Limited Reforms

South Africa Table of Contents

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 (see System of Government, ch. 4). 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 (see Education under Apartheid, ch. 2).

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 (see Historical Development, ch. 3). 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress