South African Election Guide: Human touch averted worst horror

AT ONE minute after midnight on Tuesday, the first day of the South African elections, the orange, white and blue flag of the apartheid republic will be lowered over Pretoria's Union Buildings for the last time. When the sun rises, the new flag will go up. Each ceremony will be conducted with the blessing of the overwhelming majority of the population, white and black.

The violence along the way has been considerable; the victims and the orphans many. But the birth-pangs of the new nation, as inevitable as they have been atrocious, will fail to prevent posterity from marking down the South African revolution as one of the most remarkable achievements of the human spirit. The measure of the achievement is that things could have turned out so catastrophically different. You have only to glance at Rwanda, where 100,000 have been butchered in the last two weeks, to see that.

For four decades, indeed for the 300 years since the arrival of the white settler, South Africa was Rwanda waiting to happen. You could not keep three-quarters of the population of a country down by law just because of an accident of birth and hope their patience would not eventually snap. Logic and justice pointed towards the worst horror of all.

Nelson Mandela, sitting in prison, had other ideas. He wrote to the government early in 1989, a year before his release, and proposed a deal. Let's negotiate, he said. Let's find a way to accommodate black aspirations without stoking white fears. Let's pursue the liberation struggle by other means.

The first obstacle to overcome was the resistance of the ruling Afrikaner establishment. They ruled in favour because they knew change, sooner or later, had to come. Best to cut a deal before it was too late to salvage anything. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and with it the inevitable implosion of the Communist element in Mr Mandela's ANC, provided the final shove. On 2 February 1990, the most critical date in South African history, President de Klerk took a deep breath and announced the unbanning of the ANC and the imminent release of Mr Mandela.

'Look]' said Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's director of international affairs, on his return home after 30 years in exile. 'We have no horns]' It took four years to persuade first the National Party government and the white population at large that Mr Mbeki was not hiding a big red fork behind his back.

Through constant exposure in the media Mr Mandela, more than any other ANC leader, has persuaded white people that they can live with him. An amazing editorial last Saturday in the Citizen, South Africa's most right-wing English-language daily, drew the following conclusion from Mr Mandela's live debate on Thursday night with Mr de Klerk: 'Nobody can doubt, from this performance, he is a man who can carry the mantle of state president with great humility and success.'

The ballast for the change was provided by the political guarantees the ANC was persuaded to provide after an excruciatingly long process of negotiation. The decisive moment came when the ANC, prodded by the township killings into the realisation that the alternative was endless violence, agreed to defer majority rule. The country's first democratic elections, it was agreed, would see in a coalition government of national unity that would rule for five years until 1999.

From that concession others flowed. Under the new order, government would be decentralised; public servants, including the police and army, would keep their jobs, salaries and pensions; the economy would continue to run along free-market principles; the farmers, often beneficiaries of forced removals, would keep their land.

The human contact of the negotiations, the bridging of the apartheid gap, subdued the old enmities, softened people by degrees, taught all sides a lesson politicians of all hues never knew in the past: that the best is often the enemy of the good.

The new flag was no one's first choice. It corresponded to no party's insignia. The design was the product, like everything else, of negotiated compromise.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £10,000 Uncapped - Part Time

£7500 - £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness chai...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer - 2nd & 3rd Line

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The IT Support Engineer is needed to ass...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Officer

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: It's an exciting time for this ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Mid Software Developer

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones