FW de Klerk's 'quantum leap': Did he jump or was he pushed?

The Durban strikes of 1973, and the subsequent formation of new trade unions, were instrumental in causing the first seams of apartheid to come apart. By 1985, the fall of apartheid seemed inevitable. (Paul Weinberg)

The Durban strikes of 1973, and the subsequent formation of new trade unions, were instrumental in causing the first seams of apartheid to come apart. By 1985, the fall of apartheid seemed inevitable. (Paul Weinberg)

          Unbanned 25 years ago

Was Frederik Willem de Klerk a brave, visionary statesman when he unbanned the liberation movements on February 2 1990, or did he have no choice and simply acted to preserve white economic interests?

Most South Africans side either with the “he jumped” or with the “he was pushed” analysis. Perhaps it is good that we should examine all the grey in between these two positions 25 years after the event. And we should go back much further if we want a proper understanding. De Klerk is regularly referred to as “the last apartheid president”, but the nature of apartheid and Afrikaner nationalism was fundamentally different in 1989 compared with the years after 1948 when it became the white state’s official ideology.

  Afrikaner nationalism was at its strongest in the 1960s when Hendrik Verwoerd was prime minister. But it also started its gradual decline then. After his assassination in 1966, John Vorster succeeded him. He was the kragdadige (autocratic) one, but under his leadership the anti-English sentiment that had fired up Afrikaner nationalism for decades weakened considerably. The prime motivation to perfect and refine apartheid started to fade.

The project to advance Afrikaners into the middle classes showed its results during this period. More and more Afrikaners became successful urbanites, more went to universities, and with it came the first serious cracks in Afrikaner unity.

Dissent started brewing among progressives at Afrikaans universities and churches. In 1971 some 140 Stellenbosch academics signed a petition demanding full citizenship for all South Africans and were severely slapped down. An influential Dutch Reformed Church dominee and apartheid critic, Beyers Naudé, was declared a banned person in 1977.

To the party faithful, the apartheid plan seemed perfect, so perfect that even the Afrikaans churches could endorse it as “separate development”: black South Africans would get full citizenship and rights in their own “homelands” while white South Africans had their rights in the rest of the country. Only, there were two problems: first, what to do with those citizens apartheid classified as coloured and Indian, and second, what to do with those blacks living in the cities, providing essential labour for the economy?

For the “coloured and Indian problem” the apartheid ideologues concocted a half-hearted solution in the early 1980s, but the “urban black” problem defied all quick fixes.

The two most basic tenets of the National Party (NP) and its brains trust, the secretive all-male Afrikaner Broederbond, came into conflict: black and white had to be kept apart, and the Afrikaners had to take their “rightful place” in the economy. But for the economy to grow, business and industry needed black labour readily available in and around the big cities.

Now factor in the revival of the worker movement, the massive strikes that began in Durban in 1973 and the formation of new trade unions soon afterwards. White business leaders put pressure on the government to reconsider the labour regime in order to stabilise the black workforce and, in 1979, it appointed Professor Nic Wiehahn to lead a commission of inquiry into industrial relations.

Wiehahn’s recommendations led to the recognition of unions, the establishment of an industrial court and other reforms. But, instead of pacifying black workers, it led to increased mobilisation (the Federation of South African Trade Unions was formed in 1979) and a spillover into the political arena.

The impact of the Wiehahn report shouldn’t be underestimated. Former NP minister Leon Wessels told me in an interview it was a turning point: “Wiehahn clearly said the time for discrimination in the workplace had run its course and voluntary association was an internationally recognised principle in the labour field, so you have to recognise trade unions. Now once you started that, you unleash a force which had major repercussions. That particular force, I believe, was what eventually shaped white South Africans to ultimately start negotiating.”

A decisive change in the geopolitics of the region from the mid-1970s onwards had a profound impact on the National Party and its governments. Up to 1974, the apartheid state was surrounded by sympathetic regimes: the Unilateral Declaration of Independence government of Ian Smith’s then-Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the Portuguese colonial governments in Mozambique and Angola, and its own proxy administration in then-South West Africa (Namibia), and the governments in Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho could easily be bullied by Pretoria.

And then came the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in April 1974, a bloodless military coup that resulted in the withdrawal from Portugal’s African colonies. Angola and Mozambique became independent states in 1975 with the liberation movements at the helm. In 1978 the United Nations Security Council demanded the immediate independence of Namibia and sent a special representative to oversee the process. Two years later Zimbabwe became an independent state with Zanu as its first government.

With the changes in the region came a militarisation of South African society and another shift in ideology. The South African Defence Force (SADF) got involved in military action in Angola (in support of the pro-Western group Unita), in Namibia against Swapo, and in other so-called Frontline States to counter Umkhonto weSizwe and to destabilise countries sympathetic to the liberation movement.

The prime motivation for apartheid shifted from racial purity and “separate development” to the necessity to counter a “total onslaught” by the Soviet Union and its satellites on the South African state. With it came a siege mentality and the rise of the securocrats.

Three other factors had an effect on NP thinking and the nature of apartheid during these years: the 1976 student uprising in Soweto and the resultant increase in foreign pressure; the information scandal [in which government officials were implicated in a plot to fight a propaganda war using state funds] that seriously undermined the stature of senior NP leaders and led to the resignation of Vorster as prime minister in 1978; and the breakaway of the Conservative Party in 1982 that gave the young “reformers” in the NP more courage to push for further changes.

PW Botha started his “reformist” talk within a few months of becoming prime minister in 1978, most notably his “adapt or die” speech in Upington in 1979. This new approach culminated in a new Constitution in 1983 that created separate houses for “coloureds”, Indians and whites in Parliament. Although this “Tricameral Parliament” was a disaster rejected by most of those now offered a vote, it did represent the first structural move away from grand apartheid. There was, however, still no plan to accommodate black South Africans politically.

But these weak moves to reform apartheid also gave new energy to the resistance. In 1983 the United Democratic Front (UDF) and, two years later, labour federation Cosatu were formed. By late 1984 it was clear that mass action, strikes and violence had come to stay.

From 1985 onwards the besieged NP started repealing key apartheid laws such as the Immorality Act and, in 1986, the laws regulating influx control of black South Africans. Apartheid as an ideology was slowly disintegrating.

Botha appointed a special Cabinet committee to investigate the different options for an accommodation of black political rights outside the Bantustans. The committee presented its findings to the Cabinet late in 1985, proposing that blacks be co-opted into the Cabinet pending negotiations on a new deal based on full citizenship for all. As De Klerk remarked in his mémoire: “These guidelines meant nothing less than that the ideology of grand apartheid was something of the past.”

Thirteen days after this meeting, on August 15 1985, Botha had an appointment to open the NP’s congress in Durban. Reformist Cabinet ministers Pik Botha and Chris Heunis wrote a draft speech. The word was spread far and wide, also in the West, that Botha was going to cross the Rubicon – release Nelson Mandela and start real negotiations with the black majority. Pik Botha told whoever was listening that this was going to be “the biggest thing since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape”.

And then PW walked on stage, at his belligerent, finger-wagging best. He called the ANC and UDF “barbaric communist agitators” and said he wasn’t going to lead white South Africans into suicide.

It was a disaster. Former Reserve Bank president Gerhard de Kock said the speech cost South Africa a million rand a word. Pik Botha later said in an interview that it was “the dramatic beginning of the end. The speech caused events to gather speed and created eddies in the apartheid river that we later recognised as the first signs of the demise of the NP government”.

International condemnation was swift. The rand collapsed. The speech triggered Chase Manhattan Bank and a string of others to stop rolling over the country’s debt. The noose of international isolation, financial sanctions and pressure from within and without tightened markedly.

But although the Rubicon speech, as it became known, had a devastating effect on the NP government, it also contained a little-noticed sentence: “If any of the black homelands would prefer not to accept independence, such states or communities would remain part of the South African nation; they are South African citizens and they will have to be accommodated within the political institutions inside the borders of South Africa.”

A week later Pik Botha told an international press conference that a black president for South Africa was unavoidable. This was the situation in late 1985: apartheid legislation was being scrapped, black citizens who didn’t want to be in homelands could get full citizenship outside them and the concept of negotiating a new democratic order with the black majority was on the table.

Oh, and the economy was bankrupt, international isolation was increasing and internal resistance was reaching fever pitch.

  After 1987 Afrikaner dissidence grew progressively. Students, academics, theologians and business people trekked to meetings with the ANC outside the country. In 1988 the first explicitly anti-apartheid Afrikaans-language newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, hit the streets with major exposés of apartheid death squads. Afrikaners experienced their own “rock revolution” at the same time: the Voëlvry movement of young musicians openly mocking the NP leaders and protesting against oppression, white rule and military conscription.

“PW Botha was a pragmatist and reformer,” former national intelligence (NI) chief Niel Barnard told me in an interview in 2007. “But he had a problem: he had a strong military tradition. The military had a great influence over him. Even during the turbulent mid- to late 1980s the military still clung to the so-called forward defence strategy: we are going to stop the communists in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia, even destabilise Zimbabwe.”

The Battle for Cuito Cuanavale in Angola late in 1987 changed this. The Angolan army, supported by Cuban forces, launched an offensive against Unita and was attacked by a major SADF force. Both sides claimed victory.

But, says the head of the Institute of Security Studies, Jakkie Cilliers, in an interview, it was “an extremely important strategic turning point, because the SADF was shown to have serious limitations … it showed the limits of white military might in Southern Africa”.

Another unexpected factor came into play during this time. The powerful, secret Afrikaner Broederbond, founded in 1918 to boost Afrikaner nationalism, was hugely influential among Afrikaners; in the NP, the churches, universities and the business community.

In 1984 one of Afrikanerdom’s sharpest intellectuals, Pieter de Lange, took over the leadership and took the Broederbond in a different direction. The Broederbond released a discussion document circulated to all members that, De Lange told me in an interview in 2007, declared that “a negotiated settlement with a full democracy [with] voting rights for all, was the only way out”. The NP, says De Lange, did not receive it well. “FW de Klerk was very worried about the document. He always had this little back door to the right, he only closed it much later.”

An even more unlikely reformist influence emerging during this time was the NI under Barnard, a close PW Botha confidant. The NI warned Botha of the disastrous consequences Mandela’s death on Robben Island would have, and told him that, if there were going to be negotiations in the future, they should start figuring out who they were going to be negotiating with. Early in 1988, PW Botha sanctioned a highly secret committee under minister Kobie Coetsee and Barnard to start talks with Mandela in prison. Barnard first met Mandela on April 23 1988 at Pollsmoor Prison and the two had regular meetings for two years. Botha and Mandela met in secret in Tuynhuys on July 5 1989.

Fate also intervened. In 1988 PW Botha suffered a series of strokes and became even more belligerent. He was driven out of his position by his Cabinet and was succeeded by De Klerk in August 1989. De Klerk beat reformist Barend du Plessis by 69 to 61 votes in the election for a new NP leader. De Klerk told his caucus that the NP was in a corner and he planned to get out of it with a well-considered “quantum leap”. It was recorded that some of his colleagues cheered him on with shouts of “Jump, FW, jump!”

De Klerk embarked on a whirlwind international tour, meeting the heads of state of Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Mozambique and Zambia, all of whom encouraged him to make his quantum leap – and warning of the dire consequences if he didn’t.

De Klerk was always in the conservative wing of the NP, but he wasn’t a military man and he never quite trusted the securocrats. He quickly clipped their wings and downgraded the powerful National Security Management System, making him many enemies.

So, by the end of 1989, this was the situation De Klerk was in: apartheid ideology was in tatters and full of contradictions; talks with Mandela had been going on for two years and the NI reported that Mandela was a worthy and moderate negotiating partner; the economy was in the doldrums and getting worse with more sanctions and boycotts; the Broederbond, the NI and most Afrikaner intellectuals and business leaders demanded a negotiated settlement; the internal resistance from the UDF and Cosatu showed no signs of abating despite successive states of emergency; and he was promised great support by the Western powers if he released Mandela and started a process of negotiations with the ANC and others.

De Klerk knew that such a move would not be welcomed by many in his armed forces, but he had a trump card to play: the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 removed all fear of a “communist onslaught” on South Africa, the last argument in favour of white rule.

His choice was to take his quantum leap or, as leaders like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Bashar al-Assad decided to do more than a decade later, dig in his heels and keep on ruling by the gun, inevitably dragging the country into a civil war and a destruction of the economy.

On February 2 1990 he took his quantum leap. You be the judge of whether he jumped or was pushed.

The strongest argument offered on why De Klerk should have received the Nobel peace prize was his role after 1990. He tirelessly crisscrossed the country and addressed NP meetings, Broederbond meetings, church councils, business people, academics and citizens to sell his plan for negotiations to his constituency. He even called a white referendum to secure a mandate for the negotiations, well knowing that, if that vote went the wrong way, it would end his career.

Would that be an argument to have a street named after him?

Max du Preez is an award-winning political journalist and founding editor of Vrye Weekblad.



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