Dismantling Apartheid, 1990-94

South Africa Table of Contents

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress