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It was a strange week in a strange time, seven days in March 1992, in which I got to see fragmented images of a white community increasingly fragmented about looming black majority rule in South Africa.
At the Randse Afrikanse Universiteit in Johannesburg, National Party student organisation members in green blazers and ties fought pitched battles in the university cafeteria against khaki-clad rightwingers. FW de Klerk called off his student pep talk because of the violence.
Around the corner, in the “poor white” suburb of Jan Hofmeyr, white kids queue barefoot around the back of the NG church for a plate of spaghetti from “Tant Sannie se sop kombuis”. Inside the church hall, the tables were groaning with koeksisters and melktert awaiting the arrival of De Klerk.
Around the side, a down-and-out white couple told a foreign reporter in broken English that they though the president was “a good man”… but cursed De Klerk in Afrikaans, calling him a verraaier (traitor).
A few days later, the town hall in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) was packed to overflowing – a sea of worried khaki as Afrikaners listened, spell-bound, to Eugene Terre’Blanche, hoping he could lead them back to the promised land of white dominance.
Everybody was campaigning that week in the most important plebiscite in this country’s history … one which is either forgotten about or dismissed by angry historical revisionism.
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After the death of De Klerk this week, I thought back to that time when the country was truly perched on a knife edge – peace or civil war (and that civil war could have been white-on-black or even white-on-white, depending on the result of the referendum called by the president).
That presented a choice to white voters: accept majority rule but give De Klerk and the National Party a mandate to negotiate. So, in reality, it wasn’t De Klerk who brought South Africa back from the brink, it was the white voters, who voted overwhelmingly (69%) “Yes”.
I can think of no other occasion in history where an entire ruling class voluntarily handed over power.
The alternative? The then SA Defence Force was far from being tested militarily, never mind being defeated, by the ANC’s armed wing and could have supported the status quo for years or fought a bloody race war. Ironically, many of the top military commanders had, years previously, realised apartheid was unsustainable.
Most whites could see that the situation could only get worse. The internal mass movements were already disrupting business through strikes and foreign investment had left the country. Also, no-one likes being considered a pole-cat, which is how the rest of the world regarded local whites.
Perhaps some of them even voted yes because they believed it was the morally correct thing to do, to end what had been called a crime against humanity.
Because the country is currently in a mess, apartheid’s legacy still exerts huge influence, because Madiba’s gone and the Rainbow Nation ideal is deceased, the 1992 referendum is ridiculed by those on all sides.
Yet, had the vote been no, the hospitals and cemeteries would have overflowed.
Perhaps one day, when emotions have cooled, historians might say of white South Africans that March 1992 was their finest hour…
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