The 1992 referendum: Twenty years on - FW de Klerk

Former president writes on the day whites finally turned their back on racial domination


At the end of 1991 the National Party lost a key bye-election in Virginia to the Conservative Party. The Conservatives crowed that we had also lost our mandate to continue with the constitutional negotiations and demanded a whites-only election.  Their claims were greatly amplified on 19 February 1992 when the National Party lost another key bye-election - in Potchefstroom. Its majority of 2 000 in the 1989 election was wiped out and replaced by a CP majority of 2 140 votes. The CP's claim that we had lost our mandate to negotiate seemed to have been vindicated.

We had for some time promised that we would hold a referendum at some time to enable the white electorate to express its views on the negotiation process. Our defeat in Potchefstroom convinced me to do so as soon as possible. I accordingly announced my decision to hold a referendum to the NP leadership and caucus the next morning.  I did not put the question to a vote - which I might well have lost - but decided to use my powers as party leader to decide on the issue myself. I was determined to resign if we lost the referendum.

The question we put to the electorate on 17 March 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?"

In the run-up to the referendum I told audiences that I was not asking for a blank cheque.  I said that we had already reached broad consensus in the negotiations on a number of key points regarding the future constitution. These included a multi-party democratic system; a parliament comprising an upper and lower house; the necessity for a Bill of Rights; the separation of powers; the independence of the judiciary; proportional representation; a strong regional basis for the future dispensation; the maintenance of language and cultural rights;  and  community-based education for those who want it.

I said that there were a number of issues on which we were still seeking consensus. They included the prevention of domination and the abuse of power; effective protection of minorities; the protection of property rights; career security for public servants; a market-based free enterprise economy; maximum constitutional protection for regional and municipal government; and the dispersal of the powers that were then concentrated in the hands of the State President.

I truly believe that it was on 17 March 1992 that the great majority of white South Africans finally and decisively turned their backs on 350 years of white domination.  In my victory speech on 18 March 1992 I said that they had finally closed the book on apartheid. "The White electorate has reached out, through this landslide win for the YES vote, to all our compatriots, to all other South Africans and the message of this referendum is: Today, in a certain sense, is the real birthday of the new South African nation." 

The mandate that we received enabled us to proceed with the negotiations and to nail down virtually all the goals that I listed in my pre-referendum speeches.

Now, ironically, almost exactly twenty years later, many of the fundamental provisions of the constitution that we subsequently negotiated and adopted are under threat.  

On 5 March the ANC released policy discussion papers claiming that the ‘first transition' had served its purpose and should now make way for a ‘second transition'. The discussion papers proposed that the present provincial system should be amended and that the property rights should be reviewed to facilitate land reform. 

This followed the announcement the previous week of the government's plan to ‘review' the judgments of the constitutional court, accompanied by dark rumblings from the President regarding the need to review the court's powers.  It coincided with the South African Languages Bill that would effectively strip Afrikaans and seven black indigenous languages of their official status.  

Our Constitution has served us well. It has provided a firm foundation for the development of our ‘rainbow' nation. It has provided the framework for sustained  economic growth and impressive social development.

Our failure to make substantial progress against poverty, inequality and unemployment cannot be ascribed to any shortcoming in the Constitution - but rather to inappropriate policies. The Constitution is under pressure not because it is standing in the way of transformation - but because it is limiting the power of the executive and the legislature to do as they please.

The time has come for all our communities - not just white South Africans as was the case twenty years ago - to stand up for the values and rights on which our new society has been based.  Their response will - in a very real sense - determine the sustainability of the new South African nation that I believed was born on 17 March 1992.

Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation, March 16 2012

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