Someone is defending SA’s transition

When political transitions work: Reconciliation as interdependence by Fanie du Toit (Oxford University Press)

In today’s South Africa, it is brave — or foolhardy — to write a book arguing that this country’s transition to democracy was a success. Although the argument is not fashionable, it deserves serious attention.

It is now common to dismiss the transition to democracy as a failure or, worse, a betrayal, just as it was once common to hail it as a miracle. But, although the process that ended apartheid is the subject of many heated words, careful analysis is much scarcer.

Fanie du Toit, a former director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, who has been working for the United Nations Development Programme in Iraq, seeks in this book, When Political Transitions Work: Reconciliation as Interdependence, to provide that analysis, but also to wade into the argument. His book has two goals: to defend the transition against claims that it failed to achieve reconciliation and to contribute to a (mostly academic) discussion of how societies at war with themselves can find a kind of peace.

The first section, which takes on critics of the transition, will be of most interest to politically aware South Africans.

But the second, which discusses theories of reconciliation, is important beyond the niceties of academic debates because it offers ideas on what measures we should use to judge attempts to end long-standing conflicts and to build new societies on their ashes.

In a nutshell, the book examines various theories of reconciliation between groups divided by conflict and by the domination of one over the other. It argues that the key is not, as some current theories claim, a meeting of minds or souls, the embrace of liberal democratic rules or a commitment to respect difference. It is, rather, a recognition of interdependence.

This makes points about our transition, which are anything but academic. Its scepticism about meetings of minds and souls argues against “rainbowism”, the idea that, despite the divisions of the past, we are all one happy family. People who recognise that they depend on each other may not like or respect each other — they recognise only that the other is essential if they want to achieve their goals.

It also challenges the view that this country’s transition will not have succeeded unless all the differences of the past end. So it warns against setting too low a bar to the transition (if we are all one people, we should not need to try very hard to unite) and one too high, in which we are hopelessly divided until we are all the same.

This offers a far more realistic view of South African reality than most accounts of the transition. It answers those who ask why we are still talking about race, as if a Constitution telling us we are all equal makes us so. And it responds to those who complain that racial minorities still don’t identify with values they were taught to reject and which justify their privilege.

Our past makes the persistence of division inevitable. But it does not prevent us from recognising that we are fated to live with each other.

The only puzzle about Du Toit’s useful stress on interdependence is that he insists that South Africa and other divided societies should strive for “reconciliation” rather than “coexistence”. The first term surely implies the coming together, which, Du Toit recognises, is not possible. The latter talks of sharing space and the political rules while not necessarily learning to love each other.

Du Toit’s criticism of what he calls the “liberal peace” also speaks to South African realities. This is the view that we should judge our progress by whether we meet a set of standards, usually framed in the United States and Britain, which decide whether a democracy is suitably liberal.

It prompted, for example, academic writing claiming that the transition was not democratic because minority parties were given a role in the first post-apartheid Cabinet; claims that affirmative action is not liberal enough feature in the Democratic Alliance’s current internal travails.

Du Toit’s pertinent response is that societies that are trying to shake off domination should choose what works for them, not what an ideology says is good for them.

Although this discussion comes after his energetic defence of this country’s transition, it underpins it — the second part of the book turns his reasons for defending the transition into theoretical points.

In essence, Du Toit insists that seeing the transition as a denial of justice — because it let apartheid-era rights abusers go free or because it left the inequities created by apartheid firmly in place — is to misread what was happening and, by implication, what was possible. 

His chief targets are academics in Anglo-Saxon countries who, in his view, mount an abstract attack on the constitutional negotiations or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from the comfort of distance — he labels this a “liberal” critique although some of those at whom he aims are not liberal. But he also takes issue, less vehemently, with South African voices who label the transition a sell-out to white privilege.

Du Toit offers fervent support to the TRC, arguing that the problem was not what the commission said or did but the way politicians reacted to it. The TRC’s amnesty process, he writes, was more limited than most people assume — many perpetrators were not given a free pass and could have been prosecuted; the authorities’ failure to follow up is hardly the TRC’s fault.

The government, he believes, also missed an important opportunity for reconciliation by not paying the reparations the commission recommended.

He is less fervent about the transition but argues that it did what it was meant to do. It ended legally sanctioned white minority rule, prevented the conflict from spiralling and extended political rights to all. It was, he believes, able to do this because it did not rely on politicians and parties alone — citizens and their associations were crucial to the process. 

They were the driver behind the National Peace Accord, which tackled political violence and played a key role in constitution-making. This, he believes, challenges the view that the transition was a bargain between elites at the expense of citizens. It also ensured that change enjoyed broad support.

Du Toit does not believe that critics are deluded when they insist that today’s South Africa has left intact many of the patterns of an unjust past. But this, in his view, is so not because the transition made it impossible to deal with poverty, inequality and unfairness (a frequent claim by its local critics). It is, rather, that issues that should have been addressed were not. In particular, he argues for a sustained attempt to address social and economic inequalities.

In sum, Du Toit does not claim that democratic South Africa has “a good story to tell”, which the critics wilfully ignore. He argues that the transition began a process that should have continued but didn’t. He also implies that the problem is not that it compromised with evil, making it impossible to do good. Rather, it tackled one evil — political exclusion. Work is now needed to tackle social and economic (and cultural and economic) exclusion.

There are some problems with Du Toit’s analysis. He may well exaggerate the citizens’ role. Thus, he endorses the constitution-makers’ claim that the document reflected what citizens wanted. But it is not possible to find out what most people want by holding meetings around the country, which a small minority attend and which offers no way to find out what the majority want. And the evidence suggests that the Constitution was a product of deal-making between politicians.

Also, his enthusiastic support for the TRC is puzzling because its approach (rather than its report, which he stresses) seemed largely based on the “rainbowist” search for a meeting of souls, which Du Toit convincingly rejects.

But his central argument — that the transition succeeded in doing what it was meant to do — is a welcome corrective to critiques that seem based more on justifiable disappointment with the present than a careful examination of the past.

The transition did end apartheid, a task that less than a decade before had seemed impossible. It did produce a Constitution, which does far more to enable efforts to end inequities than to obstruct them.

And it cannot be blamed for the failure of the politicians to build on this by tackling poverty, inequality and racism in society and the economy. A sustainable way forward lies in building on the transition, not trashing it, and Du Toit does us a service by pointing this out.

Perhaps even more importantly, his book examines the transition in the light of evidence and argument, which is often ignored by the overblown rhetoric on both sides. It is, therefore, a useful contribution to an understanding of our past, which will help us to address our most urgent task — tackling the transition’s unfinished business.

Steven Friedman is research professor in the politics department of the humanities faculty at the University of Johannesburg

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