Closer Look at South Africa's Transition

By Leane, Shelley | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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Closer Look at South Africa's Transition


Leane, Shelley, Harvard International Review


The Winter 1997/98 edition of the Harvard International Review included an article by former South African President F.W. de Klerk, who presented many thought-provoking perspectives on South Africa. Many of the views of the former National Party (NP) leader merit a reply. First, his characterization of the African National Congress (ANC) as a governing political party deserves attention. Also, the idea of Thabo Mbeki as a successor to President Nelson Mandela and the National Party's potential to become a majority party in South Africa should be discussed further. Finally, the place of disaffected voters in South Africa's future political party alignment is an important issue that must be addressed.

While de Klerk's commentary about the smoothness of the current transition to majority rule reflects the present state of affairs in the country, de Klerk did not fully acknowledge the many achievements of the ANC. During the NP's 1994 campaign, in which it competed for parliamentary seats in the first universal franchise election in South African history, the NP asserted that the ANC had no capacity to govern the country. In a well-developed campaign theme, the NP warned that the ANC was no more than a liberation movement. They argued that the ANC leaders had neither the experience base nor the skills to lead the country smoothly through transition, and that the ANC lacked the ability to carry out the day-to-day governing responsibilities of a country with a US$120 billion economy. Certainly, this campaign theme succeeded in wooing some black voters in Gauteng Province to the National Party, as well as in reinforcing the decision of some colored (mixed race) voters in the Western Cape to "throw their lot in with the Nats." But, if the past four years have shown one thing with great clarity, it is the error of the NP assertion that the ANC lacked governing capabilities. In contrast to the economic and social dissension that could have occurred following the transition to majority rule, the absence of a high degree of instability is striking.

South Africa's relative calm is particularly notable given the fact that apartheid left two distinct societies in its wake. The ANC inherited a country with stark inequalities: in the mid-1990s, there existed one brick house for every 3.5 whites, but only one for every 43 blacks. If judged by white living standards alone, South Africa would have ranked 24th in the world; by black South Africa living standards alone, it would have ranked 123rd. In the face of these stark inequalities, the ANC through its Reconstruction and Development Program--put forth the image of the South Africa it hoped to create, in which individual freedoms would be guaranteed, and all people would attain equal access to opportunities regardless of race. In steps which demonstrated a high degree of sensitivity to white fears of marginalization and foreign investor worries about instability, the ANC-led government followed through with pragmatic policy choices which varied from macroeconomic choices (for example, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Act, or GEAR) to land restitution policy and education reform. While saddled with the task of reorganizing government into a national structure with nine provinces, creating a bureaucracy which reflected the ethnic diversity of the country, as well as moving new economic and social policies into place, the ANC has successfully moved the country in the direction of redistributing wealth and equalizing access to educational and economic opportunities. Importantly, it has done so at a pace which has so far succeeded in keeping South Africans who suffered at the hands of apartheid content with its progress, while reassuring white and colored South Africans that there is room for all in the new South Africa. There has been progress in the fundamental areas that the ANC promised--land redistribution and restitution, provision of basic utilities, and an increased level of black empowerment within the corporate world.

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