SA is a much better place today – FW de Klerk

2014-02-09 14:00

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There can be few instances when losing one’s job could be regarded as the crowning achievement of one’s career.

This was the situation in which I found myself on May 10 1994, the day of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and the day that marked the end of my own presidency. Gathered together in the sharp sunshine of a highveld winter’s day were the leaders of all our main political parties.

Veterans of the ANC’s armed wing sat beside the chiefs of the then SA Defence Force and SA Police Force.

Just a few years earlier, they had been bitter enemies. The amphitheatre was full of foreign dignitaries – presidents, premiers, kings and queens. Among them were

Fidel Castro, Prince Philip, then US vice-president Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, after decades of isolation, South Africa was once again an honoured member of the international community.

Our new Parliament had convened only a few days earlier to elect Mandela as the first president of our new era. It was quite an extraordinary experience for those of us who had been used to the old parliament. Before the implementation of the Tricameral Constitution in 1984, the National Assembly was a sombre place, with dark wood panels and green leather benches. Serious MPs, dressed in dark suits, spoke in subdued tones.

The new Parliament could not have been more different. There were far more women – most of them dressed in billowing, brightly coloured outfits. Some MPs wore traditional clothing and others were draped in their party symbols.

For the first time in our history, one had a sense that these were indeed representatives of all our people. It was a noisy, boisterous place with plenty of laughter and unrestrained chatter.

The new Parliament gathered in the large chamber that had been built a few years earlier for the Tricameral Parliament. It was in that chamber that, on February 2 1990, I had delivered the speech that had changed South Africa forever. I spelled out a vision that included:

»?A new democratic Constitution;

»?Universal franchise;

»?Freedom from domination;

»?Equality before an independent judiciary;

»?The protection of minorities as well as of individual rights;

»?Freedom of religion; and

»?A sound economy based on proven economic principles and private enterprise.

I also announced the imminent release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, the SA Communist Party and all other banned organisations.

Over the next four years, South Africans rode the roller coaster of negotiations. They started slowly as the parties organised themselves and finally reached their first peak at the first Convention for a Democratic South Africa.

On occasion, we were almost derailed by a low-level civil war between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and by events such as the Boipatong massacre and the assassination of Chris Hani.

One of our major challenges was trying to keep everyone on board. In June 1992, the ANC left the process and for a few frightening months opted for rolling mass action.

No sooner did it return than the IFP and several right wing parties jumped out. But in December 1993, we succeeded in reaching an agreement on an interim Constitution. We managed to get the IFP back on board only eight days before the election on April 27 1994.

Two weeks later, on May 10, I took my place on the stage in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings. I felt in all humility that South Africans had achieved the vision I had articulated four years earlier.

I believed we were transferring power – not to Mandela and the ANC but to a new sovereign Constitution that would protect the rights of all South Africans.

Since then, the Constitution has served us well. Despite all our problems, South Africa is a much better place than it was before 1994.

We are a functioning democracy and will be holding our fifth general election later this year.

The courts have played an independent and often courageous role in protecting the rights of citizens. Most South Africans have benefited either from economic growth or from social grants.

But much still needs to be done to ensure the vision of human dignity, equality and human rights we adopted on that sunny highveld day 20 years ago becomes a reality for all of our people.

De Klerk was president from August?15 1989 to May?9?1994. He served as second deputy president in the Government of National Unity and retired from politics in 1997

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