Without a Mandela the CODESA Accord became a recipe for the dictatorship of the majority

2013-02-28 13:13

What if……..?

This is a question people often ask themselves, especially when things go wrong because of bad choices, bad luck, or whatever. We like to imagine what might have been if we did things differently.  By then, of course, it is too late and we have live with the consequences of our mistakes.

As I reflected on the cri de Coeur of dr Mamphela Ramphele about the pitiful way they are governed  shortly after having watched History channel’s  Hollywood style documentary about the ‘miracle’ of SA democratic transformation,  the ‘what if?’ question strongly came to mind.

Had we but anticipated at the time the possibility that ANC would make such a mess of ruling the country, would we have settled for what we did? Could it not have been foreseen, given the realities of South Africa, that the CODESA accord would end up in a dictatorship of the majority, one-party domination and the legal abuse of power?

Perhaps these consequences were not seriously analysed, swept under the carpet, or thoroughly debated at the conference, for the sake of getting an agreement. In any case, emasculated by the scourge of apartheid and particularly by the vast discrepancy in balance of power and legitimacy between the parties, what was sought as ‘first prize’ was a ‘respectable’ exit from the old order.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost. A more powerful and legitimate indictment against the present state of the country than that of struggle stalwarts of the calibre of  Mamphela  Rampheleand Barney Pityana is hardly possible. The government has “failed massively” and the ‘miracle’ has gone awry was the gist of their message.

This has happened basically and essentially because our political and constitutional system allows abuse of power as legal. The government has methodically and ruthlessly exploited the existing constitutional dispensation for corrupt and self-serving power politics and one-party authoritarianism.

The conclusion one must inevitably come to is that without the wisdom and leadership of a Nelson Mandela, the CODESA deal was bound to founder. When Mandela was gone, the chemistry that made the deal work simply dissipated. At the time, we celebrated the miracle of South Africa’s peaceful liberation from the scourge of apartheid and the hope to escape forever from the aberrations of bad governance and power abuse. This hope lies in shatters as we taste the bitter fruit of what seems to have been a Faustian deal at Kempton Park.

So the question: What if?

Could all this have been foreseen or avoided? It is hard to say. However, with the benefit of hindsight, one may ask: were we not let down by the inexperience, incompetence, even the gullibility and naiveté, of the negotiators? What was lacking in particular, it seems, was  wisdom, political, strategic and tactical prescience as well as a clear sense of history. Had we, one may ask, but negotiators at CODESA of the ilk of a James Madison or Alexander Hamilton in Philadelphia, or leaders with vision and gravitas like generals Jan Smuts, JBM Hertzog and Louis Botha in Vereeniging!?

We entrusted the future of SA to lawyers, bureaucrats and professional politicians who seemed to have had little understanding of constitution making in deeply divided or plural societies as well as the fine art of effective negotiation. Political scientists, historians and philosophers were conspicuously absent at CODESA. It was basically a bureaucratic/legalistic/technical, committee effort, apparently to get a deal as honourable and as soon as possible. Wise and knowledgeable experts would have pointed out (inter alia) that one-party dictatorship was inevitable if checks and balances were not brought into play, that majoritarianism was not the ideal form of government in a deeply divided plural society, that federalism (or consociationalism) with more built-in checks and balances was the better option, and that the party list proportional voting system was the wrong choice.

We like to boast about our wonderful constitution. Yes, on paper it looks brilliant.  But the same was said about the constitutions of erstwhile communist states, the Soviet Union in particular. This constitution has done little if anything to ensure good, clean, responsible governance, to protect minority (particularly cultural) rights, to prevent the lamentable misuse and decline of our legal system, rampant corruption, decay of moral standards, decline of national education, and the abuse of power.

It may be argued that in the end, the government negotiators had little choice but to settle for what they did as the ANC used its overwhelming power and legitimacy skilfully to call the shots. As Cyril Ramaphosa indicated in the History documentary, the Boipatong massacre was the tipping point. It made the government realise the extent of its emasculation and relative weakness at the negotiating table. A sweetener, no doubt, was Joe Slovo’s sunset clause, assuring the National Party negotiators extra time in the cabinet, a salary and a pension. In the end, perhaps most importantly, the assurance of President Mandela’s mature and wise leadership erased all doubts and made the deal look good.

Now, as things went so badly wrong, one can postulate the hypothesis that if the power equation at Kempton Park negotiations were more equal, a better deal would have been possible.

This brings me to the important point of international involvement. A question that still pre-occupies impartial observers and respected analysts is the possible balancing of the power equation by some involvement of the international community. From a power and legitimacy point of view, allowing a role for an international presence at the table could well have made a big difference. But for some reason the government at the time either refused or neglected to entertain this possibility.

While working at the Department of Foreign Affairs, I suggested to Minister Pik Botha that we invite Harvard professor Roger Fisher and Leiden professor Arend Lijphart to advise the government. Both were good friends of mine, very interested in what was happening in South Africa and willing to help in an advisory capacity. Roger Fisher was a world renowned expert on negotiation, having also served as President Jimmy Carter’s advisor at the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Palestine. He wrote many books on the subject (amongst others “Getting to Yes”). Arend Lijphart was a world expert on plural societies, federalism and ‘consociational democracy’ and very knowledgeable about South African politics.

Botha was sympathetic to the idea and immediately arranged a meeting at his office in the Union Buildings with Constitutional Affairs minister, dr Gerrit Viljoen, and his director-general, adv. Fanie van der Merwe. I made my proposal, but to my surprise, Van der Merwe dismissed the idea, stating rather bluntly that ‘no foreign help was needed’. Viljoen concurred. “We can do it ourselves” was their basic message. My follow-up arguments were of no avail and to my utter regret I had to inform the two professors that the government had declined their offer.

I remember thinking at the time that we seemed to have become rather obsessed with the belief that playing the Africa identity card could yield political dividends. It occurred to me that our claim to being as African and our expressed identification with African solutions might have blurred strategic weaknesses in our negotiating armament. And the fellows sitting opposite the table had recognised this.

Later, serving as SA Ambassador in Russia, ambassadors from Germany, the Netherlands and France privately suggested to me that while they were very pleased about the changes in South Africa,   the government should perhaps act with greater circumspection, and not to rush the process to get a deal only to regret it later.  Even before Mandela’s release, President Mikhail Gorbachev said in a speech in the Kremlin (welcoming Zambia President Kenneth Kaunda): “The principle of political settlement is quite applicable also to the resolution of problems in Southern Africa. If guarantees are required for reaching a political settlement, it would be possible to think about such guarantees on the part of the UN…As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, it is prepared to play its positive role on this issue.” Senior Russian academics also warned me that South Africa should not settle for a deal which did not guarantee the future of the white population.

Against this background, and bearing in mind the vast power asymmetry between the negotiating parties, think it was a lost opportunity for the government not to involve the international community, perhaps as guarantor of some sort. Even if kept at the margin, such involvement could perhaps have given greater credibility to at least some of the agreements that today our former leaders are accusing the ANC government of abrogating and or of ignoring. Matters that come to mind may have included cultural and language rights. International bodies have shown much greater sensitivity toward such protections for minorities than a majoritarian tyranny. The ANC at the time could no longer rely on Soviet support, while the government’s legitimacy was enhanced by the release of Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC, and its intention to bring about a democratic South Africa. The game had changed. The international community was no longer solidly behind the ANC, its power was overestimated. Under the circumstances, particularly the West could have played an important role as, an honest broker or a co-guarantor.  But this possibility was never contemplated, the international community was never engaged, and a golden opportunity was lost for ever.

And all one can do now is to cling to straws like Ramphele’s cri de Coeur and hope for the best.

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