The World : South Africa’s Strength: A Bias for Moderation

<i> Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger writes frequently for The Times</i>

The post-Cold War world has witnessed what may prove to be one of its most hopeful moments: the emergence of the first democratic multiracial government in Africa.

The election of Nelson Mandela and the creation of a government of national unity in South Africa is only the first step of what is bound to be a long and difficult journey. Conflicts among and within ethnic groups, devising a balance between central and provincial authorities and the possible insistence by the newly enfranchised majority on more rapid social and economic progress than the system can bear have the potential to defeat the promise.

South Africa encompasses more ethnic groups than almost any other country: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Cape Coloreds--descendants of the original Hottentot population in the Cape province. The European population is divided between those of English and Dutch origin who fought each other earlier this century and continue as political rivals. Within the African population, the Zulu leadership claims autonomy from the Xhosa-dominated African National Congress, a federalism perceived by many in the ANC as the forerunner of secession.


Ethnic rivalries are complicated by what Mandela describes as the tendency of veterans of the anti-apartheid resistance to apply a definition of democracy relying on consensus and intolerant of opposition. Nor is proclivity to violence confined to one group.

Inkatha has a militia and the European Community’s militant wing has always rejected a multiracial solution. Moreover, societies reared on the British parliamentary system find the concept of checks and balances alien. Even Mandela has expressed perplexity with the idea of judicial review, on the ground that a non-elected body should not be able to overrule an elected one.

Nevertheless, these problems are being addressed by an extraordinary array of leaders. When defending himself against the charge of treason in 1964, Mandela, whose career is the embodiment of endurance made possible by spiritual depth, affirmed his devotion to a multiracial society. He has kept his word.

The transformation of Frederik W. de Klerk is equally astonishing. Until he came to power, apartheid had reigned supreme for half a century. Its end occurred with a speed unimaginable even a decade earlier and with only a minimum of violence. By 1991, De Klerk could pronounce as an Afrikaner goal what had only yesterday been illegal:

“We want to make all South Africans proud; we want to build a South African nation in which, yes, all the various composite parts can feel safe, in which there will be acceptance of joined and common goals. . . . A new vision for our country is crystallizing, a vision of justice, fairness, equality and democracy.”

As an essentially tribal leader, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi had less reason to change. His insistence on autonomy and some kind of federalist solution has remained constant. Still, he deserves credit for raising a crucial challenge to South African democracy: how to reconcile the rule of the majority with the rights of ethnic minorities. For as long as voting largely follows ethnic or tribal lines, the minority can never hope to become a majority. At the same time, the ANC has reason for its concern that if the ethnic divisions are enshrined as sacrosanct, unity may remain elusive.

In overcoming its problems, however, South Africa has advantages that transcend personalities. The legitimacy of the state is well-established, and the existing groupings have considerable experience in dealing with each other within a larger political framework.

While governments of national unity are generally more useful in papering over differences than in resolving them, the interim institution created by Mandela and De Klerk--in which every party achieving a certain percentage of the votes also achieves representation in the Cabinet--creates a useful framework for the practice of mutual cooperation in the crucial early stages of power sharing.

Few countries have as much to gain from a moderate evolution as does South Africa. It has vast resources, a well-established infrastructure, significant manufacturing base and higher level of education than any of its neighbors. Furthermore, the very multiplicity of its ethnic groupings provides a certain insurance against civil conflict. For once that Pandora’s box is opened, the consequences are ultimately unpredictable.

This built-in incentive for moderation was brought home to me when Lord Peter Carrington and I, among others, were asked by Mandela and Buthelezi to mediate the constitutional issues between the ANC and the Inkatha parties for the five-year interim government. We found that the interim constitutional issues seemed capable of fairly rapid resolution. What we could not resolve was the issue of participation by Inkatha in the election. As mediators, we refused to address the issue on the ground that outsiders have no right to determine the date of a people’s emancipation.

After we left the country, the prospect of civil war produced an unexpected solution. Inkatha agreed to participate. For its part, the ANC chose compromise. As a result, the interim constitutional issues were settled, although federalism is certain to re-emerge as a principal bone of contention in the drafting of the final constitution.

The elections seemed to confirm the trend toward moderation. Whether by prearrangement or thanks to the good sense of voters, the outcome is almost ideally suited for reconciliation. The ANC achieved a preponderant vote that was, nevertheless, a few percentage points short of the two-thirds needed to rewrite the interim constitution unilaterally; the National Party transformed itself into a multiracial entity (though appealing mostly to Indians and Coloreds) and became the second largest grouping. Inkatha achieved some 10% of the vote and--surprisingly--a majority in Natal, assuring itself three seats in the Cabinet and a political base. And Mandela has done his part in creating a Cabinet largely tilted toward inclusiveness, even giving Buthelezi a post.

In contrast to so many other parts of the world, there is reason to hope and cause for the maximum moral and material support. The industrial democracies can best help by encouraging private investment, and they must take care not to impose their own domestic experiences on South Africa.

South Africa is not the place to test liturgies for either the radical left or the radical right. For a moderate evolution would give hope to all of Africa and to every other region where men of goodwill seek to rescue cohesion from the hatreds history has spawned.*