Case Studies

Making Up Is Hard to Do

As the Arab Spring countries are about to learn, reconciliation is hard, grinding work.


In June 1976 Hector Pieterson was shot dead by police in the black township of Soweto, launching a nationwide student uprising that injected new life into the liberation struggle in South Africa. The movement culminated — 18 long years later — in the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Mohamed Bouazizi, a young market worker in Tunisia, set himself on fire in December 2010 and died in the hospital a few weeks later. Amid the political turmoil triggered by his death, the long-serving President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and the "Arab Spring" dawned.

National turning points like these give a people the opportunity to open themselves to renewal and hope. But such watershed moments don’t necessarily bring with them smooth transitions, and when the inevitable moment of conflict arises, they also have the capacity to close the door to reform, thrusting the nation back into violence and oppression. Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa differ in many ways from South Africa’s long and painful liberation struggle. But perhaps some aspects of our experience might prove useful to those nations now aspiring to a similar journey. As someone who was intimately involved in our country’s truth and reconciliation process, I hope that a few of my reflections can be of help.What follows are a few principles that the "Arab Spring" countries might do well to ponder:

A national peace accord

Most political settlements and ceasefires collapse in the first few months of being signed. Trust-building takes time and needs to be worked at constantly to ensure that the inevitable differences between former enemies do not collapse back into violence. To be sure, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are not now in a state of war. But they, too, must overcome the legacy of many years of state-sponsored violence.

The same was true in South Africa in the early 1990s. Violent clashes were taking place around the country. In response, political leaders, businesses, trade unions, military formations, and faith communities came together and signed a multilateral National Peace Accord (NPA) in September 1991. The NPA established 10 regional and 162 local peace committees across the country. Violence was not eliminated but these committees helped to ensure that it did not derail the anticipated settlement.

Peacekeeping could prove at least as difficult in places like Syria or Libya as it was in our country. This suggests the need for institutionalized peace efforts that may emulate those of the National Peace Accord in South Africa.

Inclusive participation

South Africa’s multi-party talks between 1991 and 1993, known at first as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), included even the smallest of political groups. It was a process that recommended proportional representation in the National Assembly, which resulted in some parties gaining representation in parliament on the basis of less than 1 percent of the national vote. The negotiations even tackled linguistic and cultural concerns, with the new constitution affording official recognition to 11 languages.

South Africa’s settlement prioritized inclusivity. It is tempting to exclude those who fought against the revolution, but it is not necessarily wise. The Berbers in Libya, the Alawites and the Kurds in Syria, and other minority groups will, no doubt, be waiting for assurance that their interests are met before supporting any political settlement.

Inclusivity — encompassing even members of the old regime and other potential spoilers of a settlement — is likely to prove an especially thorny challenge for many Arab Spring countries. Dealing with it requires both political sensitivity and realpolitik.

A robust commitment to political reconciliation

The bedrock of the South African transitional justice process was political rapprochement. Reconciliation was written into the 1993 Interim Constitution and into the 1996 (post-election) Constitution. If the liberation movements had insisted on Nuremberg-style trials for the leaders of the apartheid government, there would have been no peaceful transition to democracy. If the apartheid government had insisted on a blanket amnesty, the negotiations would have broken down. A bloody revolution would have been inevitable.

Reconciliation can be broadly interpreted in two different ways. One involves a sense of coming to peace with one’s past. G.F.W. Hegel, the German philosopher, spoke of reconciliation as "metaphysical solidarity" that "leaves no scar behind." The problem is that few of us are able to reach such heights.

A second notion of reconciliation is less demanding (but only slightly). It involves moral compromise, common sense, and political realism — despite the scars that refuse to go away. It involves political savvy rather than religious magnanimity, clear-headedness rather than heroism, responsible living rather than monk-like self-denial.

People do not have to forgive one another, love one another or hug and kiss one another in order to live together in peaceful co-existence. We do, however, have to respect one another and to establish certain social and political ground rules in order to coexist peacefully. This involves balancing the demands for justice and the requirements for peace. This balance was possible in South Africa because of the strong leadership of Nelson Mandela as well as that of F. W. de Klerk and others. The question remains whether the Arab Spring countries will be able to produce leaders of the same caliber.

Ensuring local ownership of the settlement

South Africans were determined to own their political transition. The Reagan administration in the United States and the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom were long hostile to those fighting for democracy in South Africa. They branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Then, as negotiations between the apartheid regime and the African National Congress (ANC) began to unfold, President George H.W. Bush sensed an opportunity to capitalize on his involvement in peace initiatives in the Middle East. He wrote to de Klerk and Mandela, offering to assist in the negotiation process. Both Mandela and de Klerk declined the offer, as they did again on subsequent occasions. Later on, when ex-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington tried to draw Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) into the elections in a last-ditch initiative, they ended up going home empty-handed. It took a somewhat enigmatic initiative by a fellow African and Kenyan diplomat, Washington Okumu, to persuade Buthelezi to participate in the elections.

When South Africans finally went to the polls, de Klerk observed: "Nobody could say that it [the settlement] has been thrust upon us from outside." When, two years later, Amnesty International criticized the amnesty clause in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) legislation on the basis that it did not provide for criminal prosecutions of past crimes, Dullah Omar, the Minister of Justice at the time, observed: "We are building a future for South Africans." He continued, "If there is conflict between what the international community is saying and what is in the interests of the people of South Africa … we will have to live with that kind of conflict."

The Rome Statute, which later gave rise to the International Criminal Court, had not yet been ratified at the time of the South African transition. This allowed South Africa to implement a conditional amnesty clause through the TRC with arguably more independence than is the case in countries which today face the issue of how to deal with perpetrators of gross violations of human rights. International human rights activists will necessarily place any amnesty consideration in transitional Arab countries under the spotlight.

Foreign countries will, no doubt, in the ensuing months seek to promote their own economic and strategic interests in these states, which Arab Spring countries will do well to monitor and, where appropriate, resist. On the constructive side, however, there are positive interventions that foreign countries can make. In South Africa the international community conducted monitoring, provided voter education programs, and offered political counsel and financial resources. What they were not allowed to do by the South Africans was to mediate the national settlement.

Integration of armies and security reform

A major problem facing South Africa at the time of the CODESA process was the proliferation of independent and semi-independent military formations. These ranged from the military wings of various ethnic liberation movements to the armies of the Bantustan governments. The integration of these armies involved training, organisational systems, and a reorganised command structure for the creation of a single South African National Defence Force. The South African Police was also restructured to form the South African Police Services, and the intelligence services were reorganized, drawing in personnel from the intelligence services of the different formations already mentioned. In each case, security and related services were placed under civilian control through the structures of a democratic government.

The proliferation of militias and weapons, not least in Libya, constitutes a huge challenge, while the dominance of the military in Egypt presents a different problem. In each case civilian control is necessary and restraint is imperative.

Institutional reform

The apartheid structures needed to be democratised, something South Africa did via a process of sunset clauses that protected the jobs of incumbents in the security forces and other government services. Some who were formerly involved in these structures chose to resign; some were retrenched and others chose to be part of the restructuring process. A necessary and understandable policy of affirmative action was instituted for suitably qualified black applicants who were previously denied access to these structures. South Africans at the same time opposed any form of lustration. This was because they wanted to ensure that the resources of the old regime (economic, infrastructural and bureaucratic) could be accessed and built upon. The process was far from perfect, but it ensured a measure of continuity between the old and the new. Black Economic Empowerment, in turn, opened ways for black participation and ownership of private and public companies. In some cases this has resulted in crony capitalism that once again excludes workers and the poor.

The South African experience suggests that for transformation to succeed and endure in Arab Spring countries, ways need to be found to build on the resources of former regimes, to transform the institutions of state, and to create an economy which benefits all sections of the population.

Transitional justice

Several commissions were set up to redress past abuses and to secure the newly won democracy in South Africa. These included a Public Protector, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Gender Equality, the Independent Election Commission and the Commission for the Restitution of Land Rights.

A pertinent part of the South African transition was the TRC. Over 22,000 victims chose to share their testimonies through the commission, with approximately 10 percent of victims participating in public hearings covered by television, radio, and the print media. Of the 7116 people who applied for amnesty, 5143 fell within the mandate of the Commission and 1167 of these received full amnesty.

The victims were representative of millions of black South Africans, as well as whites who suffered abuse either in fighting against apartheid or who suffered human rights violations as a result of siding with the apartheid forces. All victims were given an equal chance to tell their stories, and those who were judged to have suffered gross violations of human rights became eligible for reparations. The offer of clemency was conditional. There was no blanket amnesty. Applicants were required to publicly disclose the truth concerning the atrocities they had committed. This disclosure was under cross-examination, before a panel of judges. Those applicants who were denied amnesty or failed to apply for amnesty were subject to criminal prosecution in the courts.

The media coverage of the TRC was massive. This meant that no one in South Africa, black or white, would again be able with integrity to deny the atrocities of the past or say they did not know of their occurrence.

A disappointing aspect of the TRC process is that government took five years to respond to the TRC recommendations for the payment of reparations to victims. It then reduced the amount of the recommended payments. The state has also failed to show the necessary will to prosecute alleged perpetrators who failed to obtain amnesty through the TRC. These are lessons that should be noted by other countries that may choose to implement truth commissions of their own.

* * *

There is no blueprint for the healing of nations. The most South Africa can offer other countries is the story of what this particular country did in dealing with its past, in the hope that others will be able to learn from and improve on the South African model in their own situations.

What is clear is that it is easier to overthrow a dictator, or even to remove a government from power, than it is to create a new nation built on accountability and transparency, the rule of law, and democracy. For the nations of the Arab Spring, this is just the beginning of the long, slow march to equal opportunity and economic development. Nations are rarely offered chances to transform themselves. When this opportunity comes it must be seized in a manner that offers new hope, rather than a perpetuation of past abuses under a new guise.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola