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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The National Party's perceptions: Historical context

Three hundred and forty-four years ago Europeans first settled at the Cape of Good Hope. They came for a variety of reasons: many as employees of the Dutch East India Company; some as farmers and merchants; and many, including my own ancestors, to escape from religious persecution.

During the next century they trekked further and further away from the Cape, leaving scattered villages - such as Stellenbosch, Paarl, Swellendam and Graaff Reinet in their wake. They were pastoral people who felt uncomfortable if they could see the smoke from their neighbour's farm. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that they soon developed a sense of hardy independence and resentment for far-away and ineffective authority - whether that authority was the Dutch East India Company or the British, who first arrived in the Cape two hundred years ago.

At some stage they began to refer to themselves as "Afrikaners". They no longer saw themselves primarily as Europeans in an alien continent - but as a people of Africa, as white Africans - a people with its own emerging identity, its own increasingly distinct language and its own sense of destiny. They wanted political freedom, just as they had formerly struggled for religious freedom.

It was primarily these factors that led the Voortrekkers to leave the settled valleys of the Cape in the 1830's and to establish their own republics in the hinterland - in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It was their determination to rule themselves that involved them in a number of internal wars and subsequently led them, in two bitter war, to resist the expansion of the British Empire.

However, it should be emphasised that in none of these wars were they the aggressors.

These people - my forebears - understood oppression. During their freedom struggle their homes were burned, their country was devastated and more than 20 000 of their women and children died in concentration camps.

They understood resistance. They withstood British attempts to anglicise their people and to strip them of their culture. They spent the first decades of this century in further developing and entrenching their own language, Afrikaans, and their own cultural identity.

They also experienced poverty and deprivation. The drought and depression of the 'thirties forced many Afrikaners to leave their farms and migrate to the cities where they earned a place for themselves in the national economy.

These are the traditions that we were taught as children. We were taught to revere heroes such as Piet Retief and Dirkie Uys, such as Paul Kruger and Christiaan de Wet. The collective memories that we inherited were of the Covenant of Blood River; the oath that was taken at Paardekraal to regain our independence from the British; our victory at Majuba and the bitterness of our defeat in the Anglo-Boer War in 1902.

The history of the first half of this century, with which we grew up, was dominated by the conflict and tension between "Boer and Brit". For us, in the National Party, the key issue at that time was the campaign to establish a republic. The quest for the restoration of our right to self-determination in our own republic was, on the whole, pursued in a peaceful and constitutional manner - with a few exceptions, such as the 1914 rebellion and the activities of the Ossewa Brandwag. However, the National Party did not subscribe to these activities and since its foundation in 1914 consistently rejected violence as a means to achieve political and constitutional change.

The National Party's main opponents were the "Sappe", the followers of Gen Smuts's United Party who favoured close relations with Britain. Most South Africans of British descent supported the United Party. In general, they also supported the segregation policies and political traditions that had been inherited from the British colonial administrations. They were also opposed to policies that would lead to Black domination, but rejected the National Party's rigid implementation of apartheid. The great majority of United Party members were in favour of remaining within the Commonwealth and were opposed to the establishment of a republic.

It was issues such as these that were at the forefront of the political debate between 1910 and 1960. It was only in the second half of this century that the complex relationship between Black and White South Africans, really began to dominate the constitutional debate.

We are all the children of our times and the product of the cultural and political circumstances into which we were born and with which we grew up.

Deplorable as it now may seem, until the middle of the century hardly anyone in the European-dominated world considered that the indigenous peoples of the far-flung colonial empires were ready to rule themselves. The attitude of most "Europeans" - as they were called - inside and outside South Africa was, at best, paternalistic. In South Africa, by the early 'fifties, the strict racial segregation that we had inherited from the past, had been firmly institutionalised. The more daring liberals advocated a qualified franchise for "educated natives". But nowhere did anyone seriously entertain the idea that the majority should rule through a process of universal franchise - nobody, of course, except for the emerging black leadership in the ANC and the Congress Movement - who at that time were dismissed as "communist agitators".

For Chapter 2

It should be remembered that this was also the situation in much of colonial Africa at that time. In the southern states of the United States the colour bar was still firmly in place. Few political weathermen at the beginning of the '50s forecast the coming winds of change.

However, in the fifteen years between 1955 and 1970 most of the countries of Africa were granted independence. The receding empires left the whites of South Africa increasingly isolated and out of step with the rest of humanity. Racial discrimination and/or paternalism - which had been the general rule throughout the European empires - were now universally - and quite correctly - condemned. During the Anglo-Boer War Afrikaner nationalism had been widely admired throughout Europe and in the United States. However, in the climate of non-racialism, anti-colonialism and universalism that dominated global thinking in the wake of the Second World War, the concept of nationalism in general was in disrepute. As far as international opinion was concerned, the right to self-determination in Africa was associated only with black Africans.

This was the situation that confronted young members of the National Party at the beginning of the 'sixties. The issues that we debated deep into the night centred on the question of how we could come to grips with this changing world on the one hand, and yet retain our right to our own national self-determination on the other? How would we avoid the chaos that was sweeping much of the rest of Africa - that was depicted in horrific photographs of refugees fleeing from the Congo or Angola - and yet ensure justice and full political rights for Black South Africans? How could we defend ourselves against expansionist international communism and terrorism and yet make all South Africans free?

The solution that we then came up with was "separate development".

For Chapter 3

We thought that we could solve the complex problems that confronted us by giving each of the ten distinguishable Black South African nations self-government and independence within the core areas that they had traditionally occupied. In this way we would create a commonwealth of South African states - each independent, but all co-operating on a confederal basis with one another within an economic common market.

The underlying principle of territorial partition to assure self-determination for different peoples living in a common area was widely accepted. It was inter alia the basis for the creation of the nation states that emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, and for modern Pakistan and India after the Second World War.

Although we were primarily concerned with maintaining our own right to self-determination, it would be a mistake to think that there was not a strong element of idealism in this vision. A number of new cities were built in the states that had been had identified. Ten Legislative Assemblies came into being, each with its own government buildings and bureaucracy. In some instances the infrastructure was quite impressive.

Several modern universities were founded - which were formerly dismissed as "tribal colleges" - but which are now accepted as fully fledged universities. By 1975 some 77 new towns had been established and 130 204 new houses had been built. Between 1952 and 1972 the number of hospital beds in the homelands increased from some 5 000 to 34 689. Decentralised industries were developed and hundreds of millions of rands were pumped into the traditional areas in an attempt to stem the flood of people to the supposedly "white" cities.

It was thought that in this manner it would be possible to accommodate the political and constitutional aspirations of Black South Africans. By the late 'seventies it was also accepted that territorial partition was impossible in respect of Coloured and Indian South Africans. They were politically sidelined in the years of rigid apartheid and, in the case of the Coloureds, removed from the Common Voters Role. Their representation in specially created councils with little authority or power, could not continue.

The President's Council was established to look into this and other constitutional questions. Their recommendations ultimately led to the adoption of the tricameral constitution in 1983 in terms of which White, Coloured and Indian South Africans were given the opportunity of electing their own houses of Parliament and of administering their "own affairs", while power was shared with regard to matters of common interest.

Even this concept was, however, too much for some members of the National Party to accept. In February 1982 twenty-two members of the NP caucus, under the leadership of Dr Andries Treurnicht, left the party and founded the Conservative Party. Their departure was an indication of the degree to which the National Party, even by that stage, had started to move away from orthodox apartheid.

Despite considerable efforts to develop the homelands, the flood of black emigration to the "white" cities continued unabated. According to the theorists, the tide should have turned by 1978 - after which the supposedly "white areas" would have had a substantial white majority.

Of course, this did not happen.

The homelands were too small, too poor and economically too unattractive, to provide a decent livelihood for all their citizens. It was also evident that the great majority of black South Africans totally rejected the concept of separate development. Led by the ANC, and its internal structures, they insisted on full citizenship in an undivided non-racial democracy. This situation was further exacerbated when six of the ten homelands - and most notably KwaZulu under the leadership of Dr Buthelezi - flatly refused to accept independence from South Africa.

This rejection of independence was one of the main factors that led to the hardly noticed announcement by President P W Botha in the "Rubicon" speech of 15 August 1985 that

"Should any of the black National States therefore prefer not to accept independence, such states or communities will remain part of the South African nation, are South African citizens and should be accommodated within the political institutions within the boundaries of South Africa"

This announcement, in effect, sounded the death knell for the concept of separate development and set the Government on the road that ultimately led to the transformation of our society.

This new direction was formally endorsed and given strong impetus at the 1986 congress of the National Party which accepted "one citizenship for all South Africans" and the implication that " any discrimination on the ground of colour, race and cultural affiliation or religion" would have to be eliminated. However, the Party still believed that political rights should be exercised on a group basis. One of the points of departure for its 1987 programme of action was the continued protection of group rights: "This must be done on the basis of the maximum degree of self-determination for each group, and joint responsibility on matters of common interest, in such a way that the domination of one group over others be eliminated." During the national elections of 1987 the National Party sought, and was granted, a mandate by the electorate to pursue and implement such a constitutional programme.

Thus, by the middle 'eighties the Government had begun to take the first steps in the search for constitutional settlement that would fully include Black, Brown and Indian South Africans. The policy of separate development had clearly failed. Instead of providing a just and workable solution, it had led to hardship, suffering and humiliation - to institutionalised discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity. Instead of promoting peaceful inter-group relations, it had precipitated a cycle of wide-spread resistance and repression in which unacceptable actions were committed by all sides. Instead of providing a solution, it had led to injustice, growing international isolation and to the escalation of the conflict that had been smouldering since the early 'sixties.

Nature of the conflict

The conflict that South Africa experienced between 1960 and 1994 had a number of dimensions:

One dimension was the conflict between (mainly) Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism.

Many of those who took part in the struggle from the side of the Government, especially most of the Afrikaners, believed, to start with, that they were defending the right of their people to national self-determination in their own state within a territorially partitioned South Africa. They believed that their actions were in line, not only with the traditions of their forefathers, but also with the universally accepted principle that nations were entitled to defend their right to self-determination in a country of their own. As the impracticality of this vision for the Afrikaner nation became more and more evident during the 'eighties its importance as a motivating factor diminished for most Afrikaans members of the National Party until it was finally abandoned. It nevertheless remains, to this day, the ideal of a significant proportion of Afrikaners who support the Freedom Front, the Conservative Party and various right-wing organisations. The demand by these political groups for Afrikaner self-determination in a country of their own provides the context for many of the incidents that occurred in the conflict up until the inauguration of the Government of National Unity on 10 May 1994.

On the other hand, those who opposed the Government had a diametrically different perception of the nature of the South African nation. In their view neither the Afrikaners nor the Whites were separate nations, but minorities within a broader South African nation. For them, self-determination meant one-man, one-vote in an undivided South Africa.

Another dimension of the conflict was the struggle between various Black political movements and groupings.

Those who were united in their rejection of apartheid at times fundamentally disagreed on how it should be opposed. The two main schools of thought were those who favoured violent and revolutionary strategies and those who preferred to work for change within the system.

These disagreements led first to tension and then conflict between the protagonists of these conflicting approaches.

Most notably it resulted in a protracted violent conflict between the ANC and the IFP and in the murder to many Black political and community leaders. Some of this continues to this day.

Another important dimension of the conflict was South Africa's involvement in the global ideological struggle between the West and expansionist Soviet Communism.

Those who fought on the side of the Government believed that they were defending their country against what they perceived to be the aggressive expansion of Soviet communism. They had ample reason to believe this. The Sixth Congress of the Communist International had resolved, as early as 1928, that

"The CPSA ( Communist Party of South Africa ) should pay particular attention to the ANC. Our aim should be to transform the ANC into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation."

From the 'sixties onwards, the ANC received substantial aid from the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. It was closely allied to - some would say dominated by - the South African Communist Party. The SACP was, in turn, one of the most Stalinist and pro-Soviet parties in the world. Among other actions, it had enthusiastically supported the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. The Soviet threat was not simply McCarthyite paranoia on the part of the South African Government. The reality was that SACP members held dominant positions within the ANC's National Executive Committee and that Soviet surrogate forces had established strong positions in a number of Southern African countries, particularly in Angola. In September 1987 Soviet and Cuban-led MPLA forces clashed with UNITA and SADF forces at the Lomba River in southern Angola in what was probably the largest set-piece battle in the continent since the Battle of El Alemein.

The SACP's agenda was to use its position in the ANC-led alliance to promote a two-phase revolution. According to a policy document produced by the SACP politburo in May 1986

" the immediate attainment of the socialist revolution is not on the agenda. This does not mean that we are putting it off but, to quote Lenin's words, we 'are taking the first steps towards it in the only possible way, along the only correct path, namely the path of a democratic republic.'"

The perception of those on the side of the Government was accordingly that the installation of an ANC Government would lead to Communist domination. They believed that in conducting their struggle against the ANC, they were playing an important role in the West's global resistance to the expansion of Soviet Communism.

The perception of those on the side of the Government was accordingly that the installation of an ANC Government would lead to Communist domination. They believed that in conducting their struggle against the ANC, they were playing an important role in the West's global resistance to the expansion of Soviet Communism.

On the other hand, those who fought against the Government were often equally convinced that they were fighting against a bastion of capitalism and imperialism.

Finally, there was a dimension to the conflict that related to the defence of the State and the maintenance of law and order.

Many of those who fought on the side of the security forces, particularly national servicemen and reservists, often did so without any specific ideological or party-political motive. They believed that it was their duty to carry out the instructions of a legally constituted and internationally recognised government. They also believed that they had an underlying and non-party-political responsibility to uphold the law and to protect the lives and property of citizens.

Millions of South Africans who opposed apartheid also condemned the use of violence to achieve political objectives. Newspapers in South Africa which were strenuous opponents of apartheid often supported cross-border actions by the security forces in cases where perpetrators sought refuge in neighbouring states after murdering civilians in South Africa.

The great majority of those who served in the security forces during the conflict were honourable, professional and dedicated men and women. They were convinced that their cause was just, necessary and legitimate.

On the other hand, those who fought against the Government were often equally convinced that they were fighting against a bastion of capitalism and imperialism.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.