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Map of South Africa

South Africa
  Special Report

Time Line 1964-1994

Mandela freed; calls for peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy

ANC President Oliver Tambo dies and Mandela takes his place

Mandela and South African President de Klerk win Nobel Peace Prize

First all-race elections in South Africa


Mandela- Journey of a Nation
Freedom 1919-1932


At Robben Island, the political prisoners met harsh treatment and hard labor in the lime quarry. At the quarry, however, where work was done in groups, they could talk with each other – the cream of the anti-apartheid movement improvised seminars, carried on debates for weeks, and practiced a system of self-education including liberation strategy. In notes smuggled out, Mandela would write, "Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose."

One of the most difficult punishments for the activists was the restriction of news and communication. They were allowed only one visit in six months and only one letter in and out in the same period – and no newspapers. Guards did, however, leave newspaper clippings under Mandela's door that reminded him his family was being targeted and harassed in his absence.

        •   •   •        

South Africa in the 1970s was the most developed country in Sub-Saharan Africa but was becoming a pariah nation for its racist policies. In 1976, a protest in Soweto township turned into a national uprising when police fired on thousands of demonstrating schoolchildren, killing a young boy. The aftermath of the riots eventually left thousands dead or wounded. It was a seminal point in the nation's history. Black South Africans in the thousands left the country for military training in Eastern Bloc countries or black Africa; governments worldwide started implementing economic sanctions. Foreign businesses began divesting their interests in the country. A campaign to release Mandela from prison caught public imagination around the world.

        •   •   •        

In the 1980s, ANC agitation against apartheid included a campaign of sabotage and bombing, the torture of suspected spies who allegedly infiltrated the movement and the "necklace" burnings of suspected informants in townships.

South African President P. W. Botha introduced reforms to racial policy, in reaction to anti-apartheid pressure. Mandela and three other Rivonia prisoners were moved in 1984 to less harsh conditions at Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. But Botha needed more to appease the Mandela constituency and, in January 1985, he told the House of Assembly that the government would consider freeing Mandela if he would renounce violence.

Mandela's response to the government's proposed offer was immediate. His daughter Zindzi read it to a mass rally celebrating Bishop Desmond Tutu's Nobel Peace Prize in Soweto on February 10. "What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? ... when I may be arrested on a pass offence? ... when my very South African citizenship is not respected? Only free men can negotiate." They were the first words heard from Mandela since he addressed the Supreme Court in Pretoria 20 years before.

        •   •   •        

The government was not dissuaded and made more overtures to Mandela and the ANC. Reforms had failed to ease the pressures from anti-apartheid groups, economic decline, international isolation and growing dissatisfaction from whites.

In his biography, Mandela wrote he was wary of the government offers to talk but nevertheless thought "negotiation, not war, was the path to a solution." Mandela sent P.W. Botha a long memorandum to clarify the terms for negotiation, and the two men finally met in secret on July 5, 1989. Botha was cordial but no policy matters were discussed. Six weeks later, amid social unrest and friction within his cabinet, Botha resigned his office and Frederik Willem de Klerk was chosen to succeed him.

Exiled leaders of the ANC in Europe, Africa and the United States also engaged secretly with the South African government. In August 1989, the ailing Oliver Tambo presided over the drafting of the Harare Declaration, which defined conditions for ANC-government negotiations to end apartheid. The public statement of willingness to compromise caused rifts with those in the movement who wanted to seize power. Mandela now occupied a house isolated from other prisoners at the Victor Verster prison farm.

        •   •   •        

F. W. de Klerk was not known as a reformer, but he quickly realized the country needed a radical change of direction to survive. He began unraveling the policies of years of white dominance and contrived repression of all other South Africans. In October, de Klerk announced that Walter Sisulu and seven other former Robben Island inmates of Mandela's would be released under no bans.

Mandela drafted a letter to President de Klerk similar to the one he had prepared for Botha. After their first meeting, Mandela would say that de Klerk seemed to be making a real attempt to listen and understand. On February 2, 1990, in an unprecedented speech at the traditional opening of parliament, President de Klerk began to dismantle the apartheid system and lay the groundwork for a democratic South Africa. Among other dramatic reforms, he announced the lifting of bans on the ANC and 33 other illegal organizations; the release of political prisoners not held for violent crimes; and the release of Nelson Mandela for February 11, 1990, with no conditions.

        •   •   •        

Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison wearing a suit and tie and holding hands with Winnie. He raised a clenched-fist salute to the huge crowd. In his speech to the tens of thousands that greeted him at Cape Town's City Hall, Mandela declared his allegiance to the ANC and made sure to say that the purpose of his talks with the government was to find a common basis for negotiations with the ANC.

        •   •   •        

Mandela quickly became the world-recognized symbol of a new non-racial South Africa. He had just spent 27 years in prison and was 77 years old. But in some ways an even more daunting journey – shared with millions of people – lay ahead.

The challenges were immense. Racial reconciliation for a society he had not lived in for three decades. Revising an economy built to benefit the minority into one of opportunity for millions excluded for 350 years – yet preserving what was the strongest economy on the African continent. In addition the movement faced a huge black generation gap. The ANC leadership, returned from exile or prison, had not met together for decades. The new younger members had very different perspective and experiences and often were more inclined to ally themselves with Mandela's far more radical wife, Winnie, who had spend the previous decades in the active struggle.

        •   •   •        

Four months after his release from prison, Mandela appeared before both Houses of the all-white South African Congress stating the goals for negotiations. Mandela took the high road. He forgave his jailers. He read the legislators a poem in Afrikaans, which he had taught himself in prison.

Addressing a multi-party constitutional convention attended by leaders of all races, in December 1991, President de Klerk made the dramatic proposal that the black majority join the white minority in forming an elected interim government to run the country and draw up a non-racial constitution. Two years later, the new interim constitution designed to eliminate institutionalized racism was approved by South Africa's last apartheid congress. The elaborately balanced package, which included the nation's first-ever bill of rights, also called for a transitional coalition government that would last for five years after the democratic election set for 1994.

Just two years after his release, Nelson made a short statement to the press that he and Winnie had mutually acknowledged serious differences and agreed to separate.

In October, the Nobel Committee awarded Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in dismantling South Africa's system of racial separation. The committee called the South Africans' commitment to negotiations a model for resolving racial and ethnic conflicts around the world.

        •   •   •        

For three years, the ruling National Party and Mandela's ANC negotiated a road leading gradually to black-majority rule that would assure the 15 percent white minority that their property, culture and standard of life would remain intact. The difficulty was in bringing along their constituencies, particularly the fractious ANC, which had not been a true organization for three decades, and its allies. Mandela's message was reconciliation. But even that was not enough. In this period up to the elections, about 12,000 South Africans were killed in political violence, with much of the carnage from factional fighting between the ANC and its black political rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party. As the voting date approached, it was clear that there would not be a peaceful election without Inkatha, who insisted on a presence in a new government. Refusing to postpone the elections, Mandela met with Inkatha's Chief Buthelezi, and they agreed to a secret deal just seven days before voting was to begin.

        •   •   •        

On April 26-28, 1994, blacks and whites in South Africa voted together for the first time. The historic election marked the end of apartheid. The 400-member National Assembly chosen in this election would convene to select a president. Under the new government of national unity, all parties would get one seat in the cabinet for every 5 percent of the national vote received. There would be a president and two deputy presidents – one from the party finishing second and one from the winning party. National and regional parliaments would be chosen on a proportional representation. At the end of the day, the African National Congress had won 62.7 percent of the vote, making it certain that Nelson Mandela would be the next president of South Africa.

Continue- A New South Africa >

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