ON April 27 it was eleven years since we stood in those long queues in 1994 to bring out our votes, all of us South Africans, to elect the parliament that would govern us.
There was a sense of excitement where I was queuing on that bright autumn morning in the Cape Town constituency of Gardens. We had rid ourselves of the slow suffocation of the old apartheid South Africa and, hey, we were cheerful, hopeful and ready for a new beginning.
Obviously not all South Africans agreed “ judging by reports of people barricading their homes and stocking up on canned food. Remember how we laughed at them?
The vast majority of us knew the old South Africa too well and we longed for a new start. And let’s remind ourselves what it was like two decades ago in South Africa. I’ll call my story the tale of two speeches. The spark for the final revolt against apartheid came in 1983 with PW Botha’s new deal “ the tri-cameral parliament. It had a fatal flaw, the total exclusion of the black majority from any role in the government of South Africa.
White South Africans embraced it. In the referendum, many voted ‘yes’ because, they said, it was at least ‘a step in the right direction’ - the position argued in a letter signed by seven senior Stellenbosch professors.
But in the elections that followed, the so-called coloured voters vehemently rejected it. And from the womb of their protest was born the United Democratic Front (UDF), the multi-racial movement that would mobilise the intense internal struggle against the NP government. The tri-cameral system was the final straw for the black majority and revolt flared up all over South Africa, from the townships of Johannesburg to pastoral platteland towns like Cradock in the deep Karoo. The major unions and progressive churches took a leadership role, in alignment with the UDF.
Strikes and work stoppages increased from 469 in 1984 to 1 148 in 1987. Between 1984 and 1988 some 45 000 people were detained without trial and political violence claimed more than 35 000 lives. By mid-1986 a countrywide state of emergency was in force. The security forces had extensive powers and the press came under increasing pressure from a government that was propagating a ‘total strategy’ against a ‘total onslaught’.
Internationally, South Africa became increasingly isolated. In New York, the United Nations imposed economic and cultural sanctions. The United States and the European Union introduced their own bans. South Africa was subjected to comprehensive trade, financial and sporting sanctions, capital flight, disinvestment and the collapse of the rand.
State president PW Botha made his Rubicon speech on 15 August 1985. The South African situation was by then news all over the world and television viewers were treated to the spectacle of protesters being assaulted by sjambok-wielding policemen, to armoured vehicles roaming the streets, to tear gas and guns. Particularly in the United Kingdom, the unfolding South African story was often the first item on the main evening news.
And so the foreign news media were keen when they were confidentially informed that PW Botha would make important announcements that would change the face of South Africa forever. He would ‘cross the Rubicon’, into a new era from where there would be no return, and he would do so when he addressed the provincial NP congress in Durban. The confidential informing was done by the Department of Foreign Affairs, under the guidance of Foreign Minister Pik Botha. In the eighties, Pik Botha and his ambassadors had an increasingly impossible task. But now, finally, they were getting a break. The Rubicon speech would change perceptions about South Africa and Pik Botha was selling it with all the gusto he could muster.
As a result, the world’s media trekked to Durban for the event. One major London newspaper sent not its foreign editor, not its political editor, but its editor-in-chief. A British television channel cleared the evening’s programmes for a live broadcast from Durban. But things did not go according to plan.
Pik Botha’s Cabinet colleague FW de Klerk was also privy to the draft of the Rubicon speech and he did not share the foreign minister’s excitement He was the Transvaal leader of the National Party and his priorities were different. Rather than the perceptions of foreigners, his concern was the voters of Transvaal. Long the major support base of the National Party, they were increasingly defecting to the Conservative Party (CP) of Andries Treurnicht.
De Klerk believed the speech could cost the NP its Transvaal support base and told PW Botha so. Pik Botha employed all the persuasive powers he had to save the speech, but in the end he lost. PW Botha was, after all, a lifelong politician. In what had become a contest between foreign perceptions and conservative votes, the votes won.
And while the world was watching PW Botha in expectation that hot Durban night, he was delivering a speech that had been comprehensively rewritten. Instead of benevolently taking South Africa into a new era, PW Botha was belligerent, aggressive, wagging his finger and threatening his international audience with the words, “Don’t push us too far …”
The international media felt suckered, betrayed … and they hit back hard. The image of PW Botha was shown repeatedly on the world’s television screens “ scowling, wagging his finger and threatening “ and convinced international bankers that they did not wish to do business with this man. And so Pik Botha’s Rubicon campaign achieved the opposite of what was intended.
Ironically, the revised Rubicon speech also failed among FW de Klerk’s rural voters in Transvaal. They continued to leave the National Party in large numbers for the Conservative Party.
Economically, the Rubicon speech was a turning point for the worse. It triggered a flight of capital such as South Africa had never seen before. Money flew out at such a rate that all the inflows of the sixties and seventies were cancelled out. Between 1985 and 1989, capital outflows totalled R27 billion.
International financiers refused to roll over South Africa’s debts and, unable to meet its obligations, the country had to resort to drastic measures. On 28 August 1985, a fortnight after the Rubicon speech, the temporary closure of the foreign-exchange market was announced and on 1 September South Africa announced a ‘standstill’ on the repayment of its foreign debts.
In the remaining years of that decade, South Africa had its back pressed ever tighter against the wall.
Then, on 2 February 1990, Botha’s successor and then State President FW de Klerk delivered the traditional presidential speech at the opening of Parliament. There were rumours that morning that he would announce something important, but the cynical political correspondents had heard it all before and were not impressed.
As it happened, that was the speech that finally rang in the new South Africa. De Klerk announced the unbanning of political organizations such as the African National Congress and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. Mandela was released nine days later, on Sunday, 11 February, 1990.
So in a final twist of irony it was FW de Klerk, the conservative Transvaal leader who had sunk the original Rubicon speech, who delivered the address that did take South Africa to a new beginning.