How SA emerged as a democracy from the crises of the 1990s

The collapse of apartheid in South Africa - coming together of internal and external pressures

Refresh your memory: you learnt about the Cold War in the first section of your grade 12 curriculum

In 1989, the National Party elected a new leader named F.W. de Klerk. 1989 was also the year in which the Cold War came to an end. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union entered a period of glasnost, with the USA remaining the world's only Superpower. The 'communist threat' which the National Party had said it was fighting, no longer existed. The South African government was deprived of the main reason for its internal repression and its aggressive foreign policy. The will of the Apartheid regime to maintain its system began to flag.

So, apart from all the internal and external pressure which forced Apartheid into crisis in the 1980s, by the end of the decade world politics had changed. The ANC could no longer rely on the Soviet Union for support.  De Klerk argued that the time had come to negotiate with the mass-based opposition parties.

Some Rivonia trial prisoners were released in 1989 after 26 years in prison. On 2 February 1990, De Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela. He also unbanned the ANC, the PAC, the SACP and all other banned organisations. On 11 February 1990 Mandela was released.  Locally and internationally, millions of people watched television broadcasts of him walk out of prison. A new period in South African history had begun.

BBC news clip of Nelson Mandela's release on youtube.com

The Rivonia Trial was the infamous trial in which ten people, including well-known leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, white communists such as LG Bernstein and Dennis Goldberg, and the Indian leader AM Kathrada, appeared in court on charges of sabotage, attempting to initiate a guerrilla war, and promoting the aims of communism. Two of the ten Kantor and Bernstein, were discharged, and the remaining eight were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Last updated : 21-Jul-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011