The opening of Parliament on February 2 1990 set off a momentous journey to a free and just society we can all aspire to, writes Mondli Makhanya
There is a passage in lawyer Peter Harris’ award-winning book, In a Different Time, in which he describes the scene and mood in the offices of Cheadle Thompson & Haysom (CTH), the law firm where he worked in apartheid’s twilight years and during the transition period.
It was the morning of February 2 1990, the day of the opening of Parliament.
In those days, when Parliament would open on the first Friday of February, the country would expect the usual bluster from an under-siege president PW Botha.
But this time it was different.
FW de Klerk had ousted Botha a year earlier and had made some unexpected moves, including releasing all the Rivonia Trialists, bar Nelson Mandela, in October 1989.
So, this was going to be no ordinary apartheid president’s address, and everybody knew it.
The mood of anticipation was thick in Harris’ law firm, which was among those at the forefront of human rights work and defending victims of the apartheid authorities.
“The country is awash with rumour, good and bad, in anticipation of the president’s opening speech. In the law firm we have no doubt that De Klerk differs from his predecessors and appears to be prepared to make bold moves,” Harris writes.
But, he adds, there is great cynicism about his decision to kick-start a reform process that will result in him and his party losing power.
Nobody clustered around the TV set in the CTH boardroom is prepared for what hits them next.
“In one fell swoop, he announces to an incredulous nation that the ANC, SACP, PAC, Umkhonto weSizwe and the black consciousness movement, as well as 30 other banned organisations, will be legalised and able to operate freely. He talks of freeing political prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent activities and the lifting of certain state of emergency restrictions.
“Who could have dreamt he would go this far? There is silence in the room. What is beyond doubt is that the political landscape is changed forever.”
It was indeed a day that changed South Africa forever.
Over the next week, as we remember that day Mandela was released a week later, many will be reminiscing about where they were when the news broke.
Were you watching the speech? Were you listening on the radio? Were you alerted by the blaring horns of cars in CBDs, taxi ranks and township streets?
Or, were you alerted by the sound of random gunfire as underground comrades and members of self-defence units celebrated in military fashion?
Were you one of those who joined in the impromptu marches and gatherings on main streets and town squares in little dorpies, confident that the march to liberation was now irreversible?
Were you sitting in an exile camp or a foreign capital, excited that the journey home was about to commence?
Were you sitting somewhere, horrified about the act of betrayal that De Klerk had performed – an act that would surely result in that terrorist Mandela being freed, taking over the country and turning it into a communist state?
Or, were you among those who checked if their passports were still valid and which country would be best to head to?
Or, were you sitting in a kroeg somewhere, nursing a beer and getting ready to join up with your mates to plan the resistance to the traitor De Klerk and the communist ANC?
De Klerk’s motives for doing what he did that day remain a bone of contention to this day.
De Klerk and those favourable to him say he was a visionary who voluntarily saw that apartheid was unsustainable.
That, like Mikhail Gorbachev, whose glasnost and perestroika policies kick-started the demise of the Soviet bloc and dealt a fatal blow to communism, he had a Damascus moment that made him see the desirability of a South Africa where all lived together in harmony and in equality.
His detractors will tell you that he had no choice. The mass uprisings across urban and rural South Africa had rendered many parts of the country literally ungovernable.
A draconian state of emergency that had been declared in 1985, and been renewed every June since then, had failed to crush the rebellion.
Umkhonto weSizwe’s military campaign, although largely symbolic and comprising what the ANC called “armed propaganda”, was fuelling militancy inside the country, where youths believed that the seizure of Pretoria by force was possible.
Sanctions and disinvestment were taking a toll on the economy, and international pariah status – which resulted from people-to-people sanctions, such as in sports and the arts – was eating at the white community.
On the world stage – with the exception of a few Western powers run by conservatives – the ANC was being seen more and more as the legitimate representative of the South African people.
Others say De Klerk was just strategic. Noticing that the ANC’s supporters in the Soviet bloc were collapsing one by one, and that Gorbachev’s government was losing its appetite for supporting guerrilla movements in the developing world, De Klerk saw this as an opportune time to negotiate with an ANC that was also looking for a way out of the conflict.
The answer lies in all of the above.
History is not linear, and life-changing events are the result of many factors.
It is foolhardy to pinpoint one set of circumstances as being the prompt for epochic events, even if you were the progenitor.
What we can say is that in 1989/90, South Africa was in a state of “dual power” – the Leninist concept whereby neither foe has the upper hand over the other.
When De Klerk kick-started the reforms, the National Party had realised it could no longer rule by brute force. Its authority counted for naught.
On the other hand, the ANC could not convert its popular authority into state power by dislodging the Nats.
Something had to give on both sides.
As wily as he was, De Klerk naively believed he could control the direction of the process. The energies just had their own momentum.
This was despite the best efforts of his government’s securocrats, who wanted to derail the process – including by unleashing murderous militias such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement on black communities.
The negotiations happened; the Constitution happened; the first democratic election happened; a democratic Parliament happened; a President Nelson Mandela happened; and the free South Africa that we live in happened.
It is an imperfect South Africa, with vicious levels of poverty and inequality, a racially defined economic imbalance, runaway crime, a plethora of social ills, dreams unfulfilled and a bloody hopeless national football team.
But it is a South Africa that rests on the bedrock of constitutional values that aspire to create a just, fair and prosperous society.
Those who speak ill of the process that began on February 2 1990 say the deal that gave us this republic was a sellout, and they defile those – living and dead – who negotiated our passage to democracy.
The men and women who crafted our Constitution and outsmarted the Nats at the negotiations table gave us a document for the ages, one which future generations will cherish when they reap the rich fruits of freedom.