South Africa Table of Contents

SOUTH AFRICA IN 1994 underwent the most radical and far-reaching political and constitutional transformation since the racially divisive South Africa Act provided the legal basis for the Union of South Africa in 1910. The latest sweeping transformation officially began with the April 26-29, 1994, national and provincial elections, and with the triumph of the previously banned African National Congress (ANC).

The country's main political antagonists, the ANC and the former ruling National Party (NP), had agreed in November 1993 on the composition of a multiparty Transitional Executive Council (TEC) to govern jointly until elections were held. They also agreed that, after the elections, a transitional Government of National Unity would be in power and that a transitional bicameral parliament would form a constitutional assembly to draft a final constitution. In addition, they agreed on an interim constitution that would guide the transition between the April 1994 elections and the adoption of the final constitution.

Domestic, regional, and international developments over the past decade had served to alter radically both Afrikaner (see Glossary) and black politics from the politics of repression and armed resistance to the politics of negotiation and participation. Since 1960 the banned ANC, ANC-allied South African Communist Party (SACP), and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) had waged an armed struggle from their bases in neighboring countries. The armed struggle intensified during the 1980s and expanded into a "people's war" involving mass demonstrations against the apartheid (see Glossary) state. International pressure in the form of economic and political sanctions, including diplomatic pressure by the United States, helped force the Afrikaner establishment--faced with a threat to its own economic well-being--to embark on a process that would ultimately result in sharing power, authority, and resources with the disenfranchised black majority.

A multiparty conference, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), met to formulate a new constitution on December 20, 1991, and, after talks foundered in 1992, resumed in March 1993 to plan the political transition. In April 1994, the nation's first nonracial provincial legislatures and the transitional National Assembly were democratically elected by universal suffrage. The 1994 elections were the culmination of a spectacular series of bilateral talks in which NP and ANC leaders agreed on a set of compromises concerning the interim period while formulating preliminary constitutional guidelines for a multiracial and majoritarian democratic society, based on the principle of "one person-one vote." Finally, the political conflict between the ANC and several recalcitrant parties that had boycotted the negotiations process--including the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP, known as Inkatha), which demanded greater regional autonomy for its Zulu constituency, and the Freedom Front, a group committed to Afrikaner self-determination--was resolved only days before the April 1994 elections.

In the early 1990s, the right-wing Afrikaner parties, including neo-Nazi elements, had provided the main resistance to the transition to multiracial democracy. Their resistance took the form of legal political parties, extra-legal movements, and paramilitary organizations. Most of these groups were fragmented, particularly over ideology, and demoralized by their realization that accommodationist currents were running against them. Some of them splintered as they were being pushed to the margin of events by the pragmatism of President Frederik W. (F.W.) de Klerk.

Establishing a national consensus over the new nonracial, democratic political system was, therefore, the main task of the leaders of the NP and the ANC. Only a consensus could overcome the pressures of extremists on both sides, whose violence and racial antagonisms had been fueled by the authoritarianism, coercion, and distortions implicit in the apartheid system. The task facing the moderate leaders was complicated by the sharp increase in violent criminal activity throughout the country, as law and order broke down in many regions, even areas in which crime rates had been low in the past. Although officials estimated that at least 80 percent of all murders committed in the early 1990s were not politically motivated, political violence by extremist groups continuously threatened to undermine the country's fragile political stability as the elections approached.

The revolutionary changes sweeping South Africa in 1993 and 1994 were remarkable. It was almost unprecedented for a ruling group in a society that it so completely dominated, although it constituted an ethnic minority, to hand over power in a peaceful manner to the country's longstanding oppressed and banned opposition. South Africa's ruling party leaders did so with the realization that the once-banned organizations represented the political will of the majority of citizens.

Many political leaders helped to shape the new political system. The two most instrumental in bridging the gap between the two sides were State President F.W. de Klerk, leader of the NP, which had ruled the country without effective electoral challenge since 1948, and Nelson (Rolihlahla) Mandela, president of the ANC, the foremost political leader among the black majority. A third player, Chief Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based IFP, also gave expression to black aspirations, particularly in the IFP stronghold of Natal Province's KwaZulu homeland (see Glossary). Other important players included supporters of the new regime, such as leaders of the coloured (mixed race--see Glossary) and the Indian communities, the largely English-speaking liberal white parties, and newly emerging leaders in the black homelands. In contrast were the virulent opponents of the postapartheid system, such as the Afrikaner extremists, who had split from the NP into several groups seeking to brake the slide toward political and social transformation in order to preserve a state based on the principles of apartheid.

As the country prepared to embark on full-scale democracy in the early 1990s, new challenges confronted the ANC. First, as a newly legalized party, the ANC had to demonstrate that it was no longer merely an extraparliamentary liberation movement, but a serious contender for the task of governing the country. It also had to balance the need to provide expression to a younger generation of black South Africans who had been radicalized by years of boycotts, jailings, suppression, and ethnic violence, against the need to attract new supporters not only from its black constituency, but from the white, the coloured, and the Indian communities as well.

Mandela, in order to succeed in the new political arena, had to gain the support of the more conservative, yet antiapartheid, ethnic leaders in the countryside and in the black homelands, while retaining the support of younger leaders and activists and while mobilizing the violence-prone majority in the townships. He also had to distance the party from the political and economic program of its longstanding ally, the SACP, even though a number of SACP leaders remained on the ANC's executive and working committees. To present a cohesive front, the ANC also had to join forces in one form or another with Inkatha Chief Buthelezi, although the tensions between the two black movements often erupted into violence over political turf, particularly in Natal and KwaZulu. Finally, the ANC had to fill the vacuum left by the loss of political and military support of previous state sponsors such as the former Soviet Union, which no longer provided material support to Third World liberation movements.

Similarly, NP leader de Klerk had to retain the party's traditional bases of support among Afrikaners while working to gain or to retain the support of coloured, Indian, and liberal white votes. Finally, de Klerk had to reach out to previously hostile black communities, a move that would invariably provoke white right-wing extremists, who had resorted to violence in the past and who were threatening antigovernment insurgency.

System of Government
The Constitution
Executive and Legislative Authority
Provincial and Local Government
The Legal System
The 1994 Elections
Political Parties
Interest Groups
Political Elites
Foreign Relations

For more information about the government, see Facts about South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress