YONELA DIKO | De Klerk Legacy: You had to be there!

In 1989, at the ANC's Political Military Council (PMC) in Lusaka Zambia, chaired by senior comrade Josiah Jele and attended by Chris Hani, Joel Netshitenzhe, Vusi Mavimbela and others, there was a palpable expectation on the looming FW De Klerk speech which was sold as likely to be monumental.

Netshitenzhe was excused from the meeting to go and watch the speech on television so that he can bring a report back to the meeting. The PMC was the highest decision making body on military and political decisions and in this particular meeting, a plan for the infiltration of senior comrades inside South Africa was under way.

Netshitenzhe interrupted the meeting on his return, obviously aware of the weight the report he was bringing. The chairperson ushered him to table his report. ANC, PAC, SACP and other political parties have been unbanned by De Klerk and political prisoners were going to be released in a given timeline, reported Netshitenzhe. The earth stood in that moment, these comrades had been fighting all their lives for this moment, having spent a quarter of their lives unable to go back home, and now, in a split of a second, it was all over. Or was it?

Except for Chris Hani. "Nothing has changed," he said. "We continue with our plans." The entire room was shocked at Hani's response and the chairperson rebuked him. The speech at the very least needed to be discussed with seriousness, said Jele. It did not deserve such a dismissive attitude of Hani.

So began the difference in leaders' reactions to the dizzying changes that were happening in South Africa between 1989 and 1990. The changes were frankly signalling a move away from what these comrades had been doing all their lives - training for military invasion in the future - towards negotiating a political settlement with their foes.

The difference was dependent on the level of information each leader had about the shifting reality within South Africa. It was also about the changes in the attitudes within the governing Afrikaner Nationalist Party as well as shifting attitudes within the Afrikaner and white community itself.

Some leading Afrikaners seemed to have finally found their moral compass and courage to move further and further away from their unjustified privileged life at the expense of the black majority, towards finding the ANC as the legitimate voice of the South African majority.

At another PMC meeting, again chaired by Jele but this time attended by Thabo Mbeki, who at this time had been so busy around the world he was barely in Lusaka for day-to-day work. Mbeki had sat there in the meeting, smoking his characteristic pipe and did not say a word the whole planning meeting for military interventions inside South Africa. Towards the end of the meeting, Mbeki finally lifted his voice and said: "Comrades, all this may well be unnecessary." Again there was palpable shock in the meeting and the chairperson this time did not really know how to respond, but everyone knew exactly what Mbeki was talking about.

Mbeki had a 360 degree view of what was happening during that period and had been entrusted by OR Tambo with much responsibility. He had been there when OR Tambo met the new president of the Soviet Union, Michael Goberchev, and listened to his plans for a new world order. These plans involved a shift in their international policy, their support for the struggles of various countries, including South Africa, and how the Soviet Union actually began to engage De Klerk's apartheid government. Such engagements had resulted in South African military withdrawal from Angola and for Soviet senior officials to tell ANC officials that the ANC would be inside South Africa by 1990.

Mbeki had also met various influential Afrikaner leaders, some who had been Members of Parliament but had since denounced the apartheid government and had first-hand information of how the entire segregation project had lost its appeal even to its primary benefactors and that the shifts happening within these communities themselves was becoming irreversible. Something had to give and it was.

Hence began the two-prong approach of taking a step forward towards negotiating with the Nationalist Party, but cautious of traps that may abound.


In October 1989, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and others were released from Robben Island. Mandela would be released four months later in February 1990. Emotions would pour at the various airports as fathers and sons were reunited and mothers held their daughters for the first time in 30 years when the exiles came back home. It was a time of shifting tectonic plates under our feet.

While all comrades had to be cautious even as they landed back from exile and out of prison, as some comrades were meeting accidental deaths across the country, the question of whether De Klerk could be trusted was foremost in every comrade's mind. It did not take long however for comrades to pick up that Dr Klerk may have gone out on a limb with a few others in declaring the end of apartheid, while his military generals, who had the real power to inflict pain and destabilise the rising hope of the new, were not ready to let go.

If De Klerk could not be trusted, it seemed now necessary to at least support him.

According to Madiba's book,Dare not Linger: The Presidential Years (which Madiba wrote towards the end of his presidency and was completed by celebrated writer and struggle veteran Mandla Langa) it did not take long until Mandela received intelligence that three military generals, led by Christian Viljoen, who later founded Freedom Front Plus, were planning to disrupt the negotiations, kidnap Mandela and De Klerk, and take over the country. They claimed that they would take over the country in 48 hours. The challenge for them would be what to do thereafter.

Madiba decided to test the intelligence and found it credible. Madiba realised that De Klerk would have no answer to these looming threats as they were coming from a faction of the National Party that considered him a sellout and an enemy. Madiba knew exactly who to call and how to approach the impending disaster. He paid a visit to the home of PW Botha and made his demands clear to Botha that it was time to rein in his boys and honour his commitment to change. Later, a meeting was arranged between the generals and ANC and the generals finally decided to be part of the democratic process.

It was clear to everyone that Dr Klerk did not have many friends inside his own party and he had taken some measure of risk. Even Hani would later acknowledge this, giving a speech to the Press Club. De Klerk had made some bold decisions and had staked his political capital and his life on it.

Madiba would then describe that negotiation period as akin to driving in a busy traffic with cars coming from all directions. On one side is De Klerk, making the bold moves and behind him his army generals looking to stab him in the back and get him out of their own patronage, then there were black people, tired of living like beggars and paupers in their own land. Mandela was in the middle, supporting De Klerk over and against Dr Klerk's own people who saw him as weak and a sellout, without sending a message to black people that his support for De Klerk is not going to defer their own aspirations.


Most comrades who were asked in the 1980s to predict when South Africa would be free, including OR Tambo, were predicting at least another 20 years. The rate at which the country was becoming ungovernable in the 1980s, with the masses of our people becoming bolder, and government becoming overwhelmed and stretched, imposing stretched state of emergencies, it was clear that fertile ground for insurrection by the MK was growing, whereby the MK would hit the country in various nerve centres where the masses' discontent was at its peak and the masses themselves would be emboldened by military support and liberate themselves.

This however depended on many variables. And the cost to human life would have been insurmountable. Freedom would come but it would come at a high cost particular because the military might of the apartheid regime remained formidable.

The decision by De Klerk therefore, to avoid that inevitable calamity 20 years earlier, became a decisive turning point in bringing about the democracy we enjoy today. De Klerk had realised the apartheid government was becoming weaker, unworkable, and isolated and it was a matter of time before they would be hit hard. Make no mistake, other apartheid leaders were willing to push it for another 20 years so De Klerk was cutting their patronage by decades and they could not take it.

None of this excuses De Klerk's role prior to becoming president, having been part of the apartheid machinery, which reduced a black man to a pariah in his own country and made his life without value, to be taken at will anytime of day. None of this excuses some of the decisions De Klerk made even after unbanning political parties and releasing Mandela from prison. He needed to pay for his sins in this life and hopefully the next.

However, he did it. He took that decision that turned the course of history for all time. That cannot be taken away from him. He did that. Whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice.