Historians will debate about when it began. Was it in 1986, when Nelson Mandela held his first discussions behind bars with South African cabinet ministers? Was it in 1990 when Mr Mandela was released and his organisation, the African National Congress, unbanned? Was it in 1991 when multi-party negotiations got under way for a new constitution?
As to the end of the revolution, that may be 27 April 1994. Even then, when the elections are held, power will not be abruptly transferred. Mr Mandela will be president, but some faces of the old regime will linger in cabinet for five years in a coalition government of national unity. Majority rule will have to wait till 1999, if not longer.
But in terms of episodes with which to fill the history books, the coming week will provide as much material as any. It could be Wednesday, it could be Thursday - such are the complexities of nation-building.
But by the weekend Mr Mandela, President F W de Klerk and 19 other leaders will have sat down solemnly to ratify the most far-reaching political transformation seen in South Africa since the first settlers arrived in 1652. A new constitution and a bill of rights will be unveiled, and pacts designed to lay the legal foundations for a just and peaceful relationship between black and white.
Representatives of the 21 (mostly tiny) parties at the Negotiating Council have been working till two in the morning and starting again at six in the past few days to get the package completed in time for 22 November, when the apartheid parliament will sit to pass the documents into law, thereby effectively dissolving itself.
Important details still have to be touched up: the appointment and composition of the constitutional court, democracy's final referee; the roles of the police and army; the precise powers and boundaries of provincial governments. But for the most part the new deal, contained in vast legalistic tomes refined and processed over two years of negotiations, is already done, guided in all its essentials by a set of immutable constitutional principles, the first of which is:
'The constitution of South Africa shall provide for the establishment of one sovereign state, a common South African citizenship and a democratic system of government committed to achieving equality between men and women and people of all races.'
Under the constitution there will be a president and two positions of vice-president to be filled by representatives of parties that obtain more than 20 per cent of the vote in the April election; cabinet seats will be allocated proportionately to parties that obtain more than 5 per cent of the vote; there will be a national parliament and provincial parliaments, elected by proportional representation, as well as a senate and a House of Traditional Leaders in the manner of the House of Lords; the system of government will be federal, with substantial devolution of powers to the provinces.
The constitution, described as 'interim', will remain in place for five years, when it will be amended, but not dramatically revised. In the spirit of peaceful compromise, if not always practicality, which has characterised business at the talks, South Africa will have 11 official languages, though it is widely assumed that English will rapidly become dominant.
In the attempt to make the constitution as inclusive and as full of checks and balances as possible, countless new institutions have been devised - not least a plan to establish an 'Office of the Public Protector of the Republic' whose function it will be 'to investigate . . . maladministration in the affairs of government at any level'.
The de facto watchdog at the constitutional negotiations, a man who has earned the respect of all participants, has been the chief negotiator of the liberal Democratic Party, Colin Eglin. A gruff intellectual heavyweight in the Denis Healey mould, Mr Eglin said last week that South Africa was witnessing 'the most mature revolution' the world had seen.
Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk, this year's Nobel peace prize winners, have also shown remarkable persistence. The talks have been characterised by ground-breaking concessions on both sides, but also by muddle, delays, obstruction and walk-outs.
Since 1990 South Africa has also endured the worst political violence since the Boer War, with more than 10,000 killed. The massacres at Boipatong and Bisho and, in particular, the assassination of the ANC leader Chris Hani in April this year each threatened to plunge the country into civil war.
Of the two leaders, Mr de Klerk - who has been giving away white power, no less - has struggled more to keep his constituency on board. Mr Mandela, sensitive to the need not to destroy his electoral rival next year, has striven not only in words but in deeds to mollify the white population. The ANC has given them international rugby and cricket as well as - last Thursday night after the lifting of the British Equity ban - Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean.
Not enough, however, to guarantee Mr de Klerk the vice- presidential position to which he aspires next year. A national opinion poll made public last Sunday showed that the ANC could expect to win 60 per cent of the vote with the National Party second with 13 per cent.
The combined parties of the right-wing Freedom Alliance, Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha and the Afrikaner Volksfront command 11.5 per cent support, according to the poll. The FA, with its refusal to accept the new constitution and its threats of war, remains the fly in the ointment.
In appearances before the press last week, Chief Buthelezi and General Constand Viljoen, the Volksfront leader, shed their habitual bluster and came across as profoundly uncertain and confused. Which was perhaps because, according to negotiators at the World Trade Centre, General Georg Meiring, the chief of the South African Defence Force, has quietly been telling FA leaders in recent weeks that the deal on the table is the best obtainable, and any attempt at armed resistance will be crushed.Reuse content