The long shadow of apartheid’s regime

Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela, shortly after Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. The photo appeared in Beeld on February 16 1990.
Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela, shortly after Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. The photo appeared in Beeld on February 16 1990.

Black South Africans are struggling to reconcile how the country achieved political freedom while they wallow in unemployment, inequality and poverty, writes Zama Mthunzi

February 1990 stands out in the history of South Africa. It divides the country into two parts.

The first part – 1652 to 1990 – represents a period of the political oppression of black and indigenous people.

The second, 1990 to the present, represents a period of political freedom and self-determination of black South Africans.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the opening of “new” Parliament on February 2 1990 by then president FW de Klerk, large sections of the black population are asking questions about the real meaning of freedom, and whether today’s Parliament – which is set to open on Tuesday – speaks to the current challenges facing the country.

These questions arise because of the persistence of poverty and inequality, stubborn unemployment, persisting racism, horrifying violence and skewed land ownership patterns among black people.

For black professionals, there is a growing disillusionment about the inability to break into ownership of what the governing ANC and the opposition EFF would call the “commanding heights” of the economy.

In general, it has become clearer that political freedom on its own has not led to improved living standards for the majority.

In his speech delivered at that opening of Parliament in 1990, De Klerk set out how the “new” South Africa would be organised. This ranged from the negotiations and the Constitution to the economy that the country adopted.


Firstly, De Klerk was tasked by the National Party (NP) to make sure that the negotiations went in such a way that Parliament, which “supported” apartheid, should guide the process.

De Klerk said then: “I hope this Parliament will play a constructive part in both the prelude to negotiations and the negotiations process itself.”

The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other smaller liberation movements objected to this, resulting in the PAC walking out of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa negotiations.

This was further entrenched in March 1992, when De Klerk called for a referendum of white South Africans who were asked to vote for or against the ending of apartheid.

This ensured that there was no radical break between the “new” South Africa and apartheid.


One of the big fights in the negotiation process was the question of who was going to write the new Constitution.

The liberation movements called for a democratically elected constituent assembly to write the Constitution but the apartheid regime wanted a different arrangement.

The NP wanted the Constitution to be negotiated between liberation movements on one hand, and the apartheid regime and its supporters on the other.

After many delays and fights during the negotiations, De Klerk wrote the key elements of the Constitution.

The ANC and the NP finally agreed on the 34 constitutional principles that would bind those charged with drafting the Constitution after apartheid ended.

De Klerk’s speech made it clear that the constitutional principles of the NP would not be compromised.

These included the protection of “group” rights, cultural rights of minorities and a judiciary that could act as a “check and balance” against a majority government.


While many people celebrated and welcomed the unbanning of liberation movements in 1990, the apartheid Parliament made it clear that the reforms it was introducing on February 2 1990 “should not be interpreted as a deviation from the government’s principles, and ... against our economy policy”.

De Klerk said: “The government’s basic point is to reduce the role of the public sector in the economy and give the private sector maximum opportunity for optimal performance.”

The call for the privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was then initiated.

Today, the privatisation of SOEs is at the centre of the debate, with many proponents calling for their privatisation.

It is in this area of economic policy that the long shadow of the apartheid regime is darkest.

Thirty years on, every element of the policy spelt out in De Klerk’s speech has been faithfully followed by successive administrations of the governing ANC.

De Klerk spelt out the core and details of speeches that were to be made by all the finance ministers in the new South Africa since – Derek Keys, Chris Liebenberg, Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Nhlanhla Nene and Tito Mboweni.

Nothing these ministers have said or written in their budget speeches – and we should expect the same this month – has deviated from the agenda set out by De Klerk.

The issues De Klerk set out include fiscal discipline, inflation targeting, tax reform, forced savings, export-led industrialisation, privatisation, deregulation and structural adjustment, among others.

As De Klerk said: “[We will achieve our economic objective] … by restricting capital expenditure in parastatal institutions, privatisation, deregulation and curtailing government expenditure”.

Today, Eskom’s load shedding, the collapse of the rail infrastructure, low investment in just about all the SOEs and curtailed government spending are part of our lives.

From this discussion, it is clear that the apartheid regime succeeded in shaping post-apartheid South Africa in deep and fundamental ways.

This largely explains why so many black South Africans feel that their dreams are unrealised.

For many black people, the question is: How was it possible that we achieved political freedom but have failed to achieve economic and social freedom?

To understand this, we need to look at the context in which the unbanning of liberation movements happened.

We also need to examine how that gave the apartheid regime an upper hand in the struggles that took place during the transition to the new South Africa.


Today, 30 years after the opening of the “new” Parliament, the country sits with the legacy of De Klerk’s vision mapped out in February 1990.

It is a legacy of tribalism, of the closing of democratic spaces, of systemic and enduring poverty, of unemployment, of the collapse of health and education systems, of non-functioning cities and townships, of rising xenophobia, and of the general social and economic crises.

The bearer of this legacy has been the party of liberation, the ANC. The ghost of apartheid haunts South Africans to this day.

. Mthunzi is a mathematical science graduate from Wits University and a social justice activist focusing on access to quality education to address the socioeconomic issues in South Africa

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