De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the opening session of the South African parliament in 1991, President F. W. de Klerk announced plans to repeal the nation’s laws of racial separation.

Summary of Event

On February 1, 1991, at the opening session of the racially segregated parliament of South Africa, President F. W. de Klerk delivered a dramatic speech in which he promised to support legislation that would scrap the remaining laws on which the nation’s system of apartheid was based. The most important of these laws was the Population Registration Act of 1950, Population Registration Act (South Africa, 1950) which segregated South Africans into four racial categories: whites, blacks, Indians, and coloreds (people of mixed race). Other legislation included the Native Lands Act (1913) Native Lands Act (South Africa, 1913) and the Native Land and Trust Act (1936), Native Land and Trust Act (South Africa, 1936) which reserved 87 percent of the land for the white minority, as well as the Group Areas Act (1950) Group Areas Act (South Africa, 1950) and related legislation that segregated residential areas. Apartheid;repeal [kw]De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation (Feb. 1, 1991) [kw]Apartheid Legislation, De Klerk Promises to Topple (Feb. 1, 1991) [kw]Legislation, De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid (Feb. 1, 1991) Apartheid;repeal [g]Africa;Feb. 1, 1991: De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation[08010] [g]South Africa;Feb. 1, 1991: De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation[08010] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 1, 1991: De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation[08010] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 1, 1991: De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation[08010] De Klerk, F. W. Mandela, Nelson Buthelezi, Mangosuthu Gatsha

In addition, de Klerk said that he would submit legislation to allow communities to negotiate a new system of integrated local government based on one tax base for all citizens. Finally, he proposed a multiparty conference to discuss the creation of a new national constitution. These ambitious proposals were outlined in a document titled “Manifesto for the New South Africa.” "Manifesto for the New South Africa" (de Klerk)[Manifesto for the New South Africa] De Klerk declared that these changes in law would mean that “the South African statute book will be devoid, within months, of the remnants of racially discriminatory legislation which have become known as the cornerstones of apartheid.”

Because de Klerk was the leader of the National Party, which had a clear majority of votes in the South African parliament, all observers agreed that the proposed legislation would be passed without real difficulty. Previously, the government’s position had been that the Population Registration Act could not be repealed as long as the country was under the triracial constitution of 1983, with its segregated chambers for whites, coloreds, and Indians. On closer inspection, de Klerk explained, legal authorities had concluded that the law could be repealed with temporary transitional measures that anticipated the creation of a new constitution dispensation. Babies born after the repeal would not be classified according to race, but other South Africans would retain their racial classifications until the triracial parliament voted for its own extinction in favor of a new regime.

In his address, de Klerk failed to mention three homeland laws: the Bantu Self-Government Act (1959), the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act (1970), and the Status Acts. The first two laws had transferred limited powers of self-government to ten tribal “homelands” and had conferred all blacks with citizenship in one of these ethnic homelands. The Status Acts had recognized the “independence” of four of the homelands (Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda), requiring that their citizens forfeit their South African nationality. A series of coups in the four homelands in the period 1987-1990 had marked the collapse of the homeland system, but a final settlement of the issue would be reached only under a new constitution.

Reaction to de Klerk’s speech was predictable. Rightist Afrikaner legislators were horrified, and during the speech they shouted, “Traitor to the nation!” and “Hangman of the Afrikaner!” Andries Truernicht Truernicht, Andries and the forty other representatives of the Conservative Party angrily marched out of parliament. In contrast, South Africa’s Democratic Party, which opposed apartheid, welcomed the proposals. In the United States, the administration of President George H. W. Bush saw de Klerk’s speech as evidence that the American antiapartheid policy was working. One State Department official stated, “It’s the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

As expected, de Klerk’s program did not go far enough to please black organizations in South Africa, especially the African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC). Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders denounced the fact that de Klerk had rejected an ANC proposal to elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, meaning that the de Klerk government was determined that whites would retain disproportionate influence in negotiations over the constitution. Likewise, the ANC leaders were unhappy that there were no specific plans to repatriate forty thousand political refugees, to release political prisoners in the “independent” homelands, or to repeal the security laws that gave the police sweeping powers to detain political suspects. “We still do not have the vote,” declared ANC leader Walter Sisulu, Sisulu, Walter “and this is what our people demand today, to vote for a constituent assembly.” Throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of blacks marched to demand additional changes.

Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk accepting UNESCO’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in Paris in February, 1992, for their contributions to ending apartheid in South Africa.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Three days before de Klerk’s speech, Mandela and his major black rival, Zulu chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, had met for the first time in twenty-eight years. Following an eight-hour discussion, they had announced a peace pact for Natal province, where violent fighting between ANC supporters and Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party Inkatha Freedom Party (South Africa) had claimed four thousand lives in five years. Despite this announcement, however, factional violence in the townships resumed within two days and continued throughout the summer and early fall of 1991. Another difficulty for the ANC was the trial and conviction of Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie, in May. While her husband had been in prison, Winnie Mandela Mandela, Winnie had assembled some bodyguards known as the Mandela United Football Club. They were accused of abducting and beating four youths suspected of collaboration with opponents of the ANC, killing one of the four. When Winnie Mandela was sentenced to six years in prison, many ANC supporters feared that the “Winnie problem” would damage the prestige of the organization.

As the South African parliament prepared to pass the promised legislation, many leaders of other African nations showed evidence of a desire to reestablish ties with South Africa. At the annual summit of the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU), held June 3-5, 1991, the organization, after a long debate, issued a statement promising to lift sanctions if South Africa adopted measures demonstrating “profound and irreversible change toward the abolition of apartheid.” In fact, a number of countries, such as Zimbabwe, were already increasing their trade with South Africa, and just after the OAU conference, Kenya and Madagascar announced that they were restoring trade and transportation ties with the country.

The same day the OAU ended its summit, the South African parliament voted to repeal the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 and the Group Areas Act. South Africans were thus given the legal right to buy property and live where they pleased. Even more significant, on June 17, the Population Registration Act was repealed, with the white House of Assembly voting 129 to 38, with 11 abstentions. This meant that citizens would no longer be registered into racial categories at birth, although the existing racial register would be maintained until a nonracial constitution was approved. The ANC issued a statement that noted that the average black citizen was no better off than before the reforms had been enacted. The document stated that discriminatory treatment in areas such as education, employment, and state pensions continued as before and asserted, “As long as such blatantly racist practices continue, the Population Registration Act will have been removed in name only.”

President Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;South Africa and other Western leaders were more impressed with the reforms. Early in July, the U.S. State Department informed Bush that South Africa had fulfilled the five conditions contained in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (1986)[Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act] of 1986, and on July 10 the president formally lifted U.S. trade and investment sanctions. Bush spoke of the “profound transformation” in South Africa and expressed the opinion that “this progress is irreversible.” Mandela and antiapartheid groups throughout the world criticized Bush’s decision as premature; in contrast, Chief Buthelezi, who had long opposed sanctions, welcomed the action. Several countries, including Finland and Japan, soon announced that they were following the American example, and the International Olympic Committee lifted its twenty-one-year boycott of South Africa after judging that the nation had made significant advances in ending racial discrimination in sports.


The changes that took place in South Africa in 1990 and 1991 were indeed spectacular. For decades, the apartheid system had been the most flagrant example of injustice and oppression anywhere in the world. By the summer of 1991, the legal foundations for this system had come to an end. Certainly, the South African problem was far from settled, and extremely difficult negotiations were necessary before South Africans would arrive at a consensus for a new constitution. Even after a new constitution was established, socioeconomic inequalities between blacks and whites would continue to be an issue, and there did not appear to be any easy solutions to ending the ethnic violence in the townships. Nevertheless, just a few years earlier, when President Pieter W. Botha Botha, Pieter W. had stubbornly resisted fundamental reforms, few observers expected that the foundations of apartheid would be abrogated by the summer of 1991.

In the short term, the most important issue involved the negotiations for a new constitution. It appeared that the constitution had to be completed before 1994, the deadline for the calling of parliamentary elections. The National Party, with its popularity uncertain, had no intention of conducting another whites-only election under the old constitution. This meant that de Klerk had to operate under severe time limitations in preparing a new constitution. The ANC was determined that the new constitution should provide for majority rule based on the principle of “one person, one vote.” In contrast, de Klerk and the National Party were determined to have a constitution that would include a veto and disproportionate influence for the white minority.

In September, 1991, de Klerk proposed a blueprint for a constitution that would replace the presidency with an executive council made up of members of the three largest parties in Parliament’s lower house and would assign more powers to regional and local governments. Mandela, who had recently been elected president of the ANC, strongly denounced such an arrangement. White voters approved of de Klerk’s efforts in a referendum on March 17, 1992. Almost 90 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and two-thirds of them stated approval of de Klerk’s efforts to end apartheid.

Although nobody expected future negotiations to be easy, the two sides did agree on many basics, including support for a two-house legislature, the right of each citizen to have one vote, a guarantee of individual liberties, an independent judiciary, and the end of the black homelands. The ANC was less insistent on nationalizing key industries and in seeking massive redistribution of wealth, questions of major concern to white South Africans.

Most experts believed that economic sanctions had been one of the major influences leading de Klerk’s government to agree to the reforms of 1991, and continuing economic difficulties added to the urgency for seeking a political settlement as soon as possible. In 1991, black unemployment in South Africa was estimated at more than 35 percent, and simply to remain at this unsatisfactory level would require an economic growth rate of 5 percent per year. During the years of the sanctions, South Africa’s gross national product had grown by less than 1 percent per year, and it actually shrank by 1 percent in 1990.

With its resources and infrastructure, however, South Africa had the potential to become one of the most prosperous countries in the world, if only it could resolve its political problems. To a very substantial extent, by the end of the century it had done just that. After arduous but determined and respectful negotiations, de Klerk, Mandela, and many others steered the country toward its first fully participatory elections in April, 1994. Mandela and the ANC, not unsurprisingly, won the elections by a substantial majority but agreed to form a national unity government that included the National Party and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party as the country moved in peaceful fashion from minority to majority rule. For their work in making this change, which many considered a miracle, de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;F. W. de Klerk[Deklerk] Nobel Peace Prize;Nelson Mandela[Mandela] in 1993, even before the historic elections took place. Apartheid;repeal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Pauline. “South Africa: Old Myths and New Realities.” Current History 90 (May, 1991): 197-200. Presents excellent analysis of the crumbling of apartheid, with a useful chart of major laws. Argues that sanctions had been effective, that the right wing was not a major threat, that blacks did not want a Marxist state, and that there were good reasons to hope for a peaceful settlement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Klerk, F. W. “South Africa and Apartheid.” Vital Speeches 57 (March 1, 1991): 294-300. The complete text of de Klerk’s important speech before Parliament on February 1, presenting his program for the end of legal apartheid as well as other issues of South African politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guelke, Adrian. Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid: South Africa and World Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Discusses the nature and significance of South African apartheid and the reasons the apartheid system ended, with particular attention paid to the international antiapartheid movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Shaun, ed. South Africa: No Turning Back. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Scholarly essays written just before de Klerk came to power address topics such as South African politics since 1976, internal resistance to apartheid, the police in South Africa, the Afrikaner establishment, and the history of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laurence, Patrick. “Repealing the Race Laws.” Africa Report 36 (March/April, 1991): 34-37. Presents clear analysis of de Klerk’s parliamentary speech of February 1. Written from a pro-ANC perspective and emphasizes the limitations of de Klerk’s policies, especially the issues of the constituent assembly and the homelands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lemon, Anthony. Apartheid in Transition. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987. Provides a useful history of apartheid as well as a sociological analysis of the situation in the late 1980’s, with much information about the ethnic groups of South Africa. Written before de Klerk’s election; concludes that apartheid was being dismantled and that the logical result would be for whites to have a minority share of power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandela, Nelson. The Struggle Is My Life. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1986. Brief autobiography explains Mandela’s political beliefs and his goals for South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mufson, Steven. “South Africa 1990.” Foreign Affairs 70 (1991): 120-142. Provides excellent analysis of de Klerk’s policies as well as those of Inkatha and the ANC. Written just before the reforms of 1991 and emphasizes the uncertainty of the government’s goals as well as the uncertainty of the outcome of negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Covers South African history from precolonial times to the end of the twentieth century. Includes excellent discussion of the rise and fall of apartheid in the post-1948 period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thörn, H �kan. Anti-apartheid and the Emergence of a Global Civil Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Sociological study examines the power of collective action and places the antiapartheid movement within the context of global politics.

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