DISMOUNTING THE TIGER
SPEECH BY F W DE KLERK TO ELI LILY, CAPE TOWN, 2 MARCH 2010
One of the questions I am invariably asked by international audiences is whether a Damascus conversion led me to initiate the changes that I announced on 2 February 1990. Another recurrent question is why did we not start our transformation initiative earlier?
The short answer is that there was no sudden conversion. The pace of change in South Africa was determined by broad historic forces. What then were these historic forces that set the pace of change in South Africa – and why was it possible for us to do in February 1990, what we could not have done earlier?
It is important to understand what the core concerns of white South Africans were from the 50s to the 80’s.
The first was the right of white South Africans – and particularly Afrikaners – to national self-determination. Unlike any other settler group in Africa, the Afrikaners were a nation. They had their own language. The central theme of their history had been their wish above everything else to rule themselves – which had led them twice during the nineteenth century to defend their independence against Britain.
How could this right to self-determination possibly be maintained in a one-man, one-vote dispensation? This was for decades the crucial question.
Secondly, former governments were worried about chaos. It was one thing to accept the necessity of a liberal democratic transformation, even if this meant the end of the dream of Afrikaner self-determination. It was entirely another thing to accept one-man, one-vote elections that would be held only once and that would open the gates to the kind of tyranny, economic collapse and chaos that had characterised the post independence experience of many African states.
Thirdly, former governments were deeply concerned about Communist influence in the ANC. Nearly all the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee were also members of the South African Communist Party. SACP cadres controlled key functions within the ANC alliance, including its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Former NP governments did not feel that they were under any moral obligation to accept a process that would quickly lead to the demise of democracy and the establishment of a totalitarian communist regime – as had already happened in a number of neighbouring states.
This was not a question of ‘reds under beds’. The communist threat was very real. The contest between the free world and the Soviet bloc was taking place through third world liberation struggles. One of the main battlegrounds was southern Africa. South African forces were involved in large-scale battles with Cuban and Soviet-led forces in southern Angola until as late as September 1987.
These were all reasonable concerns that ensured that as late as 1986 70% of whites remained adamantly opposed to negotiations with the ANC.
What happened to change all this?
The first factor was the government’s realization – by the end of the 1970s - that our policy of ‘separate development’ had failed and held no prospect whatsoever of bringing about a just or workable solution.
• The partition of the country on which it was based was hopelessly inequitable – with the 78% black majority being allocated only 13 % of the land; the economy – and the supposedly white cities - were becoming more integrated with each year that passed;
• whites did not constitute a majority in any geographic region of the country;
• and the solution was vehemently rejected by a vast majority of blacks, coloureds and Asians.
Also, by the beginning of the 1980s white South Africans found themselves in an extremely precarious position. They were riding the tiger of white domination on which history had placed them. Black South Africans and the international community were shouting at them to get off – but, of course, there are serious difficulties involved in dismounting an angry tiger.
My predecessor, President P W Botha understood the need for reform – or, as he put it, to ‘adapt or die’. His response to our dilemma was that one should dismount the tiger very gingerly - one foot at a time - with as much military fire-power as one could muster.
The first foot was the decision to bring Coloured and Asian South Africans into the parliamentary system by means of the tricameral constitution of 1983 - while at the same time dispensing with the most obnoxious apartheid legislation. Far-reaching labour reforms had been introduced and more than 100 discriminatory laws - including the hated pass laws - had been repealed.
The crucial process of lowering the second foot to the ground - the question of black political rights - was referred to a President’s Council which considered in vain all sorts of extensions of the consociational approach.
However, the reforms unleashed a revolution of rising expectations. As Alexis De Tocqueville observed tin the 19th century, the most perilous moment for a reforming government is
“when it seeks to mend its ways....Patiently endured for so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds.”
The result was widespread unrest that by the end of 1985 had brought about a collapse of international confidence in the ability of the South African government to control the situation. South Africa was faced with a dire economic crisis as the rand collapsed and foreign banks refused to roll over its short-term international loans. Order was restored only after the imposition of a draconian 1986 state of emergency. In the winter of 1986 there appeared to be very little hope.
By the mid-1980s the National Party government accepted the need for a solution based on the principle that all South Africans, irrespective of their race, would share a common constitutional destiny.
In August 1986 the National Party Congress in Durban adopted a new policy approach based on the fundamental principles of one united South Africa; one person, one vote; the eradication of all forms of racial discrimination and the effective protection of minorities against domination. The National Party fought the 1987 election of this platform and won with a clear – but reduced – majority.
Secondly, the restoration of order after the 1986 state of emergency helped to introduce another crucially important precondition for a negotiated settlement. This was the acceptance by all sides that there could be neither a military nor a revolutionary victory – and that continuing conflict would simply turn South African into a wasteland. The security forces had accepted this reality by the early 80s.
Nelson Mandela – while still a prisoner – was the first ANC leader to realize this. Without the initial approval of the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, he opened a line of communication with the Government. Discreet contacts between the ANC and the government from the mid 80s onwards tentatively began to explore possibilities for negotiated solutions.
I held my own first meeting with Mr Mandela on 13 December 1989, soon after I became president. I was immediately impressed by his bearing and charm. He had been born into the aristocracy of the Tembu people – and it showed in his natural sense of authority and self-confidence. He was also clearly well-informed about the history and concerns of white South Africans. We both reached the conclusion that we would be able to business with one another.
Thirdly, sanctions were, of course, also a factor. By the mid-80s our economy was increasingly isolated and we had to deal with the crisis caused by the refusal of international banks in 1985 to roll over our short term loans. Sanctions caused enormous distortions in the economy. Sanctions were also often counter-productive. They increased support for the government – and hobbled two of the greatest forces for change – economic growth and exposure to the world.
Fourthly, economic growth of the 60s and 70s was a major change factor. Between 1970 and 1994 the black share of personal disposable income increased from 28.9% to almost 50%. Millions of black South Africans moved to the cities and improved their standard of living and education. By 1989 they had begun to occupy key positions in the industrial and commercial sectors. Increasingly they were becoming indispensable in the white-collar professions. By 1994 there were more black South Africans at university than whites.
Similar changes were taking place in the Afrikaner community. In the decades following 1960 a whole generation of young Afrikaners moved from the working class to the middle class. They graduated from university and travelled abroad – and were inevitably influenced by global values. They no longer shared the fiery nationalism of their parents and grandparents. By the early ‘eighties they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with many aspects of apartheid – but like the NP leadership had no idea of how they could dismount the tiger of growing black resentment without being devoured. By 1989 they were ripe for change.
In January 1989, President P W Botha suffered a serious stroke. On 2 February he sent a surprise letter to the National Party caucus in which he informed it that he had decided to resign as leader of the party. We decided there and then to elect a new leader – and I won the election by only 8 votes. It was clear that the National Party was eager for change. When I told the caucus after my election that we needed a make quantum leap their immediate reaction was: leap FW, leap!
In my first speech in Parliament after my election, I said that “Our goal is a new South Africa: a totally changed South Africa; a South Africa which has rid itself of the antagonism of the past; a South Africa free of domination or oppression in whatever form…”
We went on to fight the 1989 election on an unambiguous platform of fundamental reform. After our victory I said that “the main issue was not whether all South Africans should be accommodated in future election, but how this should be done”.
A fifth factor was the successful conclusion of a tripartite agreement in 1988 between South Africa, Cuba and Angola for the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola and for the implementation of UN resolution 435 for the independence of Namibia. The negotiations with the Angolans and the Cubans and the subsequent successful implementation of the UN independence plan during 1989 reassured the government that it could secure its core interests through negotiations with its opponents.
The final – and critically important - factor for change was the collapse of global communism in 1989. At a stroke, it removed the government’s primary strategic concern. The demise of communism and the manifest success of the free market economies also meant that there was no longer any serious debate with regard to the economic policies that would be required to ensure economic growth in a future democratic South Africa.
By the end of 1989 history had opened a unique window of opportunity for us. We knew that the prospects for successful negotiations would never again be so favourable. So we did not hesitate. On 2 February 1990, l made the announcements – including the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Madela – that opened the way to constitutional negotiations and to the democratic transformation of South Africa.
When history opens a window of opportunity – as it did for as at the beginning of 1990 – one is wise to jump. We were very fortunate that when we landed irreversibly on the road to change, we had a partner of the stature of Nelson Mandela to accompany us along the way. He was a man of great personal integrity and had the authority to bring his own followers into line when the situation demanded it.
Our relationship during the negotiations was often stormy – and sometimes bitter. We were, after all, leaders of opposing political parties negotiating crucial principles for our future society. The relationship was also often troubled by ongoing violence – particularly between the ANC and the followers of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
However, whenever the occasion demanded it Nelson Mandela and I were able to rise above these issues and defuse potentially explosive situations. In June 1992 the ANC decided to pull out of constitutional negotiations and embarked on a process of rolling mass action aimed at bring about the collapse of the government. When the situation began to spin out of control in September 1992, Nelson Mandela was able to reel in the radicals and bring the ANC back to the talks.
Finally, in December 1993 we adopted a transitional constitution that opened the way to our first non-racial one-man, one vote election on 27 April 1994. A couple of weeks later Nelson Mandela was inaugurated President and I became one of two deputy presidents in the new government of national unity.
It is unusual for any political leader to lose an election and the presidency with such a sense of accomplishment. Together with my colleagues and the great majority of South Africans from all our communities, we had succeeded in achieving all the goals that I had set out in my speech of 2 February1990: We had negotiated an excellent constitution which guaranteed the full range of individual and community rights; for the first time in our history we had a government that was fully representative of all its people; and we had rejoined the mainstream of humanity.
We had successfully dismounted the tiger.