1989 – The Fall of the Wall

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    1989-’90 in South Africa
    The End of Apartheid

    Queue in front of a polling station in the Tokoza township in Eastern Johannesburg during South Africa’s first free elections, following the end of apartheid. Johannesburg/ South Africa, April 26th 1994; Photo: David Brauchli/APThe year 1989-’90 also marks a decisive turning point in Africa, and especially in South Africa: the end of the apartheid regime. How did this come about, and what is the state of affairs there twenty years later?

    On February 11th 1990, Nelson Mandela, the ‘most famous prisoner in the world’, left a prison in the vicinity of Cape Town. He had spent twenty-seven years behind bars as a political prisoner of the South African apartheid regime. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he describes this moment in poignant words: ‘Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorientating chaos. When a television crew thrust a long, dark, furry object at me, I recoiled slightly, wondering if it were some newfangled weapon developed while I was in prison. Winnie informed me that it was a microphone. When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town… As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt, even at the age of seventy-one, that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were over.’ (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom). It was as if, in that moment, all of South Africa believed in the possibility of starting life anew.


    The release of Mandela from long-term imprisonment was a moment of global significance: the whole world took note. The act marked a decisive step towards the abolition of South Africa’s racist regime and ranked among the era’s major political upheavals, of which the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, was the most striking event. The end of the Cold War constituted an important framework for the events in South Africa, but was by no means the only or even the most important factor in the dissolution of the apartheid regime. In retrospect, the trends that ultimately led to the end of apartheid in the 1990s were already apparent in the late 1970s. At the time, admittedly, the developments appeared by no means unambiguous to the people living through them. There were those who, in the face of growing opposition to apartheid, harboured hopes of an end to the regime, while the supporters of the system believed they could maintain their control indefinitely.

    The Soweto student uprising that was brutally crushed in June 1976 was – and here most historians agree – the beginning of the end of the apartheid state. After that, at any rate, calm did not return to the country. The government initially responded to the now manifestly increased opposition with massive repression. Many of the politically persecuted and oppressed came into contact with the banned African National Congress (ANC), the oldest and most important anti-apartheid group. The insurgency had not anticipated this, but it now benefited from it. At the same time, the government began cautiously to dissociate itself from several dogmas of the radical apartheid model of the 1950s, which was closely associated with the former Minister of ‘Native Affairs’ and later Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd. Back then the authorities had, with remarkable ruthlessness, enforced the politics of racial segregation in all areas of life. Pieter Wilhelm Botha, prime minister since 1978, sought to expand the support base for apartheid by increasingly incorporating the ‘Indian’ and ‘coloured’ minorities into the system of privilege. At the same time, the ‘blacks’ were to be won over through material and infrastructural changes to the existing system.

    Behind these ‘reforms’ lay the drive to secure lasting power for the ‘whites’: ‘Share the power to maintain the control’ went the saying at the time. This strategy, however, did not succeed. The fight against apartheid, especially after 1984, accelerated, and the conflict in the townships escalated. The state responded with increased militarisation of its authority and instituted death squads in the army and the police. In early 1989, F.W. de Klerk succeeded Botha as head of the national ruling party. A man from the very centre of the Boer nation, he was considered by many to be more right-wing. The following September, he was also elected state president of South Africa. Shortly after his election, he pardoned many of the leading ANC politicians, among them Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada. In a dramatic speech at the state opening of parliament on February 2nd 1990, de Klerk announced the lifting of the ban on the ANC, the Pan-African Congress, and the Communist Party, as well as the impending release of Nelson Mandela. Nine days later, Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison – as described in the opening of this article – and was driven to Cape Town, where, from the balcony of City Hall, he addressed an enormous crowd. A stately, grey-haired man, he seemed to come from a different world and to carry within him the promise of salvation. The televised recordings of this event are among the most moving images the medium has ever produced and signalled the beginning of the process by which South Africa could free itself from its apartheid past.

    The reasons for the turning point

    Why did de Klerk and his cabinet agree to the above-mentioned measures? After all, it is by no means normal for the ruling class to dispose of the foundations on which its rule is based, unless forced to do so. At the time, the ANC was far from storming the government buildings in Pretoria. The alternative to reforms was continued repression, and the state was certainly capable of defeating the resistance for many years to come. The related costs, however, would have destroyed the country’s economy and, in so doing, the future of the whites. Not only had white businessmen recognised this; members of de Klerk’s ruling establishment had as well. The manifold crises of the 1980s acted as catalyst for the government’s changed policies. The insurrections in the townships and the ‘homelands’ could be put down, and neither the wars in southern Africa (particularly in Angola and Mozambique) nor the attacks by ANC guerrillas were really a threat to the core of the South African state. But the internal and external crises had cost too much money and too many whites their lives. Moreover, the international pressure on South Africa grew substantially – with military, economic, and ethical consequences. The government in Pretoria had always done everything possible to satisfy its international lenders, but these were proving less and less accommodating. The consumer boycott, which impacted on scores of South African products, discouraged the very investments that could have revitalised the economy. The moral crusade against South Africa through the worldwide activities of the anti-apartheid movement also began to have an increasing impact within the country itself. Even the Reformed Church, to which many members of the Boer establishment belonged, voiced careful criticism of the apartheid system. Finally, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, dramatically symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, changed the perceptions of the South African power cartel both of its opponents and of itself. It could no longer characterise itself as a bastion of Christian civilisation against the hordes from the ‘evil empire’. The government hoped that the loss of financial support from the Soviet Union would result in a significant weakening of the ANC. At the same time, however, the fall of the Wall meant that there was no longer a geopolitical foundation for America’s remaining distrust of the reputedly Communist ANC and its resulting support of the South African status quo. There can be no doubt that de Klerk and his comrades assumed they would be able to control the transition in South Africa and protect their own interests, maybe even safeguard their sovereignty. This hope was to prove false.

    Chaotic consequences

    The history of South Africa between February 1990 and April 1994 was chaotic and bloody. At least 14,000 people were victims of political violence; some authors even cite a death toll of 30,000. In long and difficult negotiations, the government and the ANC had to establish who would rule the land, and in whose interest, as well as what form the administrative structure of South Africa could take. The talks repeatedly threatened to collapse, and were actually discontinued for several months. The leader of the KwaZulu ‘homeland’, Chief Buthelezi, until then an informal ally of the government, proved a seriously disruptive element. Buthelezi, who could draw on the support of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a powerful mass movement, felt politically marginalised by the new constellation. He complained of Zulu nationalism and thereby mobilised scores of violent followers. During those years, there was a real danger that South Africa would be drawn into – and politically torn apart by – a maelstrom of violence. It was not necessarily foreseeable that, in the words of Nelson Mandela, a ‘small miracle’ would ultimately occur.

    The violence ended on election day. Between April 26th and 29th 1994, around twenty million South Africans participated in the first free elections in their country. For most, the act of voting represented a liberating, cathartic – even religious – experience. The long lines of people standing patiently in the sun in front of polling stations were a sign of hope for all Africa. With 63% of the votes, the ANC achieved an overwhelming landslide but fell just short of an absolute majority and formed a coalition government with the National Party. ‘Some in the ANC,’ writes Mandela, ‘were disappointed that we did not cross the two-thirds threshold, but I was not one of them. In fact I was relieved; had we won two-thirds of the vote and been able to write a constitution unfettered by input from others, people would argue that we had created an ANC constitution, not a South African constitution. I wanted a true government of national unity.’(Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom).

    On May 10th 1994, de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki were sworn in as joint vice-presidents of a unified country. Mandela was then ceremoniously inaugurated as president and, before scores of dignitaries from all over the world, declared: ‘Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…. Let freedom reign. God bless Africa!’

    A country’s euphoria can last only a limited period of time, even if that euphoria is as great as South Africa’s was in 1994. The structural and economic problems of the country had long been masked by the political conflict. The change in government brought this structural deficit to light. The inheritance of apartheid meant, above all else, that the deep rifts within society were now clearly noticeable. The racism of many whites endured; the sexism of both white and black men continued to shape everyday life and politics. Although the process of reappraising the past moved swiftly forward, the actions of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee under Bishop Desmond Tutu, closely observed by the international community, remained controversial and could by no means heal all the wounds inflicted by decades of apartheid. The economic disparities of the past persisted. Very few people reaped the fruits of the new order, which led to increasing frustration. The promise of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ had so far proved a chimera for many South Africans.

    Concerns for the future

    Fifteen years after South Africa’s first free elections, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future. This conclusion should not, however, obscure the fact that the people of South Africa have, with the ‘negotiated revolution’ of the early 1990s, achieved a political and social transition that is remarkable in every respect. The transformation came at a price and was not without violence, but it was achieved without entering into a greater war. The new constitution guaranteed individual rights to all and included an extensive catalogue of human rights. Since then, the country has maintained an equally impressive level of domestic stability, even if the crime rate has reached alarming proportions in some areas. People can move about freely; black people can exercise their rights as citizens and are not simply subjects, as they were under apartheid. South Africa’s international relations have normalised. Evidence points to the development of a confident new national culture that remains open to global influences. Undeniably, order in South Africa remains fragile; however, from a global perspective the transition from apartheid to democracy is among the most impressive developments of the late twentieth century.

    Andreas Eckert
    is Professor of African History at the Humboldt University in Berlin and Executive Director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies. He conducts research into nineteenth- and twentieth-century African history as well as into issues of colonialism, historiography, labour, and globalisation. His most recent publication is Vom Imperialismus zum Empire – Nichtwestliche Perspektiven auf die Globalisierung [From Imperialism to Empire: Non-Western Perspectives on Globalisation]. From the book 1989 / Globale Geschichten [1989: Global Histories], edited by Susanne Stemmler, Valerie Smith and Bernd M. Scherer. © Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2009.

    Translated by Lilan Patri
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    December 2009

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