SAfrica marks freedom Day

February 2, 2010 12:00 am

, CAPE TOWN, Feb 2 – Twenty years after announcing Nelson Mandela\’s release from prison, former South African president FW de Klerk will on Tuesday commemorate the speech that began dismantling the apartheid regime.

De Klerk will give the closing address at a conference commemorating his February 2, 1990 speech to South Africa\’s parliament, which called for a new democratic constitution, lifted the ban on dissident political parties and announced the release of all political prisoners, including Mandela.

"What I announced went far beyond the expectations," De Klerk told private radio station Talk Radio 702 on Tuesday.

"As I walked into parliament, I knew it would change South Africa forever."

De Klerk, South Africa\’s president from 1989 to 1994, had been in office just five months when he delivered the historic speech. A one-time hardliner in the pro-apartheid National Party, he would go down in South African history as the last apartheid president.

Mandela was released nine days later — on February 11, 1990 — ending his 27-year imprisonment. He would go on to become the country\’s first democratically elected leader.

The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their work in ending the apartheid regime and building a new democratic South Africa.

But 20 years ago, De Klerk\’s speech was not an obvious political move, analysts told AFP.

"For a white president to stand up and say, as De Klerk effectively did, that the South African government was willing to reconsider the principle of white minority rule was, at the time, an earth-shattering political development," said Laurence Caromba, a South African political analyst.

"It was a brave move. A very brave move in the face of potential disaster," said Paul Graham, executive director of the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa.

But some South Africans remember De Klerk less for his idealism than for his pragmatic attempt to save the country from disaster.

At the time, South Africa\’s divisive political system had brought the nation to the brink of civil war. The economy was collapsing under the weight of international sanctions, and the country was "a steadily deteriorating pariah" internationally, Graham said.

"FW deserves recognition not for any great desire to right the wrongs of the past, but for his pragmatism," said an editorial in The Star newspaper Tuesday.

"FW is not and never will be everyone\’s hero, but February 2, 1990 should be remembered as the day he had the bravery to do the right thing."

With his speech, De Klerk, now 73, set in motion the country\’s transformation into a multi-racial democracy and the sustained economic growth that followed the first all-race elections in 1994.

Organisers said the commemoration will both revisit De Klerk\’s speech and assess the country\’s progress in the two decades since.

Opposition leader Helen Zille, head of the Democratic Alliance, will also deliver a keynote address on South Africa\’s development since 1990 — a period that has seen Mandela\’s party, the African National Congress, rise to political dominance.

The country still faces many challenges 20 years on, including 30 percent unemployment, endemic crime, a faltering education system and the world\’s biggest divide between rich and poor.

"As we celebrate 20 years, I suspect there will be some reflection on whether weve made the best use we could have of the opportunities it provided," Graham said.

"There\’s a sense that it\’s a still-unfinished project, I suppose."


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