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SA's 20 years of democracy: Celebration and concern

Roelf Meyer

South Africa requires the same levels of wisdom, insight, ­passion and leadership it had 20 years ago in order to complete the transformation.

Roelf Meyer (front right) with former president Nelson Mandela and members of the first democratic Cabinet. (ANC Archives)

I was asked to write 850 words: that’s quite substantial, what with Abraham Lincoln’s 250-word Gettysburg address containing the most notable remarks on the actual meaning of democracy.

We can learn much from the Americans – both positive and negative. The positive lesson is that they talk about their errors. The United States constitutes a true open society. I realised this again recently on visiting Washington, Boston and New York – and also how they still visibly celebrate the legacy of Madiba months after his demise!

Twenty years ago people asked if we were not too idealistic about what we stated regarding human rights in our Constitution. The answer was undeniably no. Much rather aspire to the higher ideal than aim for the mediocre. And so we wrote into our Constitution the ideals and values that Madiba and others strived for and were even prepared to die for. We also provided for the mechanisms to ensure that the intentions of the Constitution would be adhered to. These mechanisms include inter alia the Constitutional Court and the office of the public protector.

I hail from a conservative, nationalist background – like many South Africans from all communities and races. I started life as the son of a poor sheep farmer in the Eastern Cape. Personally, I underwent an immense transformation. As a young man my ideals were focused on the group and ethnic rights of the Afrikaner. Over time I started to realise that this was a skewed world view. Respecting individual rights, embracing democracy and equality for all implied significant change for me from where I started.

In mentioning this I wish to emphasise the hard-won South African settlement that remains a benchmark in the eyes of the international community – one that was highly unexpected in most minds (as portrayed in the recently televised programme Bloody Miracle). It was indeed a peaceful revolution. Yet I regard this acclaim as a direct implication of our immense responsibility to guard jealously the new-found

values and virtues and to never regress to behaviour not befitting a true democracy.

I know what autocratic rule means. I was in Parliament when it had happened before and I saw it occur in government. My plea to everybody in government at all levels is to not let yourselves, our Constitution or our country down through autocratic and self-centred behaviour. Be mindful of the lessons we have learnt and strive toward greatness once more.

I write this as someone who was privileged to be part of the negotiations from 1990 to 1996. I was part of the government before 1994 and of the first government under then president Nelson Mandela. I have lived through the change from apartheid to democracy. I know all too well how we succeeded in preventing civil war, how we struggled to start the talks, how we negotiated, experienced traumatic breakdowns and then negotiated the pieces back together again.

In many parts of the world there have been continuous conflicts for years and many nations are in desperate need of the wisdom that ­prevailed in our situation. We do, therefore, have every reason to celebrate after 20 years.

Yet, to be frank, we have slipped and we have failed ourselves. South Africa can be greater. We are an underperforming going concern – in business terms we are making a small profit but we should do much better. The starting point would be to recognise our shortfalls and accordingly get ourselves back on track. Our Constitution might be one of the best in the world and it assisted us in undergoing a smooth transition. But the mere transition to democracy was not enough.

Right from the word go we all knew that the social and economic metamorphoses were going to take much longer. The swift moment of change that we experienced on April 27 1994 was enabled by the entrance of the new constitutional era. I used to think transforming the country would take us 15 years but, 20 years later, one has to realise that challenges remain.

The shortfalls may be attributed to various factors: insufficient economic growth, a world recession, a shortage in skilled labour, limited entrepreneurship and many more. Addressing any of these in isolation will be in vain. We should be asking the inclusive question of how we can speed up the process of real change.

In my mind the answer would be: direct and exemplary leadership at political, business and civil society level; the best policy and management in education; attractive investment regulatory opportunities domestically and internationally; and creating a new economy through entrepreneurship and small business models. Through these we can transform the country for the sake of its citizens and the dreams of its founding father to create a modern, developing economy that can compete with the rest of the emerging world.

By recognising the essence of the problem 20 or more years ago, our leaders chose the right direction: one that prevented civil war and helped us make the transition.

Right now South Africa requires the same levels of wisdom, insight, ­passion and leadership in order to complete the transformation.

Roelf Meyer was the minister of constitutional development during South Africa’s transition to democracy

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