South Africa

18 November 1993: When South Africa really changed – and for the better

By J Brooks Spector 19 November 2013

Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Mandela’s release from prison on 11 February 1990, the first all-race elections on 27 April 1994 and the inauguration of that same man as the country’s first president after South Africa’s first non-racial election, 18 November 1993 could quite reasonably be regarded as the actual birth of the country’s new order. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks back at the way it felt at that time.

Early in 1992 my family and I were guests at the trout farm of a prominent Pretoria attorney. The farm was located in the Escarpment highlands near Machadodorp – now named eNtokozweni – and we looked forward to it as a peaceful break from our near-breakneck work pace. The farm had – we were told – lovely scenic vistas and good walks, but it rained in torrents for virtually the entire time we were there. As a result, long walks or lazy fishing expeditions were pretty much off the schedule. The scenery still was beautiful in a misty Scottish highlands kind of way, but the weather had turned our time there into a vacation where it made much more sense to stay indoors near a warm fireplace, consume hot drinks, and read a good book – with a lap blanket firmly in place.

But even those pleasures never really happened because the farm happened to have a television and an tall enough aerial that we could watch the live broadcasts from the World Trade Centre building (now reshaped into a casino and hotel) out near Johannesburg’s airport of the Codesa meeting – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. A last-ditch effort to bring order out of South Africa’s growing political civil chaos. Given the unprecedented nature and importance of those broadcasts, our hosts and every one of their guests (except for our then-small children and one of their cousins) spent our days watching the country’s future unfold before us, live, on television.

It just so happened that on one of the days when we had been foiled yet again by the incessant rain, we were watching the Codesa debates at the moment when Nelson Mandela stood up, wagged his finger at President FW de Klerk and gave him an unvarnished piece of his mind about how De Klerk was conducting his end of the negotiations. Duplicity was an unspoken word that was just about palpable. Among the people I was with, there was an astonished hush and someone murmured, “Oh, no, now we’re in it. The whole thing is just going to fall apart.”

Summoning up a bit of Dutch courage, I turned to my fellow guests and offered something along the lines of, “No, this is the beginning of democratic government. This is what it is like from now on.”

Silence in the room.

Given the general level of civil order now, it may be difficult to remember South Africa back in 1992 was a country in which, as Ray Hartley recently wrote in Business Day, “the threat of an armed insurrection was real. Deep in the bush of northern KwaZulu-Natal, I came across Inkatha members undergoing rudimentary military training in brown overalls under the gaze of white militarists. It was spine chilling. In Gauteng, blood flowed around East Rand hostels. Assassinations and executions were a weekly occurrence, warranting only passing mention in the newspapers. Phrases such as ‘hacked to death with a panga’, ‘shot with an AK-47’, ‘burned to death in her house’, slid cynically into news copy, where they became banal clichés. Commuters were being thrown off trains in a systematic campaign of violence. Fear was in the air.”

In foreign embassies, sober-minded analysts were beginning to contemplate apocalyptic visions about a South Africa that more and more seemed to resemble the truly dystopic universes to be found in novels like Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, JM Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K or Karel Schoeman’s Na die Geliefde Land (Promised Land). It was getting harder and harder to see things going any other way.

Simultaneously, in our own (US) embassy, we were getting used to visits from international negotiations gurus like Harvard’s Roger Fisher (author of Getting to Yes), dispute resolutions specialist Richard Salem, and David Horowitz (a populariser of the term, “consociationalism” – whose local application argued for a divided up South Africa, composed of ethnically, more-homogeneous cantons that would come together something like Switzerland). These people obviously wanted to help what seemed to be a situation increasingly spiralling out of control. But I suspect they were also hoping to embellish their international reputations for saving what seemed to be unsalvageable.

For my part, the country clearly seemed alive with possibilities – but they were: the rescued in the nick of time, the bad, and truly dreadful. On the one hand, now that the political battles were out in the open with the unbanning of people and parties, the release of political figures and the return of growing numbers of exiles, there was a sudden growth in the number of players in creating South Africa’s next chapter. Everyone suddenly seemed to want assistance – new ideas, consultants, research, opportunities to travel, funds – and sometimes just discreet opportunities to meet so they could try out ideas. Even groups that had previously refused to meet with official Americans on principle were increasingly prepared to make the switch – also on principle. All of this was music to our collective ears, especially since my office was dedicated to building lines of communication and international exchanges.

Formerly banned political organisations were even prepared to discuss the possibilities of restoring educational and cultural exchanges between the two nations – especially if they would happen as a result of negotiations with the liberation movements, rather than with the formally constituted government. Or as the Pan-Africanist Congress’ cultural desk wrote to us in adding their support to a particularly important, politically charged international cultural exchange, they would support it because it “would assist in the liberation of occupied Azania.”

On the other hand, as Hartley remembered in his column, in places like Kwa Zulu-Natal or in and around the men’s hostels in townships scattered across the Witwatersrand, a proliferation of weapons – imported, homemade or provided surreptitiously by the government’s security forces – made political as well as ethnic differences increasingly deadly contests. These were the kind of situations also portrayed in the book and film, The Bang Bang Club – as well as the reportage they profiled. It was easy to project this kind of thing spiralling into increasingly more vicious chaotic urban warfare; fighting where there might never be a real winner – just many losers with ‘revenge’ screams in their hearts.

For years, the Apartheid Museum had an exhibition of the handmade and miscellaneous calibre firearms that had been confiscated or surrendered following a local ceasefire somewhere in rural KZN. The guns were piled in a large, clear plastic box, filled right to the lip. There were hundreds of weapons mashed together inside – all looking vicious and lethal.

Then, of course, there were the truly awful alternatives. They were the kinds of things that kept people up at night, wondering what would happen if things didn’t work out; the kinds of things that would turn South Africa into an African version of a violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. By contrast to the many variations in backgrounds and ethnicities in South Africa, most people in Yugoslavia looked the same, spoke the same or very similar languages, and were really only divided by religion and the different scripts they wrote their letters in. And, of course, by their difficult history. South Africans could watch that Balkan nation’s violent disintegration on the news almost every evening. That was one of the inspirations for some seriously dark talk about what would happen to South Africa for foreign businesses – and for foreigners and embassy staffers and their families – if, or, as diplomats sometimes say, “when the balloon went up.”

Meanwhile, back at that rain-soaked trout farm, we watched as the squabbling negotiators argued over what the country’s political future would look like, if only they could find a way out of their awkward stalemate. The original plan was that negotiators were supposed to craft a transitional constitution that would, in turn, provide for an elected constitutional assembly that would then draw up a permanent constitution.

But the Codesa talks came to a sudden halt in May 1992 when it became clear the negotiators stumbled over the size of the supermajority (a majority well beyond 50%+1) that would be required for the assembly to adopt the Constitution. The National Party had been insisting on a 75% margin, a level that would have effectively given them a veto over the proceedings.

Despite the acrimony at the point when the Codesa meeting ended in 1992, early in the following year, the parties had returned to their negotiations, in what was known as the Multi-Party Negotiating Process (MPNP). Breaking the logjam, a committee of the MPNP then proposed the development of a collection of “constitutional principles” that would be the basis for a final, agreed-to Constitution. This would ensure basic freedoms and protect minority rights, but all without overly restricting an actual elected constitutional assembly. Miraculously (or perhaps out of a growing recognition South Africa should not end up replicating the destruction of a place like Yugoslavia), the parties to the MPNP actually ended up with an interim constitution, a founding document that, after it was formally enacted by Parliament, came into force on 27 April 1994.

Much of the mystery of success seems to go back to yet another trout farm visit. This one was when yet another lawyer brought together government and National Party negotiator Roelf Meyer and the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa. This, of course, was the famous fishing trip where Ramaphosa removed a fishhook that had accidentally gotten wedged in Meyer’s thumb. This in turn, forged a bond of cooperation that held throughout the negotiations.

But back on 18 November 1993, Delegates at Codesa endorsed the interim constitution that had been drawn up at the meeting. This constitution, in turn, set up the Government of National Unity for half a decade, following all race elections on 27 April 1994. The final draft interim constitution included some concessions for a more federal-style government, along the lines of those advocated by the Freedom Alliance, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the severely right wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, and the Conservative Party.

Immediately after the final deal was signed, the New York Times cheered, “South Africans of every colour, haves as well as have-nots, have brought off a considerable political feat. They agreed this week to an interim constitution free of racist taint; for the first time it makes the black three-fourths of the population full citizens. It establishes a multiracial  transition regime that will govern until April 27, when an elected Parliament will give final form to the new system. The interim document incorporates a bill of rights, assures minority parties a cabinet voice for an initial five years, dissolves 10 Apartheid-engendered homelands, yields important powers to regional governments and is crowned with a constitutional court, its judges named by the President from a list prepared by a nonpartisan judicial panel.”

The paper went on to say, “A generous realism marks the compromises struck by President F. W. de Klerk and his chief negotiating partner, Nelson Mandela. Mr. de Klerk yielded on his earlier demand for entrenched protections of a white minority that owns most of the wealth. Mr. Mandela agreed to protect the jobs and pensions of Government workers and provide compensation for land distributed to landless blacks.”

But it also warned, “experience amply shows that democracy is not just a matter of written constitutions and secret ballots. The potential ingredients of disaster are evident. White extremists threaten violence, and the pro-apartheid Conservative Party has boycotted the constitutional talks. So has the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and its stiff-necked leader, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi – who, with hard-line whites, demands ethnic self-determination and regional autonomy. For months, there has been strife between Inkatha activists and supporters of Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress.”

In that cheerful mood, the Times added, “A bloody and boycotted election might give South Africa’s powerful and lightly reined military and security forces the pretext for a takeover. Given the rage and frustration of jobless youngsters in black townships, civil war might loom if the African National Congress, the likely winner at the polls, is robbed of victory. Hopes for peace would perish and productive whites would flee, leaving the field to rival warlords.”

And Bill Keller, the newspaper’s Johannesburg correspondent filed from the Codesa meetings on 18 November, writing, “South Africa’s main political antagonists this morning concluded their grand bargain to end white dominion, endorsing a new constitution that tries to balance majority rule with safeguards to reassure whites and other minorities.”

Nelson Mandela told the media after the ink was on the paper, “Whereas Apartheid deprived millions of our people of their citizenship, we are restoring that citizenship.” Using three languages (English, Afrikaans and Xhosa), Mandela added, “You are welcome in this country. Democracy has no place for talk of civil war.” And FW de Klerk commented the resulting settlement meant a nation “where freedom, peace and justice could walk hand in hand. My vision was a new South Africa where men and women of all races would have new and equal opportunities to develop the talents God gave them. It was on this day what we laid the foundation for a new South African nation.” (In 1994, my wife was finally allowed to vote in a South African election for the first time in her life – casting her ballot at the South African Embassy in Washington.)

It is certainly possible to point to 11 February 1990, 27 April 1994 or even the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the date South Africa made its crucial turn, but it is also important to recall 18 November 1993 as the day representatives of most of the country’s then-warring parties decided jaw-jaw was better than war-war. DM

Disclosure: During most of this period covered by this story, the writer was the American cultural attaché, based at the US Embassy in Pretoria, until he returned to Washington in September 1992 for an onward assignment there.

Photo: African National Congress Leader Nelson Mandela (R) and then SA President F.W. de Klerk shake hands November 18, 1993 after South African leaders approved a democracy constitution to give blacks the vote and end white minority rule. REUTERS/Patrick de Noirmont

Read more:

  • The day in 1993 when there was no turning back for SA, a column by Ray Hartley at Business Day;
  • Multi-party delegates endorses the Interim constitution at SA History Online;
  • · Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 200 of 1993;
  • South Africa-The Interim Constitution Constitutional Change from the Country Studies Program, (formerly titled the US Army Area Handbook Program volume on South Africa) available at Mongabay;
  • South Africa ends white rule: Approval of interim constitution prepares way for multi-racial democracy at the Independent (UK);
  • Democracy Struggles in Africa; A Victory in South Africa, an editorial at the New York Times;
  • Transition in Africa; South African Parties Endorse Constitution Granting Rights to All in the New York Times.
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