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Today in History: 17th of March 1992 South African Apartheid Referendum

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During the second round of negotiations, CODESA II, which commenced in December 1991, the NP insisted that any future political dispensation had to take the form of a power-sharing arrangement. One of the reasons the NP pushed this position was that the CP was seemingly gaining popularity by opposing any transition through a negotiated settlement.

The CP capitalised on fears among conservative Whites that a black-led government would be disastrous for them. Recent CP victories in three by-elections had sent jitters through the ranks of the NP.

In 1991 the CP won two seats in by-elections, giving the impression that the party stood a chance of winning a general election. In February 1992 a third by-election was held in Potchefstroom to fill a seat left vacant by the death of Louis le Grange, who was also the speaker of the white House of Assembly.

A nervous De Klerk went to Potchefstroom and actively campaigned for the NP. Despite his efforts, the seat was won by Andries Beyers, the secretary of the CP, who garnered 9,746 votes in contrast to the 7,606 votes for his NP opponent, Theuns Kriel. Thus during the period between CODESA I and CODESA II, the NP lost three by-elections to the CP.

While the defeats did not weaken the NP and its control of parliament, it emboldened the CP to further harden its stance against negotiations. As Beyers argued:

“The message to Mr De Klerk is to resign and call a general election.”

On 21 February 1992, De Klerk reacted to the challenge by announcing that the country would hold a whites-only referendum to ascertain white support for negotiations.  De Klerk also stated that he would resign as president if the majority voted against the process of dismantling apartheid. The outcome of the referendum would have profound implications for the future of South Africa.

CP leader Andries P Treurnicht, also known as “Dr No”, gave an undertaking that his party would participate “as long as the playing field is level”. While the CP welcomed the poll, some ANC leaders were opposed to the referendum as it was for White people only. But Nelson Mandela persuaded the ANC to throw its support behind a “Yes” vote as a “No” vote or even only a narrow NP victory could have plunged the country into chaos – right wing elements would reverse the entire negotiation process.

Chris Hani and the secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Rev Frank Chikane , among others, warned of the implications of a “No” vote. To dispel perceptions fuelled by the right wing that whites would lose everything under an ANC- or black-led government, Mandela assured whites that an ANC-led government would not retrench white civil servants, and that those who left would retain their benefits.