'Perceptions of the 'red peril'' : the National Party's changing portrayal of the 'communist threat' c.1985 - February 1990

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

For the National Party of South Africa, Communism was simultaneously a legitimate concern and a useful concept with which to attract voters and deflect criticism. The threat of Communism was frequently allied with the threat of African nationalism in National Party discourse during the apartheid era. The alliance between the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, and the Soviet's role in supporting various governments and opposition movements on the subcontinent lent credence to the National Party's stance. This study, believed to be the first of its kind on the subject, examined the National Party's perception of the Communist 'threat' or 'red peril' from c. 1985 until February 1990, at a time when the Communist's role on the subcontinent was changing but 'revolutionary' unrest in South Africa was escalating. The study culminated in an assessment of National Party discourse prior to and during February 1990 to decipher the influence of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe on the decision to lift the bans on the ANC, SACP and PAC. Secondary research examined the facets of the Communist 'threat' in South Africa. Primary research used the South African Survey, the parliamentary Hansard, key journals, party and sub-national newspapers, the papers of P. W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk, and party electioneering material to analyse National Party references to the Communist 'threat'. In addition F.W. de Klerk, and his co-author, David Steward were interviewed. The analysis was necessarily qualitative, but the volume of evidence gathered enabled a number of insights to be advanced. The National Party's references to the Communist 'threat' changed during the period in response to political settlement in South West Africa/Namibia, the increased pressure from the West to abolish apartheid, and to domestic political challenges both from traditional sources of opposition and traditional sources of support. The confusion caused by the changing loci of domestic political opposition and international criticism was also evident. While the portrayal of a Soviet driven Communist threat declined in party discourse and the National Party posited a more constructive approach to socio-economic aspects of the Communist threat (in the face of Conservative Party opposition), the portrayal of a military and political threat from Communist-backed forces remained common until 1989. The discourse between 1985-89 did not anticipate the lifting of the ban on the ANC-SACP alliance who were portrayed in party rhetoric as being committed to Communism, and therefore illegitimate negotiating partners, as late as July 1989. In this context the study examined the February 1990 lifting of the ban on the ANC-SACP alliance, against the background of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. The study demonstrated de Klerk's misjudgement of the ANC and his belief that as a result of the collapse of Communism, the initiative could be seized at the ANC's expense, to create a new political dispensation that still 'protected' the white minority.

Includes bibliography.