The Quest for Peace

South Africa Table of Contents

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 (EC--see Glossary) 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress