National Party rule of 40 years was based on a party united behind an ideology, strong support of the Afrikaner-Broederbond and the Afrikaans churches, disciplined security forces (except for the prisons where a blind eye was turned to non-lethal torture) and the fragmented state of the black opposition. From the mid-1970s these pillars of support began to crumble.
As late as 1974 the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) synod reaffirmed the stale story of Babel as a parable of God’s creation of distinct peoples. On this basis it justified apartheid and rejected non-racial membership for the DRC. But by 1982 the church had suffered painful blows. In 1982 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a body whose membership it prized, expelled it.
The blow that hurt most was a step the Dutch Reformed Sendingkerk (the ‘coloured’ DRC) took in 1982. It drafted the Belhar Confession, which left little doubt that the church’s theological support for apartheid was in conflict with the Christian message. It called on the DRC to confess its guilt for ‘providing the moral and theological foundationsof apartheid’. The DRC finally broke with apartheid at its 1986 and 1990 synods by stating that such a system clashed with the Bible, and was sinful and a major error.
The Afrikaner-Broederbond also came round to abandoning apartheid. In 1986 it sent a memorandum, entitled ‘Basic Constitutional Values for the Survival of the Afrikaners’, to its divisions for comment. It stated that blacks had to be incorporated in government at all levels. The head of the government did not necessarily have to be white. These steps would entail ‘calculated risks’, but as Executive Council chairman Piet de Lange stated: ‘The greatest risk we currently run is not to take any risks. Our will to survive as Afrikaners and our energy and faith are the strongest guarantee.’
By the mid-1980s the disarray extended to the cabinet. At a meeting of a cabinet committee held in March 1986, Botha remarked that he did not favour one-man onevote in a unitary or federal state. ‘I thought we had clarity, but I do not think we have it any more, because you want me to say we stand for a unitary South Africa. You allow me to say it, you write it in my speeches and I accept it, but what do you mean by that?’ Chris Heunis, Minister for Constitutional Development, remarked that the government did not know where it was going.
On the grassroots level, support for the apartheid system was still strong. A 1984 survey found that upwards of 80% of Afrikaners (and 35–45% of English-speakers also) supported the key pillars of apartheid: the ban on sex between white and non-white; segregated residential areas, schools and public amenities; separate voters’ rolls for coloureds and Indians; and homelands for blacks.
Yet those in decision-making and opinion-forming positions realised that apartheid as a policy to defend white domination had run its course and that things could not continue as before. A vivid illustration was provided when the Conservative Party, after winning most towns in the Transvaal in the 1988 local government elections, tried to reintroduce forms of social apartheid that had fallen away. Blacks immediately responded by consumer boycotts that crippled local businesses. The central government overruled the local authorities.
Another major pillar of white power, namely black political fragmentation, had also begun to disintegrate in the 1980s. The turmoil in the townships eliminated most of the black councillors. The ANC in alliance with the UDF had succeeded in establishing itself as the dominant and cohesive force in black politics. When the government began seeking a new model for incorporating blacks into the political structures in 1986, it discovered that it had run out of moderate black leaders as negotiating partners. Buthelezi insisted that the government first stated that it was prepared to consider power-sharing between whites and blacks and that it would release Nelson Mandela. Botha refused both demands. Strong enmity remained between the ANC in exile and Buthelezi, but the government was no longer able to play black leaders off against one another.
While the security forces had showed no sign of any loss of will during the 1984–1986 uprising, they could not wipe out black dissent. Police methods to control crowds were often unsophisticated. After the police had shot and killed twenty protesters on 21 March 1985 in Uitenhage in the eastern Cape, a judge found that they had acted provocatively towards the black crowd and were armed solely with lethal weaponry. The judge commented that ‘the use of more lethal weapons is not the answer to a lack of numbers’. During the second half of the 1980s the state employed large numbers of kitskonstabels, ‘instant constables’, who were given limited training and rushed into situations where they sometimes had to control angry crowds.
Even more seriously, with officers close to the top either turning a blind eye or giving covert support, elements in both the army and the police had embarked on a series of ‘targeted killings’ to destroy the coherence and effectiveness of the ANC. The most notorious was Unit C-10, a secret police unit, that used a farm called Vlakplaas near Pretoria to ‘turn’ ANC guerrillas into security police agents and then sent them out to kill state enemies.
Another was a military unit, the Civil Co-operation Bureau, which operated mainly abroad but also had an internal cell comprised mainly of ex-policemen, who murdered or severely injured political opponents. A state bureau researched chemical and biological weapons, and was probably responsible for several assassinations. On a regional level some security force officers took the law in their own hands, either ordering their men to kill activists or summoning Vlakplaas operatives. Ten years later several security policemen would ask for amnesty for ‘targeted killings’ related to the ‘Pebco Three’, the ‘Guguletu Seven’, the ‘Cradock Four’ and several other activist groups.
There was intense speculation whether the cabinet or State Security Council gave explicit orders for assassinating opponents of the state. There was no evidence that explicit instructions were given, but the truth was complex. As Adriaan Vlok and Johann van der Merwe, head of the police, pointed out, the politicians deliberately used ambivalent language. Vlok recounted that he instructed police officers in hot spots to ‘make a plan’, that is to ‘eliminate’ or ‘neutralise’ key activists. Botha was also reported as having given similar commands. There were also clear cases where government leaders approved illegal action. President Botha told the Minister of Police he was happy with the bombing of Khotso House in the centre of Johannesburg where activists often met.