Ending Apartheid When, in 1989, F. W. de Klerk was appointed leader of the National Party
of South Africa, few people expected any sudden reversal of the policy of apartheid
(“apartness”) that national governments had imposed on the nation’s nonwhite populations for
nearly four decades. Indeed, expert observers estimated that the South African state was strong
enough to maintain its racially repressive regime well into the twenty-first century. But de Klerk
believed that change was inevitable and wanted to manage it in order to protect white interests.
On 2 February 1990, he astonished the world by unbanning all liberation organizations,
abolishing media restrictions, repealing apartheid laws, and outlining aims for a new democratic
constitution with a universal franchise. Although the final ending of apartheid would take four
more years of hard, often bitter negotiation between white and black leaders, its death knell had
been clearly sounded.
The Apartheid Regime
Apartheid (also called “separate development”) had been legally established by the Population
Registration Act of 1950. This act classified South Africans as either white, Bantu, or colored
(with a fourth category, Asian, added later). Under the Group Areas Act of the same year,
separate residential and business sections were established for each racial category, and members
of other categories were barred from living, operating businesses, or owning land in them.
Subsequent Land Acts ensured that 80 percent of South Africa was reserved for the white
minority, with access strictly controlled by “pass laws” requiring nonwhites to carry papers
authorizing their presence. Other laws segregated public facilities, prohibited interracial social
contacts, established lower educational standards for nonwhites, and specified what kind of jobs
each race could take. A series of “Bantu Acts” between 1951 and 1970 implemented a so-called
decolonization policy of “separate but equal” development. These acts reestablished black tribal
organization and made every black African a citizen of one of ten legally created African
“homelands.” Although supposedly self-governing to various degrees, the homelands remained
utterly dependent, economically and politically, on white South Africa. More problematic for the
maintenance of apartheid, white South Africa and its burgeoning economy remained crucially
dependent on them for its supply of labor.
For many years, the apartheid regime withstood world condemnation while brutally suppressing
internal protest. Although white confidence was momentarily shaken by international
denunciation of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960—when police killed sixty-seven protesters—
President Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid, stood firm. He responded to
mass action organized by the African National Congress (ANC) with a savage crackdown, a
state of emergency, and new legislation banning organizations such as the ANC and the Pan
Africanist Congress (PAC). Some ANC members fled overseas to establish an organization in
exile, whereas others, including Nelson Mandela, went underground. Mandela now promoted a
shift from the ANC’s traditional strategy of nonviolent action to one of limited armed resistance
under a guerrilla wing known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (”Spear of the Nation,” commonly known
as the MK).
In the short and medium terms, the inept actions of the MK had disastrous effects on the black
resistance movement. Most of its leaders, including Mandela, were captured, tried, and
imprisoned for life. Meanwhile, Afrikaner leaders made political capital from the ANC’s
commitment to socialistic goals, its association with South African communists, and the fact that
its terrorist wing was largely financed and trained by communist countries. So long as the Cold
War lasted, the government could harp fruitfully on the communist menace to liberty on the
continent. This tactic had success in the 1980s with conservative governments in the United
States, Great Britain, and West Germany that were inclined to accept Pretoria’s view that black
radicals were revolutionaries controlled by Moscow. Inside South Africa, the National Party used
the ANC’s communism to justify strong counterinsurgency measures against it. At the same
time, it courted right-wing black organizations, most notably the Inkatha movement of Zulu chief
Despite international criticism, sanctions, business pressures, and a growing movement of dissent
among the disenfranchised black and colored population, white South Africa continued to be
politically and militarily strong. A revolt by the youth of Soweto in 1976 over compulsory
teaching in Afrikaans was ruthlessly crushed. A promising leader of the new black power
movement, Stephen Biko, was murdered by police in 1977. The MK remained militarily
insignificant, especially after the South African army crushed its bases in revolutionary
Mozambique. Although many whites of English descent, and even some Afrikaners, grew weary
of apartheid, few dared contemplate empowering the black majority, fearing civil war and white
annihilation. Nevertheless, separate development had clearly failed. Floods of black Africans
were leaving their impoverished homelands to work in white areas.
In 1983, President P. W. Botha responded to this population movement with even more
draconian pass laws and the forced removal of millions of people. He also introduced a new
constitution that provided additional legislative chambers for coloreds and Indians but none for
blacks. This was an attempt to divide and rule the nonwhite opposition, but it produced a
powerful, unanticipated popular reaction known as the United Democratic Front (UDF).
The Politics of Leadership
De Klerk, a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, witnessed the failure of Botha’s hardline
political and security strategies and decided he would try a different route. He had taken warning
from the fall of Ian Smith, who had tried to maintain white minority rule in Rhodesia (now
Zimbabwe). He saw, too, that the vast geopolitical changes occurring in 1989 presented an
opportunity. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its European satellites removed an important
obstacle to negotiating with the ANC.
De Klerk, therefore, ended his 1990 broadcast by announcing the unconditional release of
Mandela. The latter was, by then, the most celebrated prisoner in the world, the living symbol of
resistance to apartheid. Yet Mandela was not de Klerk’s partner of choice for negotiating the new
constitution. By dismantling apartheid, de Klerk hoped to steal the moral high ground from
Mandela and to disorient the ANC, whose organization was still geared to guerrilla struggle
rather than negotiation. He preferred a partnership with Buthelezi and other homeland chiefs who
had supported separate development and were ideologically of the right. Buthelezi was
potentially more congenial to members of de Klerk’s own party and perhaps even to breakaway
extremists such as Eugene Terr’Blanche’s neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging (AWB). But
Inkatha was not a national movement, being confined largely to Kwa-Zulu-Natal. It was,
moreover, deeply involved in a complex interblack rivalry with the ANC. The Buthelezi
connection was never a realistic negotiating option for de Klerk, although he long refused to
De Klerk had hoped Mandela would prove too old, feeble, and out of touch after thirty years in
prison to lead his party effectively. Although Mandela showed otherwise, he did have severe
constituency problems. His main claim to leadership lay in his attachment to the exiled ANC and
to Tambo, its leader, but black leadership within South Africa had shifted after 1983 to the UDF.
The ANC was out of touch, its remaining authority resting largely on its ineffectual but
symbolically important guerrilla wing. Moreover, its autocratic attempts to assert political
ascendancy over the democratically structured UDF were deeply resented. Nevertheless, the
UDF gave the ANC a needed boost by publicly committing itself to the democratic, nonracialist
principles of the ANC’s founding document, the Freedom Charter of 1955.
Mandela was under suspicion for having unilaterally commenced secret negotiations with the
white authorities while still in prison. He had believed it necessary for a leader to act even
against the wishes of his flock, which remained firmly committed to the hopeless strategy of
armed struggle. The result was that he was suspected of being a sell-out by militants who hero-
worshipped guerrilla leaders such as Chris Hani. Although Mandela tried to placate his comrades
by proclaiming his subservience to their collective will, it took many years for him to overcome
their latent hostility and consolidate his leadership.
When Tambo suffered a stroke, Mandela became effective party leader. His task, as he
conceived it, was to guide South Africa toward a peaceful, nonracialist future. Although he
managed to convert Hani to the policy of negotiation, the impatient militant wing of his party
remained a thorn in his side. Mandela’s cause was not helped by the slow progress of “talks
about talks” with government that dragged on for more than a year without obvious gain.
Mandela insisted that the delicacy of these talks demanded continuing secrecy, but this merely
renewed suspicion that he was closer to de Klerk than to his own people. He suffered angry
criticism at the party conference of 1991, although succeeded in being elected president of the
Meanwhile, Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement, trying to forestall ANC dominance in Kwa-Zulu-
Natal, fomented bloody clashes among immigrant workers and township dwellers on the Reef of
the Witwatersrand. The ferocious response of the ANC’s Stalinist regional leader, Harry Gwala,
threatened to turn this conflict into civil war. When it was revealed that the Inkatha instigators of
township violence were supported by government-enforcement agencies, Mandela accused de
Klerk of having a double-agenda. Inkathagate embarrassed both leaders, but particularly
Mandela, because it called into question his judgment in trusting the white leader. Afterward,
Mandela professed to despise de Klerk, but he never doubted his continuing need for him.
The Negotiation Process
In September 1991, the signing of the National Peace Accord (NPA) by all political players
except the far right and left created a nation-wide peacemaking and peacebuilding structure,
involving political and civil society and the security forces at national, regional, and local levels.
Supported by the United Nations (UN), the Commonwealth, the European Union, and the
Organization for African Unity, the NPA operated to the end of 1994. It also enabled the opening
in December 1991 of talks to negotiate the transition—at the Convention for a Democratic South
Africa (CODESA)—but progress proved slow. This was partly because de Klerk was under
severe pressure from his own right-wing party not to sell out white interests with compromises.
To strengthen his political position, therefore, he gambled on a nationwide referendum on the
reform process and gained a solid “yes” vote. Afterward, the main stumbling block was his own
stubborn wish that the ANC would collapse so he could substitute the Buthelezi option. He was
slow to see that he needed an alliance with Mandela that would hold against the extremes on
either side. Despite Mandela’s avowed socialism and his founding of the MK, he was essentially
a moderate and, thus, de Klerk’s best hope for a peaceful transition.
Two sessions of the CODESA talks ended in deadlock, and in June 1992, the ANC walked out
and commenced a program of “rolling mass action” to pressure the government. Simultaneously,
a shocking township massacre of men, women, and children by Inkatha axe wielders, followed
by a police shooting of protesting demonstrators, precipitated an ANC crisis. These events gave a
temporary upper hand to ANC leaders who favored insurrection and the seizure of power above
negotiation. One of them led a reckless march of seventy thousand people to the Ciskei
Homeland to overthrow its collaborationist government. When the Ciskei army opened fire and
killed twenty-eight people, Mandela seized the opportunity to reestablish his authority. He
severely chastised the militant leader, called off the mass action, and made conciliatory moves
toward de Klerk. De Klerk, alarmed at these events, reciprocated. A resulting summit produced a
signed Record of Understanding that finally locked de Klerk into partnership with Mandela,
ending the Buthelezi option. The alliance would thereafter hold against all spoiling elements,
whether the white supremacists of the AWB, the furiously sidelined Buthelezi, or the still
disgruntled ANC militants.
The main sticking point in negotiations now became the constitutional issue of simple majority
rule (on which the ANC insisted) versus a system of checks and balances (demanded by the
National Party to ensure that blacks could not rule without white agreement). Mandela, feeling
himself in no position to make a compromise that would again inflame militant opinion, turned
to a friend with impeccable revolutionary credentials—white communist leader and cofounder of
the MK, Joe Slovo. Slovo recommended “shock therapy.” He advised that the ANC should not
seek immediate power but rather put a sunset clause in the constitution that guaranteed power
sharing for a fixed period. This proposal was greeted with outrage by hardliners but eventually
was endorsed by the ANC National Executive Committee, forming the basis for fruitful
negotiations. The white government agreed to a new multiparty negotiating conference in April
In the midst of this conference, Hani was assassinated by a member of the AWB. The murder
provoked an enormous welling of black outrage that threatened to explode into violence,
destroying the negotiations. Mandela appeared on television asking for discipline and peace. A
week of mass protest was announced to channel and contain the anger. Mandela again went on
the air to plead for calm during the protest, reminding people that a white Afrikaner woman had
risked her life to identify the assassin and bring him to justice.
The appeal worked. Calm returned. De Klerk’s government quickly agreed to a firm date for
elections for a new assembly in which power would be shared for five years. The crisis had
shown the white community how important Mandela was to their future security. Although they
might not vote for him, they would accept a government of which he was the leader.
In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, all-race
national elections produced a coalition government with a black majority. Mandela became
president. Although the ANC-dominated government had many hard challenges to face—a
madly skewed pattern of development and underdevelopment, unassuaged popular anger and
indignation, black hopes that had been raised unrealistically high—its victory was undeniable.
Apartheid was no more.
[See also Leadership Theories; Race and Conflict; and Truth and Reconciliation
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Toronto Press, 1991.
De Klerk, F. W. The Last Trek—A New Beginning: The Autobiography. London: Macmillan,
Gastrow, Peter. Bargaining for Peace. South Africa and the National Peace Accord.
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and Stephen Biko. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995.
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Marks, Susan Collin. Watching the Wind. Conflict Resolution During South Africa’s Transition
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How to cite this entry:
Chrissie Steenkamp, John Kane, Daniel Lieberfeld "South Africa" The Oxford International
Encyclopedia of Peace. . © Oxford University Press 2010. The Oxford International
Encyclopedia of Peace: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Yale University. 17
February 2011 http://www.oxford-peace.com/entry?entry=t296.e670-s2
In this entry
The Apartheid Regime
The Politics of Leadership
The Negotiation Process
Policies of Reconciliation
•Race and Conflict
•Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
•Social-Psychological Approaches to Peace
•Society of Friends (Quakers)
•Southeast Asia, Nonviolence Movements in
•Spinoza’s Ideas on War and Peace
•Spoilers and Rejectionists
•Sports, Peace, and War
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