Perspectives on the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa

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South African Historical Journal

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University of Cape Town

The now substantial literature on the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa defines ‘transition’ in different ways. In the third edition of his History of South Africa (2001), Leonard Thompson devoted a chapter to the political transition that took place between 1989 and 1994.1 Rodney Davenport wrote in similar vein in lectures published in Canada as The Birth of the New South Africa and in South Africa as The Transfer of Power in South Africa. 2 Both historians implied that the fundamentals of the apartheid order were still in place in 1989, and that the apartheid order could have continued for some time, for the state was not on its knees and the security forces stood firmly behind it. Instead of apartheid continuing, however, we know that its pillars – the Population Registration Act, Group Areas Act and Land Act prime among them – were repealed in the early 1990s, and in 1994 political apartheid was ended with the introduction of a constitution providing for one person one vote and that all citizens were equal before the law. So within the remarkably short period of five years, in this interpretation, a transition took place from an apartheid order to a formally democratic one, with a new government taking office after the first democratic election in April 1994.