The 1980s and the crisis of Apartheid

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Introduction

During the 1980s, the apartheid government came under increasing internal pressure. The National Party attempted a political solution to the crisis it faced by creating the cosmetic Tricameral Parliament. This system of governance tampered with, but did not challenge apartheid.

The reforms had the opposite affect to what the apartheid regime intended. Reforms provided renewed impetus for the resistance movements, and the 1980s was a decade which became a turning point in South African history.

Popular protest by masses of ordinary South Africans against the apartheid regime reached its height in the 1980s, and the government responded with extreme brutality and repression.

The trigger of mass civil society protests in the 1980s:

1983 Tricameral Parliament

Under P.W. Botha, a tri-cameral (three chamber) parliament was created which included limited representation of South Africans classified 'Coloured' and 'Indian' but excluded Blacks. Blacks were seen to have political rights in the so-called 'homelands' or 'Independent Bantustans' and in local township councils.

Coloureds and Indians were to be given a greater (but still powerless) level of participation in the South African political system. Real political power would remain concentrated in the House of Assembly, the representatives of the 'White' minority.

Voters on separate ethnic voter's roles would elect the members of each chamber of parliament:

  • The House of Assembly (White representatives)

  • The House of Representatives (Coloured representatives)

  • The House of Delegates (Indian representatives)

The Conservative Party had a few seats in the whites-only Parliament. As the name implies, they were even more reactionary than the National Party. The Conservative Party said that the National Party did not have a mandate to implement the Tricameral reforms.

P.W. Botha proposed a Referendum through which white people could vote for their preference regarding the Tricameral Parliament. In November 1983, about 70 percent of white people voted in favour of the reforms.

The newly formed Liberation Movement, the United Democratic Front (UDF), launched a massive nationwide campaign to dissuade Coloured and Indian voters from participating in the elections for the Houses of Representatives and Delegates.

Civil society protest against the Tricameral Parliament showed that the majority of South Africans were opposed to the new structure. Coloured and Indian voter turnout was extremely low, but in early 1985 the inauguration of the new Parliament went ahead regardless. Those who participated in the Tricameral system were called 'sell-outs', collaborators and 'puppets'.

The position of Prime Minister was abolished and replaced with an Executive President, a very powerful position for one person. P.W. Botha therefore became Head of Government and Head of State.

In reaction to these political developments, mass action campaigns swept through the country. These included strikes, mass protests and school, rent and consumer boycotts. Violence erupted on many occasions, and the Government responded by declaring a State of Emergency that lasted for much of the 1980s. Emergency regulations were used to severely restrict extra-parliamentary activities.

The homes of 'sell-outs', government buildings and beer halls were attacked. The apartheid government spoke of a 'total onslaught' by 'terrorists' and 'communists'. The army was sent into the townships in 1984, but the apartheid regime never recovered.

As one historian summed up the decade:

"The resistance of the mid-1980s destroyed utterly the 'total strategy' tactics of the Botha government. Tricameralism and African urban councils had been firmly rejected by the demand for 'People's Power'. The campaign to win hearts and minds was in tatters, with thousands in detention and an occupying army in the townships ... with the collapse of total strategy, the government seemed bankrupted of ideas, relying on internal repression and international bravado."

- Source 'Making of Modern South Africa' by Nigel Worden

 

Last updated : 08-Mar-2019

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

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