Pressing topics for a new national dialogue - FW de Klerk

Former president notes that there is a turn, by some, away from discussion, debate and negotiations towards confrontation and conflict (March 9)



It is a great pleasure for me to be able to participate in this year's Woordfees.

The Woordfees -­‐ together with festivals such as the Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and others -­‐ provides evidence of the vitality of Afrikaans as the language in which seven million South Africans of all races think, speak, create and dream. For us, our language is one of our most precious heritages: it is deeply interwoven with our identity, our human dignity and our membership of the broader mosaic of cultures of South Africa.

It is also the language in which we discuss, debate and negotiate -­‐ and it is this aspect of Afrikaans that I would like to celebrate today.

One of the central factors that distinguishes us from all other species is the fact that we can exchange complex ideas with one another. Other living creatures communicate -­‐ but only in a very rudimentary manner. The most intelligent species can communicate, perhaps, a maximum of a hundred different ideas.

They do not have the ability to negotiate. If an impala encounters a lion -­‐ there is seldom very much room for discussion -­‐ it is flight or it is death. When two eland bulls compete to win the affection of a group of eland cows -­‐ they do not stop and reason with one another: they do not compromise and decide to settle for three cows each. It is all or nothing.

The development of language among our homo sapiens ancestors opened up all sorts of new possibilities for co-­‐existence. It certainly did not lead to the end of physical conflict -­‐ but it did open the prospect for compromise and co-­‐operation.

And so it has been throughout most of human history: there have been those who have favoured conflict, competition and war and those who have preferred negotiation, coexistence and peace. As Ecclesiastes put it, there was a time to tear apart and a time to sew together; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

After two devastating world wars during the last century the pendulum finally began to swing toward sewing together, toward speaking and away from hating and from war.

The human cost of conflict had simply become too great and too real. The development of nuclear weapons presented mankind with the very stark reality -­‐ the reality that there simply was no longer any option but peaceful coexistence.

The expansion of democracy to most of the world's population also helped to promote the cause of debate and negotiation over confrontation and conflict. It is an interesting fact that -­‐ as far as I can tell -­‐ there has never been a war between two genuine democracies.

Another factor that has helped the cause of peace has been the role and positioning of the media -­‐ and now of social media. How long, one wonders, would the First World War have continued -­‐ had the slaughter at the First Battle of the Somme been broadcast into the homes of British, German and French families with sons in the trenches?

All of this has led to the fact that the period since the beginning of the new millennium has been the most peaceful time in all of human history. Despite the conflict in Syria and Iraq the percentage of the world's population that is affected by war and conflict is much smaller now than it has ever been. There is, of course, no room for complacency and no guarantee that humanity will not revert to its old ways -­‐ as the situation in Ukraine now reminds us.

However, there can also be no doubt that there has been a paradigm shift: the unacceptable consequences of wars involving weapons of mass destruction; the spread of democracy and the key role of the media have all led to a world where the balance has shifted towards peace.

Thirty years ago nearly all the experts predicted that the growing confrontation in South Africa between the National Party government and the disenfranchised black, coloured and Indian majority would inevitably culminate in a devastating race war. In 1985, following PW Botha's Rubicon Speech, the TV news throughout the world was dominated almost on a daily basis by images of escalating conflict in the streets and townships of South Africa.

Soon afterwards, in his cell at Pollsmoor Prison, Nelson Mandela concluded that "if we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would soon be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war." Without initially obtaining the approval of the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, he began a dialogue with the South African government.

The South African government had already reached a similar conclusion. The SADF had advised it in the early 80s that there could be no long-­‐term military solution to the gathering conflict in the country.

After he became Prime Minister in 1978, PW Botha had embarked on a genuine process of reform. However, by the mid 1980s it was no longer a question of segregated park benches and integrated sports teams: it was a question of power -­‐ or Amandla, as the ANC put it. The simple reality was that reforming apartheid would not solve our problems.

On the contrary, reforms sparked off dangerously rising expectations and contributed to the growing unrest and conflict -­‐ which forced PW Botha to slam on the brakes in terms of his reform policies and to restore order.

The draconian State of Emergency that the government declared in June, 1986 had three goals: restore order; restore services to communities; and create an environment conducive to negotiations.

By the late 1980s the leadership of the National Party had accepted that apartheid could not be reformed -­‐ and that only the transformation of our society would lead to a potentially positive outcome for all our people. In the first speech that I made in February 1989, after I was unexpectedly elected leader of the National Party, I said

"Our goal is a new South Africa; A totally changed South Africa;

A South Africa which has rid itself of the antagonisms of the past; A South Africa free of domination or oppression in whatever form;

A South Africa within which the democratic forces -­‐ all reasonable people -­‐ align themselves behind mutually acceptable goals and against radicalism, irrespective of where it comes from.

How we reach that goal, is the common challenge which all of us face."

By the time I became President in September 1989 the National Party was already committed to fundamental transformation. We had reached the conclusion that the best -­‐ indeed the only -­‐ prospect for a positive future for us and for all the people of South Africa lay in the negotiation of a strong constitution that would protect the rights of all South Africans.

However, the collapse of Soviet communism enabled us to accelerate the process. We realised that circumstances for a reasonable constitutional settlement would never again be so favourable. So we seized without delay the opportunity that history had unexpectedly presented to us.

25 years ago -­‐ on 2 February 1990 -­‐ in my now well-­‐known speech to Parliament, I made the announcements that removed all the remaining barriers to the commencement of negotiations on a new non-­‐racial constitution. It left the ANC with no excuse not to negotiate.

The process of negotiations that ensued was one of the most successful demonstrations of the power of discussion, dialogue and negotiations in recent history. It showed that conflict and irrationality could be overcome and need not necessarily determine human destiny.

23 political parties with widely divergent philosophies and histories came together to negotiate a new Constitution for South Africa. It was never easy. Throughout, there were elements on all sides who chose violence rather than negotiations. 15 000 people died in a bitter struggle between the ANC and the IFP.

In June, 1992 the ANC decided to abandon negotiations and opted instead for what was called the ‘Leipzig Option'. Their reasoning was that if they could mobilise millions of people in our cities in a process of rolling mass action, the South African government would collapse -­‐ just as the East German government had collapsed only three years earlier in the wake of similar mass demonstrations. Then there would be no need for negotiations and the painful compromises that they always require.

After the notorious Bisho incident, South Africa was brought to brink of catastrophe. Fortunately, wiser counsel within the ANC alliance prevailed. In September, 1992, Nelson Mandela led the ANC back to the negotiating table. By December, 1993, we had reached agreement on a new non-­‐racial interim Constitution in terms of which we held our first fully democratic national elections on 27 April 1994.

Two years later, after more intensive negotiations, we adopted our final Constitution. It rests on the following values -­‐ which I would like to quote in full because they represent the essence of our new society and the vision towards which we all should strive. They are:

Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms;

Non-­‐racialism and non-­‐sexism;

The supremacy of the Constitution and the Rule of Law;

Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-­‐ party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.

These 49 words are the fruit of six years of discussion, debate and negotiation. They are the guarantor of our freedom; they are the blueprint for our future success; they are the best hope for millions of South Africans for justice, security and prosperity. Every citizen should should make them his or her own. These words should at all costs be fiercely defended whenever they are threated.

And yet there are those who say that they have served their purpose during the so-­‐called first phase of our political transition. They are apparently no longer necessary or sufficient during the second phase of radical reconstruction of our society and economy.

Some, filled with passion and bitterness, declare that the time for reconciliation between black and white South Africans has past -­‐ that the time for social and economic struggle has arrived. Such people have turned their backs on discussion, debate and negotiations and have instead opted for confrontation and conflict. They have taken us back to the dark forebodings of Nelson Mandela in his cell in Pollsmoor Prison that "if we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would soon be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war."

That fear is as well-­‐founded today as it was in 1985. There are so many pressing questions that we South Africans need to discuss and debate with one another -­‐ and that should be the topics of a new national dialogue:

How are we going to promote equality? Is the best course to deprive the advantaged of the wealth they have achieved and to distribute it among the disadvantaged -­‐ or is the best solution to ensure rapid and sustained economic growth?

How do we achieve economic growth? Should we implement the National Development Plan -­‐ or should we concentrate on the radical second phase of the National Democratic Revolution? We cannot have both.

What is the best way to empower disadvantaged black South Africans? Is it to disempower whites and other minorities by the imposition of demographic representivity -­‐ or does it lie in empowering people through decent education, job creation and effective services?

Is there a place for non-­‐racial Afrikaans universities -­‐ or should all our universities mirror the demographic composition of our society as demanded by our Minister of Higher Education?

How will we sustain our democracy in the face of mounting corruption and the manipulation of the institutions that we established to ensure and defend constitutional governance?

What will the future be of our cultural and linguistic minorities? Will they just have to accept the de facto imposition of English as the sole official, business and university language -­‐ or should they demand that, in accordance with the Constitution, all our languages be treated equitably and enjoy parity of esteem?

Are we going to remain with the global trend to solve differences peacefully through negotiations and compromise -­‐ or will we revert the age-­‐old process of destructive confrontation and conflict?

These -­‐ and many other questions -­‐ should be the topic of an intense national dialogue.

We had thought that such a constructive dialogue would be conducted in our national Parliament. However, it has now become clear that Parliament is no longer a neutral area dedicated to rational and constructive debate. Sadly, the representatives in Parliament are not accountable to the citizens who elect them -­‐ but to their respective political bosses. The Speaker can also not be neutral while she serves as the Chairperson of the ruling ANC.

We -­‐ the people -­‐ should once again seize the initiative and conduct a dynamic national debate on these and the many other important questions that will decide the future of our country. In so doing, we should say a decisive "no" to those -­‐ on all sides -­‐ who wish to lead us back to confrontation and conflict.

We should take a firm stand on the fundamental values articulated in our Constitution. We should once again focus an intense debate on the best and most realistic way to realise our constitutional vision -­‐ the vision of human dignity, equality and human rights and freedoms for all South Africans.

Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation, March 10 2015

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