been very solemn when the journalists filed into the chambers.
“They handed out the speech… gave us time to read it through, and very soon the exclamations started. As we turned the pages and got to the nub of it, the goosebumps increased.
It was absolutely astonishing, and at that point Viljoen and Van der Merwe sought to interpret it and put National Party spin on it, but there was a clear impatience in the room. ontext was not necessary. We were sitting there with dynamite and we needed to get out and convey it to our newspapers, and for all of us this was our biggest moment, literally enormous.”
De Klerk was looking at 1989 in a different way in his speech. He called it a year of “change and major upheaval”, but he chose at that point to concentrate not on South Africa but on Easter n Europe and the Soviet Union, and the “unstoppable tide”.
“The year will go down as the year in which Stalinist Communism expired. These developments will… also be of decisive importance to Africa. The collapse particularly of the Marxist economic system… also serves as a warning to those who insist on persisting with it in Africa… It should be clear to all that it is not the answer here either.”
The message was still largely ambiguous to the rest of the country as De Klerk continued. But by then the journalists had long run back to their offices at Parliament and called their editors.
Dunn says his boss, sitting at conference with a full editorial team around him, had asked calmly: “What does it contain?”
“And I said: ‘ Everything. He’s done it all. He’s unbanned Mandela, the ANC, the SACP. He’s ended the death penalty. He’s gone the whole hog. It was amazing.’ ”
By that time, the BBC, Sky TV, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other networks around the world were getting ready to broadcast. High-level ANC spokespeople like Mendi Msimang and Ruth Mompati had been co-ordinated and were being miked up. In Zambia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and other neighbouring states where the ANC had harboured its exiles, the word was starting to spread. Contacts were being tapped at news desks back home. The embargo was agonising.
In another part of Cape Town, ANC veteran James April – who served in the 1967 Wankie Campaign with the late Chris Hani and was released from Robben Island in 1986 – had been quietly expecting the news. Friends had called him to the TV for the announcement.
“A lot of us were feeling that way. Some of the top leadership, Walter Sisulu, Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Oscar Mpetha, had already been released the October before, of course, and that had been preceded by the moves in 1985 to have Mandela released. So certainly by 1990, people were expecting things to happen.
“An atmosphere of expectation had been building. People had already been considering the implications and there was a lot of activity taking place in the country, but it was a difficult period because police were clamping down again. There was lots of violence and dark forces doing untold damage in relations between blacks and whites at the time.
“But as De Klerk carried on speaking, he began to sound very bold in terms of being able to persuade the better part of the white population to turn over to a new dispensation. Of course, they were still in power, but he was using some fairly skilful political manoeuvring to win the confidence of the white people in that speech.”
De Klerk was about halfway through his speech when the truth began to become clear to most ordinary people listening.
“The protection of collective, minority and national rights may not bring about an imbalance in respect of individual rights. It is neither the government’s policy nor its intention that any group… shall be favoured above or in relation to any of the others.”
Jakkie Cilliers, now executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, had only recently left the military as an army officer on the border, and was at home in Honeydew, Joburg, watching the speech on television. He said it took his breath away. “I remember saying to my wife, I don’t think the sky has fallen, but it may. It was amazing, and I had a sense then that it was going to have a profound effect on my life, which of course it did.
“It was a very emotional moment. Suddenly the future had changed, and instantly there was both excitement and trepidation. Suddenly, the civil war that was bearing down on South Africa like an oncoming train, that spectre, just lifted.
“I think few people think now about the fact that the country was at war. Because I had been in the security establishment, it had given me quite a deep understanding of what was happening, but of course none of this would have happened had it not been for the global developments. We were going steadily up a one-way street, a dead-end street, and something had to change. f course, the right historical conditions need the right leadership, and that speech was key to a momentous, revolutionary time of great social mobilisation.”
De Klerk had an international audience, and a captive nation, by the time he got to the point.
“The steps that have been decided are the following: the prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party … is being rescinded. People serving prison sentences merely because they are members of these organisations… will be identified and released.”
Immediately, South Africans from many communities rumbled into the streets, many rushing, tears streaming, into each other’s arms.
Some screamed. Some lifted their neighbours into the air. People sang. They were giddy. They ululated to raise an incalculable joy. For the first time, it would be true to believe in the word of liberation. However long it would take, whatever would happen next, there would be no turning around.
Kwaito pioneer and music legend Arthur Mafokate was a teenager in Soweto caught up in the cries and singing, the dancing and praying that swept through his neighbourhood.
“You know we always read the Bible about when Moses saved people, when Jesus would lead people into heaven, and on that day, when we realised this meant Mandela was coming out, we just felt free, Mafokate said.
“It was crazy. Our parents had always built things up on hope and for us the hope that was built that day about when he comes out, was huge.
“We had always had this belief that we would grow up and then we would have to also fight for that freedom. There would be no other way, but suddenly everything was different.”