Reformed Reflections

South Africa (6)

The End of Apartheid

Apartheid was not abolished overnight. It was a long process, involving leaders with courage, vision, and faith, political risk-taking, careful diplomacy, but also violence and untold hardships.

Dr. John Vorster (1915-83), who had succeeded Dr. Verwoerd in 1966, initiated some tentative steps away from the rigid approach of his predecessor. However, the accent fell far more on the relaxation of apartheid measures than on their abolition. By the beginning of the 1980s, it had become clear that apartheid policies had encountered two apparently insurmountable obstacles. First, the demands of the booming economy of the sixties and seventies had brought a flood of black South Africans to the so-called white cities. This unplanned development washed away any illusion that the whites would ever constitute a majority in the areas of the country they claimed for themselves. Second, only four of the ten homelands were prepared to accept independence. KwaZulu, under the leader of Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in particular, was adamant in refusing to move beyond its self-governing status. This decision by the homeland governments sounded the death knell for apartheid.

In 1983 a referendum was held - only among the white electorate- which approved of a new, tricameral system of parliament, in which there were separate chambers for whites, coloured and Asians, with power remaining firmly with the whites and, in particular, with the state president who, for the first time, possessed full executive powers. But the changes did not bring the longed -for results. Seeing no real advantage, the reaction of the blacks was predictable. A volcano of frustration and anger erupted. In response, the government announced a state of emergency. But the ultra-conservative Afrikaners believed that whites had given away too much, and split from the National Party to form their own Conservative Party.

In 1985 President P.W. Botha attempted to introduce constitutional reforms. He announced that his government had decided to abandon the policy of grand apartheid designed by Dr. Verwoerd, and that his government accepted the permanence of black South Africans in white South Africa. These decisions implied the removal of a number of the central pillars on which the whole edifice of apartheid had been constructed. But Botha also searched for minority safeguards. In a key note address he said:

"Should any of the black national states therefore prefer not to accept independence, such states or communities will remain part of the South African nation, are South African citizens and should be accommodated within political institutions within the boundaries of South Africa."

Despite the promise to lead South Africa towards a more just and balanced society, his address led to wide international condemnation. With the National Party's legacy of apartheid the proposal to safeguard minority rights was immediately construed by South Africa's critics as another form of apartheid. Botha's failure to persuade his critics at home and abroad of his good intentions could not have happened at a worse time. It occurred during a time of alarming economic decline brought on, in a large measure, by international trade sanctions and the flight of foreign capital.


The international campaign waged against apartheid was relentless and long lasting. The sanctions issue received more publicity, both internally and internationally, than any of the other matters. The World Council of Churches prides itself on the fact that it pioneered the international action for the isolation of South Africa. Through its Programme to Combat Racism, it recommended measures to its member churches and social institutions such as disinvestment, discouragement of white immigration to South Africa, refusal of bank loans, and the application of comprehensive sanctions. The United Nations, at the behest of Third World countries, imposed a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa in 1963, which became "mandatory" in 1977. Later, an oil embargo was imposed on South Africa. In 1985, the U.S. Congress legislated, over a presidential veto, harsh mandatory sanctions, hoping to change the South African National Party's policies that Congress found objectionable.

Canada became a leader in the international struggle against apartheid. Organizations such as the Canadian Council of Churches and the Canadian Labour Congress maintained constant pressure to bring about some measure of Canadian disengagement from South Africa. In 1985 the Mulroney government endorsed the contention that economic sanctions should be a central policy instrument for Ottawa in the effort to bring about the elimination of apartheid. But the measure announced by the then secretary of state for external affairs, Joe Clark, failed to impress the South African government. In its eagerness to be in the frontline of the anti-apartheid movement the Canadian government apparently had forgotten its country's own racial past. For example, in 1939, its Supreme Court upheld a tavern owner's right to refuse a customer beer on the grounds that he was black. Nova Scotia had legally segregated schools until 1963, and Ontario did not close its last black-only school until 1965.

How effective were the sanctions? European and North American political pundits claim that sanctions resulted in the end of apartheid. But in South Africa there was no unanimity. The Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist, and the Anglicans supported sanctions as a non-violent means to end apartheid. But sanctions met resistance among most white South Africans and often made them less willing to change. They caused major distortions in the economy when rapid economic growth was needed to alleviate the widespread poverty of black South Africans, particularly in the rural areas. The reality is that political isolation, sanctions, and unbridled criticism seldom achieve the desired results. For the most part, South Africa succeeded in circumventing sanctions. In many respects they even appeared to achieve the opposite effect of their intention. The arms embargo led to South Africa establishing its own highly sophisticated armament industry, and the oil embargo, to the development of the world's largest and most effective oil from coal industry.

Disinvestment by foreign multinational companies often led South African managers to buy out local subsidiaries at rock bottom prices. Since they were no longer restrained by foreign codes of conduct, they continued to produce exactly the same products, often on a more profitable basis. Of course, this development was not what the World Council of Churches, the pro-disinvestment shareholders in the United States and Europe, and other pro-sanction groups had in mind.

The Power of the Gospel

While the secular press focussed on the political movements against apartheid, the influence of the Gospel and the power of prayer were seldom mentioned in all their coverage on dismantling apartheid. Christians from different groups, countries and continents, formed prayer chains and prayed for a peaceful transition in South Africa. Many Christian leaders, too many to name in a brief article, were active in seeking the dismantling of apartheid. I will only mention two, an evangelist and a politician.

Michael Cassidy

In 1962, the South African born and Cambridge educated Michael Cassidy founded the Africa Enterprise [AE], an evangelistic organization with the mandate to aid the church in reaching the cities of Africa. It also gave birth to a new kind of African evangelism, joining "white, self-conscious South Africans and black, independent East Africans in a most unlikely (what many called impossible) team relationship." Cassidy believed that the Gospel and not politics was the hope for change in South Africa. Many churches who were courted to participate in the missions of EA did not agree with its deliberate strategy to use evangelism to witness against apartheid, since they saw this as "political."

In 1985, Cassidy launched the National Initiative for Reconciliation (NR). It began as a gathering of 400 South African church leaders committed to calling the nation to repentance and reconciliation. NR took the message to the South African churches and society through five programs:

1. a monthly day of prayer and fasting;
2. a pulpit exchange between black and white churches;
3. a home visitation exchange between black and white families;
4. provision for the physical needs of black township churches;
5. lobbying of local universities to open their doors to black undergraduates.

F.W. de Klerk (1936-)

A new era of hope was ushered in by F.W. de Klerk, a graduate of Potchestroom University and a lawyer, who had served in the National Party [NP] government under Vorster and P.W. Botha. He strongly emphasized the need for reform. He was convinced that the NP had reached the point that it would have to take bold initiatives. He won a general election, though with a reduced number of seats. By1988, more than a hundred apartheid laws had been scrapped. In 1989, when De Klerk was a minister of education, he succeeded Botha as leader of the NP, becoming president when Botha resigned. He recalls in his autobiography The Last Trek and a New Beginning, that when he took the oath of office at his inauguration, he "experienced it as though I was indeed standing before God and had quietly promised that I would try to carry out the responsibility He had entrusted to me with the biblical principles of justice, peace and charity as my guidelines." He outlined his vision for a new South Africa and issued a call to all churches to jointly define a strategy to facilitate negotiations, reconciliation and change.

In 1990, de Klerk released Nelson Mandela, leader of the National African Congress [ANC], and a prisoner of twenty-seven years. The state of emergency was lifted, the dismantling of the legislative edifice of apartheid began, and constitutional talks were instituted. De Klerk restored democracy for all South Africa's citizens, and made a black majority rule possible. International sanctions were lifted, and the world resumed sporting links with South Africa. However communal violence continued, particularly between the ANC and the Zulu Freedom Party. The culmination of the negotiating process was the signing of a new constitutional agreement with Mandela in1993, and in the same year he and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk later served as vice-president (1994-96) in the Mandela administration, and announced his retirement from politics in August 1997.

Nelson (Rolihlahla) Mandela (1918-)

Nelson Mandela was a lawyer in Johannesburg, joined the ANC in 1944, and directed a campaign of defiance against the South Africa government and its racist policies, orchestrating in 1961, a three-day national strike. At the prompting of Nelson Mandela, the ANC decided to abandon its traditional strategy of non-violence and opted for an armed struggle. Mandela left the country clandestinely and travelled extensively in Africa and Europe, drumming up support for the armed conflict and undergoing guerilla training himself. In 1963, after his secret return to South Africa he was arrested. In 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for political offences. He continued to be such a potent symbol of black resistance that the 1980s saw a co-ordinated international campaign for his release. In 1985, President Botha offered to release Nelson Mandela, provided that he undertook to renounced violence. Mandela rejected the offer out of hand. After his release from prison by de Klerk, Mandela became an active negotiating partner for a peaceful settlement. However, his relationship with de Klerk was often rocky and tense. Mandela used blustery and bullying tactics during his many exchanges with De Klerk. At one occasion he publicly denounced de Klerk and verbally wounded him. De Klerk comments, "The fact remained that Mandela's vicious and unwarranted attack created a rift between us that never again fully healed."

The first democratic elections in which all South Africans could participate were held in April 1994. The election day passed surprisingly peacefully. The results, though, were no surprise. The long journey toward a new South Africa ended on the 10th of May 1994, the day that Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected state president of South Africa.

Johan D. Tangelder
November, 2003