Have South Africans Embraced Democracy?

CHERREL AFRICA asks whether or not the country has fully come to terms with the ‘negotiated settlement’ and transition to democracy.

South Africa’s transition to democracy was one of the most significant periods in our history. It signalled far-reaching changes, and continues to have a residual impact on current political and social matters. This became particularly clear to me during a recent lecture with my first-year politics students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and their emotive responses to a debate on the ‘negotiated settlement’ – among a generation that has no lived memory of this time.

Yet in South Africa, many now say that the past need no longer be dwelt upon. Is it now time to close our discussions of reconciliation and the transition to democracy?

As we often know from personal experience, loss is a painful process, and is often difficult to integrate into our daily reality. Psychologists suggest that the grief accompanying loss often occurs in stages, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. While we may move through these stages towards resolution, often with counselling, it is possible to become ‘stuck’ in a particular phase, leading to emotional and psychological paralysis, continued anger and depression.

Nations are often construed as having a psyche, and with inevitable highs and lows in the ‘national mood’, and understanding the grieving process can also help us to think about the continued impact of the democratic transition on the ways in which South Africans view and relate to each other today.

The transition from racist and authoritarian apartheid rule to a constitutional democracy was a tremendous victory, and the first democratic elections brought joy and elation, as well as enormous expectations.

However, the forging of the ‘negotiated settlement’ that brought the country to this point remains opaque for many. While the transition was fuelled and supported by widespread mobilisation, it was largely an elite process. We often forget that the negotiations that began in February 1990 were long and protracted, and did not lead to immediate peace. As they unfolded over four years, violence both threatened and propelled talks. Compromise became a strategic necessity, and both the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP) relied on the notion of ‘sufficient consensus’ to move the process forward.

Without ‘sufficient consensus’, South Africa might have remained locked in an entirely untenable situation. Instead, the country proceeded towards democracy, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. Dire predictions of descent into chaos failed to materialise, and collectively we attempted to move quickly through the gamut of our emotions and redefine our social reality. We pushed aside anger, frustration, helplessness, and the ‘we’re-packing-for-Australia’ responses to buckle down to life in the ‘new’ South Africa. We celebrated democracy with a transformed legislative and constitutional framework.

Yet, though its extent is not fully known, many among us continue to grapple with the complexities, compromise, and even trauma of this process. Events such as the response to the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche and the Reitz hostel controversy show that despite significant progress, much anger and bitterness simmers below the surface, and occasionally spills into the open. As a nation, we have not yet ‘gone for counselling’.

Many ordinary citizens still harbour resentment rooted in what transpired during the negotiations process. Anger and bitterness simmer below the surface, and occasionally spill into the open. These feelings are conflated by the ongoing socioeconomic challenges of persistent and widespread poverty and inequality.

We cannot assume that we can ‘get over the past’ and simply begin to accept each other just because time passes. Without over-simplifying an extremely complex process, the negotiations can be seen as encompassing four core groups: first, those who opposed change to the existing order; second, the NP, which negotiated away its incumbency; third, the ANC, which made considerable concessions to achieve a negotiated settlement; and finally, those who felt that too much was conceded to achieve a negotiated settlement.

The relatively moderate second and third groups probably experienced some sense of loss given that concessions were made by all, but 16 years into democracy, they are likely to have moved on. However, the negotiated settlement certainly came as a significant loss for groups one and four, and group members may still be stuck in their anger.

Sixteen years on and South Africa’s honeymoon is now over. People are more willing to openly express dissent around the settlement, as was apparent in a recent discussion in my first-year politics class at UWC.

A lecture about the transition unleashed a reservoir of emotions among the students. Some felt that ‘Mandela had sold them out’, and others that ‘the ANC had messed up the country’. On average, these students were only two years old when the first democratic elections took place. Relatively speaking, they have little or no direct experience of the issues they discussed so passionately. The question posed to me was ‘why should people be reconciled, if they did not agree with the process?’

Whilst much has changed, the emergence of problems and conflict often provokes a return or default to our stereotypical understandings of each other. Ordinary citizens have not necessarily adjusted to our new society and transformed political order at the same rate as the elite, who were privy to the complexities of the transition settlement, information exchanged behind closed doors, and the nuances of its final outcome.

Perhaps it is time that we have a deeper discussion of why events unfolded as they did. Broadening and improving understanding of the rationale behind a particular event or decision often helps in developing a shared and fuller understanding of its complexity. It may be time for South Africa’s political elite to take us into their confidence, so that ordinary citizens can more fully come to terms with the dramatic changes that occurred in our nation.

More importantly, this discussion can move us to a point of improved acceptance and tolerance towards each other. The debate is far from over, and in fact should not be closed for as long as it remains pertinent, relevant, and a source of trauma for those who lived through apartheid and its negotiated demise – as well as future generations. This debate also needs to be injected into our school curriculum. In sum, we need to think creatively about ways to facilitate the difficult process of enabling more South Africans to ‘move on’.

Dr Cherrel Africa is a senior lecturer in the political studies department at the University of the Western Cape.

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