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  • South Africa's FutureA Turbulent Transition
  • Pauline H. Baker (bio)

Just as the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe have taken radical steps to transform their societies, so South Africa has crossed a threshold from which there is no turning back. With the February 1990 unbanning of the entire spectrum of antiapartheid opposition, the release of African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and the onset of formal talks in May between Pretoria and the ANC—the oldest and apparently most popular nationalist movement—President Frederik W. de Klerk launched a new political era. He legalized dissent, recognized the ANC as a legitimate negotiating partner, and allowed long-suppressed political aspirations to emerge into the open. There are many pitfalls ahead, but the status quo ante can never be restored.

Even at this early stage, one can identify the key influences on the calculations of de Klerk and the leaders of the National Party (NP), which has ruled South Africa since 1948. Complex global, regional, and domestic trends that came to a head in the 1980s created unprecedented pressures and revealed some inescapable truths.

Globally, the most important factor was the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In Pretoria's eyes, it removed a perceived external threat, undermining hardliners in the security establishment who promoted the doctrine of "total strategy." Based on a belief that South Africa faced a "total onslaught" masterminded by [End Page 8] Moscow, this doctrine, which prevailed during the regime of President P. W. Botha, was used to rationalize the most repressive period in South Africa's history.

The government's decision to consider the relaxation of security measures, de Klerk explained, did not mean that Pretoria was going soft on communism. To the contrary, "we remain as firmly opposed to communism as ever," he said. But we "will . . . fight it with normal democratic procedures . . . . The world has renounced communism and we don't regard it as such a threat anymore."1

Events in Eastern Europe also raised concerns about South Africa's long-term vulnerability to popular upheaval. While exuding public confidence, security analysts wondered privately how long Pretoria could resist popular demands for change when totalitarian regimes far more powerful had tumbled like dominoes, with revolutionary outcomes.

Changes in the regional balance of power likewise played into Pretoria's calculations, particularly the U.S.-mediated agreement on Angola and Namibia in 1988. The independence of Namibia, the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, and the end of South African assistance to UNITA, the Angolan rebel movement, gave South Africa a graceful exit from regional entanglements that had overextended its security forces, incurred heavy financial obligations, and raised the political ante at home. When white soldiers began to die in bloody confrontations with Cuban and Angolan troops during the Angolan war, the government suffered an unexpected political backlash at a time when it could least afford it.

For a variety of reasons, whites on both the left and the right were abandoning the governing National Party. In the September 1989 election, the NP failed to win a majority of the popular vote for the first time in 30 years, a turning point in white politics that punctured the myth that whites defect only to the right. The newly formed liberal Democratic Party (DP) captured more than a fifth of the votes while the Conservative Party (CP), although not doing as well as expected, showed by winning roughly a third of the vote that it was a formidable opposition that was not going to wither away. Analysts predicted that unless a radical change of course took place, the National Party could lose the next white election.

Internal economic pressures also were taking their toll. Debt, inflation, a depressed gold price, disinvestment, and sanctions—the latter as much a psychological as a financial blow—produced protracted recession, capital flight, and a profound sense of isolation. Just as global and regional balances of power were in flux and domestic voting trends were looking gloomy, South Africa's economic outlook worsened and foreign exchange reserves plunged to an all-time low. Whites began to realize that unless they...


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