South Africa’s transformation began on February 2, 1990, when President F. W. de Klerk, in a startling announcement, lifted the 30-year ban on black political organizations and released Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years.
The transformation can be divided into two phases. In the first phase, between 1990 and 1994, the government gradually repealed the extensive apartheid laws and held round-table discussions to lay the foundation for a new non-racist South Africa.
These complex talks, that extended over years and were accompanied by political violence that claimed more than 13,000 lives, culminated with the adoption of an interim constitution in 1994 and the first all-race elections in 1994. Key factors contributing to the success of the round-table discussions included: first, the skillful negotiation between representatives of the leading black political organization the African National Congress (ANC), and the white National Party (NP); second, the charisma of Nelson Mandela; and third, the inclusion of radical and regional political fringe groups. The interim constitution established the framework for a consensus democracy, with proportional representation for all parties based on the votes received in elections. The second phase of South Africa’s transformation began after the first elections in April 1994.
Led by the ANC, which won 62.5 % of the votes, the new government of national unity faced tremendous challenges. On the one hand, the glaring social disparity between relatively prosperous whites and Indians and the vast majority of relatively poor blacks and coloreds generated enormous pressure on the new government to rapidly improve social conditions. On the other hand, the legacies of apartheid—such as segregated residential areas, the so-called homelands and the need to address political and human rights crimes committed between 1948 and 1990—demanded immediate action.
Transformation in the long term required social reconciliation and an end to the culture of violence that pervaded both the private and the public realm. Of major significance during this phase was the power of Nelson Mandela to bring people together; he was the only politician whom all groups trusted. The Mandela era ended with the second elections in 1999, which the ANC won with 66 % of the votes. Those elections also marked the transition to a competitive democracy, because the constitutional provision that governing power would be shared by all parties receiving more than 10 % of the votes had lapsed.
Nevertheless, the ANC joined with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) under Chief Gatsha Buthelezi to form a coalition government that still remains in power. Throughout the period of transformation, there has been a largely informal, less institutionalized tripartite alliance of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Increasingly arisen among the three groups.
The COSATU and SACP are largely aligned; opposing privatization and similar measures by calling strikes, although leading functionaries of those groups hold prominent positions in the government and in the ANC. This makes the task of governing even more complicated than is usually the case in coalition governments. Until now, the centrist position of the ANC has largely prevailed.
On the whole, South Africa’s economic transformation presented fewer challenges than its political transformation because of the country’s traditional market economy orientation.
However, reforms were needed to address certain issues: the high concentration of large companies dominating the market; international competitiveness, which had suffered under economic sanctions; an unskilled workforce; and a traditionally low savings and investment rate. When the transformation began in 1994, South Africa found itself in a difficult economic situation, in part because the negotiation of a political compromise had taken more than three years. The country’s disparities in income and standard of living placed sociopolitical issues at the forefront of domestic politics.