Road to Democratic Elections: Negotiating with the ANC

The National Party leader and last apartheid era president Frederik Willem de Klerk (left) shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, ANC leader and the first post-apartheid era president.

By the late 1980s, parts of South Africa were engulfed in violence and escalating ethnic tensions. The National Party government, therefore, now understood that apartheid had failed, and work to reform and democratize the South African system of government began. For the opposition, dismantling apartheid could not be done quickly enough, but the government wanted to move slowly. They had seen much of the rest of Africa descend into chaos and civil war once Europeans had given up colonial rule some 10–30 years earlier, and were not willing to risk the same thing happening in South Africa when they themselves gave up control.

Building trust with the ANC

One precaution the National Party government took before calling democratic elections was to extensively negotiate with the ANC, who had the majority support and was predicted to win a future election. In this way, the regime could build trust with the ANC and its leader Nelson Mandela to assure themselves that the ANC would act responsibly once in power.

Involvement of communists

Another great concern that the white government had prior to giving up power was the prominent position of the South African Communist Party. The Communist Party, as the government well knew, had linked up with the ANC, and in 1990 seemed to have positioned itself to be able to influence a future ANC government. In a twist of fate, though, as communist powerhouse Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the SACP lost its strongest backer, and fears decreased of white-owned South African farms, factories and businesses being confiscated in a future collectivist society.

With the perceived communist threat having diminished, and the ANC, after long negotiations, increasingly looking like a trustworthy political opponent, the National Party government eventually became ready to accept majority rule in a united South Africa. However, as explained in the next chapter, there were other groups who were not ready to change the political system.