The South Africa which was born in 1910 included people from Africa, Europe and Asia, and the system of government was modeled on the common law of the Netherlands, supplemented by modern English law. In many respects, this new country was a compromise. It would acquire two official languages (Afrikaans and English); three capitals (an administrative capital, Pretoria; a legislative capital, Cape Town and a judicial capital, Bloemfontein); and the symbols of the state would reflect the union of Afrikaans and English-speaking whites. While the new state had a democratic form, with a few controversial exceptions, only whites enjoyed the vote. For virtually the whole of its history therefore, politics has been practiced on a ‘whites only’ basis. Therefore, when looking closely at the system and attempting to place the government in a category, I would create a new category summarized as a selectively democratic regime.
White interests obviously shaped public policy. Spending on areas like education, pensions, health and housing, has greatly favored whites, who were clearly the major beneficiaries of the system. In addition, discrimination and injustice inflicted upon black South Africans have largely shaped the present political system. Black South Africans played virtually no part in the founding of the Union of South Africa. This was to be the start of a long and inspiring resistance to minority political rule that culminated some 85 years later in South Africa’s first truly democratic elections. Political protest began in 1909 when a delegation of blacks unsuccessfully petitioned the British parliament against approving the country’s independence constitution with its color bar. Some two years later in 1912, the largest black political organization, the African National Congress was founded. Blacks pursued moderate goals during the 1920’s and 1930’s and were then largely reliant on white liberals to achieve their aims.
The basis for racial segregation, the offshoot of the policy of self-determination was the Population Registration Act of 1950. What followed was a now infamous collection of apartheid legislation that sought to segregate whites, coloreds, blacks and Asians from each other in all spheres of life and activity. Black resistance to apartheid was encouraged by an increasingly critical United Nations, the birth of the civil rights movement in the United States and the growing pressures for de-colonization and independence in the former European colonies of Africa and Asia.
Rather than give in to increasing pressure, the Verwoerd government responded by accelerating the ‘homeland policy’ in terms of which black South Africans were denied citizenship of white areas and were expected to exercise their political rights in designated traditional tribal areas. By 1970, in terms of a law, every South African black became a citizen of one of the ten homelands thereby excluding blacks from the South African body politics. This maintains the “democratic” regime of South Africa for the white citizens, and forces the black citizens out of any political realm.
Afrikaner Nationalists had devised apartheid in a way of satisfying black aspirations without loosing political control. It was a response that failed for economic reasons. Given the nature of the economy, the natural movement of people to the cities could not be stopped, and in due course the major pillars of apartheid had to be scrapped.
In 1983, Botha introduced a new constitution, which would incorporate the colored and Asian communities into government but only on a junior partner basis to whites. Blacks were totally excluded. To address the issue of black political rights, Botha suggested a national advisory council. Blacks rejected this idea and participation in the elections to fill the new colored and Indian chambers of parliament was bitterly opposed.
The introduction of the Tri-cameral parliament, with its three chambers for whites, colors, and Asians, greatly politicized the colored and Indian community. Not only was the new system opposed for its exclusion of blacks, it also was condemned for the way it institutionalized racial groups within the constitution of the country. So, although it manages to maintain a certain skeleton of a democratic regime, this government only applies to certain individuals in the nation, therefore not truly following the democratic ideology.
Botha himself probably accepted this, but believed that he could maintain white control over the political system with the help of corrupted political leaders from the colored and Asian communities. Logically, this meant more repression of those who were excluded and would not comply with the new arrangement.
Botha’s reign as President ended dramatically in 1989. Within the context of an ailing economy, international isolation and sanctions, continuing endemic unrest and an inability to take the reform process beyond current levels, an ailing Botha was forced to resign following an internal move by FW de Klerk to oust him. De Klerk’s assumption of power just three weeks prior to the general election of September 1989 gave little indication that he would move so dramatically within the few months to follow. What is clear is that he realized that the National Party could not share power and hope to maintain political control. This is a point of major difference between De Klerk and his predecessor.
Faced with mounting pressures and a realization that the only thing that could help South Africa was a truly dramatic change of commitment, direction and tone. The change had to be away from apartheid: he and his government had to accept that apartheid would disappear and an eventual non-racial election would have to take place to transfer power to the majority. This means that the National Party could no longer expect to play a dominant role in the new scheme of things. Inevitably, blacks would dominate all levels of government.
In October 1989 President de Klerk permitted anti-apartheid demonstrations. This was followed in 1990 by the abolition of the Separate Amenities Act, the South African government also promised a new constitution. In the same year Nelson Mandela, a leading figure in the ANC, was released from prison after 26 years and was later elected president of the ANC, which was only declared legal in South Africa in 1990. In 1991 the remaining major discriminating laws embodied in apartheid were repealed, including the Population Registration Act of 1950, which had made it obligatory for every citizen to be classified into one of nine racial groups. As a consequence of these moves, the majority of international trade sanctions were abolished by 1993 and, in February of the same year, Mandela and de Klerk agreed to the formation of a government of national unity, after free nonracial elections. The elections were held in April 1994, with the ANC winning 62% of the vote and Mandela becoming president.
South Africa could probably be classified as a democracy from 1910 through 1994, however, when the elections were held in 1994 South Africa became a true democracy. The whites of South Africa could maybe be called an authoritarian group, but among them there was a democratic government, it was the other 86% of the population that was without a role in the government of their country.