To mark the 30th anniversary of FW de Klerk’s earth-shaking speech to parliament on February 2 1990, veteran journalist Tim du Plessis sent me an inquiry.
“Can you describe”, he asked, “where you were and what you felt when you heard the news?”
My answer – on the one speech ever delivered in parliament which fundamentally changed the course of this country – had at the least the relevance of being at ground zero on this shape shifting moment, or several of them, as the speech lasted around 35 minutes.
I responded: “On February 2 1990 I took my seat at the back of parliament – it was my first day as an MP, and I was one of the youngest members (in those times, the more junior you were, the further back you sat in the national assembly). De Klerk delivered – in undramatic tone – an unexpected speech of such thermo-nuclear intensity that its aftershocks are still with us today. I was to sit through some 20 more such speeches by future presidents. But none shocked or surprised or (for some of us) delighted as much as that one.”
The delight and surprise was – on the back of an election campaign in which De Klerk and his National Party had trashed my party (Democratic) for being “soft on security” and “dealing with the ANC” – how the new president turned his back on 46 years of NP apartheid rule enforced through bannings, detentions and proscriptions.
If ever there was a moment of realising the truth of Woody Allen’s wisdom that “most of life is about showing up”, being present in parliament that morning three decades back was proof positive.
When du Plessis interviewed De Klerk – alongside the reminiscences of those present on the day – he also reminded readers of Rapport on Sunday of an often forgotten fact.
No one outside De Klerk’s cabinet had the vaguest notion that he was about to herald the most sweeping changes witnessed in parliament for decades, perhaps not since the fateful vote in 1939 committing SA to war against Nazi Germany.
The surprise and secrecy of the decision was, in his view, key to its success and survival with the volatile realities of an SA then at war with itself and an outcast from the respectable world.
Thus it was only fully an hour or so after his momentous announcements – unbanning the ANC, PAC, SACP and other organisations, the imminent release of Nelson Mandela and the commencement of constitutional negotiations – that he briefed his parliamentary caucus and party executive office bearers. They apparently awarded him a standing ovation.
Three intersecting thoughts flow from this reminder, and all of them lead to proceedings in the same parliamentary building when Cyril Ramaphosa next Thursday delivers the same setpiece 30 years on.
First, the late opposition leader Van Zyl Slabbert noted after the FW speech: “This represents a sell-out of everything the NP has held near and dear for the past 46 years.”
Although de Klerk has often spun his speech as a logical evolution of existing NP policy and not a dramatic reversal, Slabbert was closer to reality.
But this then leads to Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address next week. Given the breadth of the cascading crises confronting SA right now, nothing short of junking ANC shibboleths – from cadre deployment to racialised employment equity, state owned companies, expropriation without compensation, etc, etc – can right-size our listing ship of state.
And the chances of that being announced in a few days time are as probable as travelling on a bullet train from Cape Town to Durban or seeing a smart city appear from the mists, to pluck just two phantasms from the Cyril playbook of last year.
And that relates directly to the second big distinction. De Klerk, in the spirit of the authoritarian regime and tradition he headed, could literally make his big bang announcements without clearing his decision with the party faithful, or even his elected MPs. They were told, not consulted, after the event. And they applauded their irrelevance.
We now know that it is not the president of South Africa, not the voters, not the courts, not endless commissions, not chapter nine institutions, and certainly not parliament which decides the fate of the nation.
It is the 109 odd – and some of them very odd indeed –members of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) who decide policy, implementation and execution of all matters of significance.
The national Treasury, for example, might have the data, the expertise and bear the consequences for reckless policy decisions; but like the eunuch in the harem their desire is not matched to power.
But then this leads to the third and final reminder or thought linking the two speeches. An enormous amount of printers’ ink and gridfuls of electrons have been expended on discerning De Klerk’s true motivations for his enormous u-turn. Was he pushed by events beyond his control? Did the dead-end of apartheid policy and local and international pressure force his hand? Was it the “gradual evolution of a long process”?
Actually, motive matters far less than result. We may conclude that like his predecessors, the writing was on the wall, but unlike them he did not assume it was addressed to someone else. Or, as Harry Truman put it, “the buck stops here”.
At the Mining Indaba on Monday, minerals minister Gwede Mantashe faced his moment of dire necessity. Heading a department which had for years ignored pleadings and petitions to allow mining companies to generate their own power without licences, on Monday Mantashe gave the green light. And that is only because of the dire situation at Eskom.
De Klerk’s concessions and compromises arrived too late to secure his own presidency beyond four years, but certainly helped save the country. Or, as ANC veteran Mac Maharaj put it, “ De Klerk became the man of the moment and Nelson Mandela the man of history”.
And like Mantashe’s Monday announcement, they were very late in the day in their commencement. But – then as now – late is certainly better than never.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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