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South Africa's date with destiny

Twenty years ago this February, FW De Klerk announced that Nelson Mandela would be released and the African National Congress unbanned.

Last modified: 7 Feb 2010 08:53
Reuters photo

The image that stuck with me that bright February morning was never filmed or photographed.

A pair of white police officers were watching a video feed from parliament just over the cobble-stoned street from where they were standing:  FW De Klerk's face filled the screen and I heard the words "unconditionally free Nelson Mandela" - the more senior officer shook his head miserably and said to the man next to him - "dit is die einde van ons volk": it is the end of our people.

The De Klerk government had retained a tradition established by that of PW Botha, De Klerk’s predecessor.

Advance draft

At the opening of parliament in February each year, the international media representatives in South Africa would be herded into a large conference room over the road from parliament and given an advance draft of the president's speech.

The downside, though, was that the doors were locked and no one was allowed to leave until the speech had been concluded.

This year though, 1990, I had arrived a few minutes late - and De Klerk had already begun speaking as I walked into the conference room.

Someone put the speech in my hand and, as I scanned the first page, it was clear this address was going to change history.

Morning news

I simply walked back out of the door straight to a public telephone that I knew was just outside.

I called the desk in London where the morning news show was on air and told them what De Klerk was about to say in the next few minutes.

While I listened impatiently to the inevitable argument in the London gallery as to when to take me live, I watched and overheard the two police officers whose whole world order had just changed.

For them it was a disaster; for the majority of the country's people, it was the moment that had been longed for.

Critical point

I didn't hear the anchor's question, just a voice in the telephone yelling "cue Mike cue": "The president of South Africa FW De Klerk has just announced that Nelson Mandela is to be released from prison in coming days.

"The ANC leader is at present being held at a prison an hour's drive away from the parliament that De Klerk is at the moment addressing.

"He has been in prison for close to three decades. The most critical point though is that De Klerk has also announced the unbanning of the African National Congress and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, as well as the South African Communist Party.

"The speech heralds quite literally, the beginning of the end of white minority rule in South Africa”.

'The whole way'

The parliamentarians came streaming out of the building a few metres away and I saw my cameraman was already there filming.

I joined him and stopped the then minister of information, Stoffel Van Der Merwe, who was smiling broadly.

"What has just happened?" I asked him.

"You never thought we would do it," he told me. "We've gone the whole way."

It was one of the very few times I had agreed with anything he had said in the years I had known him.

Virtually unthinkable

Ever since Walter Sisulu and seven other senior ANC leaders had been released a few months before, there was little doubt that Mandela would be next.

But the idea that a National Party government would also declare the ANC legal, along with its armed wing and the Communist Party, was virtually unthinkable.

In fact, the self-same information minister had told me a week before in an interview that to unban the ANC would be political suicide for the De Klerk government.

The years ahead proved to be exactly that. And ultimately it was not the release of Nelson Mandela that marked the beginning of the march to democracy: it was the simultaneous decision to unban his and other political movements as well that created the climate in which real negotiation could begin.