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Hintergrund: After Apartheid

Forgiving without forgetting

  • A white woman carrying a black baby. Together, not separated; (Rechte: dpa)

For more than 40 years, South Africa was marked by apartheid, a system of suppression of the black majority by the white minority through an oppressive government and discriminating legislation. After decades of militarised opposition towards apartheid, many observers predicted that a democratic South African state with black representation in government could only ever be reached at the price of a civil war. However, the opposite occurred. The radical change of the South African society and political system succeeded non-violently. This change is known as "South African miracle".

It is mostly the merit of Nelson Mandela that the first free elections in South Africa and the victory of his African National Congress did not result in a bloody civil war. One of his most important instruments to reconciliation was the foundation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the South African parliament. Chaired by the South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, the aim of the commissions 17 members was to bring to public attention the truth about the brutality and the suppression that occurred during apartheid, and thus strengthen human rights. The culprits were not brought to trial, but were supposed to publicly depict the motifs and the strategies behind what happened during the apartheid-era. Those who turned themselves in to the Commission voluntarily could expect amnesty. Many victims of apartheid did not approve of this approach and called for harsher punishments. Nevertheless, the commission and the South African government managed to promote the principle of "forgiving without forgetting", which was finally accepted by the population. The goal was to support the victims instead of punishing the culprits.

To this day, the change from the racist apartheid regime to the black control of government has remained non-violent. Today’s South Africa follows the vision of a peaceful multi-cultural society. While this goal will still take a long time to accomplish due to massive social differences, the overall conditions seem to be in favour of it.

A model for the world?

  • Bischof Desmond Tutu holding a bible in his hands Dealing with the past: Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu; (Rechte: dpa)

The reasons for the "South African miracle" are still subject of debates. However, one thing is for sure: apart from charismatic personalities as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and their consequent advocacy of non-violence, it was also the level-headed acting of the white population that contributed to the peaceful change. A crucial aspect for the transition towards democratic structures were the reform policies initiated by the National Party, led by white president Willem de Klerk. In a referendum in 1992, about 70 percent of the white population backed the policy that lead to the first free elections two years later. On May 10th, 1994, Nelson Mandela won the elections and became South Africa’s first black president. The fact that de Klerk, as a white, remained second vice president under Mandela illustrates his emphasis of consensus rather than confrontation.

Considering the everyday life makes the peaceful South African change easier to grasp. Despite multiple attempts over the decades to keep the ethnicities separate, there have always been contacts between blacks and whites, for example at work. Those interactions sufficed to prevent violence between the groups. The South African model has become relevant to solve conflicts in other regions of the world. The South African approach of establishing the truth was directly transferred to Rwanda, where it was deployed to investigate the genocide that occurred in the mid-1990s. According to international peace researchers, this way of conflict-solving may take quite a long time, but it is very effective. Potential sources for new conflicts are slowly dried out.