Wednesday, January 6, 2010

'The Struggle' and "Dialogue in Williamsburg'

This review essay originally appeared in Volume 3, Number 4 of International Freedom Review (Summer 1990).

Book Review
The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress
by Heidi Holland
(New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1990, 256 pages, illus., cloth. $19.95)
Dialogue in Williamsburg: The Turning Point for South Africa?
edited with commentary by Michael Briand
(San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1989, 165 pages, paperback, $10.95)
Reviewed by Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

The people who write books on South African issues, and their American publishers, must be quite pleased these days. Since the election of F.W. de Klerk as South Africa’s president in September 1989, political conditions in that country have been changing at a dramatic, if not literally breathtaking, pace. The legalization of the African National Congress and other banned anti-apartheid groups in February 1990, along with the long-awaited release from Victor Verster Prison of Nelson Mandela, brought South Africa back into an international spotlight it had successfully tried to avoid for several years.

Indeed, after the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. which imposed severe economic sanctions against South Africa, American interest in events there languished. Since Americans had the sense that Congress had already “done something,” there was no need to think about South Africa or apartheid, the system of separate development and racial discrimination, or to “do anything” else. Despite the best efforts of some American anti-apartheid groups, South African Issues played only a marginal role—if any at all—in the 1988 presidential campaign. College campuses became quiescent as demands for divestment In South Africa-related stocks slowed and then ceased. Ritualistic protest demonstrations in front of the South African embassy in Washington failed to get covered on the evening news, except on such occasions as Nelson Mandela’s birthday, when media interest could again be aroused.

All that has changed now. With negotiations beginning in earnest after a several-month period of hesitation and—to put it bluntly—grandstanding among all the parties involved, the legalization of the ANC is beginning to have its full impact. De Klerk’s National Party government has announced that it is willing to share power but unwilling to submit to majority rule. Nelson Mandela has been named Deputy President of the ANC for purposes of leading the negotiating team. With the parties around the table, the question becomes: What are they negotiating about?

It is in this context that two recent books become relevant and informative. One, Heidi Holland’s The Struggle, helps to answer the question of who (or what) is the ANC. The other, Michael Briand’s Dialogue at Williamsburg, provides a microcosmic insight into what the negotiating process itself is all about and what we might expect during the long bargaining period ahead.

Holland’s new history of the African National Congress was published in the same month as the ANC was legalized after nearly thirty years in exile and underground in South Africa, and as President F. W. de Klerk released ANC leader Nelson Mandela after twenty-seven years in prison.

The African National Congress has long been recognized as the pre-eminent voice of South Africa’s blacks in the struggle against apartheid, imposed by the National Party in 1948 and now being disowned by that same party.

However, the ANC is not the only voice. Many black South Africans vehemently disagree with the ANC’s policies and dislike its personalities. For instance, Dr. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief Minister of KwaZulu and leader of the Inkatha organization, argues that the ANC is wrong in calling for economic sanctions against South Africa. Buthelezi shares this view with many blacks displaced from their jobs when American and other foreign companies left the country after the 1986 sanctions.

On the other side, the Pan-African Congress takes issue with the ANC because the ANC believes in a non-racial South Africa, a country where both whites and blacks have a home. The PAC believes only blacks should have political, civil, and economic rights in South Africa. This belief is shared with the Azanian People’s Organization and the followers of the late Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement.

Currently, the PAC—also unbanned by de Klerk in February 1990—is actively opposing negotiations, saying that whites should have no role in shaping the future South Africa. This is a curious mirror-image of the position taken by members of the (white) Conservative Party, whose MPs walked out of Parliament on the day negotiations began (May 2, 1990), protesting what they called an “act of treason” by President de Klerk.

Holland, a South African journalist, chronicles the birth and growth of the ANC In a readable, non-academic fashion. Her narrative could easily be understood by a high school student. This simplicity, however, might be considered a drawback to its rendering a realistic account at a desperate, intense moment in history.

In the early chapters especially, Holland’s history reads like a hagiography of Mandela and Walter Sisulu, two of the founders of the youth wing of the ANC In the 1940s and of the military wing (Umkhonto We Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation”) in the early 1960s. Holland tells stories of Mandela that echo Parson Weems’ story of George Washington and the cherry tree: how ten-year-old Nelson saved pennies for his school fees, how teenage Nelson participated in a tribal puberty rite, or this description of Nelson the young man when he first arrived in Johannesburg:
Crowing roosters scuttled away to clear a path for Nelson in the hour before sunrise when, as a budding boxer, he jogged around the houses In his daily fitness routine.
Even the animals make way for this messianic leader! This type of presentation makes it difficult to accept Holland the author as Holland the unbiased journalist.

Still, she does offer some unexpected Insights. Though she does not draw the connection herself, there are some interesting parallels between the (white) Afrikaner Nationalists, who openly sympathized with the Nazis during World War II, and ANC activist Walter Sisulu. After war was declared in 1939, Sisulu “helped campaign to stop Africans from volunteering for the army. He became an admirer of the Japanese, hoping they might someday invade South Africa.”

Holland does not hide the fact that the ANC has been heavily influenced by Communist ideology. She traces Communist infiltration of the ANC to 1928, soon after the South African Communist Party led white workers in the Rand Rebellion under the banner, “Workers of the World, Unite and Fight for a White South Africa.” Seeing that this proletariat form of class struggle was bound to fail, the Communists joined forces with black activists. Ultimately this probably set back the cause of democracy in South Africa by several generations, giving paranoid Afrikaner nationalists an excuse to deny blacks their civil rights.

Holland does, however, suggest strongly that Mandela and his close friends—including current ANC president Oliver Tambo— fought the Communists. This is strange, because Mandela in the 1960s proclaimed himself a Marxist. Tambo, until very recently, embraced the assistance of the Kremlin, speaking glowingly of Communism as the cure for South Africa’s ills.

Now out of prison, however, Mandela seems a changed man— more moderate, more conciliatory, more dignified than the terrorist who was sent to prison In 1964. Tambo, incapacitated by ill-health, is out of the picture. Those who sat glued to their televisions on February 11, 1990—the day of Mandela’s long-awaited release—know that a new day has dawned in South Africa, and that Mandela’s cooperation with Nationalist leader F. W. de Klerk is key to a peaceful, permanent settlement to South Africa’s long struggle to create a democratic system for all its citizens.

Mandela’s commitment to peaceful change and the deeper understanding he may have regarding the issues involved was indicated by his remarks about guaranteeing the rights of Afrikaners in a Cape Town press conference on May 2, 1990. As if to demonstrate the sincerity of his pledge, he made his remarks in Afrlkaans rather than English or Xhosa. Perhaps out of the woodwork, operating as a political party alongside the Democrats, the Conservatives, Labour, and others, the ANC can find its place in South African society without recourse to violence.

At the Negotiating Table: Where Do We Go from Here?
Of course, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. On what experiences can South Africans draw for achieving compromise after so many years of severely dichotomized conflict?

One is the negotiating experiment conducted in Williamsburg, Virginia, by Michael Briand, president of the Center for Public Philosophy. Based on his experience at this meeting—which brought together South African thinkers, politicians, and activists—Briand believes that substantial constitutional change can occur in South Africa and that an end to the conflict there can be achieved through negotiation, not violence.

It was no accident that the meeting took place in Williamsburg, one of the cradles of American democracy. The earliest American politicians learned the art of compromise at Williamsburg and, when pressed against the wall, resolved to fight against tyranny. It was there that Patrick Henry proclaimed. “Give me liberty or give me death!” The spirit permeating Williamsburg had to be felt among the participants.

Briand’s concept of the gathering was a small-scale practice session for eventual constitutional discussions—indeed, even negotiations—that will require the participation of representatives of all competing groups in South Africa. This meeting itself was not designed to negotiate a settlement, nor to pass resolutions that would be trumpeted by the participants upon their return to South Africa. It was instead a low-key affair, and those who participated did so in an almost anonymous fashion: no names of participants were published in the book that resulted from the meeting, Dialogue In Williamsburg: The Turning Point for South Africa?.  However, those familiar with the South African political scene can probably guess the identities of some, if not most, of the participants quoted.

Twenty-seven South Africans participated at the meeting. They ranged from Conservatives wanting the country partitioned along racial lines, to liberal Afrikaners and English-speaking whites preferring a federal or unitary system with a universal franchise and free market economics, to black South Africans in accord with the African National Congress, calling for universal suffrage, multiracial representation in a single parliament, and nationalization of major industries.

In a paper circulated among participants before the meetings, Briand set out the conditions necessary for a successful constitutional settlement, not only in South Africa, but anywhere that seemingly irreconcilable conflict prevents peaceful disposition of political matters. The most important point to remember, Briand says, is that:
a simple majority cannot suffice to establish a society’s fundamental legal framework. At this level—the constitutional level—something approaching unanimity is both a theoretical and a practical requirement, at least In the first instance. Thus delegates to a constitutional convention might agree to adopt provisions of a new constitution by majority vote. But the legitimacy of the decision would depend on a prior unanimous agreement to relax the unanimity requirement.
Both inside South Africa and elsewhere, the purpose of negotiations is misunderstood. Briand writes:
Many people, South Africans not least of all, act as if a solution must be found before negotiations can begin. As one South African put it, ‘negotiate about what?’ The answer is, negotiate an end to the conflict, Sit down with the representatives of every point of view and every set of interests and try to identify proposals that would protect the most important interest of each constituency. The solution will emerge from this process of discussion and negotiation.
For some South Africans, negotiations cannot take place until certain conditions are met. For Instance, the National Party government has long insisted that the African National Congress must renounce violence before it can be admitted to the negotiating process. For its part, the ANC has called for the unbanning of certain organizations, the release of certain prisoners, and ending the prohibitions against certain forms of political activity.

The National Party representatives made clear their commitment to the concept of “power sharing,” which they argued:
is not tantamount to domination by the majority. It is not the takeover of South Africa by the ANC. Power sharing is the assurance that tone-party] domination In South Africa will not come about.
The Nationalists also see “power sharing” as a transitional phase: “Power sharing, as a basis for the future, must be exercised In such a manner as to allow that shared power eventually to grow into a proper democracy.”

Yet black nationalist groups such as the ANC fear that “power sharing” is a white ruse to hold onto power and to continue white domination over blacks. In the meantime, one black participant warned:
it is becoming riskier in black politics to remain reasonable. It is becoming more fashionable to be unreasonable. Those of us who try to be reasonable are under attack from both left and right. We are called puppets by the left. We are called revolutionaries and communists by the right.
A liberal English-speaking South African argued that:
South Africa is at the moment visionless. It is directionless. Politics is unpredictable for both Blacks and Whites. On both sides, people distrust the Government. The National Party has no credibility because it will not say clearly where it is going, and why. It tries to appease everyone by talking and acting vaguely or contradictorily.
The discussions also addressed the topic of individual rights versus group rights, and the shape a new constitution would take based upon the consensus on that issue. Dr. Briand comments:
Like Americans (who ought to know better). South Africans habitually confuse the ideas of liberalism and democracy. Liberalism concerns the degree of liberty that persons enjoy and the spheres of activity in which they are free to act (i.e., the scope of liberty). In other words, liberalism addresses the question of the relative size of the private and public realms. . . . ‘Democracy’ is not synonymous with the form of government that we in the Western political tradition have come to value so highly. Properly speaking, democracy is only one element in that tradition. The more fundamental element is liberalism.
Briand believes, as a result of the Williamsburg meeting, that “in the South African conflict, mutual understanding (which facilitation fosters) is still desperately needed.” South Africans of different backgrounds still have difficulty coming to terms with the different ways of looking at life and the different goals that their adversaries and fellow-countrymen have. He concludes that “prudence as well as justice requires that South Africans seriously contemplate—and contemplate soon—Initiating genuine negotiations for the purpose of reaching a fair and viable resolution of their conflict.” He draws from his experience of meeting South Africans of varied backgrounds and persuasions that “a fair and self-enforcing settlement is possible” if dialogue and negotiations can be initiated and sustained.

Now Briand’s predictions can be put to the test: Mandela and de Klerk are sitting across from each other at the same table, discussing the future shape of South African politics and society. A joint statement issued by the ANC and the government after the first round said the discussions were characterized by “openness and straightforwardness on both sides.” Mandela said he wanted to see the remaining obstacles to full negotiations removed “so that we can together move forward as rapidly as possible to end the inhuman system of apartheid.” For his part, de Klerk noted that “the vast majority of South Africans desire the negotiation process aimed at a new constitution to get started in all earnest,” adding that confrontation will get South Africans nowhere. Our joint destiny demands that all of us steer clear of it.”

To succeed, however, negotiations must include more parties than just the ANC and the National Party. The Conservatives, Inkatha, the PAC, churches and religious organizations, business groups, and labor unions must all be invited to take part. As Briand points out, a constitutional structure decided by anything short of consensus is almost guaranteed to fail. Neither South Africans nor Americans should grow complacent simply because Mandela and de Klerk are talking to each other.

Richard Sincere, a frequent contributor to the book review pages of International Freedom Review, is author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise: The Politics of U.S. Economic Aid in Africa (International Freedom FoundatIon, 1990) and The Politics of Sentiment: Churches and Foreign Investment In South Africa (Ethics and Public Pbllcy Center, 1987).

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