Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS
Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS

It is difficult to believe that it is 30 years ago this week that then president FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC, the PAC and the SACP and other organisations, reversing decades of apartheid repression.

It is also difficult to remember that in a few days’ time it will be the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk down the drive at Victor Verster prison to freedom after 27 years behind bars.

It is three decades since SA, collectively, stared into the abyss and decided that it was an unpleasant destination to which we should not go. De Klerk and Mandela were the instruments that would save SA from itself, from its own haunting desire for self-destruction. Both men challenged their constituencies and went against the wishes of many of their followers to get the “new SA” project under way.

There were those in the ANC, most notably SACP leader Chris Hani, who did not believe the news and wanted the armed struggle to continue. To a degree, Hani was correct because it was continued white right-wing violence that led to his assassination. But Mandela, to his enormous credit, saw the chance and took it. And he placed his trust in a man, De Klerk, who it would have been unthinkable to trust given his apartheid history. Apparently the two men had met only once or twice before De Klerk delivered his opening of parliament speech on that fateful February 2 1990.

Selected journalists were invited to Tuynhuys (the president’s office next to parliament) at five in the morning and given the speech before it was delivered. It was in the days before cellphones, so as long as the doors were kept shut, the story could not leak out. One political writer was quoted as having shaken his head in disbelief when he read the speech — “good heavens, he has gone all the way and also unbanned the SACP”.

It was indeed a significant moment. De Klerk had, like Mandela, defied elements of his own power base. At the very least most supporters of the National Party would have opted for a gradualist approach. But Mandela and De Klerk understood that it was now or never, because around the next corner lay open civil war. Yes, there were setbacks which time and again placed the democratic project at risk — such as the Boipatong massacre, which for many was a question mark about De Klerk’s sincerity — but in the end SA navigated these troubled waters to become the miracle story of the 20th century.

It included Mandela going against his constituency and allowing De Klerk to hold a whites-only referendum for the last time. Thankfully, two-thirds of white South Africans voted for a negotiated settlement rather than remaining at war with their fellow citizens.

Sadly that is, as they say, all history now. The miracle dividend has been squandered and SA is no longer known as the country which made the magical transition, but rather for its levels of serious violent crime, particularly against women and children, and rampant corruption that has rendered the state an economic basket case which the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, seems powerless to change.

We can only be grateful that Mandela is not here to see it, given the enormous risks he took to turn around that which seemed unstoppable. Ramaphosa surely needs to take lessons from history. Mandela and De Klerk taught us that it is never too late for good men to stand up and take action even when it appears futile.

President Ramaphosa, it is time.