I do not recall exactly how the news filtered through to us at Barnato Park High School in Berea, Johannesburg. Then incumbent and last apartheid President FW de Klerk was in Parliament on the morning of February 2 1990 and, in five brief sentences, made an announcement that would change the course of our history forever.
“Today, I am able to announce far-reaching decisions,” he declared. “Legislation is to be tabled shortly for the repeal of the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936.” But it was the next sentence that was most seismic: “The prohibition of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress [PAC] and the South African Communist Party is being rescinded.”
It unleashed a national and international eruption of jubilation, save for the far right, whose disapproval outside and in Parliament was expressed by howls of protest.
As Conservative Party MPs led by their leader, Andries Treurnicht, walked out of the parliamentary chamber, some of them would have heard De Klerk say: “People serving prison sentences merely because they were members of one of these organisations will be identified and released.” And they would certainly have known where he was going. “In this connection, the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr [Nelson] Mandela unconditionally.”
The celebrations did not escape the Barnato Park school grounds either. Such was the folly of apartheid. It had, over the decades, succeeded to mobilise itself against children and teenagers like us. Its hour of reckoning had finally come.
The system had become politically, economically and socially untenable. South Africa had arrived at that moment of change when “the people can no longer live in the old way and the ruling class can no longer rule the same way”. There was a measure of inevitability in De Klerk’s announcement of that morning.
Twenty-eight years later, I cannot remember whether I left school on a frolic of my own or whether the teachers released us early. I set off for the city, more specifically, the offices of the New Nation newspaper at Darragh House in Wanderers Street where I would get information and meet senior comrades with whom I regularly interacted.
But it was not to be.
Diagonally across from Darragh House, in a building whose name I have forgotten, were the offices of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union. In the excitement, comrades there had come into the street and began to sing struggle songs. What started as small numbers soon grew into hundreds, then thousands and in no time the entire street was flooded by an ocean of celebrating people
No sooner had the activists stepped out into the street, than the police — and I seem to recall that it was that squad of goons, the Internal Stability Unit, notorious for its murderous prowess — arrived with their guns, pepper spray, teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. A battle broke out and the street soon became a microcosm for the low intensity war that was our country in those days.
Did the regime fear a mass insurrection of sorts on that day and the period immediately after? Plausible. At the same time, however, the phrase “trigger-happy police” had long entered the South African political lexicon, not out of a fetish for exaggeration on the part of anti-apartheid activists, but as an expression of the daily conduct of the police and the army.
More broadly, it reflected the regime’s adeptness in matters of security on the one hand and its hopeless ineptness in doing politics on the other.
I could not get to Darragh House. Instead, I walked down Bree Streetto Sauer Street, from where I used to take a bus home. Everywhere, the excitement was palpable.
On the way, I took a copy of The Star newspaper’s street poster that had screamed from street poles and shop windows: “ANC, PAC — Bans Lifted.” Years later, I framed the poster and it remains one of my proud possessions.
After De Klerk’s announcement, the prison gates opened wide. Political prisoners were freed, with Mandela released nine days later on February 11. Those that had been in exile came home. The promise of freedom was no longer a dream. It was in sight, within reach, almost tangible.
Young and old spoke of a new dawn that was finally coming into being, and a new dawn it was. You read and heard about it in the news and it dominated conversations. You saw it in people’s eyes, in their celebrations and their determination to overcome the burdens of the time.
Certainly for the black majority and their progressive white compatriots, the period was akin to William Wordsworth’s narrative of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.”
And for Reason’s insistence on asserting her rights, the first democratic elections would come four years later. Millions of snake-like queues covered the land as people voted for the first time on April 27 1994. Our country had finally turned its back on a horrid and horrible past.
The future would be a conscious product of our hands. We could make a mess of it or, as Mandela called upon us in his 1994 Organisation of African Unity Summit address — his first as head of state — in Tunisia, we could rebuild the ancient African city of Carthage founded on a democratic, humanist logic imbued with social justice.
How far we have traversed is a matter of reflection and debate. But it cannot be overstated that our country has registered significant progress since 1990 and that enormous challenges remain ahead.
There is also no gainsaying that for many activists, as indeed much of the population, our country has in the recent past been characterised by “backsliding and stagnation … diminished fortunes” and somewhat of “wandering in the wild” — to borrow former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki’s appraisal of the Kenya of the 1970s and 1980s.
Ironically, if one of the issues that compelled De Klerk to make his major announcement on February 2 was apartheid’s crisis of legitimacy, one of today’s most visible crises is succinctly articulated in an 1852 monograph lamenting the diminished fortunes of the French Revolution: “An executive power that finds its strength in its very weakness and its respectability in the contempt that it calls forth … The revolution has paralysed its own proponents and has endowed its enemies with passion and violence.”
This underscores the necessity of a leadership that is truly committed to the national interest and articulates a cogent narrative — both at the abstract and practical levels — to rally the nation’s energy. Such a narrative, which we sorely lack at the moment, should not only help us to navigate our way into the future but assist in the creation of a political culture that makes a slide backwards impossible.
The Ugandan intellectual, Mahmood Mamdani, pointed in July 2010 to the dangers inherent in a stale and unimaginative narrative when he asked: “If someone had told us a decade before, in 1984, a time when the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was at its bloody height, but also a time when President Juvenal Habyarimana was calling for reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, if someone had told us then that a decade hence there would be a genocide in one of these countries and a reconciliation in another, how many of us would have identified the location of the two developments correctly?”
Perhaps a more accurate appraisal of the present period will come from our children in another 28 years from now. Part of our reflection must surely be to anticipate whether they will — on the basis of what we do today, tomorrow and the day after — say of the this period as we do of the 1990s, glory was it to be alive; to be young was but heavenly.
We are able to speak of the glory of the 1990s because its seed was sowed decades before and the seedling was nurtured by the sweat and blood of men and women who did not falter.