Longread: Chris van der Aa, Miracle or muddling through? South Africa’s transition from apartheid to ‘liberal’ parliamentary democracy

The peaceful transition from minority rule to liberal democracy in South Africa at the end of the previous century has been hailed as a miracle around the world. South Africa’s racial reconciliation, its adoption of a progressive constitution, and its embrace of democratic practices for all South Africans was widely regarded at the time as an example for all societies struggling with the backlash of colonialism, segregation, and despotism. However, what was the real reason that historical developments which could have led to political radicalisation and violent conflict have in fact led to negotiations for a peaceful transfer of political power? What historical changes facilitated this so-called miraculous event in which the involved parties had less to gain from violence and confrontation, and more from a negotiated settlement?

This longread will first analyze which changes occurred in South Africa leading up to power sharing negotiations between the ruling white elites, various non-white parties and other actors of political importance, starting in the 1970s. Secondly, the negotiations themselves will be analysed, focusing roughly on 1989 until 1996. Finally, there will be some brief remarks on South Africa’s post-apartheid political system, for which I also kindly refer the reader to the thesis.

The political structures of apartheid

South Africa’s political system prior to the negotiated settlement of 1994 is perhaps best known for the set of segregationist laws summed up by the term ‘apartheid’. This set of laws gradually came into effect after the Afrikaners (mainly descending from Dutch-speaking settlers) had won the post-WWII elections from that other white group, the English-speaking South Africans (mainly from British descent). The two white groups had for a long time been at odds politically and militarily in the previous decades, which had culminated in two full-scale armed conflicts. It was after these ‘Boer Wars’ from 1880-1881 and again from 1899-1902 that the main political aim of the Afrikaners became to rid themselves from British dominance. Apartheid, in other words, initially also segregated different white groups. That is the first little-known fact about apartheid’s background.[i]

The second little-known fact is that South Africa, alongside most western countries, had for a long time been a parliamentary democracy. Since 1910 South Africa had an upper- and lower house in which democratically elected parliamentarians took up seats (representatives in the upper house were elected indirectly, in the lower house there was direct popular election). Active and passive voting rights were reserved for whites only (except in the Cape Province, where coloureds were also included). Hence a parliamentary tradition had existed in South Africa, just like in most western countries.

Unlike most western countries, however, towards the second half of the 20th century South Africa did not evolve into a liberal parliamentary democracy. A liberal democracy would have meant full inclusiveness, and after winning the first post-WWII elections the Afrikaners took South African parliamentary tradition in a different direction. The total separation of spheres in South Africa entrenched by apartheid laws would, it was thought, ensure Afrikaner political dominance and the protection of its language and culture, which had been so severely threatened by British colonialism and native peoples alike. So-called ‘homelands’ were designated to various black peoples granting them political sovereignty in an attempt to keep spheres totally separated. Non-whites in South Africa, constituting a large majority, were left with a disproportionally small percentage of land. However, although Afrikaner political dominance had been successfully achieved by the 1970s, successfully implementing ‘homeland’ policies was far from completed. Moreover, South African economic growth had begun to slow down. These aspects had a big influence on the changes that led up to the major shift in political power in the 1990’s.

Attempts to reform apartheid

In the mid-1970s, a number of factors which previously were not significant enough to effect change had gained momentum. In the first place, there were social and economic troubles. Some apartheid laws, for instance, became the victims of their own success. Drawing on a combination of white management, skilled white labour and unskilled (and cheap) black labour, South Africa’s economy had done well up until that point. Job reservation for whites in specialized positions, as well as in middle- and upper management, made sure spheres on the job market were kept largely separated. A growing economy, however, eventually requires more than that to keep the growth at a steady pace. It needed diversification within various industries, such as agriculture and mining, and the rise of manufacturing also caused an increasing demand for specialized, skilled labour. Through the so-called ‘colour bar’, skilled labour positions were limited by law to whites or perhaps a small percentage of non-whites.

Eventually, there simply were not enough white people in South Africa to fill those positions anymore. Moreover, a growing economy requires free movement of labour. This movement was hampered by several pre-apartheid and apartheid laws. For instance, to be able to move freely from home to work, black labourers were often required to carry a domestic passport because their work was usually in or close by a white area. The amount of labourers allowed to do so was limited by a measure called ‘influx control’ to keep blacks from settling permanently in the urbanized white areas. Finally, education in homelands and other non-white areas was very poor, creating difficulties for companies trying to fill specialized job vacancies.

None of this really concerned the Afrikaner leaders from the 1950’s and 1960’s. During these decades, economic growth had been unproblematic and apartheid had been more dogmatic. H. Verwoerd, prime minister from 1958 until 1966, once famously declared ‘If South Africa has to choose between being poor and white or rich and multi-racial, then it must rather choose to be white.’[ii] His successors B.J. Vorster and P.W. Botha, however, disagreed and started implementing changes, such as gradually increasing state spending on black education. Botha  even went as far as stating upon taking office in 1978 ‘that it was no longer the task of the Nasionale Party to maintain apartheid but rather to reform it.’[iii]

Implementing reforms proved to be a daunting task for the ruling Nasionale Party, if only because reforming too much could alienate their white constituency. For example, the government did spend more and more on state education in black areas, but the language in which pupils were taught remained Afrikaans. The NP’s reasoning, backed by conservative opposition, was that blacks could not have a say in this matter since it was white taxpayer’s money that paid for it. This, on the other hand, increasingly offended black communities who preferred to be taught in English to improve job prospects, or, alternatively, in their respective native languages. Protests erupted occasionally, with the Soweto uprisings in 1976 in which hundreds of youths were killed as a sad landmark. In trying to accommodate the economy and to quell the unrest, the traditionally close triangle between big South African businesses, the government, and the state was broken up by allowing black labourers to form unions. In allowing the organisation of black workers the Nasionale Party took a major step towards freeing up the economy but again, their white constituency frowned heavily upon this measure. Black unionism, moreover, quickly gained political momentum on a national scale in the 1980’s, which added to erosion of the Afrikaner power base.

Meanwhile, the homeland policies had clearly not brought the desired results. The goal was still for various black peoples to have their own homelands outside the white-held areas in South Africa. Here, also, a kind of Janus-faced reform was implemented. Botha’s government oversaw the forming of a new constitution in 1984 which confirmed the homelands’ sovereignty and complete independence (if that hadn’t already happened) and it replaced the upper house and lower house  with a tricameral parliament (one for whites, one for coloureds, and one for Indians). Granting non-whites complete political inclusion on a national level was a definite departure from apartheid and was applauded around the world, which was by now watching ever more closely what was happening in South Africa.

Homeland independence seemed like a noble gesture but for a couple of important aspects. The most important one was the political exclusion from South Africa, since the majority of blacks had now been ‘given’ their own independent countries in which to exercise their political rights. This had been an apartheid ideal all along: complete separation of spheres. However, the homelands’ infrastructure was lacking on almost all levels, including education, security forces, or indeed political institutions. As a result, instead of quelling unrest, the homeland policies stirred up more black frustration with the Afrikaner government. Combined with increasingly militant resistance from movements like unions inside South Africa and the ANC from its bases in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland, South Africa’s system of apartheid had come more and more under siege. Pressured from the outside world by costly international sanctions, the Afrikaner government realized in the late 1980’s that if power was going to change hands it should start negotiations from a position of strength rather than of weakness.

The road to negotiations: reaching a mutually hurting stalemate

There were, in general, three political aspects that influenced the Nasionale Party to move to negotiations. First of all, at the end of the 1980’s, Nasionale Party’s power in parliament had been severely eroded by a number of developments. Under its ruling and guidance, state bureaucracy had expanded, becoming more of a financial burden. Repeated attempts to revive the homeland policies and maintaining a massive security force apparatus, in part to support its active anti-Soviet stance in the world, had been detrimental to national budgets. South Africa had even begun developing a nuclear weapons program, unilaterally abandoning this costly project in the late 1980’s.[iv] The government had faced increasing criticism from both the far-right, strengthened by a breakaway from the ruling party, and from progressive parties in parliament. The far right increasingly drew voters from the Nasionale Party who were disgruntled by their traditional party in respect to eroding Afrikaner ideals.

On the other side in parliament, progressive parties complained about the increasing repressiveness of state and government institutions in their efforts to quell societal unrest. From 1985 onwards, South Africa even faced a four-year-long state of emergency, effectively bypassing parliament as the law-making body on a number of essential policymaking issues and placing near-dictatorial powers in the hands of the executive. All this meant that in the upcoming elections in 1989, the Nasionale Party’s traditionally comfortable lead was going to be under real threat. The NP ended up winning that election, but by the smallest margin in history. The shrinking of their majority was largely credited to erosion from the far-right.[v]

Secondly, the electoral gains made by the far-right in parliament were only one sign of increasing polarization of South African society. As mentioned before, failing homeland policies had further alienated blacks from engaging peacefully in democratic processes in their respective homelands. The political institutions there were largely ignored by the masses anyway since they were widely regarded as instruments of white oppression. Increasingly, blacks took their grievances onto the streets through mass protests led by unions and other civil organisations. Militant liberation organisations such as the Khosa-oriented ANC, meanwhile, had become more and more violent in their resistance against the Afrikaner government. Their actions had begun to include sabotage of strategically important infrastructure and even bombings of politically significant targets.

Other smaller black groups such as the Zulu-oriented Inkhata Freedom Party felt threatened by both the white government and black organisations like the ANC, becoming increasingly violent against both. In the province Natal, where both ANC and IFP enjoyed strong grassroots support, large-scale street battles between the two were spiralling out of control. By the beginning of the 1990’s, societal conditions there resembled nothing short of civil war. Adding the fatalities caused by government attempts to quell unrest, the total death toll soared to an estimated 15.000 by 1994.[vi]

Thirdly, international sanctions, though not directly threatening economic stability, were beginning to hurt. By the end of the 1980’s many western countries had officially disproved of apartheid practices and were actively engaged in effecting sanctions against South Africa. These came in the form of consumer boycotts of typically South African exports such as gold, diamonds, but also of fruit and wine. On a cultural level, South African sports teams found themselves banned from taking part of international tournaments and foreign universities cut off academic contacts with their South African counterparts. Most costly of all, however, were the international attempts (sometimes successful, sometimes failing) to deny South Africa crude or refined oil.

South African soil has been blessed with many natural resources but oil is not one of them. Almost all of it has to be imported. Oil-exporting countries around the world were asked by the international community to cease oil trade with South Africa until tangible political reforms had taken place. Some countries signed up, but others were reluctant. Oil export is a profitable business and sanctions could be reciprocated, causing harm to one’s own economy. However, the countries that continued trade could now ask higher prices for the same oil (like Iran), or companies were approached via-via by South Africa to do a more expensive under-the-table-deal (like British Petroleum). The results of this international oil embargo were never effective in the sense that the South African oil imports dried up. South Africa just found alternative ways to obtain it. However, alternative ways were often much more expensive so in that sense, the embargo indirectly put more pressure on an already strained South African national budget. After all, oil was to South Africa what it is to most countries: a strategic necessity. Without it, lights go out, people stop driving cars and the armed forces can no longer function.

The combined momentum of the aforementioned factors, socio-economic and political troubles, international sanctions and polarization, led to something called a ‘Mutually Hurting Stalemate’, in which the parties that are in conflict with each other have potentially more to gain from negotiated settlement than from continued confrontation.[vii] The Afrikaner government on the one hand and black opposition like the ANC on the other had reached a point in which escalation would unlikely lead to victory for either side. The deadlock itself was too costly to maintain for both, so an alternative way out had to be found. By 1990, negotiations had started.

The negotiations: miracle or muddling through?

As was mentioned before, the peaceful transition in South Africa from minority rule to a liberal democracy has been called a miracle when it took place. The dreaded civil war had been averted, certainly, and that has been a genuine achievement. However, the absence of war does not guarantee the opposite. Transition had not been peaceful but rather violent indeed, claiming the lives of thousands in political and ethnic clashes between 1985 and 1994. The so-called ‘miracle’ can be more aptly described as ‘muddling through’ with a number of vital issues left unresolved. Finally, the degree to which South Africa has become a liberal democracy must be viewed critically as well, if only because South Africans deal with its successes and its failures on a daily basis.

As for the issues left unresolved, the first one that needs to be mentioned here are the negotiations themselves. The format chosen by the Nasionale Party on the one hand and the ANC and affiliated parties on the other, was a round-the-table setup with no non-interested parties involved. The significance of this is that, contrary to a format with for instance an independent third-party mediator, the rules and procedures for the negotiations become part of the negotiations themselves. All of the involved parties quickly became aware of the logic following from this setup: whoever was able to exercise the most influence over the procedure, i.e. the way of negotiating, stood the best chance of bargaining the best deal. Hence, a lot of time had to be invested in paving the way for the actual negotiations because the procedures themselves were a constant point of contention.

As mentioned before, out on the South African streets reality was growing uglier and more violent by the day. This also had its effect on the negotiations. The ruling Nasionale Party could ill-afford a civil war on their watch since they would most certainly be blamed for losing control. Time was not on their side in this respect. The ANC, the IFP, and the various homeland representatives involved in the negotiated settlement were not in a hurry in this respect, knowing all too well that time was working in their favour. They had little to lose. On the other hand, since the eventual aim of the negotiations was liberal democracy in which the NP and its white constituency inevitably would become relatively marginalized, delay would not hurt the ruling party. The ANC, banking on its vast numbers in a liberal democracy, had to deal with its future electorate whose patience was growing thin and whose militancy grew out of proportions. Even so, hammering out the procedures for the negotiations themselves took the better part of 1990 and 1991, and eventually even led to a breakdown of talks in 1992. With the IFP and several militant Afrikaner movements threatening to boycott any future government and take up arms, the future was looking bleaker than ever.

These tensions also resulted in the fact that the issue of a new constitution was also left unresolved. Re-written from scratch but inspired by a 1955 ANC document, it was supposed to become the ultimate safeguard against any future abuse of state power and the ultimate guarantor of unalienable individual rights. Ironically, Afrikaners leaned heavily on this aspect, realizing their language and culture were once again at stake in a future South Africa. They were going to be a minority and their rights had to be entrenched in the Constitution along with the rights of the other minorities in South Africa. When the negotiations resumed, the final text could not be agreed upon before the forming of a Government of National Unity (GNU). The forming of a GNU in which all major parties took place was seen as a crucial ingredient to start the new democracy with and nothing was allowed to endanger it. The idea was that if at the start an important party felt left out, South Africa would very quickly become another Angola or a Zimbabwe. Finalization of the Constitution was therefore postponed until after the elections of 1994. After two years, the Nasionale Party quit the GNU to join the opposition in 1996 over unhappiness with the final text of the Constitution, effectively leaving the ANC to govern by itself. The ANC has been the main party in power in South Africa ever since, backed-up by the South African Communist party and support from the main unions.



[i] For more information on this aspect of apartheid, see e.g. H. Giliomee, The Afrikaners. Biography of a people (Cape Town 2003).

[ii] Quoted in A. Sparks, The mind of South Africa. The story of the rise and fall of apartheid (London 1990) 201.

[iii] Giliomee, The Afrikaners, 587.

[iv] http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/49411/j-w-de-villiers-roger-jardine-mitchell-reiss/why-south-africa-gave-up-the-bomb

[v] Giliomee, The Afrikaners, 637.

[vi] A. Guelke, South Africa in transition. The misunderstood miracle (London 1999) 45.

[vii] I. W. Zartman, ‘The timing of peace initiatives: hurting stalemates and ripe moments’, in Darby and MacGinty (eds.), Contemporary peacemaking. Conflict, violence, and peace processes (New York 2003) 19.

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