Contradictions of Liberation: Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa

Article excerpt

I. THE PURCHASED REVOLUTION

There are not many cases where a privileged ethnic minority has negotiated itself out of power, although it was capable of continuing to rule, albeit with rising costs. Even more rare seem situations where a dominant ethnic minority loses power peacefully to a different ethnic majority with whom it now has to coexist in the same state, despite a legacy of past discrimination and accumulated bitterness. The few examples that come to mind include the English in Quebec, the Russians in the Baltic Republics and the Chinese in Malaysia. However, in all these cases, the option of relocation or support and protection of fellow ethnic minorities by neighbouring "kinship states" facilitated the transfer. Only in the Afrikaner case does the new ethnic minority stand entirely on its own.

How did this extraordinary case of dramatic, peaceful capitulation come about? Contrary to almost every available stereotype about the model personality type of the Afrikaner, when the chips were down, Afrikaner negotiators meekly handed over power without even seriously attempting to bargain any special group privileges. Pre-transitional analyses abound, describing the Afrikaner's obduracy, brutality and almost suicidal instinct for self-preservation and collective survival. A variety of strategies, apart from bloody revolution, were concocted to ease a minority out of power: sham consociationalism, confederation, partial partition. None seriously considered the possibility that Afrikaners would enthusiastically, through consensus-seeking negotiations, help to construct a process of dislodging themselves from power and into a liberal democratic constitution. They even agreed that political decision-making should be based on unqualified majority rule, knowing full well that this would be exercised by black South Africans whom they had subjected to systematic apartheid domination for decades. Why?

The relatively peaceful South African transition was greatly facilitated by the vast resources at the disposal of the state and the private sector-led economy. The negotiated revolution would not have been possible without the security of pensions and the incentive of vast retrenchment packages. The literature on transition has underrated the availability of buy-outs as a precondition for compromise by hardliners in power. In many ways, the so-called South African miracle is better dubbed the "purchased revolution." On the other side, members of the liberation armies who were not incorporated into the official defence force also receive a small pension. Many other potential troublemakers were bought off by being put on the payroll of the public service.

It was legal continuity and a relatively rich economy that allowed key security bureaucrats from the old regime to abandon control of the state peacefully for a golden handshake. Huge payouts were handed out to police generals who retired for "health reasons" or easily found alternative employment in the private sector. African military rulers and their underlings elsewhere who depend on the state as the main source of income cling to their power because they face not only loss of office, but economic insecurity, unless they have siphoned off revenue into foreign bank accounts.

At the moral level, however, a purchased revolution amounts to a compromise that satisfies neither side. The elitist pact leaves a moral vacuum for activists who had been indoctrinated with notions of a "just struggle" and feel cheated out of victory by virtue of the fact that the old oppressors continue in their privileged roles in the economy and, to a lesser extent, in the civil service. The apartheid bureaucrats, on the other hand, resent being demonized by so-called "terrorists," against whom they merely upheld, in their view, "civilized standards of law and order." Since both have to co-exist with each other now, they cannot vent their antagonisms as before and instead wage a symbolic war about the moral high ground. …