Book 6: Negotiation, Transition and Freedom - Chapter 1 - The Transition in Context by Christopher Saunders

From the book: Book 6: Negotiation, Transition and Freedom commissioned by The Department of Education

The transition from apartheid to democracy, from White minority rule to liberation, is one of the most important turning points in South Africa’s history. To establish what kind of turning point it was, and its significance, we must consider what came before and after it. We also have to look at why the change took place, and why it took the form it did. All these are very complex and contestedissues. Assessing a turning point in the relatively recent past – in this case only a decade ago – presents a particular difficulty, for we are too close to it to know what its long-term significance will be. Nevertheless, it is possible to make a preliminary assessment of the causes, meaning and consequences of the transition from apartheid to a democratic order in South Africa.

What was the significance of the transition?

The document that perhaps best encapsulates the meaning of the transition is the Interim Constitution of 1993, which took effect at the time of the first democratic election on 27 April 1994. In its Postamble the Interim Constitution remembers “the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge”. The new Constitution is presented as providing “a historic bridge”. On the one side lies “the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice”. On the other is “a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex”. 4These words, although very brief, may encapsulateaccurately the nature of the past and the possibilities of the future, but they do not explain why the transition from apartheid to democracy occurred.

contested- challenged or disputed. An issue is contested if different people put forward different, sometimes conflicting, points of view about it
encapsulate- express a great deal of information briefly and clearly

The way the particular bridge of the Interim Constitution was built – first in the negotiation process begun at Kempton Park in December 1991 and then through the work of the Constitutional Assembly between 1994 and 1996 – is discussed in detail in Chapter 3. Though these formal negotiations lie at the heart of the process of change with which we are concerned, they are only part of what was a complex, multi-faceted transition. Much political violence accompanied the transition, though, some of it the result of deliberate destabilisation campaigns aimed at subverting the transition. However, the transition occurred relatively rapidly and without the racial civil war that most commentators in the 1980s believed was inevitable. The April 1994 election was an exciting and momentous event for most people in South Africa.

Voters queued for hours to participate in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994

Great lines of patient people snaking through the dirt roads of towns and cities, old women who had waited half a century to cast their vote, saying they had felt like human beings for the first time in their lives, White men and women saying they were proud to live in a free country at last ... it was as though we were a nation reborn.

- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. London: Abacus, 1994, p.743

When the new Parliament met, it was no longer a place where White men, the occasional woman and, from 1984, some Coloureds and Indians gathered; now for the first time it reflected the whole nation.

Great lines of patient people snaking through the dirt roads of towns and cities, old women who had waited half a century to cast their vote, saying they had felt like human beings for the first time in their lives, White men and women saying they were proud to live in a free country at last ... it was as though we were a nation reborn.

- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. London: Abacus, 1994, p.743

When the new Parliament met, it was no longer a place where White men, the occasional woman and, from 1984, some Coloureds and Indians gathered; now for the first time it reflected the whole nation.

Because of its relatively peaceful nature, and because it took the country from one of the most hated systems of rule ever devised to a democratic order, the transition is frequently regarded as so remarkable, unexpected and successful as to warrant the term “miracle”. There can be no doubt that the transition meant a dramatic and sweeping transformation. After centuries of ethnic and racial conflict, in the mid-1980s South Africa entered the most repressive phase of apartheid. This was a time characterised by the military occupation of townships, mass detentions, assassinations and the widespread use of torture. Though this seemed to most people to foretell a violent and prolonged revolution, within a decade the country had become a constitutional state with safeguards for individual liberty and numerous checks and balances on the abuse of executive power. The transition was not derailed, as many expected and often seemed likely, but successfully completed, and it ushered in an era of political stability.

Although the new Constitution ensured equality for everyone, it permitted race-based legislation to redress the inequalities of the past.

To gauge the full significance of this turning point it must be remembered that it was not merely apartheid – defined either as a set of policies dating back to 1948 or, more broadly, as segregationist legislation dating back to the early twentieth century – that was overturned.

More than three centuries of racist rule came to an end. As White pioneers moved inland from the Cape they established their power over the indigenous people and subordinated them to White rule. Though always a minority, over the centuries Whites developed a system of supremacy that by the 1960s had become the most elaborate system of racial discrimination ever devised. Yet that system was dismantled in little more than a decade. In the new order born in the early 1990s, all citizens were for the first time equal in law, irrespective of race. The end of apartheid and the surrender of political power by the White minority to the majority constitutes, in the long perspective of history, a key turning point, and one of world historical importance. In no other country where settlers established themselves in power had such a transition occurred.

What were the causes of the transition?

No turning point of such magnitude can be explained by reference to a single cause. There is no doubt that remarkable personalities played key roles, chief among them Nelson Mandela himself, but no explanation that turns on personalities alone can be adequate. A purely structural explanation is also inadequate. Attempts at such explanations have been made; they emphasise things like the collapse of the economy in the late 1980s, or the increasing pressures exerted on the apartheid regime by the international community, or the impact of the winding-down of the Cold War from the mid-1980s and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the last months of 1989. No army of liberation marched into Pretoria, but without the decades of armed struggle there would probably have been no transition.

If historians are pushed to establish a hierarchy of causes for the breakthrough to negotiations, most would probably place the mass uprising in the townships during the mid-1980s at the top of their list. It brought home to the government the impossibility of continuing to rule as before, provided the opportunity for Nelson Mandela to begin talks with the government, and led directly to the increased sanctions that helped put such pressure on the regime that it began to negotiate, at a time when the ending of the Cold War provided new opportunities for a breakthrough to a new order. Talks between people linked to the government and members of the ANC began to break down old enmitiesand establish trust. A conjuncture of interconnected events in the late 1980s, some described in more detail in Chapter 2, provided the parties with new opportunities and possibilities, and helped persuade President F.W. de Klerkto begin formal negotiations.

Why those negotiations were successful is another question that can only be answered through a detailed examination of the events of the early 1990s. However, fear of failure – and the likely consequences became all too apparent in the middle months of 1992, after the negotiations had broken down temporarily – was a major consideration. Political violence helped push the negotiators towards agreement on contested issues. All preferred the compromises to the alternative of greater violence and economic collapse. The founding election of April 1994 was, for all its flaws, sufficiently inclusive to be accepted as legitimate by all major players.

Cold War- the state of political hostility and distrust existing between the Soviet Union and its allies on the one hand and major Western powers, particularly the USA, on the other
enmity- hostility

What was the importance of events beyond South Africa’s borders?

frontline states - historically, any Southern African country actively supporting the liberation movements in their struggle against apartheid. In the 1970s several black-ruled states joined together to coordinate their responses to apartheid South Africa. They included Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and, from 1980, Zimbabwe

The collapse of apartheid and the advent of democracy are often – wrongly – discussed in isolation from the global and African contexts. Without the assistance that the frontline statesgave the exiled liberation movements over the decades, there would have been no transition. While the democratic South Africa created in the early 1990s was largely a home-grown product, the wider context is essential to understanding its transition. That South Africa’s de factocolony of Namibia became independentthrough a relatively peaceful process and emerged as a liberal democracy in March 1990 was an essential preliminary to the South African transition that followed. The transition in South Africa can be viewed as the fourth and final wave of African decolonisation. The first, taking place mostly in the 1960s, had brought political independence to most of the countries of tropical Africa and the small Southern African countries of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

With the second wave, independence came to Angola and Mozambique in 1975. The third meant independence for Zimbabwe in 1980 and Namibia a decade later. The South African case was different from all these. In other countries, the struggle had been against colonial rule, whereas in South Africa the contest was for the transfer of power from a White minority to an inclusive majority.

South Africa’s formal status as a colony had ended with the grant of effective independence by Britain during the earlier part of the twentieth century. Colonial rule survived as White minority rule; the end of that system in 1994 can be seen as a form of decolonisation.

The South African case is an example of decolonisation taking the form of neo-colonialism – one elite surrendered power to another, with the incoming group agreeing to govern in a way acceptable to the outgoing one. In this view the post-apartheid government has been so constrained by the continuing legacies of apartheid rule and the power of global capitalism, that it has been unable to pursue the radical agenda that would bring true freedom to the masses. From this perspective political emancipation was little more than a sham. The post-apartheid government did not attempt to change the economic system, but instead became, in the interests of promoting economic growth, even firmer advocates of liberal capitalism than their predecessors.

de facto- in fact; existing in fact; often contrasted with de jure, in law
sham- pretence; something that is not what it appears to be Government of National Unity (GNU) ”” a coalition government formed after the 1994 elections consisting of the African National Congress, the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party

What was the nature of the negotiated settlement?

Because it was a negotiated settlement the transition inevitably involved a series of compromises. Those who handed over power insisted on some control over the new order – hence the constitutional principles, the provisions for a Government of National Unityand the “sunset” clauses ensuring continuity of personnel. A new, interim democratic constitution was ratified by the outgoing apartheid-era Parliament in December 1993. As in Britain, argues Daryl Glaser, the transition in South Africa “involved a surrender of exclusive political power by a domestic ruling class to its social subordinates, accompanied by an effort to protect social and economic privilege from the newly enfranchised”. 5

Such an evolutionary transition, based on compromise, represented for some a “selling-out” of the revolutionary cause for which the liberation struggle had been fought. They chose not to emphasise the miraculous aspects of the transition or to see it as bringing real freedom, but rather to play down the significance of this turning point and to stress the limitations of process and outcome. People who took this latter view included those who had hoped not only for an end to apartheid, but also for the overthrow of the capitalist system itself. With their expectations for revolutionary change dashed, they claimed that the negotiated settlement brought little more than superficial political change and did not substantially alter the lives of the poor. While the outcome did restore dignity to those who had previously been unable to vote, South African society remained one of the most unequal in the world. As the country celebrated ten years of “freedom” (the meaning of which is discussed in depth in Chapter 4), many called for a socio-economic “revolution” to follow the political one, for social and economic transformation to end the widespread poverty that continued to exist – though how this would be done was never made clear.

Because they believed it was vitally important in making the transition possible, those who took power followed essentially the same economic policies as their predecessors. They accepted the neo-liberal prescriptions of the international financial institutions as necessary if South Africa was to grow and to enter the world economy. Critics of the transition condemned what they saw as a series of pacts between old and new elites, deals which had no significant involvement of ordinary people and were not in their interests. Though in some respects post-apartheid South Africa did successfully integrate itself in the world economy, economic growth remained sluggish and large numbers of jobs were lost. Critics asked what “freedom” meant to those without food or the ability to pay for the new services now available.

How did South Africans respond to the negotiated settlement?

The immediate aftermath of the founding election was a time of euphoriaabout the success of the “miracle”. For those who wrote about the South African transition at that time, the negotiated political settlement was a triumph of democracy. With the National Party’s withdrawal from the Government of National Unity in mid-1996, it became easier to see that power had passed to the majority. The transition then increasingly began to be interpreted as involving essentially a transfer of power from White minority rule to Black majority rule. For a number of Black scholars the election of April 1994 represented not so much the triumph of democracy, or even emancipation from apartheid, but rather liberation in the sense of independence from settler rule. The logo of the Pan Africanist Congressexplicitly linked South Africa to Ghanaas the first country in tropical Africa to win independence in the 1960s and whose leaders had spoken of overthrowing settler rule. Although not many voted for the Pan Africanist Congress in the 1994 election, many ANC supporters shared this interpretation, in which African decolonisation ended not with Namibia’s becoming independent in 1990, but with an ANC government taking office in South Africa in May 1994.

Had the transition been followed by civil strife or anarchy, it would be less easy to see it as a turning point. As it happened, however, the reconciliation policies of Nelson Mandela and his associates successfully defused both the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal and the threat from the White far-right wing. The outcome was a stable order that faced tremendous challenges, many the legacy of apartheid, but no serious threat from within the country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up by the post-apartheid government as a way to deal with the past, played a significant role in achieving this.

The Interim Constitution of 1993 spoke of “a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntubut not for victimisation”. It also said, “The pursuit of national unity, the well-being of all South African citizens and peace require reconciliation between the people of South Africa and the reconstruction of society.” 6Therefore, the first democratic Parliament approved legislation that set up the TRC.

euphoria- a feeling of intense happiness
ubuntu- a spirit of fellowship and compassion, especially as associated with African society; (Xhosa and Zulu, literally humanity, goodness)

Then Archbishop Desmond Tutuwas appointed Chair of the Commission by President Mandela, with Alex Boraine as his deputy. In 1995 the Commission began its work, with victims testifying in public hearings and perpetrators applying for amnesty. After some 5 000 of the over 20 000 victims who came forward had testified in public, the Commission presented a five-volume Report to President Mandela in October 1998. It took longer than expected for the Commission’s amnesty committee to deal with the over 7 000 amnesty applications, and it was not until early 2003 that the final two volumes of the Commission’s Report were completed. Only then did the government take a decision on final reparation payments to victims.

There were numerous flaws in the TRC process. What the government paid as reparations fell far short of what the TRC had recommended. Many high-profile perpetrators had been given amnesty on the grounds that they had made full disclosure and that their acts had been politically motivated. However, many other perpetrators, and those who had given the orders, had not come forward. More people had died as a result of apartheid in the region than in South Africa itself, but much of what had gone on in other countries was not disclosed, for the military in particular did not co-operate in uncovering that truth. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, the TRC did uncover who had been responsible for many horrible deeds, and brought that horrific past to the surface of public discourse.

The extent to which the work of the TRC will promote national reconciliation in the long run remains to be seen. In this respect the transition remains incomplete. Ten years is too short a time for a democratic culture to take root, and the present crises of Zimbabwe and HIV/AIDSpose threats to the consolidation of the new democracy. The full story of this most recent turning point in South Africa’s history can only be told in the future.

Negotiation, Transition and Freedom