COMMENT

Ninety One launches with a great whopper

John Kane-Berman says the dismantling of apartheid did not begin in 1991

Last week Investec Asset Management ran advertisements about its change of name to Ninety One. "The dismantling of apartheid started in 1991 – the year that we began," was the key sentence. A happy coincidence, no doubt, but only a half truth.

Investec Asset Management might indeed have launched itself in 1991, but by then the dismantling of apartheid had been under way for almost a quarter of a century.

The man who started the process was none other than John Vorster. He it was who announced in 1967 that Maoris could be included in New Zealand All Black rugby teams touring to play against the Springboks. The alternative would have been calling off a tour to South Africa due in 1970.

Most people dismissed this policy change as inconsequential. But a handful of rebel National Party (NP) MPs saw it as the thin end of the wedge and launched a right-wing breakaway party in an effort to prevent Prime Minister Vorster from going further. That, however, did not stop him.

In 1973, when tens of thousands of black African workers went on an illegal strike in Durban, he did not lock them up. Instead, he changed the law to give them the same rights to strike as white, coloured, and Indian/Asian workers had long enjoyed. In the same year Mr Vorster announced that the government would no longer resist erosions of the industrial colour bar. And six years later, in 1979, the colour bar was removed from the Industrial Conciliation Act, with the result that black African workers and their trade unions now had the same collective bargaining rights as other workers.

First sport. Then the workplace. Next for deracialisation were property rights, long denied to black Africans. In 1978 the NP government announced that urban Africans would be permitted to obtain their homes on 99-year leases. A few years later the government went further when it launched its "great housing sale" in which half a million state-owned houses would be sold to their occupants. By the end of the 1980s more than 40% of state-owned houses in black African townships had been sold to their occupants.

The process of reform launched by Mr Vorster continued under PW Botha, who in 1986 announced the repeal of the pass laws on the grounds that they had become unenforceable. In 1990, FW de Klerk, who had succeeded Mr Botha, repealed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, so removing the power of local authorities to impose apartheid on facilities under their control. The following year, 1991, saw the Group Areas, Land, and Population Registration acts added to the growing scrapheap of racially discriminatory laws.

By then social and economic liberalisation had extended into the political sphere with the release of Nelson Mandela and the lifting of the bans on various black political organisations.

Apartheid laws were slowly jettisoned not because the NP had suddenly become liberal, but because they were becoming more and more difficult to enforce as black people moved to town despite the pass laws and as the 6% economic growth rate of the 1960s necessitated the erosion of the industrial colour bar and the stabilisation of the workforce. Not even security clampdowns, forced removals, or hiving off six of the ten homelands into supposed independence could stop this process.

So, contrary to what the Investec/Ninety One advertisement claims, the dismantling of apartheid did not begin in 1991. That was rather the year in which the process of dismantling of discriminatory social and economic laws was completed, the logical next step being the removal of the colour bar from the franchise and the adoption of a new constitution, the final version of which came into operation in 1997.

The Investec/Ninety One advertisement does a disservice to the country, and especially to its youth, by giving a misleading version of our history. It ignores the reforms introduced by NP governments. It also overlooks the fact that many of these were forced upon it by millions of ordinary black people who simply stopped complying with apartheid legislation. The defiance of the pass laws despite the risk and reality of arrest and deportation to a homeland required enormous determination. So also did the long battle for trade union rights.

This history needs to be acknowledged, not thoughtlessly consigned to a memory hole.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. South Africa's Silent Revolution, his book on the process of liberalisation, was published by the IRR in 1990. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.