Democracy Lab

A Recipe for Freedom

Five lessons from South Africa's transition to democracy. Excerpts from a recent speech by the country's ex-president.

I would like to address some of the lessons that we have learned in South Africa -- lessons that might be helpful to all the countries around the world that are in the process of transition, that strive to clamp down on violence, that hope to fight poverty and improve the quality of life of all their people, that aim to move towards democracy and to bring freedom to their people.

I don't have time to elaborate on all the lessons we have learned, but I want to mention five.

First, if you want to break out of the cycle of violence, if you want to lay the foundations for a more prosperous society, if you want to democratize, then the departure point is that leaders must become convinced that fundamental change is necessary.

This happened in South Africa. I and my fellow leaders in the National Party became convinced that we had to change. We could not improve apartheid. We could not make it more acceptable. We had to abandon the concept of separateness and we had to embrace a new vision of togetherness, of one united South Africa, with equal rights for all and an end to discrimination. But we also had to make sure that South Africa would not become caught up in the chaos that resulted from over-hasty decolonization in many other parts in Africa and which led to dictatorships and despots.

So we were convinced that we had to change fundamentally, to make a 180-degree turn. Likewise, President Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) had to accept that they could not win a revolutionary war, that they had to abandon the idea of gaining power through force, and that they had to embrace seeking power through a democratic model. We both had to compromise. Both sides did, and these compromises resulted in the negotiations which followed. So the departure point is to convince leaders that fundamental change is necessary.

Secondly, any new dispensation will best succeed if it is based on agreements forged in inclusive negotiations. Why do I put the emphasis on "inclusive" negotiations? In most conflicts there are many parties involved in the conflict, with different agendas, with different concerns, with different fears and different aspirations.

And only if you reach an agreement based on a broad consensus -- one that is inclusive of an overwhelming majority of the population, who then say, "we take ownership of this new constitution, of the principles of this agreement reached in negotiations" -- can you be sure that it will last.

Which brings me to the third point: Such negotiations, and the agreements reached as the result of negotiation, must accommodate the reasonable concerns and aspirations of the parties to the conflict. This means sacrifice from all sides. It means that the negotiation process should not end with victor and vanquished.

It means that participants from all the parties involved must be allowed to take enough of their main concerns back to their constituency to say, "we had to make concessions on A, B, and C, but we got D, E, and F, which are fundamental for us, and therefore let's accept that we have lost on A, B, and C."

This happened in South Africa. There were painful concessions on both sides. Tragically, within just the past few months, the ANC has opened a new debate, saying they want to revisit the agreements reached in 1993 and in 1996. It's disturbing. They are attacking and questioning the cornerstones of what was a solemn accord that this was the foundation on which a new South Africa would be built. But that is a subject on its own.

The point I want to make is the negotiations must be on a give-and-take basis. Everyone has to have some pain, but everyone also has to get some satisfaction out of the negotiations.

Fourth, a balance needs to be struck between the concepts of unity and diversity. Most of the conflicts in the world today -- just think about them -- are not between countries. They are between people living in the same country. There aren't many wars between different national entities and countries at the moment.

A recent study has shown that of the 25 most serious violent conflicts in the world, only two were between countries. Twenty-three were between people living within the same borders, and sharing the same overarching nationality.

The challenge is how to accommodate diversity, how to manage diversity. And if you want to resolve the problems, if you want to bring peace to those countries in transition, you need to strike a balance between unity (the greater whole) and diversity (the building blocks that make up the greater whole). Important minorities need to feel that they are not marginalized, that they are recognized as important constituent parts of the whole.

And then, above all else, countries emerging from violent conflict need to find a formula for dealing with what we described in South Africa as political crimes, crimes committed with a political motive, not to enrich yourself but to serve a cause which you believe was an honorable one.

In many countries there is one big stumbling block to successful negotiation. It is one that prevents leaders from taking initiative to change the situation, to move towards democracy, towards greater freedom. It can be summed up in two questions: "But if I lose power, will I go to jail? Will there be retribution against me?"

The generals in Zimbabwe are holding President Mugabe upright because they are afraid of the retribution that will come for what they've done under his regime. The same thing happens in other countries. And therefore you need to find a formula. In South Africa we settled on a formula of massive amnesty that actually went further than I wanted to go.

The ANC insisted on amnesty regardless of the seriousness of the crime. I favored the Norgaard Principles that were applied in Namibia. They approved amnesty, yes, but not for cold-blooded murder and assassination and rape and the like. Amnesty cannot be justified for deeds falling outside the rules of war.

I recall one of the most painful concessions I had to make to President Mandela and his team. We had to agree to an amnesty for a man who, in cold blood, threw a bomb into a bar where innocent civilians were sitting, having a drink, and killed six of them. We had to agree to amnesty for a white man who took a repeating rifle into a bus and shot 10 people just because they were black.

I didn't want to do it. The ANC insisted on it. It was one of the most painful concessions I ever made, but it was needed in order to move forward, in order to reach a negotiated settlement. This is the sort of issue that will raise its head in all countries coming out of violent conflict. It is an issue that will need to be addressed in a principled way, and the solutions that are found to it will have to alleviate the fear of those who have to give up their stranglehold on power, to assure them that they won't have to pay a price that they are not prepared to pay.

These are lessons that I can think can be applied in the Egypts, in the Tunisias, in the Libyas of today, in the Congo and in Sudan, in Burma and in Syria, and in Israel and in Palestine.

If you analyze why things aren't progressing in all of these trouble spots, why leaders aren't taking initiatives to break out of the cycle of violence and repression and finding a path towards negotiated solutions, then these are the lessons which need to be taken to heart in trying to resolve the problems in the trouble spots of the world.

Francis Fukuyama said that "this is the end of history." There is, ladies and gentlemen, no end to history. We are making history again. The outbreak of fanatic Islamic terrorism has started a new era. The alleged failure of capitalism -- or, perhaps more accurately, the alleged failure of the type of capitalism that was practiced for so many years -- has created a new era. There is no end to history.

As my compatriots in the ANC like to put it, the struggle continues and always will.

 (Note: This article is excerpted from a speech given by De Klerk at a March 5 event in Washington sponsored by the Legatum Institute and Foreign Policy to mark the launch of Democracy Lab.)

WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images

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