Nearly two years went by between State President F.W. de Klerk’s epoch-making speech on 2 February 1990 and the start of formal constitutional talks at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. The intervening period was devoted to removing the obstacles to negotiation. The first – the apartheid laws – were removed on 1 February 1991 when De Klerk announced the intention of his government to abolish them all.
None of the other obstacles to negotiation was easy to resolve. In a series of agreements (the Groote Schuur Accord, May 1990; the Pretoria Minute, August 1990; and the D.F. Malan Accord, February 1991), the government and the ANC agreed to seek a negotiated political settlement. The ANC agreed to suspend the armed struggle, but not to disband its armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe.
The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) opened on 20 December 1991 at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park. The two major parties, the NationalParty and the ANC, had differing ideas of what purpose it should serve. The ANC insisted that only an elected constituent assembly could draw up a constitution, while the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party opposed this, fearing that an elected body, with a probable ANC majority, would have a blank cheque to draft a constitution that suited ANC political needs.
Nevertheless, nineteen of the twenty delegations – the Bophuthatswana government declined to sign – agreed to a Declaration of Intent committing them to ‘a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist state in which sovereign authority is exercised over the whole of its territory’. The concept of ‘sufficient consensus’ was employed, meaning that the process could go forward if the National Party and the ANC reached agreement.
Codesa resumed its labours early in 1992, separate tasks being allocated to each of five Working Groups, but another threat loomed to imperil the process. This was the menacing rise of the ultra-right wing, signified by the Conservative Party’s victory in a by-election in the historically safe National Party seat of Potchefstroom on 19 February. It was the climax of a series of by-elections in which the Conservative Party had either beaten the National Party or slashed its majorities.
De Klerk needed to determine whether his initiative retained the support of the white electorate, so he called a referendum for 17 March in which voters were asked whether they wished the reform process aimed at negotiating a new constitution to continue.
Over 68% voted ‘yes’, and the ultra-right wing, which had contributed to the violence, was thrown into disarray. The National Party (NP) leadership tacitly assumed that with this victory it was no longer necessary to refer any major constitutional change to the electorate, although De Klerk had promised to seek the voters’ endorsement of the constitutional principles after the completion of the negotiations.