anniversary of Sharpeville, police opened fire on a procession of black mourners going to a funeral near Uitenhage (Port Elizabeth), killing over forty people (March 1985). In July a state of emergency was declared in the worst affected areas, and it was extended to the whole country in June 1986. This gave the police the power to arrest people without warrants, and freedom from all criminal proceedings; thousands of people were arrested, and newspapers, radio and TV were banned from reporting demonstrations and strikes.

However, as so often happens when an authoritarian regime tries to reform itself, it proved impossible to stop the process of change (the same happened in the USSR when Gorbachev tried to reform communism). By the late 1980s international pressure on South Africa was having more effect, and internal attitudes had changed.

  • In August 1986 the Commonwealth (except Britain) agreed on a strong package of sanctions (no further loans, no sales of oil, computer equipment or nuclear goods to South Africa, no cultural and scientific contacts). British prime minister Margaret Thatcher would commit Britain only to a voluntary ban on investment in South Africa. Her argument was that severe economic sanctions would worsen the plight of black Africans, who would be thrown out of their jobs. This caused the rest of the Commonwealth to feel bitter against Britain; Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, accused Mrs Thatcher of ‘compromising on basic principles and values for economic ends’.
  • In September 1986 the USA joined the fray when Congress voted (over President Reagan’s veto) to stop American loans to South Africa to cut air links and to ban imports of iron, steel, coal, textiles and uranium from South Africa.
  • The black population was no longer just a mass of uneducated and unskilled labourers; there was a steadily growing number of well-educated, professional, middle class black people, some of them holding important positions, like Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and became Anglican archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.
  • The Dutch Reformed Church, which had once supported apartheid, now condemned it as incompatible with Christianity. A majority of white South Africans now recognized that it was difficult to defend the total exclusion of blacks from the country’s political life. So although they were nervous about what might happen, they became resigned to the idea of black majority rule at some time in the future. White moderate were therefore prepared to make the best of the situation and get the best deal possible.

2. F. W. de Klerk

The new president. F. W. de Klerk (elected 1989). had a reputation for caution, but privately he had decided that apartheid would have to go completely and he accepted that black majority rule must come eventually. The problem was how to achieve it without further violence and possible civil war.  With great courage and determination, and in the face of bitter opposition from right wing Afrikaner group, de Klerk gradually moved the country toward black majority rule.

  • Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in jail (1990) and became leader of the ANC. which was made legal.
  • Most of the remaining apartheid laws were dropped.
  • Namibia, the neighbouring territory ruled by South Africa since 1919, was given independence under a black government (1990).
  • Talks began in 1991 between the government and the ANC to work out a new constitution which would allow blacks full political rights.

Meanwhile the ANC was doing its best to present itself as a moderate party which had no plans for wholesale nationalization, and to reassure whites that they would be safe and happy under black rule. Nelson Mandela condemned violence and called for reconciliation between blacks and whites. The negotiations were long and difficult; de Klerk had to face ?growing opposition from his own National Party and from various extreme, white racialist groups who claimed that he had betrayed them. The ANC was involved in a power struggle with another black party, the Natal-based Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Buthelezi.

3. Transition to black majority rule

In the spring of 1993 the talks were successful and a power-sharing scheme was worked out to carry through the transition to black majority rule. A general election was held and the ANC won almost two-thirds of the votes. As had been agreed, a coalition government of the ANC, National Party and Inkatha took office, with Nelson Mandela as the first black President of South Africa, two vice-Presidents, one black and one white (Thabo Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk), and Chief Buthelezi as Home Affair’s Minister. A right wing Afrikaner group, led by Eugene Terreblanche continued to oppose the new democracy Afrikaner group, vowing to provoke civil war, but in the end it came to nothing. Although there had been violence and bloodshed, it was a remarkable achievement, for which both de Klerk and Mandela deserve the credit, that South Africa was able to move from apartheid to black majority rule without civil war.

(f) Mandela and Mbeki

The government faced daunting problems and was expected to deliver on the promises in the ANC programme, especially to improve conditions for the black population. Plans were put into operation to raise their general standard of living – in education, housing, health care, water and power supplies and sanitation. But the scale of the problem was so vast that it would be many years before standards would show improvement for everybody. In May 1996 a new constitution was agreed, to come into operation after the elections of 1999, which would not allow minority parties to take part in the government. When this was revealed (May 1996). The Nationalists immediately announced that they would withdraw from the government to a ‘dynamic but responsible opposition’. As the country moved towards the millennium, the main problems facing the president were how to maintain sound financial and economic policies, and how to attract foreign aid and investment: potential investors were hesitant awaiting future developments.

While continuing the former government’s liberal economic policy, Mandela’s administration also introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services.

One of Mandela’s most successful initiatives was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which looked into human rights abuses during apartheid regime. Assisted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission’s approach was not one of taking revenge, but of granting amenities; people were encouraged to talk, frankly, and to acknowledge their came and ask for forgiveness. This was one of the most admirable things about Mandela, that although he had been kept in prison under the apartheid regime for 27 year, he still believed in forgiveness and reconciliation. The president decided not to stand for re-election in 1999 – he was almost 81 years old: he retired with his reputation high, almost universally admired for his statesmanship and restraint.

Mandela became an elder statesman, focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, or as Tata (“Father”); he is often described as the “Father of the Nation”.


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