History is in many ways an account and interpretation of power – how it is won and lost. Yet a good grasp of the basic qualities of power remains elusive.
Leo Tolstoy remarked in the final chapter of his novel War and Peace: 'The new history is like a deaf man replying to questions which nobody puts to him.' The 'primary question', Tolstoy went on, is: 'What is the power that moves the destinies of peoples?' He doubted whether this power, 'which different historians understand in different ways', was in fact 'so completely familiar to everyone'.
History should be an antidote to the belief that superior political or military power determines the outcome of conflicts. In an article that appeared in the 21 November 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson, a renowned physicist, tells the story of a study in the early 1970s about how to end the war that the United States was fighting in Vietnam. The study was commissioned by the RAND Corporation, whose experts considered themselves the brains of the US military establishment.
Working separately, two groups, one consisting of two economists and the other of several historians, reached completely different conclusions. The economists concluded that in a struggle to put down an insurgency what matters is not a sympathetic understanding of their struggle, 'but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concernedwith and how they are calculated'. To paraphrase: if the costs of an uprising become too high for the insurgents, they will back down. As a result, the oppressive regime will prevail.
The group of historians who worked on the RAND Corporation's project came up with a completely different answer. They looked at numerous cases of insurgency and asymmetrical wars, particularly the French colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and the British colonial wars in Africa and Malaysia. In a six-volume study they concluded that most of the wars lasted five to seven years and ended when one side lost the willpower to keep on fighting. This was a major insight, but it was lost to the world. To this day, the US Army has suppressed the historians' report.
By the end of the 1980s the South African government was not desperate to start negotiations. It was rather the fall of the Berlin Wall that provided the incentive for De Klerk to attempt to get an agreement with the ANC while its main source of financial support, the Soviet Union, was in retreat.
The business elite was concerned about the situation in the country, but its call for regime change was faint. Soldiers and policemen remained loyal and willing to continue to defend the state, though among army conscripts considerable unease about defending an unjust system had developed by the late 1980s. Nevertheless, in a poll conducted in the late 1980s less than a third of English-speaking students and less than a tenth of Afrikaner students declared themselves prepared to accept a prospective ANC government.
Chris Heunis, Botha's Minister for Constitutional Affairs until 1989, offered this sober assessment: sanctions had made it necessary for the government to negotiate, but 'there was no need to negotiate only about the hand-over of power'.
Niël Barnard, the only person who saw both Botha and Mandela on a regular basis in the late eighties, believes that Botha would not have accepted majority rule, but would have said to Mandela: 'Let's govern together for ten years and let's see how it goes.' He thinks there was a good chance that Mandela would have accepted the idea. There was no sign, however, that the electorate favoured radical change.
Until the final years of the 1980s De Klerk supported the idea of retaining the pillars of apartheid. After his election as NP leader early in 1989, he singled out morality as his main motivation for ending apartheid and for seeking a settlement.
In an interview I had with him two months after his momentous speech on 2 February, he said that hanging on to power would be immoral. In a television programme broadcast in 2002, he agreed with Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, ex-leader of the liberal opposition, that he could have been in power for at least ten more years. His main problem with that was that it would have been 'devoid of morality'.
PW Botha did not share this view of morality, and it is extremely doubtful that a clear majority of the white electorate would have given De Klerk and his party a yes vote in the referendum of March 1992 if it had known that majority rule would be the outcome of the negotiations.
Why did the Afrikaner community nonetheless go along with the deal struck between the ANC and the government in September 1992? One answer would be that after the white referendum, the tie between the government and its traditional electorate was cut. There was nothing any white group of voters could do to stop the process.
But there may also be a deeper reason. In his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1999, the political analyst and pollster Lawrence Schlemmer looked at the polls of the preceding thirty years. He concluded that Afrikaners, much more than white English-speakers, had begun to stress their religious identification in preference to a class or ethnic identification. To be living an upright moral life had come to be seen as more important than serving the Afrikaner community.
The Western world's moral sanctions, much more than economic sanctions, had sapped the Afrikaners' will to cling to power. Sooner or later, Toynbee argued, ruling minorities have no choice but to accept the status of 'an unprivileged minority' among a majority whom they once considered culturally inferior.
The Communist Party, which fought both apartheid and capitalism, has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the regime change. The SACP currently enjoys more influence in cabinet than it did under President Mbeki, but the present quality of leadership is far inferior to what it was under Joe Slovo. In addition, it has become financially dependent on the trade union federation Cosatu. RW Johnson calls the SACP leadership 'a predatory elite which rules and despoils South Africa'.
The Institute of Race Relations, the oldest liberal think tank in South Africa, found that 40 per cent of the cabinet are members of the SACP. No cabinet member questioned its report. In March 2015 the executive director of the Institute published a column under the title 'So word SA tree vir tree na sosialisme gelei' (How South Africa is being led step by step to socialism).
Support for socialism in ANC ranks is not strange. Black South Africans were the last substantial community in the world to receive their freedom, the Soviet Union was for long the only ANC backer, and communists were the ANC's only allies in South Africa when the struggle against white supremacy entered a new phase in the early 1960s.
At present the ANC government is in a serious bind. An influential economist sums up the situation well: 'The government is in a cleft between trying to pursue market-friendly policies on the one hand and appeasing socialist and leftwing elements on the other, who see the private sector as the enemy.'
* This extract was taken from The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners by Hermann Giliomee, published by Tafelberg.