A Watershed Moment: F.W. de Klerk and the speech that would make history


Today marks the 25th anniversary when the then president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, stood before the nation, in addressing it for the first time, and announced the release of Nelson Mandela.

In his words, it was stated that the African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress, the South African Communist Party and various other “subsidiary” organisations would be, as de Klerk put it (much to the dismay of many officials) “rescinded”. This announcement came in the wake of the fact that they had been illegal for over two decades.

He continued to partially lift the “State of Emergency”; a state of affairs whose full force had dragged on for almost five years, after P.W. Botha had implemented it in 1985.

In his address, de Klerk would also famously announce the release of the already iconic leader of the ANC, Nelson Mandela, in stating that the time for “reconstruction and reconciliation” had arrived; that the time had come to be seated at the “negotiating table” of a new horizon in South Africa’s history.

Nelson Mandela would be released on the 11th of February 1990, but the “long walk to freedom” was far from complete. In the words of Thabo Mbeki, in response to the news of Mandela’s announced release: “Quite clearly, a very important step has been made. But, perhaps, it’s half of a step.”

After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison right through to the very last vote was counted in 1994, the country stood on very thin ice. A nation hoping to negotiate the terms for a new South Africa would be hindered many times by outbursts of violence within the country as well as failures to compromise on a number of occasions.

It has been said that the transition of South Africa into a democracy was truly a miracle in that the nation avoided a total collapse into civil-war.

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