In September 1984, riots broke out in the Transvaal and spread to other parts of the country. These riots continued until 1986, when the African National Congress (ANC) called on South Africans to make the country ungovernable. A State of Emergency was declared in 1985, and this changed to a National Emergency in 1986, and more than 30 000 people were detained during this period. Sporadic incidents of violence and unrest continued to occur throughout 1987-1989, killing thousands of people and destroying property. Some black people died from so-called black-on-black violence, and many others were killed by police suppression. Consumer boycotts, which proved effective, were advocated for by the ANC in this period. The United Democratic Front (UDF), which was founded in 1983, helped to organise the boycotts against shops owned by white and black collaborators.

In April 1983, Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Mhlaba and Mlangeni were suddenly moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Maximum Security prison. Here the prisoners no longer had the view, open space and interaction with other prisoners as on Robben Island, but were allowed some newspapers and visits involving a greater variety of people. From 1984 Mandela was allowed contact visits.

In 1985 P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela on condition that he stayed out of resistance politics and rejected violence. In this way the government felt they could reduce international criticism, because ‘it is not the South African government which now stands in the way of Mr. Mandela’s freedom. It is he himself. The choice is his.’ Although Mandela refused to change his stand and remained in prison, this incident demonstrates the extent to which the government was feeling the effects of internal resistance and international pressure.

By November 1985, Mandela felt that it was time to make contact with the government. This, however, was delayed by his need for emergency surgery, and was moved to a hospital. Here he was visited by Kobie Coetsee, the Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons. Nothing of importance was discussed in this first meeting, although Mandela did impress Coetsee. On his return to Pollsmoor, Mandela was separated from his friends and put in a comfortable cell in the prison hospital. He wanted to speak with the others before he approached the authorities for talks, but felt they might disagree. He decided to continue in his attempts, and continued secret discussions with Coetsee and other officials who were brought in. By the end of the year Mandela had been moved to a warder’s house outside Paarl. He was occasionally given walks and drives around Paarl and the countryside, but was not ever recognised.

Talks continued, and Mandela needed to answer questions on the ANC position regarding violence, communism and majority rule. The house became more like an office, and Mandela was able to receive friends and relatives. Mandela began to work on a statement that answered questions raised during the three years of discussion. By 1988 he had even been allowed to communicate with the ANC in Lusaka, and had received visits from members of the UDF and trade unions. A meeting was planned between Mandela and Botha, but was postponed when Botha had a stroke in January 1989. Two months later Mandela’s memorandum was delivered to the president in which he spoke of the need for negotiations between the government and the ANC, but did not speak of his own release.

From 1987- 1991, there was considerable rivalry between the ANC and Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) and thousands lost their lives in violence. Both the IFP and the ANC were against apartheid, but the IFP worked within government structures. During these conflicts the police often took the side of the IFP, and there are many proven cases of the police being involved in causing conflict between the groups, often actively promoting it by supplying the IFP with arms and intelligence.

The South African government started negotiating secretly with the ANC in 1985, but it was only on 5 July 1989 that Mandela eventually met the president at Tuynhuis. Within a few months Botha was forced to resign for health reasons, and in September FW de Klerk became president talking of a ‘new South Africa’. Other political prisoners, including Sisulu, were released and the power of the State Security Council was reduced. On 2 February 1990, he announced the unbanning of the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress and South African Communist Party and the release of political prisoners, including Mandela. At the end of February, Mandela flew to Lusaka for discussions with the ANC National Executive Committee, where he was elected deputy president of the ANC. Following Tambo’s illness, he assumed leadership of the ANC.

Collections in the Archives