From the Rubicon to February 2nd 1990

Dave Steward on what PW Botha got wrong, and FW de Klerk did right

A great deal of history is determined not by what we do but by how we communicate.  For example, P W Botha's speech of 15 August 1985 - the famous Rubicon speech - would be our candidate for the worst political communication by any country at any time.  President Botha and his advisers did everything wrong.

They chose the wrong platform. Their real audience was foreign governments, hundreds of millions of people overseas and the millions of South Africans who were all waiting anxiously for some signal of hope from the general despondency that had at that time descended on the country.  Instead, President Botha chose the National Party provincial conference in Durban as the venue for his historic speech.

He chose the wrong tone and format for the speech. Instead of being encoded in a form that would be comprehensible to his real audience it was couched in the idiom of a National Party stryddag - which was fine for the party faithful assembled in Durban, but was completely unintelligible to viewers overseas.

The speech was badly drafted. It was the product of contributions from many different sources - all of which had been heavily edited or redrafted by the President and his closest advisers. The result was a hodge-podge.

Worst of all, the speech had been wildly pre-sold to the country and to the international community. Pik Botha had flown to Vienna to pre-brief representatives of the major Western Powers. Expectations had been generated that could not possibly be fulfilled. So, when PW stood up to deliver his speech it was as though he was starting a hundred-metre race two hundred metres behind the starting line.

The result was confusion, still deeper despondency and a collapse in international confidence in the country. During the ensuing weeks the value of the rand crashed to unprecedented depths. We calculate that speech cost us about three million rand - per word - and it was a long speech.

The irony is that it was not short on content. If one studied it closely one would have found at the bottom of page 12 a passage that declared that black South Africans who did not want to be, or could not be, accommodated in the political structures of the black ‘independent and self-governing states' would henceforth share a common political destiny with all of the other citizens of the country. At a single stroke President Botha had announced that the National Party had abandoned the ideological foundations on which the whole superstructure of ‘grand apartheid' rested. All of this was completely lost in the general confusion and despair that the Rubicon speech created.

Had P W Botha followed the communication conventions of the time the result would have been quite different. If he had made a shorter, better modulated statement seated at his desk in Thuynhuys with a photo of the family and a bowl of flowers in the background the value of the rand would probably have risen and the crisis would - at least for the moment - have been averted.

By contrast, F W de Klerk's speech of 2 February 1990 was far more carefully planned and executed. The greatest care was taken not to raise expectations. Word went out that F W de Klerk would make ‘some important statements' - that was all. Commentators expected an announcement on the lifting of the State of Emergency - and possibly something on the release of Nelson Mandela - the hottest story in the world.

During the first week of February, 1990 greater media attention was focused on South Africa than at any time in our history before or since then. NBS, CBS and ABC were hosting their evening news shows from Cape Town; Ted Koppel was in town. Correspondents from all the major media in the world had gathered in Cape Town. However, they had not come to report on F W de Klerk's speech to parliament: they had come to cover the globally anticipated release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

The timing of Mandela's release was thus quite crucial: had he been released on 1 February there would have been hardly a word written about F W de Klerk's speech.  Had the release been delayed for a month - the assembled media would have flown off in disappointment and in anger. His release on 11 February was just right for the South African government's needs. It meant that they had the communication ball in their scrum for a whole week until it would be passed irretrievably to the ANC.

The government made full use of the precious few days that it had at its disposal. Early in the morning of 2 February, before the speech was delivered, the foreign and local media were locked in a conclave near to Parliament where they had an opportunity to study the text. Gerrit Viljoen, the Minister of Constitutional Development, was on hand to brief them and to answer questions. It was during this session that Allister Sparks proclaimed "My God! They have done it all!"

The speech surpassed all expectations and dominated the media. The following week was filled with further briefings by members of the government. All received widespread and positive coverage - because theirs was the only communication show in town.

On the evening of Friday 9 February F W de Klerk had a confidential meeting with Nelson Mandela during which he informed him of the government's intention to release him in Johannesburg two days later. Mandela was initially strongly opposed to this and insisted that he and the ANC needed at least a week to make the necessary arrangements. He also wanted to be released in Cape Town.  President De Klerk and Mr Mandela reached a compromise in terms of which he would be released two days later as the government wanted - but the release would take place in Cape Town as he had requested.

Even then, the government nearly dropped the communication ball. On Saturday 10 February President De Klerk's security advisers proposed that the release should be announced by way of a press statement because "they did not want to draw too much attention to the event." Fortunately, wiser counsel prevailed. President De Klerk made the announcement at any international press conference which was carried live by many of the leading TV channels and radio stations. The message was broadcast throughout the world that South Africa had changed forever.

Dave Steward is the Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation. He served as head of the South African Communication Service from 1985 until 1992

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