The rejection of silence and desolation : explaining political transition in modern South Africa.
Liberalisation in South Africa on 2 February 1990 appeared to constitute a remarkable
volte-face, and raises many questions. Why did it happen? Did it result from a single
factor, or a complex mixture of elements? How did long-term trends and underlying
forces shape February 1990, and interact with more immediate events? How
important was political leadership, as opposed to underlying structural pressures?
How inevitable was 2 February 1990?
In the dissertation it is argued that there was no solitary cause of February
1990: many factors contributed, although some were undoubtedly more consequential
than others. Socio-economic development combined with cultural heritages (Western,
constitutional, legal, civil society, religious) to shape the direction of change, curtail
certain state options, and gradually strangle apartheid. Government neither wanted,
nor was able, to prevent economic growth and social integration, the prevention of
which was imperative for apartheid to succeed. Underlying socio-economic and
cultural structures had a gradual, almost irresistible, although not inevitable, quality.
Of themselves, these forces do not explain the how, when and where of the transition.
Rather they indicated that some time in the future, a transition would occur. Pressure
from below rejected all government attempts at reform, and indicated all future
attempts would be insufficient unless they aimed to resolve - in a fair manner - the
central issue of black participation in central government. Afrikaner elites, engaged
over decades in a vigorous debate, concluded drastic change was necessary. Locked in
a stalemate, and sensing a catastrophic alternative, key individuals on both sides set
out to talk to the opposition, building bridges and exploring common-ground. This
process, while often having no fixed destination, developed a momentum that was
difficult to curtail. It was the chance occurrence of two factors in 1989 - PW Botha's
stroke and the collapse of communism - that opened opportunities for genuine
change. Liberalisation eventually occurred because FW de Klerk and a handful of
Afrikaner elites calculated that the ghastly alternative - continued conflict and a
deteriorating economy - would do more harm to Afrikaners, whites and the country,
probably in that order. Helped by a political culture that allowed Afrikaner leaders
considerable leeway in decision-making, they went beyond the views of their support-base,
confident they could swing them round to their point of view.