The independent resource on global security

3. South Africa: from apartheid to multi-party democracy




A multi-party government dominated by the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994 in South Africa after the country's first elections, based on a universal franchise. By the late 1980s the main protagonists, the ANC and the National Party (NP), were forced by circumstances into a stalemate which made implementation of unilateral conflict resolution strategies impossible. The transition was a long-drawn-out process which mixed confrontation and violence with compromise and negotiation as the main parties gradually abandoned old goals and moved towards positions based on tolerance, pragmatism and problem-solving. Apartheid as a juridical system is gone but it lives on as a socio-economic structure, a security system, a lifestyle and a mental legacy. White power remains entrenched in economic and state structures. The ending of legislated apartheid is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the ending of apartheid as a system of racial domination. The biggest challenge facing South Africa is the necessity to rapidly improve life for the majority without upsetting the weak social contract that underpins the new post-apartheid polity.

The risk of destabilizing conflicts and large-scale violence was considerably less in December 1994 than at the beginning of the year owing to five generally positive factors.

1. The new democratic political system passed its first test: the conducting of peaceful elections.

2. A human rights regime was established through a Bill of Rights in the Constitution and the creation of a powerful Constitutional Court.

3. The NP and the ANC committed themselves to solve their conflicts through a policy of national reconciliation.

4. The level of political violence was considerably reduced following the elections.

5. South Africa's international isolation was broken, with all that entails in terms of new possibilities, rights and responsibilities.

Three generally negative factors are also at work:

1. Most of the fundamental causes of violence and conflict are deeply rooted and structural in nature. Their gradual elimination requires time, resources and a conducive external environment.

2. There is a huge discrepancy between what is desirable and what is possible with regard to socio-economic reconstruction and the reform and legitimization process of the state apparatus at various levels.

3. Several constitutional issues with conflict potential remain unresolved, such as autonomy and the relationship between and respective powers of national, regional and local government.

The potential for conflict remains significant. If these conflicts can be handled under the Constitution and within the framework of new institutions and the emerging norms of a new political culture, this will support stability.