Democracy Lab

Redrawing the Map for Democracy

How South Africa's post-apartheid government tried to do away with the territorial legacy of racial segregation.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University. 

From 1948 to 1994, the ruling National Party government carved apartheid into South Africa's political map, dividing the country's internal administration based on the principle of racial segregation. To escape the legacy of discrimination, the framers of post-apartheid South Africa had to redraw the country's internal boundaries while navigating potentially explosive competing interests. They called upon representatives of each faction to reach a political settlement, albeit an imperfect one, that survives today. The process was challenging and political, but it serves as an example for other transitioning governments dealing with similar mandates.

By 1990, faced with mass rioting, international sanctions, and a determined underground resistance, South Africa's President F.W. de Klerk of the National Party had unbanned the African National Congress (ANC) -- the anti-apartheid movement led by Nelson Mandela -- and began secret negotiations to formulate a post-apartheid government.

Multiparty talks proceeded fitfully, stalling amid civilian fighting and an increase in violence throughout the country, but the specter of mass uprising ultimately forced compromise in 1993. "If we didn't [work for a settlement], the masses would have taken to the streets and demanded immediate takeover," Roelf Meyer, a chief negotiator for the National Party government, said. Formally known as the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum, the negotiators set April 1994 as the deadline for both a new constitution and elections -- South Africa's first with universal adult suffrage.

But with elections looming, the post-apartheid map of South Africa was still largely undetermined. The new, unified South Africa with equal citizenship for all would require an end to the practice of segregated homeland territories, or Bantustans, that divided the black African majority from the white and other minority populations. The multiparty negotiators were faced with a difficult task: dividing the country into integrated provinces without reinforcing old wounds from segregation or opening new ones by dividing existing communities. Any discussion about new borders would open the door to groups that wanted semi-independent ethnic enclaves separate from the rest of South Africa. Yet ensuring a peaceful transition from minority to majority rule required balancing a wide range of moderate and extremist positions. The two center parties had to weigh voices from the fringes that threatened to act as political spoilers in the process, without rewarding them for using violence to advance their agendas.

South Africa was previously divided into four provinces (two former British colonies and two previously independent Boer republics) and 10 homeland areas. Under apartheid, the government did not recognize residents of the homelands as full citizens of South Africa, as part of a broader strategy of racial segregation and discrimination. Residents of the homelands received markedly inferior social services, had fewer economic opportunities, and were considered guest workers if they sought employment in one of the provinces.

During the transition era, homeland leaders argued for divisions along ethnic lines that would allow them to retain power; in an ethnically diverse community, they stood little chance of winning election to political office. Long-serving homeland leaders were strong advocates of such ethnically defined provinces. In KwaZulu, Mangosuthu Buthelezi commanded considerable influence through the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu cultural movement turned political party. Other negotiators could not ignore Buthelezi's demands due to ongoing violence between ANC and Inkatha supporters in South Africa's urban slums, where migrant workers from KwaZulu often lived in cramped hostels. Tension between the groups had been growing as apartheid came to an end. In July 1991, newspapers had reported that members of the apartheid government's security forces had funded and trained Inkatha supporters to provoke violence between the two groups in order to undermine the ANC.

Buthelezi was not alone; other homeland leaders, such as Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana, also sought to keep power by preserving the boundaries of the homelands they controlled. To bolster their bargaining positions, the homeland leaders teamed up with another group advocating segregation: conservative Afrikaners who demanded an ethnic Afrikaner homeland (volkstaat). This faction, which included leaders of railway workers, farmers, and mine workers, threatened to use their collective power to damage the country's economy if the ANC did not set aside a territory for white speakers of Afrikaans. Buthelezi, Mangope, and leaders of the conservative Afrikaners formed the Concerned South Africans Group (COSAG), later called the Freedom Alliance, through which they sought to preserve or augment the power they held under apartheid.

More radical Afrikaner groups also used threats of violence to gain more influence than their level of national support warranted; media reports estimate that these groups represented only a minority of South Africa's roughly 3 million Afrikaners. During the negotiating forum's constitutional discussions, members of the far-right paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement rampaged through the conference center. The vandalism and intimidation of participants made it clear that extremists were willing to use violence to achieve their objectives.

Even though the ANC was vehemently opposed to the plans advocated by these factions, they still needed the conservative Afrikaners and the homeland leaders to "buy in" to the border-drawing process, in order to avoid further violence and isolate groups like the Afrikaner Resistance Movement.

Recognizing that they needed both technical expertise and representation of the competing viewpoints to draw up a mutually acceptable map, the negotiating forum's leaders set up the Commission on the Demarcation/Delimitation of States/Provinces/Regions (CDDR) in May 1993, which would hear and evaluate proposals for the new boundaries from interested parties around the country. The commission would then report its conclusions and recommendations to the negotiating forum.

The CDDR was made up of 15 commissioners, with wide representation among the negotiating parties, though the ANC and the National Party retained significant influence over the process and each nominated one of the commission's co-chairmen. Members were chosen to reflect the political, gender, and racial makeup of South Africa. Although the commissioners had different political affiliations, they were united by the desire to find a solution that would enable the elections to move forward.

"You had to get a balance, because if you had somebody that was so hell-bent on their own political view, then you would never have been able to come up with a consensus document," Renosi Mokate, head of the technical committee, explained. "Because we were all trying to arrive at a workable solution for the country ... people also tempered their own ideological and political agendas."

The commissioners' first task was to decide how to evaluate boundary proposals. The negotiating forum mandated that the CDDR take into account historical boundaries, the availability of infrastructure and service delivery, existing government structures, demographics, economic viability, potential for development, "cultural and language realities," and that it limit financial costs, inconvenience to citizens, and dislocation of service. Interpretation of those criteria, however, was in the hands of the commissioners themselves. They organized the criteria into four categories -- economic aspects, geographic coherence, institutional and administrative capacity, and socio-cultural issues -- and agreed to evaluate each proposed boundary on its merits within each of those four categories. The "cultural and linguistic realities" criterion posed a particular challenge for the commission. "We had to take into account that in demarcating the provinces, we must not reinforce the legacy of apartheid," Mokate said.

With the April 1994 deadline for elections looming, time was critical. The commission first met in May 1993 with only three months to gather data, hold public hearings, and complete its work. Moreover, its technical committee lacked basic resources to carry out its mandate. The government of South Africa had never produced a census of the entire population, and other official statistics did not include the homelands, leaving the commission searching for other sources for the country's demographic information. As a starting point for their analysis, the commissioners decided to base the provincial borders largely on a map created by the government-funded Development Bank of South Africa in the 1980s. In order to plan its own investments, the Development Bank had divided the country into nine economic regions, disregarding existing homeland and provincial boundaries. The ANC representatives also used information from World Bank missions to supplement their knowledge of South Africa's demographics and infrastructure, since World Bank officials had the resources to conduct aerial surveys and extract information from institutions such as the army.

To give South Africans a voice in the process, the commission asked the public to propose ideas. Individuals could send their suggestions directly to the commission or attend public forums held around the country, which were attended by delegations from the commission and advertised over radio and in newspapers. Commissioners recalled engaging in lively discussions with the public during those events. "Our job was to be there, to listen, to take notes, but to also interrogate," Mokate said. For example, the commission grilled a leader of the Xhosa people when he proposed an ethnically Xhosa-centered province, asking whether the province would be economically viable and asking him to consider the implications of creating provinces elsewhere on an ethnic basis.

Although public consultation aimed to make the process inclusive, the commissioners and their researchers recognized that many people could not participate. Discussions were often dominated by people who were well organized and who had the money and education to engage with the issues. By contrast, people in poor, far-flung, and weakly organized communities -- often ones in the homelands -- were less involved.

Once the public consultation phase was complete, the technical committee summarized and cataloged the arguments, and compiled a report for the commissioners, highlighting the major issues for consideration. The requirement that each province be contiguous eliminated many proposals centered on linguistic majorities, such as the submission from the Bophuthatswana leadership, which included several physically unconnected regions. Initial proposals to set up an all white, Afrikaans-speaking volkstaat also did not meet tests of administrative rationality. Paul Daphne, a commissioner and ANC party leader, recalled: "The people proposing a volkstaat outcome were battling to find a map which would show any part of the country with a majority of whites in it." COSAG, the conservative Afrikaners group, was particularly persistent in to its push for majority single-language communities.

Commissioners hotly debated whether to split the Eastern Cape into two provinces. Those favoring the split pointed to the demands of two former homeland areas: the Transkei and the Ciskei. The Transkei leader, an important supporter of the ANC, urged the party to create a separate province based on his homeland, arguing that the Transkei would receive more development attention as a separate province. Some commissioners argued that it would be better to unite the relatively underdeveloped former homelands in a single province that included the economically vibrant coastal cities of Port Elizabeth and East London. In the final proposal, economic considerations trumped political pressures and the Eastern Cape remained a single province. 

In parallel discussions, the commissioners considered creating a Northern Cape province by splitting up the Western Cape. Both the National Party and segments of the conservative Afrikaner contingent supported the proposal for the Northern Cape. The National Party was convinced that the demographics of the proposed territory (which would have a majority Afrikaans-speaking population) would give it a better chance of winning provincial elections there. Conservative Afrikaners, for their part, thought that a Northern Cape province might vote in favor of hosting an Afrikaner homeland. Opponents argued that such a province would not be economically viable.

The night before it delivered its report to the negotiating forum, the commission put the Northern Cape decision to a vote. At first, Afrikaner representative Koos Reyneke declined to vote, despite his instrumental role in the original volkstaat proposal. Reyneke knew that many of the region's residents wished to be included in the Western Cape province, and he did not want to go against their wishes. After the initial vote ended in a tie, however, Reyneke was convinced to vote in favor of the new province because of a bargain he had previously brokered with other conservative Afrikaners. In exchange for his vote, the conservative Afrikaners promised to support his proposal for an Afrikaner homeland near Pretoria, the country's administrative capital. The Northern Cape proposal won by a single vote, but might have deadlocked had an ANC-nominated commissioner not been absent. In this instance, politics triumphed over economics.

The CDDR submitted its report to the negotiating forum on July 31, 1993, recommending in broad strokes a nine-province map, acknowledging that certain highly contested border towns and communities might warrant further investigation. It also discussed a volkstaat, but noted that the groups advocating one had been unable to unite behind a single proposal for its location. The report was signed by thirteen of the commissioners, while two, Reyneke and Ann Bernstein, a development expert, submitted dissenting reports.

"I would strongly urge the negotiating parties not to impose an undemocratic map on the country," Bernstein wrote in her dissent. "To try and actually produce a regional map for the country in such a short time and think that this will resolve the differences that exist between all the many interests on this matter is to my mind totally unrealistic and dangerous." Bernstein argued that the negotiating forum's original criteria were insufficient: They did not include a position on small versus large provinces and did not ask the CDDR to consider the electoral implications of the regional boundaries. She argued that the proposed map represented a political settlement, brokered in order to move negotiations forward as quickly as possible, and therefore did not represent a viable blueprint for regional administration and development.

The Multi-Party Negotiating Forum accepted the CDDR's report but identified eight "sensitive areas" that had not been fully resolved. Apparently acceding to some of Bernstein's concerns, the negotiators extended the CDDR's deadline, sending the commissioners back to gather additional citizen input on the "sensitive areas," including whether the Eastern Cape should be split, whether a Northern Cape province should be created, and where Pretoria should fall. After reissuing a call for proposals and commentary, the CDDR submitted its second report in October 1993, effectively concluding the commissioners' work.

In their second report, the CDDR's two chairmen argued that the responsibility "rests with the political leaders" to negotiate boundaries and convince their constituents to accept the subsequent outcome. "The demarcation of regions ... deals with the wishes, fears, and emotions of human beings," they wrote, "and therefore requires a forum capable of reaching consensus and agreement through a process of compromise and 'give' and 'take.' [The CDDR's mandate was] not to find compromise between conflicting historical, political, and often emotional interests held by various groups."

The report met resistance from communities strongly opposed to their placement in certain boundaries. Political parties had to work to ensure that their supporters accepted the proposed boundaries so that the disputes wouldn't disrupt the upcoming elections. For instance, after working on the commission's technical committee, Trevor Fowler joined the ANC's public relations team in the region that became Gauteng province, receiving phone calls from unhappy constituents asking that their areas be moved to different provinces. Fowler urged callers to table their concerns until after the elections were held. (The constitution contained a provision that allowed communities to dispute a new boundary within 30 days of it coming into effect.) "These comrades agreed that they would not voice their concerns now; they would first go through the elections," said Fowler. "Well, the day after the elections, they called."

The issue of an Afrikaner homeland was also deflected until after the elections, to be considered by a volkstaat board (which ultimately failed to bring the different pro-volkstaat factions together on a single proposal). In Bophuthatswana, however, opposition manifested in a more dangerous and dramatic way. As the country geared up for elections, Lucas Mangope refused to join his homeland with the territory of South Africa or to permit elections to take place. Facing a strike by civil servants and a mutiny by the homeland army in February 1994, Mangope asked heavily armed conservative Afrikaner paramilitaries to secure the territory; members of the extremist Afrikaner Resistance Movement also invaded. In the ensuing conflict between the extremists and Bophuthatswana's mutinying security forces, as many as 100 civilians and combatants were killed. The national army moved in and the government replaced Mangope with a caretaker leader. Both Mangope and the extremist group were discredited by the affair.

On April 27, 1994, South Africa voted as one country for the first time. The CDDR had aimed to create a non-segregated map of the country -- one that would allow elections to proceed without violence and would begin to undo the physical segregation of the homeland system. On that front, it succeeded.

The CDDR had also aimed to create provinces that would be economically sustainable and logically governable. Nearly two decades later, South Africa's provincial boundaries remain largely unchanged from the original demarcations. Local disputes, however, continue, often over provincial boundaries that cut through municipalities or that separate border towns from nearby economic centers. According to Mokate, the current border disputes occur where communities did not have a strong say in the original process in the early 1990s. "Those people are now feeling much more empowered, much more organized, and are saying 'But how did this happen? I don't like this. Now I've got a government in power, I must tell them I don't want this.'"

As political nominees, the members of the CDDR could not cast aside their party affiliations and loyalties. Still, their common commitment to a unified South Africa allowed them to work beyond their interests to create viable provincial boundaries for the new South Africa. "Nobody got exactly what it is that they wanted, but the people, as a collective, pulled together to the extent that they could," Mokate said. "Even the people who disagreed with each other fundamentally, they still talked to each other.... They recognized each other as South Africans who participated in a process that contributed to building this country."

The CDDR's experience illustrates how careful consultation and negotiation can bring together factions with seemingly irreconcilable interests. The CDDR brought together individuals who represented the groups vying to control South Africa's post-apartheid map, but who were willing to find a common settlement. The commission's members remained behind the scenes, which allowed them to avoid public backlash for making concessions. This consensus was vital to ensuring South Africa's peaceful transition.

But the story of the CDDR also warns of the dangers of a map based heavily on political settlement at the expense of administrative considerations. Meyer, who was appointed minister of provincial affairs and constitutional development after the 1994 elections, said the negotiators did not focus enough on creating viable provincial administrations. "We failed ourselves by only doing this within the last period of time before the transition," he said. "I think we were so consumed, all of us, in our negotiations, in finding a constitutional settlement, that we didn't think about the bigger consequences of what we were doing about creating a new state."

Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

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