“Whites only! The main apartheid laws had been dismantled a few years earlier, but on March 17, 1992, a form of political apartheid was reactivated. At the end of the southern summer, only whites in South Africa were invited to vote. One more time. One last time, finally. The question was quite simple: do you support the reforms launched by Frederik De Klerk? In other words: do you authorize the head of government to continue negotiations with the ANC, a movement whose goal is the total dismantling of apartheid? Nelson Mandela’s party did not fail to point out the contradiction: asking whites alone if they wanted to end a system that reserved political and human rights … only to whites. “South Africa belongs to all of its inhabitants! Proclaims the charter of freedom, drawn up in 1955 by the anti-apartheid movement. We could, in fact, have asked all South Africans what they thought about it.
But, in 1992, Frederik De Klerk, quite verligte (enlightened, in Afrikaans, in opposition to verkrampte, the clinging ones) that he was, nonetheless refused to make his basic democratic principle his own: “One man, one voice. The subject was even one of the main stumbling blocks in the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party (in power since 1948).
The Prime Minister who had taken the place of P.-W. Botha in 1989, supported by the pragmatic clan, argued, on the contrary, that he needed a clear mandate from the white community, that it would only be stronger to go further in the negotiations.
This referendum is nonetheless the result of conditions. Since the release of Nelson Mandela and the lifting of the ban on the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) in February 1990, the National Party, architect of the “great apartheid”, had suffered several stinging setbacks during by-elections against the conservative party. On February 19, 1992, after another victory in Potchefstroom, in the middle of Afrikaner country, this party, opposed to the negotiations, affirmed that the proof had been made that the government had no mandate from the “white people” to sell off “ his interests “.
De Klerk then decided to organize a referendum which gave rise to a real electoral campaign. The far-right leader, Andries Treurnicht, denounced the danger of “the law of the black majority” and of the “law of the Communist ANC”. The National Party was printing posters showing a member of the AWB, a far-right militia led by Eugène Terre’Blanche, armed with a pistol, with these words: “You can stop this man. Vote yes. For its part, the Democratic Party, a small white liberal movement opposed to apartheid, said: “Ja vir vrede” (yes for peace).
On March 17, 2,804,947 white voters out of the 3,296,800 registered went to the polls. The “yes” won with 68.73% of the vote. It was massive in Cape Town and Durban (85%), but smaller in the capital, Pretoria (57%). Only the rural region of the Northern Transvaal and its capital Pietersburg chose the “no” (57%). De Klerk particularly appreciated the result of the very conservative Kroonstad (52% yes), where five parliamentarians out of seven had defended the “no”.
The response from the white community was final. Nelson Mandela let it be known that he was “very happy, of course”. As for Frederik De Klerk, he declared: “Today we have closed the apartheid book. However, the head of government was still reluctant to open that of democracy. No date for democratic elections was set. For good reason: the authorities tried to prevent the application of the rule of universal suffrage.
In his strategy of defending the interests of the white minority, the victorious referendum had undoubtedly enabled De Klerk to score points. But he would quickly lose his credit.
On June 17, 1992, three months to the day after the referendum, supporters of Inkhata, the party of Buthelezi, massacred 46 residents of the township of Boipatong, under the passive eye of the police. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will later shed light on this tragedy: the Inkhata militiamen had indeed been brought to the scene in police vehicles. The leaders were white policemen dressed as blacks …
The ANC then decided to interrupt the negotiations. De Klerk did not find it necessary to make any statement whatsoever. Determined not to let the National Party lead a double game, Nelson Mandela’s movement called the biggest strike in the country’s history on August 3 and 4. White power gave way. The road to the first democratic elections in the country’s history was open.
Pragmatic Frederik de Klerk One country was in heaven, but one guy had a contorted face: Frederik De Klerk. On May 10, 1994, South Africa celebrated the swearing in of its first democratically elected president (the fact that he was black is only anecdotal, after all), Nelson Mandela. But, for the last president of apartheid and now second vice-president of a finally democratic country, the event was clearly not worth this debauchery of hopes. He could not better show how his political attitude had been dictated by pragmatism, and not by some “revelation”. The former falot apparatchik of the National Party became, through circumstances, the spokesperson for reformers and the business community, who had understood by the mid-1980s that the system would not survive long. In 1996 De Klerk resigned his post as vice-president and in 1997 he left politics, considering his mission fulfilled: to have preserved as best as possible the economic interests of the white minority.