De Klerk's February moment was preceded by two other key turning points, says former minister

2020-02-02 08:55
Leon Wessels. Photo: Loanna Hoffmann

Leon Wessels. Photo: Loanna Hoffmann

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Former National Party (NP) Cabinet minister Leon Wessels believes although former president FW de Klerk's dramatic address to parliament on February 2, 1990 was the big breakthrough everyone was waiting for, it was preceded by two events without which De Klerk would not have been able to move as far and as quick as he did.

Wessels, who served in De Klerk's Cabinet until the arrival of democracy in 1994, served as Cyril Ramaphosa's deputy in the Constituent Assembly and then became a respected human rights commissioner. He told News24 De Klerk's insistence that a mass protest march in Cape Town in September 1989, followed by a crucial meeting with the then-defence force's top generals, paved the way for his parliamentary address.

Exactly 30 years ago on Sunday, February 2, 1990, De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP and the release of Nelson Mandela. 

Wessels says De Klerk told the state security council, part of the security structures established by his predecessor, PW Botha, that the march - which was to be led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, academic Franklin Sonn, cleric Allan Boesak and lawyer Dullah Omar - must go ahead without let or hindrance.

Van links na regs is oudpres. FW de Klerk, Roelf M

FW de Klerk listening to Roelf Meyer while Leon Wessels looks on, during the multiparty negotiations in 1992. (Media24 Archive.)


"You must remember that the state security council consisted of all Botha's cronies, and that people like Adriaan Vlok (minister of law and order) was used to doing things in a certain way. De Klerk came in, days after he became president, and said no water cannon, no tear gas, no truncheons, nothing. The march must go ahead."

"He just told Vlok: 'This place is under new management'."

The second turning point was an introductory meeting between De Klerk and the general staff of the defence force at a military base in the old Eastern Transvaal. Wessels says De Klerk, who did not have a military or police background and was sceptical of his generals, was determined to ensure that Botha's security system was brought to heel.

"Besides De Klerk it was Pik Botha (minister of foreign affairs), Barend du Plessis (minister of finance) and me (deputy minister of law and order) who sat and listened to the generals' strategies and action plans and so forth. Suddenly De Klerk stopped one of the generals and told them everything he's heard is premised on conflict, where are the plans if there weren't violence? He asked them what is the army's role in that instance. They had no answer, and De Klerk cut the defence budget and channeled the money to social issues," Wessels says.

"It was a big moment, De Klerk challenging hardened Cold War warriors like Magnus Malan (a general and former head of the army)."

According to a report in Beeld newspaper, in February 1990, shortly after De Klerk's address to parliament, Du Plessis announced that the defence budget was to be trimmed by as much as 25%.

Leon Wessels (second from right) with (from left) Roelf Meyer (the National Party's chief negotiator), Frene Ginwala (speaker of Parliament), Cyril Ramaphosa (chairperson of the Constituent Assembly), President Nelson Mandela, Wessels (deputy chairperson of the Constituent Assembly) and Thabo Mbeki (deputy president) on the day the Constitution was adopted in May 1996. (Media24 Archive.)


At the time of De Klerk's speech Wessels was Botha's deputy, and as he sat in Parliament listening to De Klerk he remembers thinking "this is the end of white politics, it is over and done with, gone forever".

"I thought that De Klerk's announcement would finally enable us to start working on building a democracy. Afterwards myself, Roelf Meyer and Sam de Beer went for lunch with our wives and we discussed the possibilities De Klerk opened up," Wessels, who was considered part of the enlightened wing of the NP, says. 

He says he didn't vote for De Klerk in the NP's leadership election, supporting Du Plessis, who he considered dynamic and progressive. "But he impressed in his acceptance speech in caucus, saying he wants to take a quantum leap forward. And someone shouted: 'Jump, FW, jump'!"

He explains that De Klerk - and Pik Botha - did a lot of work preparing the climate for fundamental constitutional changes, and that he saw first-hand during visits to African countries like Mozambique, Malawi and the Ivory Coast, as well as Britain, how De Klerk prepared the ground for Mandela's release. "In those days the telex machine at foreign affairs never stopped clattering as messages from everywhere came in."

And although he was in the middle of discussions, dialogues and workings groups, De Klerk still kept his cards close to his chest. "We (De Klerk's Cabinet) went on a bosberaad to a game reserve in the north, and the outline of his plans were pretty much finalised there. But the implementation, the how, was De Klerk's decision alone."

Read more on:    fw de klerk  |  leon wessels  |  february 2  |  1990
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