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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C

On this day 25 years ago, the speech that changed South Africa forever

FW De Klerk ended apartheid – and freed Nelson Mandela.

FW DE KLERK HAS named 2 February 1990 as the day he ended apartheid.

The former South African president had been working on the speech for weeks – as we’re sure heads of state before him did. The opening address of parliament was generally used for big announcements and songs and dances were made of them.

Nobody quite expected what De Klerk actually delivered.

Not only did he set up a pathway for Nelson Mandela’s freedom (something that was widely predicted), he also set out the framework to end apartheid.

“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the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and a number of subsidiary organisations is being rescinded,” he announced, to audible gasps from the audience.

It is time for us to break out of the cycle of violence and break through to peace and reconciliation. The silent majority is yearning for this. The youth deserve it.

He asked all parties to “walk through the open door and take your place at the negotiating table”.

In the 30-minute address, he had promised South Africa a full democracy.

Listen to the speech – and the murmur of surprise here.

SABC / YouTube

On the issue of Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment, De Klerk said:

“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. I am serious about bringing this matter to finality without delay. The Government will take a decision soon on the date of his release. Unfortunately, a further short passage of time is unavoidable.

“Normally there is a certain passage of time between the decision to release and the actual release because of logistical and administrative requirements. In the case of Mr Mandela there are factors in the way of his immediate release, of which his personal circumstances and safety are not the least.

He has not been an ordinary prisoner for quite some rime. Because of that, his case requires particular circumspection.

Just over a week later, De Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela at a press conference.

PA-8688763 AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

On 11 February, Mandela walked free hand in hand with his wife Winnie.

Politics - Nelson Mandela Release - South Africa AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Four years later, and after the country’s first free and open elections since the ending of apartheid, Mandela became the country’s first black President.

That speech on 2 February set that train in motion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on the day that De Klerk deserved “considerable credit”, adding that we “may be seeing history in the making”.

According to a profile piece about De Klerk written five years ago, apartheid ended in those 30 minutes.

Speaking to journalist Ivan Fallon, De Klerk revealed he began writing the speech over the Christmas break – and that he had always intended to play down Mandela’s freedom to make sure the importance of the major policy shifts wasn’t lost in the media scrum.

“But I wanted them to focus on the fundamental decisions we had taken and to judge them on their merits, and not have the whole package overshadowed.”

Despite working on the measures announced on 2 February for about a year, very few people were aware of his plans until two days before the speech. He swore his whole cabinet to secrecy and only told his own wife that morning.

He wanted maximum impact – and he’d get that with the surprise package.

According to Fallon’s piece, he awoke with a “sense of destiny – I knew South Africa would never be the same again but I also believed I was doing the right thing at the right time.”

And what would have happened if that speech had not been made? In a thoughtful interview with the Guardian, De Klerk said:

“To those people I say it is a false comparison to look at what was good in the old South Africa against what is bad today.

If we had not changed in the manner we did, South Africa would be completely isolated.

“The majority of people in the world would be intent on overthrowing the government. Our economy would be non-existent – we would not be exporting a single case of wine and South African planes would not be allowed to land anywhere. Internally, we would have the equivalent of civil war.”

Read his speech in full here>

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