02 February 2010

Twenty years old today: the new South Africa

Twenty years ago today Preisdent F.W. de Klerk announced a new South Africa. He announced his intention of unbanning opposition political parties, and releasing political prisoners, and opening up political debate.

It was the light at the end of the tunnel. We still had a way to go before we emerged into daylight, but at least there was an end in sight, and we could hope for the freedom we had not dared to hope for.

There had been a scent of freedom in the air for a while -- the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania and other events over the previous few months. But F.W. de Klerk's announcement brought it home. Those things were "over there", this was here!

I wrote in my diary 2-Feb-1990, Friday:

Sam came in this morning with the announcement that F.W. de Klerk had finally made it across the Rubicon, and was unbanning all political organisations. Well, we're back to 1950. Perhaps we'll soon get back to where we took the wrong turning and we can begin to go forward again. In the mean time, let's drink to glasnost and Pretoriastroika...

Watched all the TV news, most of which was devoted to F.W. de Klerk's speech in parliament. Amazing how everyone is claiming that their policy/actions were responsible for it. Someone said that sanctions brought it about, Maggie Thatcher said it was their refusal to impose sanctions ... and so it goes on. Not that it matters much now. Best to get on with the rest of the journey, from the Rubicon to Rome.

The "Rubicon" reference was to a speech by the previous President, P.W. Botha, five years earlier, which the media hyped up beforehad. It was going to be a major policy shift, they said, it was going to be a crossing of the Rubicon. They had been speculating for years that P.W. Botha was going to announce his "reform programme", and it finally became clear to the media optimists that he didn't have one. It sank like a stone to the bottom of the Rubicon.

But finally F.W. de Klerk came up with the real thing.

It was on a Friday, and the following Sunday was we drove to church in Johannesburg we saw that a graffiti artist had painted on one of the bridges over the freeway: FW - top man.

And twenty years later I am reminded of a song that was quite popular back in 1973, sung by a group called Parchment.

Yesterdays dream didn't quite come true
We fought for our freedom, and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand.
Let there be light in the land!
Let there be light in the people!
Let there be God in our lives from now on.

Fifteen years ago, just a year after our first democratic elections, I visited Kenya for the first time. I was a little surprised that there was only one thing about South Africa that interested Kenyans. They were not interested in our transition to democracy. They weren't interested in how we were going to build a better future. No, the only thing that interested them was the Mandela divorce, and who would get the money. I tried in vain to explain that it wasn't really like that. Mandela had given his Nobel prize money to establish a children's fund. He wasn't in it for the money. And Kenyans found that impossible to believe.

And then I realised that I was learning a lesson about Kenyan politics, and what the average Kenyan thought of their politicians. And I was thankful that South Africa wasn't like that, yet...

But now?

Yesterday's dream didn't quite come true.

And we're just the same as Kenya, and the UK, with their MPs' expenses scandal, and all the rest of them.

But at least we're still free.


Tom Smith said...

Thanks for this Steve ...

Chris H said...

Thanks for the recollections Steve, nostalgic for us over a certain age!

As for being free, enjoy it while you can!

jams o donnell said...

I can't imagine how it must have felt. It must have felt like the beinning of the end for Apartheid

The Western Confucian said...

Congratulations! One of the highlights of my college years was seeing Nelson Mandela speak in Toronto shortly after he was released.

James Higham said...

Can't believe time has gone that quickly.


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