The process of national reconciliation in SA

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As nation we have commemorated the 16 December as Reconciliation day. From about 1986 when Nelson Mandela was in Pollsmoor prison he began a process of reconciliation by endeavouring to communicate with members of the erstwhile apartheid government. President Botha realised belatedly that his limited reforms were insufficient to bring about an enduring piece. In this regard the former minister of justice, Mr Kobie Coetzee, began to play a cautious role by secretly meeting with Mandela in prison and engaging him politically. In the African townships there was violence and incipient insurrection, which was contained in a ferocious manner by the security forces.

A political stalemate had been reached. Although Botha’s disastrous Rubicon speech proved to be counter-productive as far as reconciliation was concerned, enlightened and informed South African were holding discussions with leading members of the ANC in Africa states and abroad, while clandestinely certain leaders of the National Party (NP) were engaging with Mandela. These efforts culminated in a meeting between Mandela and Botha in Cape Town. It however appeared that Botha old and irascible had taken the process of reform as far as he could.

Providence was to intervene when Botha became seriously ill and was to resign. In his place a much younger leader of the NP, FW de Klerk, was elected as State President.  Although he as the former NP Transvaal leader had a relatively conservative political reputation he immediately initiated a progressive reform program. The ANC in exile was preparing itself for a process of negotiation while important ANC leaders were being released from prison and Mandela was engaged with serious discussion with political colleagues.

Many informed persons taken by surprise by the historic and courageous speech made by de Klerk on the 2nd February1990, announcing the unbanning of the ANC and the imminent release of Mandela from prison. This constituted a major step of political reform and contributed in no small way to the process of national reconciliation. It must be borne in mind that the conduct and character on Mandela in prison had made this step possible for de Klerk possible.

Mandela was a consummate politician, who was to emerge to be a national leader in world class and was able to accommodate the all the role players to negotiate for reconciliation. After the release of Mandela from prison and the return of many leading ANC, the difficult process of political negotiations commenced incrementally. This proved to be challenging since had to involve not only the ANC and the NP, but the other role players, including the Inkatha Freedom Party, the DP and the homeland leaders. It was complex and at times went awry and almost collapsed.

The process started with the Groote Schuur meeting of August of 1990 followed by the Pretoria and DF Malan Agreements in August 1900 and the February 1991 respectively which dealt, inter alia, with the question of political prisoners and the violence that was taking place, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. The political situation in general was problematic and potentially explosive because of the inordinate expectations that African people had on the one hand, and the fear of whites on the other hand. In order to address this situation a National Peace Accord was signed by a large number of political organisation in September 1991. This was a significant step in the process of reconciliation and created a climate for formal negotiations.

For this reason the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) was set up late in 1991 and it started work in January 1992. Although initially Codesa made good progress, in July 1992 an impasse was reached and it broke down completely. As a result, the ANC threatened rolling mass action.  The massacres at Boipatong and Bisho occurred and it appeared that the country was teetering on the brink of revolution. Although this was the nadir in relation to reconciliation, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer maintained contact and sought to bring about a reconciliation. This was indeed successful and at the beginning of 1993 a new Multi-Party Negotiation Process commenced. Although interrupted by the tragic assassination of the legendary Chris Hani, the process continued and produced a political settlement involving a date for the first democratic election on 27 April 1994 and an Interim Constitution. It also provided for the drafting of a final and legitimate Constitution by the elected representatives of South Africa in a Constitutional Assembly. The ANC won the election of 1994 and Mandela was elected president with two deputies, Thabo Mbeki and F W de Klerk in a government of Nation Unity for five years. This constituted the high point of national reconciliation. Mandela’s presidency was essentially characterised by effecting a reconciliation between the diverse people of South Africa after centuries of oppressive white rule.

Mandela was followed by Thabo Mbeki, whose presidency was characterised by the African Renaissance. Mbeki was an African intellectual and during his presidency the country experienced considerable economic growth. He was however perceived to be politically and intellectually aloof his economic policies were seen to be insufficiently socialist by many in the ANC resulting in his recall and resignation.

Most commentators are in agreement that Presidency of Jacob Zuma was disastrous. It was characterised by cadre deployment, corruption, state capture and maladministration on a vast scale. The ANC manifestly abandoned its policy of non-racialism for one of racial nationalism to the detriment of reconciliation. In contrast, the recently elected President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised a new dawn and a return to the legacy of Mandela. At no time since the inception of democracy has there been a greater need for reconciliation, which must address the inequality of resources between the races, not only in relation to land, but other issues, as well such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness and corruption. This is the inordinate challenge which must be a process and which has indeed started, but needs to gain momentum. It is not facilitated by political leaders like Julius Malema and Andile Mngxitama who are using the language of hate speech and violence, the very antithesis of reconciliation, as advocated by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.


George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.