Roelf Meyer: Celebrating South Africa’s peaceful transition

KATE LEFKO-EVERETT spoke to former minister of constitutional affairs Roelf Meyer about commemorating South Africa’s transition, the health of multi-party democracy and reconciliation.

In February, South Africans commemorated twenty years since former president FW de Klerk’s historic announcement to parliament that the ANC and other political organisations would be unbanned, and that in the days that followed, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. Political negotiations towards the transition to democracy – previously behind closed doors and beyond South African borders – suddenly came into the public light.

De Klerk’s speech presented the aim of negotiated transition as the achievement of a ‘totally new constitutional dispensation in which every inhabitant will enjoy equal rights, treatment and opportunity in every sphere of endeavour – constitutional, social and economic’. Political leaders from within and outside government were called on to take a ‘place at the negotiating table’ as, de Klerk announced, the ‘time for reconstruction and reconciliation’ had arrived.

Roelf Meyer reflects on the significance of this series of events for South Africa, both the exuberance and fear that characterised this particular time, and the progress the country has made since:

Please describe your role in negotiating South Africa’s transition to democracy.

During the late 1980s I was deputy minister of constitutional affairs, and became immediately involved in the negotiations process once de Klerk became president in 1989 as a member of the Ministerial Committee on Negotiations. I became minister of defense in 1991 and minister of constitutional affairs the following year, but stayed on as chief negotiator for the National Party (NP) government. I retained that position through the transition and the 1994 elections, and in my later position as a cabinet minister in the Government of National Unity. From beginning to end, I was part of it.

What was the mood in the country and in government leading up to de Klerk’s speech?

For the most part the 1980s were tense, and there was ongoing violence and civil unrest. The mood favoured reform.

By 1989, the majority within the NP understood things had to change, and the change in leadership made that easier because de Klerk could come with a completely different approach – that being the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations. Unless the political playing field was levelled, there was no way negotiations could even start. So the mood was quite positive and expectations were high that de Klerk would lead that process. At the same time, when the actual announcement came it was still quite a surprise to many people, though the cabinet had decided in December 1989 that those steps would be announced.

How important is it to commemorate these events?

I was surprised at the level of interest shown about the 20th anniversary. There were no specific celebration plans in place, it just happened from all sides and it was great. The De Klerk Foundation arranged a seminar in Cape Town, and there were major celebrations within ANC ranks. I think it’s good for South Africans to look at our history, recapture the moment, and keep it in our minds – especially for those who were too young to remember what had happened, this is a good part of the learning excursion. I hope we can repeat this at given moments, which to my mind helps in the reconciliation process.

Thinking back on the principle of open, democratic multi-party politics that the transition and the constitution envisaged – has this been achieved?

There are two aspects to this: the first is the way we created democracy, which we have to evaluate and celebrate because it is one of the successes and achievements that all South Africans can be proud of. Of course there were tensions during the negotiations, but in the end it was a peaceful and smooth transition from old to new. We got to the bottom of questions of how to build a constitution that provides for the interest of all South Africans. At the heart of it, we agreed that equality was the benchmark of our Constitution, and the fundamental rights it captures stand out as a benchmark for other countries in conflict. The Constitution remains a benchmark of the South African transition, but also of the South African nation of the future, and that is untouched.

The second aspect is a political one. The country has done well – we could not expect South Africa to develop a multi-party system of participation in the same way as the so-called Western world. I expect the ANC as the leader of the liberation struggle to be the popular political movement for quite some time. But we are seeing more openness in the political arena, fairly good competition, sixteen or more parties elected to parliament – this shows we are not limited in our political competition. South Africa is still a young democracy, but as the playing field gets more level and with time, new political appetites will develop.

Two things encourage me: there is a lot of transparency and media coverage of political debates, so there is openness and free expression of thinking. Even within the ANC, debates are not closed on leadership or government matters. It is also a good sign that parliament is exercising its role in ensuring accountability, by calling government departments and even ministries to order. This is not only coming from opposition parties, but within the ruling party itself. It took some years before parliament really started exercising this role, and it is a positive sign as far as democracy is concerned.

The SA Reconciliation Barometer has found increasing percentages of South Africans who view political parties as the biggest source of division in the country, second only to economic inequality. What does this mean for reconciliation?

We are coming to a point of defining reconciliation and national unity differently from how we did twenty years ago.  There may not be consensus – the whole subject of reconciliation is still open and we don’t have unity as a nation yet, but these changing ideas are a sign of maturity. But the dividing line is probably more and more along economic factors, than according to race or colour.

What would a reconciled South Africa look like to you?

Broadly speaking, a reconciled South Africa should mean that all South Africans are able to live up to their aspirations, across all sectors of society and all communities in the country. That again is not defined by colour or race, but is really a matter of achieving the equality that we strive for through the Constitution.

Roelf Meyer is former minister of constitutional affairs, chief negotiator of the National Party government during the CODESA talks, and co-founder of the United Democratic Movement. He is co-founder and director of FeverTree Consulting, and works internationally in the field of conflict resolution.

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