Road to Democratic Elections: Violent Opposition to Change

A suspected Zulu spy being set on fire and beaten to death by ANC supporters in the turmoil leading up to the 1994 elections.

Despite the apartheid government coming around to the idea of a racially and ethnically integrated society, in the early 1990s, there were still both black and white people who strongly opposed change. Groups of black Zulus and Tswanas in self-governing homelands, for example, wanted to keep their autonomy, something that could only be done if the old system was kept. Similarly, many white Afrikaners feared losing influence in the new political landscape, and therefore seriously doubted the benefits of country-wide unification. The Afrikaners, just like the Zulus and the Tswanas, argued that dissolving the bantustans risked the neglect of minority cultures and languages and a disregard for minority people’s land rights.

Violence from many sides

In opposing a multiethnic society, country-wide unification and ANC rule, both black and white people mostly kept their resistance peaceful. Nevertheless, on occasion, the resistance also turned violent. This violence, quite expectedly, escalated as South Africa gradually moved closer to unification, with cliques of both black and white militiamen rioting and murdering to try to interrupt the developments. Equally, around the same time, some ANC supporters and government-controlled forces killed their respective opponents as well, resulting in a situation where people across the political spectrum were beaten, shot or burned to death by their supposed political rivals.

Negotiation strategies

Though horrific in isolation, the politically motivated killings were limited in scope, and often performed as a show of strength in order to obtain better bargaining positions at the negotiating table, where South Africa’s future was being discussed. Still, at times, the violence threatened to overthrow the entire mediation process and descend the country into civil war, an outcome that both the apartheid government and the ANC leadership dreaded.

With the threat of escalating chaos and civil war, National Party and ANC politicians alike were pressured to relatively quickly end the state of uncertainty that South Africa had been in for years. This pressure motivated both sides to constructively sort out any remaining differences they had, and after protracted negotiations, country-wide democratic elections were scheduled for 1994. Subsequently, in the 1994 elections, as had been foreseen, the ANC came to power and Nelson Mandela became president. South Africa’s first black president had now taken the stage, and in the South African streets, as well as around the world, masses of people celebrated the ANC’s victory.