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Thabo Mbeki: A 350-Year Perspective on South Africa’s Democracy

How has South Africa’s history of political violence influenced its currently peaceful system?

January 4, 2005

How has South Africa's history of political violence influenced its currently peaceful system?

The arrival of South Africa’s first white settlers 350 years ago set off a volatile — often violent — period in the country’s history. But South Africa has seen virtually no political violence since the end of the Apartheid regime in 1994. In this Globalist Document, South African President Thabo Mbeki argues that this has been one of the country’s greatest triumphs.

The period of 350 years from the arrival of the Dutch settlers in the Cape in 1652, to our liberation in 1994, was characterized by uninterrupted conflict and permanent uncertainty about the future of our country.

During the last few years of the system of white minority rule introduced by the Dutch settlers, our country experienced greatly heightened levels of violence, as the apartheid regime did everything it could to retain power.

To some extent, this mirrored the similarly intense violence our country experienced during the long period that began soon after the arrival of the settlers — and stretched to the beginning of the 20th century, with the conclusion of the 1899-1902 South African War and the defeat of the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion.

This was the time it took the colonial and imperialist system finally to establish its hold over the whole of our country.

We also know that, despite the fact that for 70 years up to 1960, our people used peaceful methods of struggle to achieve their emancipation, the white minority regimes did not hesitate to use force against the unarmed people.

Therefore, peaceful struggle on the part of the oppressed did not mean the absence of political violence.

Throughout this period of three-and-a-half-centuries, nobody emerged as the winner. The oppressed did not succeed to defeat and overthrow the oppressor regime — thus denying it the possibility to continue to mete out violence against the people.

However, the oppressor regime did not succeed in defeating the oppressed, rendering them incapable of continuing the struggle for their liberation.

This unresolved struggle, even in a situation of no-peace-no-war, meant that the political future of our country remained uncertain.

The risk remained that the bloodiest conflict could break out, with neither side willing to give up, both determined to fight it out to the bitter end.

In the end, change came about as a result of a settlement negotiated essentially by the historic antagonists that had stood at the barricades for 350 years, each unable to defeat and destroy the other.

This peaceful outcome culminated in the equally peaceful general elections of 1994, which surprised the cynics and skeptics, who had convinced themselves that our people — black and white — were incapable of solving their problems peacefully.

Amazed that our first democratic elections were peaceful, these were determined not to abandon their cynicism and skepticism. They thought that the peaceful transition from apartheid to a non-racial democracy was too good to be true.

They convinced themselves that sooner or later, our country would be consumed by the terrible racial conflagration they had expected in 1994.

As the days of peace accumulated, they said — wait until tomorrow! As tomorrow came, with no sign of an Armageddon, they said — wait until tomorrow!

Having frightened themselves about what tomorrow would be like, some among the cynics and the skeptics packed their bags and emigrated to other countries they had convinced themselves were the safest in the world.

But the doomsayers had not understood our people. They had not understood that as the first and principal victims of violence and war, the masses of our people — black and white — would be the first and best guarantors of the peace they won in 1994.

The masses would not be easily persuaded or duped to join some violent campaign to solve any of the challenges our country faces.

This has been confirmed by the virtually total disappearance of political violence in our country, even during election periods.

In 1994, areas such as KwaZulu-Natal and the present Ekurhuleni (East Rand) had been at the epicenter of the violence that claimed thousands of lives, as the apartheid system approached its demise.

As we held our 10th Anniversary elections in 2004, the masses of the people in both these areas would not allow anybody to drag them backwards into a situation of violence and war.

Similarly, some among our white compatriots have continued to harbor false ideas that they could address their problems by engaging in bombing and assassination campaigns.

But as they have set off a bomb here and another there, it has been perfectly clear that those who constitute this lunatic fringe have absolutely no support among the white people of our country — and are incapable of inspiring such support.

Our country has never enjoyed the peace it enjoys today. It has never been as stable as it is today. The extent and depth of reconciliation within our diverse nation have never been as pronounced as they are today.

Our country has never been as risk-free of unacceptable political conflict as it is today. Our democratic system is firmly entrenched. No force exists anywhere that has the possibility to undermine it or put it at risk.

Despite — and perhaps because of — our history, we stand in the front ranks of the group of countries across the globe that are truly peaceful, stable and not painfully consumed by the threat of terrorist bombs.

None of this means the cynics and the skeptics have ceased to exist. They are still around and will — undoubtedly — occasionally manufacture one scarecrow or another to frighten the unwary about our country and its future.

A few years ago they tried to scare the people about their future, asking the question — what happens when Mandela goes?

They produced all manner of doomsday scenarios, pretending that President Mandela — with his “magic” — was the only person capable of guaranteeing the better future for our country, for which so many had sacrificed everything, including their lives.

More recently, these cynics and skeptics sought to frighten the people with unfounded allegations of an intention to amend the constitution, to increase the number of terms a person could serve as President of the Republic.

This was part of the scare campaign that sought to suggest that ours was becoming a one-party-state, which would result in the collapse of democracy, our system of human rights and the rule of law, leading to the installation of a dictatorship — and so on.

Undoubtedly, for selfish and narrow partisan and other reasons, the cynics and skeptics in our midst will continue their mischievous campaigns that are based on lies, regardless of what the millions of our people of all races and colors are doing together to build the South Africa of their dreams.

As part of this, they will continue to look for opportunities to engage in the popular sport of advancing spurious claims that South Africa is the worst in the world in one negative area or another.

Excerpted from President Mbeki’s September 2004 “Letter From the President,” published in Volume 4, No. 36 of ANC Today.