The Freedom struggle in Cape Town

Negotiations and the transition

South African former President PW Botha. Source:

The increasing social unrest in South Africa that swept through the country in the 1980s, and the changing geopolitical circumstances on the international political scene forced the apartheid government to enter into negotiations with the ANC. In March 1982, Mandela together with senior members of the ANC was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison after spending 18 years on Robben Island. Between 1984 and 1989 secret meetings aimed at bringing down apartheid took place between the ANC and the National Party. Western countries with business interests in South Africa attempted to compel piecemeal reforms introduced by the apartheid government but the ANC refused to accept these. For instance, in late 1983 the United States of America sent Robert Cabelly, a representative of the US president Ronald Regan to try and convince the ANC to accept reforms introduced by South African president P W Botha.  

Other secret meetings between the ANC and NP representatives took place outside the country. For instance in 1985 Piet Mulder editor of Beeld an Afrikaans newspaper and Professor H van de Merwe travelled to Harare to meet with ANC representatives. In September 1985 major industrialists such as chairman of Anglo America Gavin Reilly also travelled to meet the ANC representatives in Lusaka. A conference at the Ford Foundation was held in 1986 in New York with Broderbond chairman Pieter de Lange and several top ANC leaders. While the NP distanced itself from some of these meetings, it is clear they were used to gauge the mood of political engagement with the ANC. In addition the later government commenced secret talks with Mandela while he was still in prison.

 On 31 January 1985, P.W. Botha announced to parliament that the government was considering releasing Mandela from prison. This would be done on condition that he renounced the armed struggle and agreed to return to his hometown of Qunu.

Mandela responded by rejecting the offer for his conditional release in a letter that read by his daughter, Zinzi Mandela in a rally in Soweto on 10 February 1985.

Groote Schuur estate Cape Town. Source:

“...What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected? Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

In July 1986 while he was in Victor Verster Mandela wrote to the Commissioner of Prisons, requesting a meeting with Kobie Coetsee. During the meeting with Coetsee, the idea of negotiations between the NP led government and the ANC raised and a request to meet President PW Botha was tabled. That same year Mandela was visited by the Eminent Persons Group from the Commonwealth Groups of Nations. Coetsee continued to visit Mandela to negotiate on behalf of PW Botha. Some of demands from PW Botha were that the ANC should end its alliance with the SACP.

In August 1988 Mandela contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to the Tygerberg Hospital, where he was hospitalized for a month and half. After being discharged from the hospital Mandela continued his recuperation at the Constantiaberg MediClinic until September. On 9 December 1988 Mandela was transferred from Pollsmoor Prison to Victor Verster Prison, near Paarl, where he was held in a house formerly occupied by a prison warder. Despite being allocated a house, upon arrival Mandela was given another prisoner number which was 1335/88. After almost three years of meetings between Coetzee and Mandela, in 1989 Mandela wrote to P.W. Botha agreeing on the need to negotiate but refusing still to accede to the government’s conditions for negotiations. On 5 July 1989 South African president PW Botha secretly met Mandela, but Botha was overtaken by events and circumstances. In February 1989, he suffered a mild stroke and was forced by the cabinet to resign.  He was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk. De Klerk moved to implement reforms that would enable the negotiated settlement to take place. In December 1989, he met with Mandela in prison to discuss his release.

Nelson Mandela addressing the press at Groote Schuur. Source:

On his opening speech to parliament on 2 February 1990 De Klerk announced the unbanning of political organizations and the release of imprisoned political leaders. This was followed by another announcement at a press conference on 10 February 1990, that Mandela would be released the next day. On 11 February Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster Prison after spending a total of 27 years in prison.  These events set the stage for the commencement of negotiations between the ANC and the NP. After his release, on the same day, he went to Cape Town’s City Hall balcony from where he addressed thousands of supporters who had at the Grand Parade. The gathering at the Grand Parade was an important because of the historical significance of the area in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. Mandela then spent the night at Bishopscourt, the official residence of the Archbishop of Cape Town where he held a press conference in the garden on 12 February 1990 before travelling to Johannesburg.

What also followed the release of Mandela were discussions between the ANC and the government that laid down some of the parameters for negotiations. These took place on 2 May 1990 at F.W. De Klerk’s home in Groote Schuur in Cape Town.

One of the major issues tabled for discussion was the release of political prisoners and the granting of indemnity from prosecution for political activists in exile. Another issue was the definition of political offences and the timeframe for their release.

A working group to at these above said issues was put together. The ANC nominated Jacob Zuma, Penuell Madun , Aziz Pahad, Matthew Nakedi Phosa and Curnick Ndlovu.   The government nominated Minister Kobie Coetsee, Deputy Minister Roelf Meyer, Fanie Van der Merwe, Swanepoel, Louw and Viall, Major General Knipe and Brigadier Adam Kok. On 1 August 1990, MK suspended the armed struggle as negotiations for a democratic South Africa began to gather momentum. This was followed by government’s commencement of releasing political prisoners in September 1990. Only those people who committed politically motivated offences which were covered by the Groote Schuur Minute were released. However, political prisoners jailed between 1989 and 1990 remained in prison. In Cape Town political prisoners from Robben Island were ferried by the Dias and released on Jetty One at the Waterfront.

On 14 September 1991 the apartheid government and 18 other organizations including trade unions, political organizations and churches signed the National Peace Accord (NPA). All parties committed themselves to a peaceful process of negotiation up the democratic elections. Subsequent to the signing of the NPA, in 1991 a negotiating forum known as Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) was set up. On 20 December 1991 the first plenary session of CODESA convened at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park and appointed working group to deal with specific issues. In early 1992 De Klerk called for a referendum white people only voted for or against issues of negotiation or political reforms. 68% of the voters voted in favour of the process. Talks broke down at CODESA II in May 1992 over issues related to majority rule and powers sharing. The SACP, ANC and COSATU launched mass action in August 1992.

In September the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer resuscitated the stalled negotiations resulting in the establishment of the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum (MPNF). On 26 September 1992 the government and the ANC agreed on a Record of Understanding. This dealt with a constitutional assembly, an interim government, release of political prisoners, and political violence in hostels among other things. The MPNF began its deliberations on 1 April 1993.  After intense negotiations between the ANC and NP, agreements were reached forcing other parties such as IFP that had pulled to participate in the process or be left out.

Meanwhile in 1993 Cape was punctuated by a number of violent incidents that resulted in the death of several white people were carried by APLA operatives in 1993. Three events that stand out were the St James Massacre in Kenilworth, Heidelberg Pub Bombing in Observatory and the murder of Amy Biehl in Gugulethu township.

St James Massacre

On Sunday 25 July 1993 an estimated 1000 congregation was attending an evening service at the St James Church in Kenilworth. A group of APLA (the armed wing of the PAC) operatives Gcinikhaya Makoma, Sichumiso Nonxuba, Thobela Mlambisa and Basie Mkhumbuzi attacked the congregation using AK 47s and grenades. The attack was directed by Nonxuba who was APLA commander, Mlambisa drove the vehicle that transported the operatives, Mkhumbuzi stood guard while Makoma opened fire.

St James Massacre. Source: SAHO

During the attack a member of the congregation Charl van Wyk returned shot back at the attackers using a revolver and wounded one of the operatives forcing to flee. Eleven people were killed during the attack and 58 were injured during the attack. Four of those killed were Russian seamen attending the service as part of a church outreach programme. Ten days after the attack Makoma was arrested and charged with murdering people. He was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Nonxuba, Mlambisa and Mkhumbuzi were subsequently arrested and charged in 1996.

In 1997, while they were on trial, Makoma, Nonxuba, Mlambisa and Mkhumbuzi appealed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty. They were granted bail pending their appearance before the TRC.

Nonxuba died in a car accident while on bail. Makoma served five and a half years and in June 1998 together with the remaining two were granted amnesty.

Amy Biehl murder

Amy Biehl an American citizen was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of the Western Cape Community Law Centre. Biehl’s research focused on women's rights and in addition she was helping with voter education in preparation for that country's first all-race election. On Wednesday 25 August 1993, while Biehl was driving along the NY1 Road in the Gugulethu Township in Cape Town to drop her colleagues at their homes, her vehicle was stoned and surrounded by a group of young protestors shouting “One settler One Bullet”.  Biehl was pulled out of the car and tried to run away, but was struck on her head with a brick. She was beaten and stabbed to death. Although her Black friends tried in vain to stop the attack by shouting that she was a comrade, but it was too late.

Amy Biehl. Source:

Earlier in the day, part of the group of protestors attended a meeting at the Langa High School where a Pan African Student organisation (PASO) unit was relaunched. Ntobeko Ambrose Peni was elected Chairperson, Mongezi Manqina was Vice Chairperson of the PASO unit at the Gugulethu Comprehensive School and Mzikhona Nofemela was a PASO organizer at the Joe Slovo High School. The events coincided with the strike by Teachers in the Western Cape who demanded recognition of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU).

The meeting was addressed by Simpiwe Mfengu, the Regional Secretary of PASO, Wanda Madubula the Regional Chairperson of PASO amongst others. Speakers urged the members of PASO to take an active part in the struggle of APLA by assisting APLA operators on the ground by making the country ungovernable. In addition, "Operation Barcelona" aimed at to stop all deliveries into the townships was launched with shouts of “One settler One Bullet”. This inflamed the youth who then went to demonstrate in the streets of Gugulethu. Amy Beihl’s death was preceded by these events which created a hostile environment for white people at that moment. Prominent anti-apartheid campaigners condemned the killing, including the ANC in the Western Cape.

Peni, Manqina, Nofemela and Vusumzi Ntamo were arrested were arrested and found guilty of the murder of Biehl. They were sentenced to 18 years in prison. In addition, Ntamo, was also convicted for the crime of Pubic Violence, for which his sentence of imprisonment was ordered to run concurrently with the sentence on the charge of murder.  In July 1997 Peni, Manqina, Nofemela and Ntamo applied for amnesty to the TRC. The PAC made its submission on matter to the TRC and admitted that Biehl was wrongly targeted and killed. Then in July 1998, all were granted amnesty.

Heidelberg Pub bombing

In November 1993 APLA operatives were brought from the Eastern Cape under instructions and knowledge of their leaders to carry out military operations in Cape Town. Humphrey Luyanda Gqomfa, was appointed commander of the unit and received instructions from Letlapa Mphahlele and Nsebe, both of who were senior leaders in APLA. On 13th November 1993 Xolani Jantjie, Macebo and others were brought to his house by one Sichumiso Nonxuba, also a known APLA leader.

Heidelberg Pub after the bombing. Source:

Upon arrival they were instructed to contact Siphiwo Mqweso, an APLA member who was also a member of the PAC Regional Executive Committee. Mqweso would then provide logistical support and facilitate their movement in Cape Town. The Cape Regional Organizer of the PAC Michael Siyolo organized accommodation for operatives at different houses. The group was later joined by one Theo Sibeko. Gqomfa brief those who to carry out the operation and gave them the targets which included amongst others the Heidelberg Pub Tavern. Theo Mabusela, Michael Siyolo and Richard Madala who were members of the then PAC Regional Executive supplied the arms and ammunition for all the operations.

The unit began by hijacking a vehicle which was used in attacking the Nyanga Army Base between around the 17 December before moving to attack the Lingelethu West police Station on 18 December 1993. Those involved in the operations were Sibeko, Mabala, Madasi, Jantjie, Macebo and Gqomfa. No one was killed in the both incidents. On 31 December 1993 members of the same unit attacked a tavern in Observatory in Cape Town. Four people were killed in the attack, two of them students at the University of Cape Town. 

Gqomfa, Madasi and Mabala were arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder for their role in Heidelberg Pub bombing. In 1998 the TRC granted them amnesty for the bombing, the attack of the Lingelethu West police Station and the Nyanga Army Base.

Despite these events the MPNF was not distracted from its efforts to draft a new constitution that would pave way for elections.  On 18 November 1993 the MPNF ratified the interim Constitution. On 27 April 1994, for the first time, South Africans of all races in the country voted for the party and government of their choice. There were nineteen political parties that participated and 22 million people who voted. The Interim constitution drafted in 1993 by the MPNF came in to effect on the same day.

The interim constitution required the Constitutional Assembly (CA) to draft and approve a permanent constitution by 9 May 1996. On 8 May a draft was approved by the CA and forwarded to the Constitutional Court for ratification. The Constitutional Court which ruled in September 1996 that the new constitution failed to adhere to principles stated in the interim constitution. It was referred back to CA and after intense negotiations within the CA, a revised draft was submitted the Constitutional Court on 4 December 1996.  On 10 December 1996 President Nelson Mandela signed the final draft of the constitution into law effective from 3 February 1997. Under the new dispensation Cape Town became the legislative capital. 

Last updated : 18-Feb-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Jun-2011