1989: The crucial year

Hermann Giliomee says this was the year on which change hinged in South Africa


People tend to single out 1994 as the most fateful year in South Africa’s recent political history; while others opt for 1992 when the National Party lost the initiative to the ANC in the constitutional negotiations. In fact, the year 1989 should win hands down. It was the year in which Pres P.W. Botha suffered a serious stroke, which made it impossible to continue to reject a full-fledged democratic settlement. The National Party began to embrace the idea of political negotiations.

The Berlin Wall collapsed, signalling the demise of the Soviet Union empire. The African National Congress began reinventing itself starting with several leaders, most notably Thabo Mbeki, relinquishing their ties with the South African Communist Party. Acting in a tight alliance with the SACP, the ANC early in 1990 announced itself as the standard bearer and public face of African nationalism.

Restoring order        

After the Rubicon fiasco in 1985 Pres. P.W. Botha made no serious attempt to advance political reforms in South Africa. By means of a tough crackdown the state re-established firm control by the end of 1987. Very few whites had any intention of giving up power. In a 1986 poll only 3 percent of Afrikaners (and 8 percent of English-speakers) were prepared to accept a unitary state with a single parliament and one vote for every person.

By the end of the 1980s there was very little indication of the South African state being seriously challenged. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the main internal black leader, commented scathingly on the absence of any visible signs of the liberation struggle: "After 25 years of endeavour every bridge in the country is still intact. Every system of electricity and water supply is intact and there is not a single factory out of production because of revolutionary activity. The classical circumstances in which an armed struggle wins the day...are just not present in South Africa."[1]

Opinion surveys showed black views to be remarkably conservative. Among the responses were:  

- only a minority supported conventional majority rule with the largest party effectively imposing its will on other parties.

- most blacks opted for a mixed government in which representatives of different self-defined communities took decisions together rather than one in which the majority party imposed its will.

- most blacks did not shun the NP, with a majority indicating that they felt closer to the NP than South African Communist Party.

- most blacks wanted the NP to be included in the cabinet in a future inclusive democracy

- most blacks did not insist in affirmative action but wanted to be rid of discrimination on the grounds of their skin colour

- most did not support sanctions

An assessment of the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency, dated 20 January1989, saw no imminent prospect of any fundamental constitutional changes in South Africa. It remarked that government had survived four years of unparalleled internal and international pressure. The report’s assessment was that the security services would be able to prolong white rule and white prosperity until deep in the next century According to the assessment even the ANC leaders in exile realised that majority rule was not around the corner.

The South African state was, however in serious trouble. Economic sanctions were causing such severe damage that a political settlement could no longer be evaded. South Africa was finding it ever more difficult to roll over its foreign debt. At the same time the rapid increase of the black population made it imperative for government to find credible black partners that could assist in the administration of the country. Internal black leaders increasingly rejected negotiations unless the African National Congress and other extra-parliamentary organisations were unbanned and were allowed to participate.

In January 1989 Pres. Botha suffered a serious stroke. He requested the ruling National Party to elect a new leader in his place while he stayed on as state president. He returned to his office but it soon became clear that mentally he was no longer the same person. His position looked set to become increasingly untenable

British and US views

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister met in London with Colin Eglin. leader of the official opposition. He told her that Pres. Botha was too old and too rigid to be capable of finding a solution to the racial question himself. Eglin expressed the view that F.W. de Klerk, who was his likely successor, met the need for what he called “a more pliable negotiator”. On this Thatcher commented that this made De Klerk “sound weak”. She added: “The whites would be better served by a strong leader with clear objectives.”[2]

Thatcher asked R.F. (Pik) Botha, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to meet with her secretly in London to discuss what she viewed the slackening pace of reform in South Africa. The interview took place on 25 March 1989.

Right from the start of the interview Thatcher made it clear that to her the crucial step that the South African government had to take was the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. She stated: “The down-side risk’ of not releasing him “enormous”. In her view “Mandela had become a kind of touchstone for the West.”

Thatcher warned that without Mandela’s release she and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany would find it progressively harder to resist further sanctions against South Africa at a time the country was facing a difficult time financially with the need to repay bearer bonds and reschedule its debts. It was imperative for P.W. Botha’s government to accept that an improvement of the economic conditions of black South Africans was on its own not enough. All that would do was to feed their resentment of their political exclusion.

Thatcher mentioned that she had discussed with Chancellor Kohl the possibility of financial assistance to South Africa from Britain and Germany should it be prepared to release Mandela and embark on the political incorporation of its black population. She handed to Pik Botha a document in which a “Marshall Plan’ for Southern Africa was mooted.

In discussing her plan Thatcher stressed that funds by themselves did not bring about development if there was a lack of technical competence, personal integrity and dedication among those utilizing the capital funds. She had in mind what she called a “Marshall Plan for Southern Africa” that would build on capital funds, supplied by Europe, and on South Africa’s “wealth of technical and scientific knowledge”. Thatcher suggested that in this was the best way the European community could cooperate with the countries of Southern Africa in developing their resources.[3]

Pik Botha read the note and commented that he found it very reasonable. He added that South Africa was “desperate” for “outside financial help” Nothing came of these plans. When Thatcher was deposed as Prime Minister in November 1990 serious negotiations in South Africa had not yet started.

The administration of George Bush in the United States also tried to promote a settlement. Edward J. Perkins, US ambassador to South Africa, urged the black opposition to apartheid to provide some kind of assurance to the Afrikaners and whites in general. He added: “They will want to know that after the transition they will not end up defenceless and dispossessed in the land of their birth. Those who seek rapid and meaningful change in South Africa would do well to confront forthrightly the issue of two competing nationalisms.”[4] In 1989 President Bush supported Pres. F.W de Klerk in his demand for equal opportunities as a cornerstone of the new constitution.[5]

Civil society initiatives

A South African Law Commission report strengthened the opposition to minority rights. Hoping to get some backing for minority rights, the NP government asked the commission in the late 1980s to investigate individual and minority rights as part of a non-racial bill of rights.

A report drawn up by two senior judges concluded that individual rights were sufficient to protect legitimate rights. Hendrik van Heerden, the most senior of the judges, later told me that he and the other commissioner had incorrectly assumed that the NP would retain a key role in a future democratic government and that it would be in a good position to look after language rights.[6]

The Democratic Party spurned F.W. de Klerk’s pleas to work together for a form of power-sharing that would promote consensual decision-making. Its leader, Dr Zach de Beer, declared boldly: ‘We believe in Western democracy [he meant the Westminster variant]. That democracy cannot succeed in divided societies is a myth.’[7]

Early in 1990 De Klerk offered cabinet posts to both De Beer and Oscar Dhlomo of the Inkatha movement as part of a deal to form a tripartite alliance that would negotiate with the ANC. De Beer rejected the offer without disclosing it to the DP parliamentary caucus[8] Dhlomo did not tell Buthelezi, his leader of it. Many in the DP hoped, like De Beer, that with apartheid removed, the electorate would increasingly vote along class rather than racial lines. This turned out to be a mistaken assumption.

An unreconciled President

On 5 July 1989 Pres. Botha and Nelson Mandela met in the President’s office. In retirement Botha claimed that he told Mandela that Marxism was one of the forces that had ruined Africa. Mandela confessed later that he went into the meeting ‘a bit frightened’, expecting ‘war’ because of Botha’s reputation as an ANC hater.

But Mandela found the president relaxed, open and friendly.[9] In an interview I had with Mandela in 1992 he said: “In our meeting, if you happened not to know the South African situation, you would have been unable to say who the State President was and who the prisoner.”

Botha tape recorded the meeting but the tape did not survive. It is most unlikely that Botha had asked Mandela’s prior permission to tape the conversation. He did not do so in the Sterrewag meeting with his cabinet in August 1985 or in a private talk a few years later with Van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the Opposition. Botha published a transcription of the latter recording. Niel Barnard, chief of the National Intelligence Service, later made the wise decision to destroy the Mandela tape.

The relationship of Pres Botha and his ministers steadily deteriorated. A specialist who saw Botha as a patient after his stroke told me that his opinion Botha was undoubtedly not fit to continue in public life. But Botha stayed on and became enraged when ministers no longer asked his permission for official visits to other countries. They in fact had begun treat him as if he was no longer president. He also became more and more concerned about the direction the NP was heading.

The NP was now proposing a hybrid programme for a heterogeneous society. It was partly liberal democratic in agreeing with the assumption that democracy could only work if common values and areas of agreement existed among its citizens. At the same time there was much that resembled apartheid. It propagated the retention of “group diversity” and the principle of “self-determination” of groups over their “own affairs”.

By July 1989 the NP’s electoral prospects among white voters looked bleak. On the basis of opinion surveys, the analyst Lawrence Schlemmer predicted that if voters were to go to the polls at that moment there would occur “the most dramatic shift in white public opinion since 1948”. The NP’s seats were projected to drop from 123 to 78, while the Conservative Party and the Democratic Party (DP) were expected to win 52 and 36 seats respectively.[10]

The final break

The relationship between the president, who had not fully recovered from a stroke, and his cabinet steadily degenerated. The president blew up when the news became public that De Klerk and Pik Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs, planned to visit Kenneth Kuanda in Lusaka.

The actual purpose of the meeting, which was not made public, was to forestall hostile action from the United Nations over South Africa’s involvement in Namibia and Mozambique. In a public statement Pres. Botha announced that he had not been informed about such the visit. The whole country now knew that a major crisis had developed.[11]

For De Klerk personally the stakes were huge. In the general election of 1987 he had retained his Vereeniging seat by a mere 1 524 votes (compared to 4 329 votes in 1981). He did not contest a seat in the 1989 election since the constitution stipulated that the President did not have to represent a constituency. (The NP candidate who replaced him in the constituency scraped home by five votes but only after four recounts.)

After Botha’s statement about De Klerk meeting Pres. Kuanda the latter promptly called an informal meeting at his residence of those cabinet ministers living in or near Pretoria. The President responded by summoning members of his cabinet two days later for meeting in Cape Town. A transcription of the discussion in the latter meeting was recently found among his papers.

With his resignation imminent, Botha was brash and offensive in his final cabinet meeting. He found it outrageous that that while the ANC in his view was nothing more than a terrorist organization De Klerk was planning to meet with Kenneth Kuanda who was one of the organisation’s main sponsors. He said: “It was from bases in Kuanda’s Zambia that ANC’s operatives tried to infiltrate South Africa.” He added that the Ministers of Defence (Gen. Magnus Malan) and the Minister of Law and Order (Louis le Grange) had become “weaklings.”

The president told his cabinet: ‘I watch you on television and see how poorly you are preforming. You are apologetic and not willing to fight”. Some ministers stated that in calling for his resignation they were motivated by concerns about the President’s health. Botha stated: “I am of sound health. Is anyone of you prepared to show me a medical certificate which states you are of sound health. How many of you are sitting here with pills in your pockets?”

With their eyes on the forthcoming election, cabinet members were desperate to placate the outraged President. Barend du Plessis, Minister of Finance and Head of the NP’s Information Office, stated: “We are facing the serious risk of losing the next election or winning but performing poorly.”

But the President scoffed at the plea that he should retire. Turning to De Klerk he said: “You should have contested your seat in Vereeniging. You cannot act as if you are President while you are not yet President. He issued a dire warning: “A difficult time lies ahead of you. I pity you. The forces you have unleased will destroy you.”

Botha’s resignation at this point came just in time for the battered NP. In the three weeks left before polling day the NP presented itself as a new party under a new leadership that was in step with its times. De Klerk was presented as a parliamentarian, who tenaciously defended the political primacy of the institution and also realised that genuine negotiations with credible black leaders had to take place as soon as possible.

In 1987 he had told British Ambassador Robin Renwick that the Rhodesian white leadership had “left it much too late to negotiate with the real black leaders”. As the ambassador got to know De Klerk better, he discovered he strongly disliked “the country being governed as a kind of security camp”.[12] But side lining and alienating most of his experienced security chiefs would turn out to be a major weakness in of De Klerk’s negotiating team.

The fall of the Wall

De Klerk insisted that under him the NP would negotiate as a sovereign state, would reject negotiations with organisations that had not renounced violence, and would reject intermediaries becoming involved. The NP would give a place at the negotiating tables only to those organisations committed to peace. Yet he had to reconcile himself to the fact that in the negotiations for an interim constitution he could not persuade or force the ANC to renounce violence and to point out the places where the organisation had stored its arms.

On 22 November 1989 the momentous development of the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred. The ANC had lost it major sponsor but there was in the white community no significant support for open-ended negotiations with the ANC.    

De Klerk continued to state that NP’s mandate for negotiations was the NP’s 1989 platform that provided for power-sharing. The government was ‘honour bound’ to hold a referendum on any proposal that deviated from this.

After the NP had suffered a severe setback in 1992 in a by-election in Potchefstroom The NP called a white referendum but the question the government did pose in 1992 was: ‘Do you support the continuation of the reform process that the state president started on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiations?’ It was a bland question that asked voters simply to endorse the principle of negotiations, not the outcome. (The latter happened in Northern Ireland in 1998.)

The ANC and the NDR

By 1989 the ANC was still clinging to its ideal of an armed seizure of power with the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) to be followed by a rapid transition to a socialist order. The NDR was the key premise of the main theoretical document the SA Communist Party (SACP) adopted in 1962, The Road to South African Freedom. It located the NDR within its theory of colonialism of a special kind that postulated the existence of an ‘oppressing white nation’ occupying the same territory as the oppressed black nation and enjoying the wealth the latter produced. The NDR’s objectives were to overthrow the ‘colonial state’, to introduce popular control over all institutions, to nationalise the main industries and to introduce radical land reform.

The SACP wanted to play a key role in the ANC, and the SACP leadership aimed to have strategic positions in the ANC filled by its members. By the mid-1980s approximately three quarters of the ANC’s national executive were SACP members.[13] One of them was Thabo Mbeki, who had fled South Africa in 1962.

In 1989 Mbeki chaired the SACP congress, when it reiterated its commitment to the NDR objective of overthrowing the ‘colonial state’, establishing popular control over vital sectors of the economy and restoring the land to the people. It rejected ‘group rights’ as ‘fraught with the danger of perpetuating inequality’.[14] By 1989 the NDR theory of ‘colonialism of a special type’ had been transplanted just about wholly into the ANC’s programme.[15]

There was no sign though that the ANC could achieve a revolutionary victory through military means. Chris Hani and other radical ANC leaders in fact rejected negotiations on the grounds that the movement’s revolutionary underground had to be much stronger before talks could begin. The armed struggle had sustained the protests inside South Africa, but in military terms it was largely a bluff. During the 1980s the ANC and SACP together were consistently among the top ten out of some 80 organisations or movements receiving Soviet aid; other countries could not be relied on for substantial support.

As Russian historian Irina Filatova wrote: ‘Without Soviet assistance the ANC, as we know it, would not have existed and South Africa’s history would have been very different. There would have been no armed struggle or a much reduced armed struggle and without that the ANC would have had great difficulty becoming the main symbol of the black struggle.”[16] In 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, such financial assistance to the ANC ceased.


The settlement concluded in South Africa between 1989 and 1996 had been widely hailed, but neither the NP nor the ANC had an electoral mandate for open-ended negotiations. Lawrence Schlemmer wrote just after the 1992 referendum: “Whites most certainly did not endorse negotiations with a future ANC government in mind.”

They were under the impression that the NP had solemnly pledged that there would be power sharing in the form of guaranteed coalition government for the foreseeable future. By failing to honour this pledge the NP sowed the seeds of its own demise.

The party would lose much of its white support in 1999 election, and disappeared completely after 2004.

Hermann Giliomee is author of The Afrikaners: A Concise History (Tafelberg). 2020)


[1] Cape Tiines 17 September 1987,

[2] Public Record Office, The Downing Street Collection, Prime Minister’s Meeting with Colin Eglin, 4 May 1988.

[3] Public Record Office, The Downing Street Collection, “Prime Minister’s Meeting with the South African Foreign Minister, 15 March 1989.

[4] Edward J. Perkins, ‘In your hands’, Leadership, 6 (5), 1987, p. 57. Perkins referred to an article that suggested a pact between African and Afrikaner nationalism. See ‘The Third Way’, Sunday Times, 2 August 1987, reprinted in Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer (eds.), Negotiating South Africa’s future (Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers, 1989), pp. 10-13, 114-29.

[6] Interview with Hendrik van Heerden, 21 December 2001.

[7] Zach de Beer, Leadership South Africa, Vol. 8, No. 3 (March 1989), pp. 71-73.

[8] Interview with F.W. de Klerk, 1 July 2007; email message from Tony Leon, 17 June 2009.

[9] David Ottaway: Chained Together: Mandela, De Klerk and the Struggle to Remake South Africa (New York: Times Books, 1993), p. 39.

[10] JM Aucamp, ‘Die Nasionale Party van Suid-Afrika se laaste dekades as regerende party’, doctoral dissertation, University of Free State, 2010, pp. 236-40.

[11] See F.W. de Klerk, Die Outobiografie (Cape Town: Human en Rousseaau, 1998), pp.161-65.

[12] Interview with Robin Renwick by Patti Waldmeir, 16 December 1994.

[13] Stephen Ellis and Tsepo Sechaba, Comrades against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile (London: James Currey, 1992), p. 37.

[14] ‘The Path to Power’, Programme of the SACP, adopted 1989, www.sacp. org.za.

[15] Irina Filatova, ‘The Lasting Legacy: The Soviet Theory of the National Liberation Movement and South Africa’, paper presented to the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 2008, pp. 16-18; Irina Filatova, ‘The ANC and the Soviet Union,’ www.politicsweb.co.za (first posted on 10 August 2011).

[16] Irina Filatova, ‘South Africa’s Soviet Connection’, History Compass, 6, 2, 2008, p. 401.