Defend Truth


Another time, another place – another regime change


Chris Vick is chairperson of Mobilize, which launched the Energy Comms campaign earlier this year to build public understanding of the energy crisis. Mobilize did similar work in 2020-2022 around Covid-19 under the name COVID Comms.

US President Barack Obama delivered his own “Mission Accomplished” speech on Monday night, using the pending collapse of Tripoli as vindication for Nato’s intervention into Libya’s internal affairs. Imagine a similar situation in South Africa 25 years ago: One year into a brutally repressive State of Emergency, the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) and its allies have created liberated zones in many townships and are advancing on the apartheid regime’s forces in the capital, Pretoria. A Nato intervention or two could make a world of difference…

It’s August 1986, and the collapse of Pretoria seems imminent. South Africa’s own Broeder Leader, PW Botha, is clinging to power in the face of massive popular uprisings.

More than 30,000 government opponents have been detained, hundreds have been killed by government forces, and guerrilla units are staging increasingly-daring attacks on major centres. All that is needed is an increased supply of arms to the regime’s opponents, intensified sanctions, material support for the internal resistance (and perhaps the occasional Nato air cover…)

The US President at the time is Ronald Reagan. His British counterpart is Margaret Thatcher.

It’s a fascinating exercise to take Obama’s 22 August 2011 speech and adapt it for use by Reagan in August 1986. Word changes (and they are scarce, despite the vast difference in time and space) are shown in bold – in other words, where Obama says Gaddafi, Reagan says Botha. Geddit?

Good afternoon, everybody.

I’ve just completed a call with my National Security Council on the situation in South Africa, and earlier today I spoke to Prime Minister Thatcher about the extraordinary events taking place there.

The situation is still very fluid. There remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat. But this much is clear: The Botha regime is coming to an end and the future of South Africa is in the hands of its people.

Earlier this year, we were inspired by the peaceful protests that broke out across South Africa. This basic and joyful longing for human freedom echoed the voices that we had heard all across the region, from Maputo to Windhoek.

In the face of these protests, the Botha regime responded with brutal crackdowns, civilians were murdered in the streets of KwaMakhutha and the Vaal, a campaign of violence was launched against the South African people, Botha threatened to hunt peaceful protesters down like rats. As his forces advanced across the country, there existed the potential for wholesale massacres of innocent civilians.

In the face of this aggression, the international community took action. The United States helped shape a UN Security Council resolution that mandated the protection of South African civilians and the Security Council declared that apartheid was a crime against humanity. An unprecedented coalition was formed that included the United States, our NATO partners and African nations. And the international community launched a military operation to save lives and stop Botha’s forces in their tracks.

In the early days of this intervention, the United States provided the bulk of the firepower, and then our friends and allies stepped forward. Inside South Africa, the Mass Democratic Movement has established itself as a credible representative of the South African people and adopted the slogan “Forward to People’s Power”. And the United States, together with our European allies and friends across the region, recognised the MDM as the legitimate governing authority in South Africa.

Botha was cut off from arms and cash, and his forces were steadily degraded.

From Gugulethu to Beit Bridge, the South African opposition courageously confronted the regime, and the tide turned in their favour.

Over the last several days, the situation in South Africa has reached a tipping point, as the opposition increased its coordination from east to west, took town after town, and the people of Pretoria rose up to claim their freedom.

For over four decades, the South African people had lived under the rule of a tyrant who denied them their most basic human rights. Now the celebrations that we’ve seen in the streets of South Africa show that the pursuit of human dignity is far stronger than any dictator.

I want to emphasise that this is not over yet. As the regime collapses, there’s still fierce fighting in some areas, and we have reports of regime elements threatening to continue fighting.

Although it’s clear that Botha’s rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of South Africa and calling for those forces that continue to fight to lay down their arms for the sake of South Africa.

As we move forward from this pivotal phase, the opposition should continue to take important steps to bring about a transition that is peaceful, inclusive and just.

As the leadership of the MDM has made clear, the rights of all South Africans must be respected.

True justice will not come from reprisals and violence. It will come from reconciliation and a South Africa that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny.

In that effort, the United States will be a friend and a partner.

We will join with allies and partners to continue the work of safeguarding the people of South Africa. As remaining regime elements menace parts of the country, I’ve directed my team to be in close contact with NATO, as well as the United Nations, to determine other steps that we can take.

To deal with the humanitarian impact, we’re working to ensure that critical supplies reach those in need, particularly those who have been wounded.

Secretary George Shultz spoke today with his counterparts from leading nations of the coalition on all these matters. And I’ve directed our Ambassador to the UN to request that the UN secretary general use next month’s General Assembly to support this important transition.

For many months, the MDM has been working with the international community to prepare for a post-Botha South Africa. As those efforts proceed, our diplomats will work with the MDM as they ensure that the institutions of the South African state are protected.

And we will support them with the assets of the Botha regime that were frozen earlier this year.

Above all, we will call for an inclusive transition that leads to a democratic South Africa.

As we move forward, we should also recognise the extraordinary work that has already been done.

To the African people, these events have particular resonance. Botha’s regime has murdered scores of southern African citizens in acts of terror in the past – in Maputo, Gaborone and Maseru, to name but a few. Today we remember the lives of those who were taken in those acts of terror and stand in solidarity with their families.

To our friends and allies, the South African intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one. Although the efforts in South Africa are not yet over, NATO has once more proven that it is the most capable alliance in the world and that its strength comes from both its firepower and the power of our democratic ideals.

And the African members of our coalition have stepped up and shown what can be achieved when we act together as equal partners. Their actions sent a powerful message about the unity of our effort and our support for the future of South Africa.

Finally, the South African people, your courage and character have been unbreakable in the face of a tyrant. An ocean divides us, but we are joined in the basic human longing for freedom, for justice and for dignity.

Your revolution is your own, and your sacrifices have been extraordinary. Now the South Africa that you deserve is within your reach. Going forward, we will stay in close coordination with the MDM to support that outcome.

I know there will be huge challenges ahead. The extraordinary events in South Africa remind us that fear can give way to hope, and that the power of people striving for freedom can bring about a brighter day.

Thank you very much.

  • As it turned out, there was to be no “South African Spring” in 1986, despite global outrage – in part because of the US and UK’s pivotal role in resisting firmer action against the apartheid regime. It took another three years for the regime to unban the ANC, the SACP and other political organisations, and another four years until South Africa experienced its own – largely internally manufactured – regime change. DM


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