South Africa: The other side of the coin

The demise of Nelson Mandela last Thursday unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of praise on the departed leader from all corners of the planet.

It was a fitting tribute to someone who singled himself out among political leaders of the world by the magnanimity and sense of dignity with which he conducted himself. His calm and poise was such that, within the single term of power he occupied, he outclassed by far those leaders who, believing in the myth of racial superiority had preceded him at the helm of power. Being free from the prejudices and revengeful character of the oppressive regime of apartheid, he put in place a liberal democracy with universal franchise, laying down the foundation of a multi-racial free-market economy.

His departure from life is not really a loss. By his actions and attitudes, he has lighted the way for others and this is what comes out from the throng of political leaders who came to South Africa on Tuesday last to pay tribute to one who set a stellar example of how to govern a country for the benefit of all.

It is apt and opportune that attention has been focussed on Nelson Mandela at the moment of his departure from life. But we ought to also consider some aspects of the peaceful transition of political leadership which started taking place in South Africa as from 1990. Two main actors were needed to work out a compromise and usher South Africa onto a higher stage of national unity. Nelson Mandela, still in prison in early 1990 was one of them. The other one was no other than Frederic Wilhelm de Klerk, the leader of South Africa’s white National Party in power. Great historical moments manifest themselves not solely when overarching decisions have to be made; they occur when the existing setup has put together the right-minded decision-makers at the right time.

It was on 2nd February 1990. The recently inaugurated president FW de Klerk addressed the white-dominated Parliament of South Africa. He made a statement which drew a line under 350 years of white rule in Africa. It was an overturning moment for the white minority that had held singular sway over the destiny of the country since 1948. He declared that the ban which had been imposed since 30 years on the ANC and the South African Communist Party was being lifted. Mandela was to be freed from jail (this happened within a week). He declared that negotiations on a new South Africa would begin forthwith. This decision was privy to a few only among the seniors of the National Party until it was made public. The extreme right from the party brusquely found themselves caught on the wrong foot unable to veer course from what was being decided on the spot.

The decision being conveyed by de Klerk had nothing ‘romantic’ about it. It was a rational decision arrived at after deep thinking beforehand and certainly not impulsive or sentimental. President de Klerk’s mission was a tough one. It consisted of persuading his own people to abandon power. He knew that there were whites who did not back apartheid but there were those others in the party who believed staunchly in white-dominant minority rule as the way forward for South Africa. It required some guts to deliver this kind of a message to them. He had them.

De Klerk had come to the realisation that apartheid South Africa was becoming increasingly internationally isolated. It was expedient to avert the impending calamity and catastrophe which South Africa was headed for both politically and economically by persisting with the decried political regime. He and some seniors in the party had come to the conclusion that the best way to ease tensions threatening to cripple the regime was to cede power to the black majority. There were hardly any crutches on which to lean to continue the reign of oppression in South Africa. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989; the fear of communism no longer served to draw international support.

Divide-and-rule tactics had also failed: the ANC had thrown out the dominant white party’s proposition to have South Africa’s blacks divided along tribal lines with distinct homelands for each. There was no plank to hang on to internally and externally, short of carrying on the persecution of the country’s black majority and, that too, to no effect since the regime was being abandoned under international pressure by all those who had upheld it so far from outside.

It is against this background that FW de Klerk decided to go for the inevitable: a calculated decision to relinquish power which the white minority had oppressively wielded for so long. He had realised that the regime had reached the end of the road and that it would be preferable to negotiate a peaceful changeover rather than risk festering a situation that was getting increasingly out of hands. Good sense prevailed. Mandela proved to be an interlocutor hors-pair in the transition to peaceful change. The apartheid system was abolished in 1991. It explains the Nobel Committee’s decision to confer the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize jointly on Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk “for peaceful termination of the apartheid regime and for laying down the foundation for democracy in South Africa”.

There is another aspect which needs to be kept in mind about the birth of the new South Africa along with Nelson Mandela. It concerns the durability of non-consensual and discriminatory forms of governments, based on the concoction of artificial political majorities.

In South Africa’s case, a succession of events dating back to the Boer wars initially led to the establishment of the system of apartheid (separateness), by the Dutch settlers to debar British colonizers from mineral exploitation and voting. It was based on the pass system, the very same which was used in colonial days to restrict the movement of the people in Mauritius. Later on, the white elite of South Africa extended repression into one of the most horrific systems of racial discrimination against the “coloured population”. Economic exploitation (mining, trading and industrial activities) became the almost exclusive preserve of the white minority (less than 10% of the total population). It was a small step from here to the almost exclusive white rule instituted under the apartheid regime.

The apartheid system which prevailed over more than four decades in South Africa had to be fed by fostering ever subtle forms of racial prejudice. Maintaining it involved constant humiliation of the majority black population and an ever-increasing level of their physical and moral repression to keep them subdued. Police, army and secret services were enlisted in ever increasing numbers to deal with the perpetual instabilities oppression gave rise to.

The “defence” budget soared over time. The regime had to keep purchasing ample supplies of arms and ammunitions to repress any semblance of rebellion in the townships and elsewhere. Many may not know it but apartheid South Africa even ran a nuclear bomb project which was abandoned later on. All of this mirrors the cost of managing serious instabilities which erupt when maintaining a repressive, artificial and non-consensual political “majority” by pitching one part of the population against other parts in a country, irrespective of whether such a “system” is based on race, colour, religion or whatsoever else.

Apartheid South Africa is but one example of unsustainable power structures built up on artificial and partial constructs. Structures of the sort will break down sooner or later and, as the current situation in South Africa shows, it takes a long time to heal the wounds and, even then, good sense takes its rightful place hundreds of thousands of innocent casualties later. From current insurrections in the Middle East going through Africa and up to uprisings as far out as China, there are plenty of illustrations of how much havoc is wreaked when groups of people get together to snatch away exclusive private gains to the detriment of the majority. It is a point worth pondering over if only in the light of the long trauma to which such a system of exploitation of the many by the few exposed the black South African population over so many years.


* Published in print edition on 13 December 2013

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