The combined pressures of domestic and international opposition ultimately pushed the apartheid government to negotiate a political transition. The National Party government increasingly recognized that its position was precarious and untenable and began the process of early interactions with Nelson Mandela, whom its leaders saw as the representative of anti-apartheid resistance. These were early, tentative steps.
Nelson Mandela had arrived at the Robben Island prison, four miles off the shore of Cape Town, in the winter of 1964; he would not leave for 18 years. His cell throughout much of that time was barely large enough for any human, let alone one who was six feet tall, and it consisted of little more than a floor mat for a bed and a bucket for a toilet. He was permitted to write and receive one letter every six months and was allowed one visitor per year—the visit to last no more than 30 minutes.
Yet, despite his inability to communicate directly, he was viewed both inside and outside the prison gates as the symbolic leader of the liberation movement.
While in prison, Mandela focused both on improving the treatment of prisoners and on furthering the campaign against apartheid. Soon after his arrival, Mandela and other black prisoners turned to acts of disobedience, such as hunger strikes. As fellow prisoner Neville Alexander recalled, “[Mandela] always made the point, if they say you must run, insist on walking. If they say you must walk fast, insist on walking slowly. That was the whole point. We are going to set the terms.” At the same time, Mandela sought informal interactions with the guards to “persuade them to treat him with dignity.”
In order to know his enemy, Mandela applied himself rigorously to the study of Afrikaans and Afrikaner history; guards and wardens came to admire his knowledge of their culture. Once, during a visit from his lawyer, Mandela introduced the guards accompanying him as his “guards of honor,” disarming his keepers.
Throughout the period of Mandela’s incarceration, the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was effectively at war with the state. A guerrilla himself, Mandela endorsed this strategy while insisting on the value of peaceful negotiations. As he explained at his 1964 trial:
I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force. . . . It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle . . .
Yet Mandela’s attitude toward his jailers revealed a man determined to see the humanity in his foes. He recognized the need to compromise and to adopt new methods when the old ones ceased to produce results.
The National Party cultivated the idea that Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were terrorists. This was a view that many white South Africans and people outside South Africa shared. But by the 1980s, the campaign to free Mandela had gained widespread international attention, and stories of his continued imprisonment had become an entry point for the growing international anti-apartheid movement. For example, a multiracial ska band from the United Kingdom, The Special AKA, scored a top-ten hit in 1984 with the song “Free Nelson Mandela.” Black South African musician Hugh Masekela had a hit in 1987 with “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” which included these lyrics:
Bring back Nelson Mandela
Bring him back home to Soweto
I want to see him walking down the street
With Winnie Mandela
In the Netherlands, there was an active anti-apartheid campaign that began in the wake of the Soweto uprising and was led by Dutch students. Their “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign targeted individuals and local groups with the goal of influencing politicians across parties. They also sought to strategically engage with Oliver Tambo, then living in exile, who was traveling to the Hague as part of his work for the ANC outside of South Africa.
As part of his strategy of stopping protests by granting concessions, President Botha made a public show in 1985 of offering to free Nelson Mandela if Mandela both gave up politics forever and renounced the violent tactics used by the unofficial military wing of the African National Congress.
Mandela refused Botha’s offer. The reading Mandela’s Strategic Decision includes the text of his detailed response, read by his daughter before tens of thousands of people gathered in Soweto.
Later in 1985, secret negotiations began between Mandela and members of Botha’s administration. The first meeting took place in November 1985, while Mandela was recovering from surgery, with the minister of justice and prisons. When Mandela was returned to incarceration, he was given a cell where he could speak privately with government officials. For the first time, members of South Africa’s white government showed a willingness to discuss the future of the nation with a black politician intent on ending apartheid.
Mandela began to work through the chain of command to gain a meeting with President Botha himself. Before Botha would agree to meet, he sought assurances from Mandela that if black South Africans gained power, they would not take vengeance on white South Africans. From July 1986 through the end of 1987, Mandela and various government officials debated the terms under which the National Party government would be willing to relinquish power. Compromise became a central theme in the transition to democracy. Mandela never demanded or expected a complete capitulation by the National Party government, because he believed that this would have unleashed a backlash by white South Africans. Mandela believed—and convinced his leadership team once he let them know about his ongoing negotiations—that the National Party government would cede power only if white South Africans retained their economic assets. This would prove to be one of the most galling concessions for the black South African men and women whose labor had been exploited for centuries.
On July 5, 1989, Botha and Mandela met at Tuynhuys, the official workplace of South Africa’s head of state. For Mandela, this day marked “a point of no return”—the day he knew for certain that apartheid would soon end.
The meeting was top secret; not even Botha’s own security detail knew it was taking place. Mandela, being a shrewd politician who knew a great deal about his country’s history and mores, deliberately chose to speak Afrikaans and drew comparisons between Afrikaner and black South African history. This made Botha especially receptive to him and his demands. When Mandela brought up the release of political prisoners, Botha agreed.
Much remained to be done, but from that moment there was no going back.
A pressure point for Botha and the National Party—as well as Mandela and the other resistance leaders—was the spread of protests and violence within the country. By the end of the 1980s, violence in the townships had climbed to unprecedented levels. No group or organization, including the ANC and the UDF, could contain the anger of a new generation of black youth frustrated by the deplorable and inhumane conditions they faced, including dire poverty, poorly funded schools whose few teachers were utterly demoralized, and a bleak job market. Desperate and with nothing to lose, they took over the streets. They enforced school boycotts, turned out for marches, and enthusiastically confronted the security forces. These youth, known as the “Young Lions,” represented a desperate generation: they were willing to die for freedom and were finished with compromise. Politically motivated protest mixed with simple criminality in ways that made them difficult to distinguish. The protests and violence made South Africa increasingly ungovernable and and contributed to bringing leaders from both sides to the bargaining table. The secret negotiations for political transition began in this context of unrest.
Yet even as President Botha was engaged in negotiations for a transfer of power, his government continued to seek to gain the upper hand over the black South African majority, in part by exploiting the growing frustration and violence in the townships. In response to the mounting unrest in the country, President Botha declared a state of emergency for all of South Africa in 1986. He called thousands of white army reservists to active duty, gave law-enforcement agencies a free hand to issue arbitrary orders, and authorized the arrest of hundreds of activists and ANC supporters. Citing the increasing violence, he argued that the situation made it impossible for “the reasonable majority to continue the search for a peaceful and democratic solution.”
One strategy that the apartheid government used to try to undermine the anti-apartheid movement was to encourage violence within black communities. The government created a secretive “third force” composed of security police, former criminals and other black Africans, that targeted anti-apartheid activists and created general disruption in black communities. Although many black South Africans suspected that the third force was coordinated, equipped, and funded by law enforcement agencies, it was not until after the transition to democratic rule that proof was found that these forces were in fact paid to torture and kill the government’s perceived political enemies. At the time, the government claimed that these killing squads did not exist; they blamed “dissident” groups of the ANC for attacks on anti-apartheid activists. They also spread the language of “black on black” violence. In 1986, Crossroads, a vast squatter camp just outside Cape Town with a population of over 110,000, became the target of an armed black group supported by the security services that was opposed to the anti-apartheid movement. In May and June, a vigilante mob entered the camp and, in a bout of unimaginable violence, set hundreds of buildings ablaze, terrorized the population, and forced 60,000 people from their homes. The mob, far more organized than it appeared, had been assisted by the South African government.
We now know that much of the violence that shook the country between the mid-1980s and the climactic 1994 election was sponsored and often organized by a secret-police unit led by Eugene de Kock. The purpose of these attacks was clear: to prevent the ANC from consolidating its power among black and coloured constituencies, reducing its leverage in the negotiations to end apartheid.
When President Botha resigned in August 1989, following a mild stroke, Frederik Willem de Klerk succeeded him as president, and he took over the process of negotiating a political transition. A conservative champion of Afrikaner nationalism, de Klerk was not the likeliest person to end apartheid. While he had been involved, as a government minister, in the repeal of laws banning interracial sex and marriage, he remained a proponent of white political rule. But it was the intensification of resistance, both within and outside of the country, the near bankruptcy of the economy, and the changing international environment as the Cold War came to an end that brought de Klerk to lead the government down a new path. Shortly after becoming president, in October 1989, he ordered the release of many prisoners, including several from the Rivonia Trial.
On December 13, 1989, Mandela presented to de Klerk the conditions under which negotiations for a transfer of power could begin, including the release of all political prisoners, lifting of bans on black political and labor organizations, and the withdrawal of troops from the townships. After their meeting, Mandela recalled:
Mr. de Klerk listened to what I had to say. This was a novel experience. National Party leaders generally heard what they wanted to hear in discussions with black leaders, but Mr. de Klerk seemed to be making an attempt to truly understand. . . . “You know,” he said, “my aim is no different than yours. Your memo to P. W. Botha said the ANC and the government should work together to deal with white fears of black domination, and the idea of ‘group rights’ [that no racial or ethnic group could take precedence over any other] is how we propose to deal with it.” I was impressed with this response, but said that the idea of “group rights” did more to increase black fears than allay white ones. De Klerk then said, “We will have to change it, then.”
Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990. At the same time, the government lifted official bans against the ANC, the PAC, the South African Communist Party, and other anti-apartheid groups. Returning to his post as leader of the ANC, Mandela took the lead in formal negotiations with the National Party government over a peaceful transition of power to democratic majority rule. Although both the National Party government and anti-apartheid groups such as the MK had employed violence in the struggle for and against apartheid, the transition was accomplished in the end through negotiation, not through the military victory of one side or the other.
Both sides had to compromise. A key strategy during the negotiations was an effort to build relationships across and among party leaders. ANC chief negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa and the chief negotiator for the National Party, Roelf Meyer, recognized that their ability to work well together in the interests of South Africa as a whole was paramount for the success of negotiations. The National Party and the ANC both had bargaining power, but both also had to make concessions. While the ungovernability was a crucial factor in bringing the National Party to the table, the white-controlled government retained substantial power, including military and police forces. The resulting plan for South Africa’s post-apartheid political, social, and economic systems reflected these factors. Indeed, the compromises from these negotiations continue to shape present-day South Africa.
Many of the agreements negotiated between the National Party government and the ANC were set down in an interim constitution adopted in 1993 that took effect on election day in 1994. The interim constitution guaranteed extensive protection of human rights, declaring equality before the law and a guarantee of the right to life and the right to human dignity. It established 11 official national languages, including English, Afrikaans, and the nine main African languages.
The National Party was particularly concerned that whites might be entirely shut out of government, so they insisted on a political system in which minority groups were guaranteed access to power. Although the ANC refused to allow provisions that would give the white minority an effective veto over legislation, the constitution did include many provisions that would allow the white minority to continue to have an influential voice in government. The National Assembly was to be elected through a proportional system with no minimum electoral threshold, meaning that even parties with less than 1% of the vote could gain representation in the parliament. Any party that received at least 5% of the seats in the National Assembly was guaranteed a seat in the national unity government cabinet that would be set up after the elections. Any party that won at least 20% of seats in the National Assembly was also guaranteed a vice presidential position.
The constitution also created nine provinces, with provincial legislatures and governments. This allowed groups that might not be able to gain a majority at the national level to potentially win elections at the regional level where their population was more concentrated, like the Zulu in KwaZulu-Natal or the whites and coloureds in the Western Cape.
Critically, the interim constitution also established South Africa’s Constitutional Court, perhaps the central institution for supporting the country’s democracy. The Constitutional Court is South Africa’s highest court and was created with the recognition that the existing judicial system, which was largely white and male, could not legitimately represent all South Africans or the new constitutional structure. The idea for the court had roots in the early ANC and the Freedom Charter.
The central compromise that made the white government willing to accept a transition was the agreement by the ANC to focus on gaining political power for the black majority while protecting white economic power. In exchange for an open democratic voting system, the ANC agreed that the government would not seize white-owned farms or businesses and turn them over to black South Africans. Instead, they said that they would invest in improving the infrastructure for the black population and seek to concentrate the benefits of new economic growth in black communities. Over the objections of many anti-apartheid activists, who argued that whites had unjustly seized black land without compensation, the interim constitution included a guarantee of property rights. As a result, the transition did not fundamentally alter South Africa’s economic system, and economic inequality became a major challenge for post-apartheid governments to confront.
Although the ANC disagreed with the National Party on a number of specifics, its leadership remained committed to the principle of nonracialism first articulated in the Freedom Charter back in 1955. Chris Hani, a leader in both the ANC and the South African Communist Party, expressed a sentiment supported by many other ANC activists when he said, “I will not be part of blacks oppressing whites, that is not the path of reconciliation.” He went on to argue that black South Africans did not need to oppress whites in order to improve their lives. “With mineral resources, universities and a beautiful land, if utilised properly, South Africa has tremendous potential to have a prosperous economy.”
Sadly, Hani, whom many saw as Nelson Mandela’s natural successor as head of the ANC, was assassinated in April 1993 by a Polish immigrant who was encouraged to commit the killing by a leader of an ultra-nationalist white party opposed to the transition to majority rule.
With the interim constitution adopted on December 18, 1993, the country moved toward national and provincial elections that would mark the formal transition to democratic majority rule.
One of the popular myths about South Africa’s transition is that it was bloodless. While South Africa did not devolve into civil war, the transition was violent and bloody. More lives were lost during the period of transition than throughout the entire period of apartheid. Even as the government led by President de Klerk was engaged in negotiations with the ANC and other parties on the terms of a political transition, it continued to seek to undermine its opponents by fostering divisions and increasing popular insecurity. Largely as a result of the “third force” that targeted many people involved in the anti-apartheid movement and sought to sow general discord in black communities, South Africa’s townships experienced tremendous violence between 1990 and 1994.
For their part, supporters of the anti-apartheid movement retaliated against people they suspected of being government agents. “Necklacing,” a type of lynching in which a rubber tire is placed around a target and set on fire, burning the victim to death, became a common practice used to punish supposed sellouts and to discourage other black South Africans from working with the government. As a result of both the “third force” and reactions from anti-apartheid activists, dead bodies appeared daily on remote dirt roads, in ditches along the highways, and in the townships themselves. Government officials estimate that as many as 14,000 people, mostly black, were killed during this period; many were activists and their families.
Some of the violence in the early 1990s erupted from political rivalries. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was involved in many killings of ANC members; members of the ANC are known to have committed similar acts but on a smaller scale. The IFP was a group that promoted the interests of the Zulu people and worried that the end of apartheid would diminish the power of the Zulu chiefs. In its campaign against the ANC’s plans for a united South Africa, the IFP militia received weapons and training from the South African special forces. It also collaborated with the government in a campaign designed to break the backbone of the opposition to apartheid (Operation Marion). In the early 1990s, with continued support from the government, the IFP carried out hundreds of killings of ANC supporters and came close to sparking civil war.
The white-dominated National Party government cynically hoped that the violence in the townships would sow doubts among white South Africans about rule by black South Africans and undermine support for the ANC. As the date for South Africa’s first free elections approached in April 1994, there was considerable anxiety about whether they would take place peacefully. In the end, while the elections occurred largely without incident, the legacies of violence in South African society have endured.