Argument

Lessons of the South Africa experience: Thoughts on the Israel-Palestinian conflict

[This article was excerpted with permission from President Thabo Mbeki’s speech at the Al-Jazeera Forum in Doha on May 24, 2010.] Al-Jazeera invited us to address this Forum on the topic–Talking to the Enemy: the South African Experience. We should perhaps conclude with some of the most important lessons specific to this experience. One of ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

[This article was excerpted with permission from President Thabo Mbeki’s speech at the Al-Jazeera Forum in Doha on May 24, 2010.]

Al-Jazeera invited us to address this Forum on the topic–Talking to the Enemy: the South African Experience.

We should perhaps conclude with some of the most important lessons specific to this experience.

One of these is that the path to the negotiations became possible once the dominant ruling power in our country realised that it could not achieve its objectives by any other means, including by continuing resort to the considerable means of repression it had at its disposal.

This realisation was not based on any refusal by the apartheid security forces to carry out their commands, but on the understanding by the political leadership that:


  • the process of repression only served to draw ever larger numbers of people into the liberation struggle, indicating that this repression, however brutal, would not defeat the liberation movement;
  • the regime was losing the support of the leading echelons among the Afrikaner and white population, opening up the prospect of a fatal division of the white population and the desertion of the black client formations;
  • the national economy had entered into decline and was getting into the position that it could not generate the resources the regime needed to maintain itself in power;
  • the situation had evolved that, with the loss of the support of the major Western powers, its international isolation would be complete, whereas its enemy, our liberation movement, would gain universal acceptance and support: in this regard the regime also had to take into account the reality that it had lost its war to subjugate Angola, and had had to agree to the independence of Namibia, which brought its ‘outer defence perimeter’ to the very borders of South Africa;
  • it needed to engage in negotiations before it was defeated – while it remained the governing authority – to secure as much power for itself as possible, taking into account the changed balance of forces.

The second is that because the liberation movement had always preferred the strategic option of a negotiated settlement, it was not difficult for this movement to agree to and engage in negotiations once it was convinced that the struggle it had waged had obliged the enemy to negotiate.

The third is that the negotiations became possible once, from the beginning, there was agreement on the fundamental objective pursued by the liberation movement from its foundation, and therefore a necessary outcome of the negotiations process – the creation of a democratic and non-racial South Africa.

The fourth is that the negotiations were facilitated by the fact that despite the participation of 19 separate political entities in the negotiations, in reality there were two dominant forces– the ANC and the National Party/apartheid regime: ultimately the negotiating parties agreed that when these two reached an agreement this would be accepted as representing an agreement by what was categorised as “sufficient consensus”.

This meant that outside of these two formations there would not emerge other forces with sufficient strength and support to derail the process of negotiations. And indeed the two principal belligerents took the necessary steps to obviate this possibility.

The fifth is that the liberation movement understood that it was strategically the leading force in the negotiations, had most to gain from the process, and therefore had the principal obligation to ensure the success of the negotiations: for this reason it accepted that it would have to enter into some compromises favouring its enemy, and thus avoid seeking a winner-take-all outcome, to encourage the regime to accept the fundamental political goal of the liberation movement of the formation of a democratically elected government.

The sixth is that because of the absence of any external mediator, the negotiating parties could focus on the real issues that would bring their constituencies into the settlement, without having to proceed in a manner that would have to take into account whatever might have been the views and interests of international interlocutors acting as mediators: this also meant that the negotiating parties had to take full ownership of the outcomes of the negotiations, with no possibility to renege on the basis that external mediators had obliged them to accept propositions with which they were not comfortable.

The seventh and last of these lessons was that effectively the Soviet Union had collapsed. This deprived the regime of the possibility to secure the support of the major Western governments on the basis that it was their ally in the struggle to defeat ‘Soviet domination’ first of South Africa and of Africa as a whole. In this context we must also mention the decision taken by the Government of Zimbabwe to postpone any action to resolve the land question in their country. The leadership of independent Zimbabwe understood that radical land reform in their country would have alarmed the apartheid regime, encouraging it to oppose the negotiations, on the basis that the ANC would follow the Zimbabwe example and dispossess the South African whites of their land and property.

In a spirit of glasnost, of transparency, we must report that Al-Jazeera originally asked us to address this Forum on the relevance or otherwise of the South African experience of ‘talking to the enemy’ to the struggle to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Informed by the principle that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” we chose to be an angel and declined this offer, agreeing only to give an account of the South African experience, conscious as we are of the complexity of the critically important and urgent challenge of resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict and the larger regional Arab-Israel conflict.

We therefore leave it to this important Forum to draw the relevant conclusions from what we have said concerning the South African experience.

However, if I may, I would like to say that it would seem to me that some of the elements that differentiate the two situations, namely the South African and the Palestine-Israel conflicts, are that:

  • though there appears to be an agreement that the negotiations should result in a ‘two-state solution’, there is in fact no agreement on this fundamental issue, as the current government of Israel has not agreed to respect the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem serving as the capital of independent Palestine: The so-called security wall Israel has built on the West Bank and the settlements it has and is building objectively create new facts on the ground that militate against its recognition of the 1967 borders. Thus while the South African belligerents could and did agree on what was most fundamental regarding the future of the country, this has not been achieved in the Israel-Palestine context;
  • The peace movement Israel is not strong enough to present an effective challenge to the broad Israeli political and security establishment. Thus, whereas the South African liberation offensive grew to present such a challenge, obliging the then ruling establishment to accept the need for fundamental change, this has not happened in the case of Israel;
  • thirdly, the Israeli political and security establishment seems to be more at ease with and finds it more comfortable to confront a violent threat rather than a concerted political-diplomatic offensive. I would hazard the guess that this is because it has absolute confidence in the power and effectiveness of its security organs loyally supported by the military establishment in most Western countries, despite the 2006 debacle in Lebanon and the political complications that have arisen as a result of its punitive 2008 military offensive in Gaza, and therefore prefers a confrontation in the area in which it is strongest and believes it is assured of victory. To the contrary, with regard to the political-diplomatic sphere, she knows that she would find it very difficult to argue against the justice of the passionate plea that President Obama made in Cairo last year, lamenting the desperate plight that has confronted the Palestinian people for 60 years, and therefore prefers not to engage a contest with the international community based on what President Obama said.
  • fourth, the people of Palestine are faced with the challenge that they have not achieved the unity and cohesion that the oppressed in South Africa largely did: This creates the possibility, which, despite the deadly violence that did occur, we largely avoided, of a fratricidal conflict that weakens and detracts from united action to achieve the common strategic goal, in this case the birth of a viable and independent State of Palestine;
  • fifth, the establishment of such a state is a matter of urgent necessity for the people of Palestine, while the majority of the Israelis seem convinced that this outcome can be postponed indefinitely, given that their strategic objective, the establishment of the State of Israel is an accomplished fact, with their principal strategic task being the defence of this State: Thus they believe that time is on their side, and can afford to use it so to change the facts on the ground that any future process of negotiations would not oblige them to enter into any meaningful compromises. Thus it views the negotiations as a zero-sum game, aimed at them dictating a solution to the Palestinians, rather than a process that should secure the amicable outcome of a secure, peaceful and successful State of Israel and a secure, peaceful and successful State of Palestine, both capable of and willing to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit;
  • sixth, Israel, itself a small state entity, enjoys major international support on the basis of a perspective it has elaborated and marketed in the rest of the world: This gives it the assurance that whatever it does, it will never face the danger of international isolation, especially by the major world powers, and will therefore always ensure that regardless of the rhetoric, its interests and aspirations will always occupy the first place in the strategic considerations of the major world powers, with those of the Palestinians being dealt with as a peripheral irritation which, nevertheless, but within the context of an immutable strategic paradigm, cannot be ignored. Therefore there would always be much publicised diplomatic activity targeted at resolving the Israel- Palestine conflict, which would give hope to the Palestinians, while putting the Israelis at ease because of the certainty that this activity would produce no result to which they are opposed, communicating the message that the activity is itself the result;
  • seventh, contrary to the South African situation, historical circumstance has dictated that necessarily the peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict should be achieved with the direct involvement of external mediators, especially the United States, and this has been accepted by the two sides. All negotiations require that the negotiating parties should accept and believe genuinely that the mediator is an honest, neutral and disinterested broker, ready to facilitate a balanced outcome that accommodates the fundamental interests of the opposed belligerent parties. Without this, it is not possible for the mediator to facilitate a lasting agreement, lasting because of the genuine willingness of the negotiating parties fully to own the outcome, and therefore take responsibility for its implementation. If unfortunately this is not the case, this imposes an obligation on the negotiating parties each to engage in a second and continuous task to participate in a contest to persuade the mediator to lean more towards their side rather than towards the other. Historically, successive US administrations have dealt with Israel as a strategic partner. However, President Barack Obama has, in addition, and as you know, said clearly that the equitable resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict is equally a matter of strategic interest to the United States, saying when he spoke at Cairo University on June 4th last year, that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own…For peace to come, it is time for (the Israelis and the Palestinians) – and all of us – to live up to our responsibilities.” Thus did the mediator of the Israel-Palestine conflict commit himself and his government to act as an honest broker, to facilitate an agreement which both the Palestinians and the Israelis will accept as their own, because it will have addressed the aspirations and the fears of the contending parties concerned, as the South Africans did when they voluntarily took ownership of the agreement they had negotiated without a mediator, and therefore accepted that it was their common responsibility successfully to implement the agreement.

It is up to this Forum to assess the correctness or otherwise of the observations we have dared to make relating to the comparison between the South African and the Israel-Palestine experiences, perhaps thus, like a fool, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

If the South African experience, when placed in a matrix relating to the Palestine-Israel situation, has even a glancing relevance to the latter, it will be up to the Forum to decide whether the negotiations about this extremely important matter are likely to succeed or not.

If the latter seems to be the most likely outcome, bearing in mind the lessons of the South African success story, the Forum might find it appropriate to consider what then should be done to ensure the success of the Israel-Palestine negotiations, and as speedily as possible, hopefully during President Obama’s term of office.

In this regard I would like to agree with President Obama when he said in Cairo:

…it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead…So let there be no doubt: the situation of the Palestinian people is intolerable…

Part of the common tragedy is that almost a year after President Obama made his passionate [Cairo] appeal, yet more tears and more blood have been shed, because a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict has not been achieved and is evidently not yet in sight.

Surely, as President Obama suggested, those of us who are neither Israeli nor Palestinian have an obligation honestly to ask ourselves the question and act on the answer to that question, about what we should do to help create the conditions for the earliest possible success of the vital process of mediating the resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict!

Like many Palestinians who dream of the realisation of the vision of which President Obama spoke, I too belong to a liberation movement and as such, have had the privilege to interact with many leaders of the people of Palestine, including the late Yassir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and through envoys, Khaled Meshal, and indeed with some of the leaders of the Israeli people, including Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tsipi Livni.

Thus do I, too, share the dream for the birth of a viable, prosperous and independent State of Palestine.

During our lifetime, some prominent representatives of a world power made bold to say that– “Anyone who thinks (the ANC) is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.” Through their efforts, during our lifetime, the people of South Africa made the statement that these soothsayers of doom were wrong.

Therefore I say to those who persist in the fight for the birth of a viable, prosperous and independent State of Palestine – the struggle continues, and victory is certain!

Thank you.

Thabo Mbeki is the former President of South Africa

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