Last week South Africa celebrated Freedom day, commemorating the first non-racial post-apartheid elections held on the 27th April 1994. It seems strange to think that there was ever a time when suffrage was not extended to all South Africans, that a mere 23 years ago, people of colour were not allowed to cast their vote. It seems even stranger still that the decision to end apartheid was something that was, in part, decided on by white South Africans in the country’s last ever all white vote.
On the 17th March 1992 nearly three million white South African’s arrived at the polls to have their say in a history-making referendum that asked voters the following question:
Do you support continuation of the reform process which the State President began on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new Constitution through negotiation?
It was made clear that a majority ‘yes’ vote would be taken by the government as a mandate to enter into binding agreements with the ANC and other black-led organisations, without further approval from white voters. These agreements included a bill of rights, separation of powers between the branches of government, and an independent judiciary.
The turnout was massive with just over 85% of registered voters casting their ballots, and nearly 69% voting ‘yes’. A not all together surprising result given the local and international support behind the ‘yes’ campaign. Economic sanctions meant that big business was very much in support of the idea of a democratic South Africa, and with both private and public funding behind them, the National Party (NP) launched an impressive media campaign, drowning out the efforts of the Conservative Party (CP), which were mostly limited to street posters.
Yet, the success of the referendum was by no means guaranteed. Since announcing negotiations to end apartheid, the NP had lost three by-elections in the two years prior to the referendum, and there were calls from the CP for President De Klerk to resign and call a general election, which the Conservative Party felt they stood a chance of winning. De Klerk responded by announcing that the country would hold a whites-only referendum to ascertain support for negotiations, and if it turned out that there was a lack of support for the dismantling of apartheid, he would resign. Many of the ANC leaders were opposed to the referendum as it once again put all of the power into the hands of the minority white population, but realising what a ‘no’ result could do to the country, they put their support behind the National Party.
And so it was that some 25 years ago South Africa took its first real steps towards the dream of the ‘rainbow’ nation, where black and white, men and women could stand side-by-side as equals. On announcing the results of the referendum President FW De Klerk stated:
Today we have closed the book on apartheid. It doesn’t often happen that in one generation a nation gets an opportunity to rise above itself. The white electorate has risen above itself in this referendum