The Lessons of South Africa

South Africa is now beginning to contemplate the retirement of Thabo Mbeki, its second president since the end of the apartheid era. So this is a particularly opportune moment to look back and assess our achievements, note our failures, and perhaps see what elements in our transition to democracy may be applied elsewhere.

This is an exercise we in South Africa are not accustomed to undertaking, for as a people we tend to sell ourselves short. We seem to take for granted remarkable achievements and do not give ourselves enough credit. As a result, we tend to see an invisible cloud behind every ray of sunshine; we seem to think that our achievements have meaning only for ourselves.

The wider world has still not fully appreciated South Africa’s reasonably peaceful transition from repression to democracy. They and we remember the first days of that transfer of power to the black majority, when most people believed we would be overwhelmed by a ghastly racial bloodbath.

It was a desperate time, brief but seared in our memories, when indiscriminate killings on trains, in taxis, and on buses were common, a time of massacres at regular intervals – Sebokeng, Thokoza, Bisho, Boipatong, and the killing fields of KwaZulu Natal, owing to the bloody rivalry between the African National Congress and the ethnic Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.