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De Klerk Announced Release of Mandela Two Decades Ago

Twenty years ago, in a move that stunned his political opponents, and the world, South Africa's then-president F.W. de Klerk announced he had legalized all outlawed organizations and said he would soon unconditionally release, after 27 years in jail, Nelson Mandela.

In just five months in office after ousting his predecessor P.W. Botha, then-president F.W. de Klerk had, by February 1990, already begun to loosen the tenacious grip of South Africa's security machinery on the running of the country.

Imprisoned ANC veteran Walter Sisulu was released and massive peaceful demonstrations had been allowed in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg. The new president's publicity machine began hinting that his maiden opening address to parliament on February 2 would be a complete break with the past. Even so, expectations were that the speech would perhaps pave the way for negotiations with South Africa's black majority without conceding too much.

And then Mr. de Klerk's words came across the country's airwaves. "I wish to put it plainly that the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Mandela unconditionally," he said. "I am serious about bringing this matter to finality without delay."

But Mr. de Klerk had gone a great deal further than announce the impending release of his government's most powerful foe. In one stroke he also swept aside widespread restrictions on free political activity, freedom of association; and, he legalized outlawed organizations.

"The prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and a number of subsidiary organizations is being rescinded," said Mr. de Klerk. "People serving prison sentences merely because they were members of one of these organizations or because they committed another offense which was merely an offense because a prohibition on one of the organizations was in force, will be identified and released."

"Moment of real joy"

Mr. de Klerk's announcement caused tens of thousands South Africans to spill into the streets in spontaneous celebration. Among those on the streets of Johannesburg, appearing stunned but still broadly smiling was Jay Naidoo, then General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Naidoo, now Chairman of the Development Bank of Southern Africa tells VOA it was a moment of real joy. "So, we exploded with joy, I mean it was a significant movement forward, and it put a peg onto the ground that this transformation to democratic state was now unstoppable," he said.

Naidoo, who also heads the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, says Mr. de Klerk's decision was courageous.

"And the fact that De Klerk made that announcement I think was a very brave step on his part to bring white society that felt under siege, and felt in terms of apartheid superior to the black population, to bring them in to the camp of a negotiated political settlement," he said.


But Naidoo says that along with the joy there was also an underlying sense of realism that the powerful state security machinery that often used illegal violent methods to quell opposition, still remained in place.

"So obviously there was a sense of nervousness on our side because we had borne the brunt of the violence against us really perpetrated by the security forces acting on behalf of the apartheid state. So that was certainly a big area of our concern," he said.

Mr. de Klerk's announcement signaled the start of a four-year period of sometimes turbulent negotiations which propelled South Africa toward a fully inclusive democracy. But the same period was also beset by unprecedented levels of violence, in which thousands died.

Even so, Naidoo says that for millions of South Africans the promise of that day was not false, and they now live in a stable, peaceful democracy, where they have real choices. But he says far too many still live in abject poverty without access to good health care, good schools and decent jobs.