Article - S015

The ‘often overlooked’ sledgehammer that ended Apartheid

Published on News24: 19 October 2017


Although it’s near-impossible to isolate the exact moment Apartheid ended, the 1992 Referendum is often overlooked as being the sledgehammer that sealed its fate.


Whilst travelling from Cape Town to Cairo in 2002, I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’. It was the perfect opportunity for me to reflect on South Africa’s journey to democracy, in the context of other African nations’ independence.


En route, I had a particularly interesting conversation with a Kenyan gentleman who happened to ask me: “In your opinion, what was the defining event that brought about the end of Apartheid?”


… And I’ve never forgotten my intuitive response: “The 1992 Apartheid Referendum.”


Looking back, I’ve often wondered why I singled out that specific event over other more prominent events, such as:

  • FW de Klerk’s landmark speech in Parliament on February 2, 1990, in which he unbanned the ANC, the SACP and other affiliated organisations;
  • Nelson Mandela’s famed release from prison on February 11, 1990; and
  • South Africa’s first free and fair, multi-racial election held on April 27, 1994.


Perhaps it was the excitement of accompanying my parents to the referendum voting station and seeing the longest queue of my life. I remember the tension and the look of hope on people’s faces as they discussed the real possibility of a ‘new South Africa’.


I also recall my parents telling me, “this referendum is the watershed event that will decide the fate of our country”.


The sledgehammer


The Apartheid Referendum was held on March 17, 1992. In it, white South Africans were asked to vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: “Do you support the continuation of the reform process that the state president started on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?”


The referendum results revealed that after a registered voter turn out of 86%, a majority 68.7% voted ‘yes’. This resounding ‘yes’ vote signalled the irreversible death knell of Apartheid. State President FW de Klerk celebrated the ‘yes’ result by announcing, “Today we have closed the book on apartheid”, while Nelson Mandela declared that he was, “very happy indeed”.


Most significantly though, the referendum demonstrated that the majority of white South Africans wanted South Africa to be a truly democratic and inclusive nation. 


Considering the paramount importance of this referendum, why has it been allowed to drift into relative obscurity in South Africa’s mainstream history?


Has it been conveniently side-lined because it potentially undermines the ANC’s popular portrayal of itself as the ‘liberation movement that was exclusively responsible for crushing Apartheid and freeing black people from white oppression?’


Yes, there were a number of whites who voted ‘no’ for fear of losing power and facing future minority persecution, and others who voted ‘yes’ through fear of continued economic sanctions, sports isolation and potential civil war.


But most whites voted ‘yes’ because they genuinely saw Apartheid as an unjust and abhorrent system that needed to be abolished. 


Referendum contradicts recent populist rhetoric


Importantly though, the 1992 Referendum counters the widely promoted notion that whites were forced to relinquish, or begrudgingly relinquished power to the black-majority in 1994, and also that ‘all white people are inherently racist’.


The referendum result stands as testament that the majority of white South Africans were ready to embrace democracy and, with it, black-majority rule.


No matter what political parties might have us believe about our history, the 1992 Referendum was the moment South Africa’s white-majority said ‘no’ to Apartheid, and ‘yes’ to a free South Africa.


It was also the moment the white-majority conquered the scourge of white supremacy, and proclaimed their faith in both FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela to realise the vision of a rainbow nation.


A multi-national, multi-racial team effort


Although the ANC tends to take credit for dismantling apartheid and freeing its people, the truth is, it was a miraculous team effort by countless, brilliant self-sacrificing people of every race, gender, culture, religion, nationality, age and political affiliation that spawned South African democracy.


Not only that, they spared our wonderful nation and its gentle people the catastrophic horror of civil war that devastated so many other African countries seeking independence.


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