Two new faces of democracy: Both Gorbachev and De Klerk tried to dismantle untenable regimes; history will be their judge, says Mary Dejevsky

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The Independent Online
WHEN Nelson Mandela is formally installed tomorrow as the first black president of South Africa a wave of goodwill will surge towards the new state from all around the democratic world. From one quarter, though, that goodwill might be tinged with just a little envy: Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, could justifiably wonder why FW de Klerk has apparently succeeded where he failed, in managing the transition from minority rule to a functioning constitutional democracy without precipitating either civil war or the break-up of his country.

To all appearances, the sort of transition led by De Klerk and Mandela over the past four years is precisely the kind of managed change that Gorbachev envisaged when he set out to liberalise the Soviet Union. Gorbachev recognised, as did De Klerk, that the centre could not hold unless it changed both its structure and its mentality.

Both leaders were aiming to 'save' their respective states, and the methods they chose were very similar. Both tried to give more people an interest in the future of their countries, and both moved towards the political centre from their traditional positions. Both also tried to co-opt the hitherto unrepresented but influential opposition into their plans for change. Gorbachev made overtures to well-known dissidents. De Klerk freed Nelson Mandela, the arch-symbol of the black majority.

Both leaders started to dismantle, at varying speeds and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the most illiberal of their laws. In the Soviet Union these were the laws applying to political opposition and private economic activity; in South Africa they were the laws underpinning apartheid.

This liberalisation was not just for domestic consumption. Both leaders recognised that their countries had to be integrated into the mainstream of world politics and into the world economy. Changing their countries' image abroad was crucial. Quite deliberately, they courted influential Western opinion. They needed the West to convince their own people that they were serious about change - so discredited had their respective regimes become. More important, they recognised that if living standards in their countries were to improve, they could not continue in isolation, they needed Western help and goodwill.

Sanctions had not damaged the South African economy as much as opponents of apartheid hoped. Some argue that by forcing self- sufficiency, they even strengthened the country. But South Africa could not continue as it was without black discontent jeopardising the security of the white population. Nor, because of the irrationality of its self-imposed, centrally planned system, could the Soviet Union. By the mid-Eighties, falling living standards meant it needed the outside world more than it was prepared to admit.

In deciding how to go about reform, both Gorbachev and De Klerk chose the parliamentary and constitutional route. Having freed Mandela in 1990, De Klerk held a referendum to obtain a mandate for democratic change from the white population, which ostensibly had most to lose from moves towards majority rule. When the gamble proved successful, he called a constitutional conference to hammer out arrangements for the transition. Only when these had been agreed were multi-racial elections called and the final transition begun.

Gorbachev, too, began by trying to change the constitution, but had to settle for trying to broaden representation in parliament instead - through the new Congress of People's Deputies. Then, bit by bit, not always willingly, he oversaw amendments to the constitution that rolled back the Communist monopoly and devolved power to the constituent republics.

At the time of the August 1991 coup, he was only three days away from ushering in a new structure of federal power that would either have made him the country's first democratically elected president, or awarded him a position of respected elder statesman, relinquishing overall power for the sake of his country.

Given the similarities of approach and time scale, why did the reform process go so badly wrong in the Soviet Union and come to such triumphant fruition in South Africa? The main reason may simply be that South Africa's rulers increasingly feared they might be deposed by force, and were therefore prepared to concede more, earlier.

The Soviet elite by and large never seemed to appreciate the depth of its crisis. The country's leaders were shielded from the worst economic deprivation by their privileges. Moreover, what violence there was in the Soviet Union was at the margins and involved mainly non-Russians. In South Africa it was already impinging on ordinary white lives.

Secondly, the Soviet public, comparatively well educated and - thanks to glasnost - increasingly aware of how the Western world lived, tended to see constitutional improvements as no more than that. There was no guarantee they would not evict the Communists from power, and they wanted tangible economic improvements - now. For South Africa's disenfranchised blacks, on the other hand, the vote contained the promise of power.

Thirdly, despite Gorbachev's steadfast insistence to the contrary, the Soviet state was synonymous with the Communist system. When its ideology was discredited, the state disintegrated. In South Africa, however oppressed they were under apartheid, the majority of the non-white population regarded themselves as South African. Once they got the vote, they saw that they would rule.

The fourth difference is that in South Africa it was only Inkatha, representing mainly Zulus, which stood out for autonomy, and even then its leader, Chief Buthelezi, came to recognise that this was unrealisable and belatedly agreed to take part in the election.

The correlation of forces in the old Soviet Union was quite different. As Gorbachev's gradualist liberalisation advanced, Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks and others came to believe that the Soviet state had made them poorer and suppressed their identity. Russians, moreover, understood they would never control the state so long as the Soviet system was in existence, and non-Russians understood they would never control their destiny so long as their republics were part of a Russia-dominated federation. When declarations of 'sovereignty' failed, because the Soviet state still held sway, they saw no alternative but to plump for full independence.

Some would add to the reasons for Gorbachev's failure and for De Klerk's apparent success the contrasting temperaments and intentions of their chief adversaries: while De Klerk had a reasonable and diplomatic Mandela, Gorbachev had an unpredictable and uncompromising Boris Yeltsin. Mandela was virtually guaranteed power once his people had the vote. Yeltsin had no such guarantee, right up to the day of Gorbachev's resignation, either that Russia would free itself from Soviet rule or that he could exercise the leadership he had won through the ballot box.

The bitter regrets that marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the joyous celebrations marking the advent of constitutional democracy in South Africa look like harbingers of their divergent futures. An anarchic set of unhappy republics in the northern hemisphere, a harmonious, multi-racial state in the south. Yet this judgement could be premature.

Russia and the other former Soviet republics are impoverished and chaotic; they are having to build a market economy almost from scratch and learn constitutional ways. But the old rulers have by and large gone, or started absorbing themselves into the new economy. Whatever friction there is between republics, there has been less violence than predicted. Untidily perhaps, a new order is in the making.

In South Africa, the omens that now seem so favourable may fade. The expectations of the impoverished majority population are high and will be easily disappointed. What is more, the ethnic tensions that were focused on the white minority under apartheid have fuelled violence between blacks, which is both political and tribal. In time, the inheritors of post-apartheid South Africa could find that they are poorer than they hoped and that living together, even in power, is less congenial than they expected.

History may yet view Gorbachev more positively and De Klerk less charitably than last week's celebrations suggest. Yet whatever the balance of judgement, it cannot detract from the biggest achievement of both: not just to try to dismantle an untenable and undemocratic regime by constitutional means, but to recognise that it had to be done at all.

(Photographs omitted)