De Klerk's speech changed our lives forever

By Tony Weaver Time of article published Jan 29, 2010

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There are moments in history that become icons of their era, symbols of a shift in the world order. The liberation of Auschwitz, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the assassination of John F Kennedy, the liberation of Saigon, FW de Klerk's address to parliament 20 years ago this coming week.

Friday, February 2, 1990, was the grand opening of the second session of the ninth parliament of the Republic of South Africa. There was a major buzz around it, with wild speculation that President De Klerk would make a major announcement, like lifting the state of emergency, or a vague commitment to release Nelson Mandela sometime in the future.

As a member of the foreign press corps (at the time, I was the southern African correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's National television news), I had already been on several live linkups with Toronto, during which we had sketched various scenarios. They were all wrong.

Along with the rest of the press corps, I went into the parliamentary lockup, where we weren't allowed near a telephone until the speech had begun, to stop the contents of the speech getting out before delivery, thus affecting the stock market. Outside, on the Grand Parade, thousands of activists had gathered to protest against parliament, and to demand the immediate release of Nelson Mandela. The lineup on the scaffolding stage was formidable: Terror Lekota, Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ebrahim Rasool, Moses Mayekiso, Nomaindia Mfeketo, and chairing the proceedings, Trevor Manuel.

Inside parliament, I began reading De Klerk's speech, skimming it for major points, the way journalists do. It was immediately clear that this one was different. By page two he was talking a different language to any other white, apartheid-era South African president. "The season of violence is over. The time for reconstruction and reconciliation has arrived."

By the time he got to page seven, and the heading "Negotiation", all the assembled journalists knew the big one had come. "There is no time left for advancing all manner of new conditions that will delay the negotiating process.

"The steps that have been decided, are the following: The prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and a number of subsidiary organisations is being rescinded.

"People serving prison sentences merely because they were members of one of these organisations or because they committed another offence which was merely an offence because a prohibition on one of the organisations was in force, will be identified and released."

And then the big one: "Our country and all its people have been embroiled in conflict, tension and violent struggle for decades. It is time for us to break out of the cycle of violence and break through the peace and reconciliation ...

"The agenda is open and the overall aims to which we are aspiring should be acceptable to all reasonable South Africans.

"Among other things, those aims include a new, democratic constitution; universal franchise; no domination; equality before an independent judiciary; the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights; freedom of religion; a sound economy based on proven economic principles and private enterprise; dynamic programmes directed at better education, health services, housing and social conditions for all.

"In this connection Mr Nelson Mandela could play an important part. The government has noted that he has declared himself to be willing to make a constructive contribution to the peaceful political process in South Africa. I wish to put it plainly that the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr Mandela unconditionally."

It wasn't a very long speech, 5 166 words to be precise. But nothing would ever be the same in our world again. FW de Klerk had irrevocably changed 338 years of history, signalling the end of white rule in South Africa.

I slipped out of the parliamentary precinct, highlighted the passages I have quoted here, and ran down to the Grand Parade. Trevor Manuel was speaking. Murray Michel, now the head of the Treasury's Financial Intelligence Centre, was one of the UDF marshalls at the side of the stage.

I pulled him aside and showed him the passages. "Holy s***," he said, and climbed up to Trevor and whispered in his ear. I swear Trevor went white. He hardly skipped a beat, and then said words to the effect of "comrades, we have won."

Cape Town went mad. By mid-afternoon, there were ANC flags everywhere. I remember filming this Mercedes convertible driven by two guys in mirror shades cruising Greenmarket Square. A woman dressed in shorts and a bikini sat in the back, waving the ANC flag back and forth.

Colonial era statues were draped in the black, green and gold. Squads of riot policemen stood around uneasily fingering their batons. The day before, they would have been wading in with sjamboks and teargas, even birdshot. But this Friday there had been a tectonic shift.

All of our worlds had changed forever. We had won.

  • Next week: Nelson Mandela's release.

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