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SPEECH: MEDIATING THE IMPOSSIBLE

FWDK Matthew Willman SML

The peaceful resolution of South Africa’s long-standing racial imbroglio 24 years ago seemed to show that even the most intractable disputes could be solved peacefully by compromise and negotiation. Our experience gave new hope to the world that it might be possible to mediate the impossible and that other long-standing disputes might also be resolved through peaceful negotiations.

Since then the world has, by and large, been disappointed by the failure to replicate the success that we South Africans achieved:  

  • a negotiated solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict appears to be further away than ever;  
  • Russia continues to pursue its national goals while showing little interest in negotiating workable solutions to the situations in the Ukraine and the Crimea;  
  • in the absence of meaningful negotiations between its complex ethnic, religious and political factions, Syria continues to tear itself apart. 

What then were the factors that enabled South Africa to achieve success and that continue to elude the search for peace in other parts of the world today?  

First of all, I would like to deal with the reasons why we did not wish to enter negotiations on a one-man, one-vote process at an earlier stage. They included the following concerns:

  • Nearly everywhere else in Africa decolonisation had led to chaos, military governments and economic collapse. By the mid-1980s there had already been more than 80 coups in the rest of the continent. We were worried about the prospect of one-man, one-vote, one-time.  
  • Afrikaners felt just as strongly about their right to self-determination as black South Africans did. They had twice defended it against the mightiest empire of the time in the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars. How would they be able to retain their right to rule themselves in a one-man, one-vote situation? How could the interests of minorities be protected? 
  • They were also worried about the influence of the South African Communist Party in the ANC. Throughout the 70s and the 80s virtually all the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee were also members of the SACP. Mkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, was under the control of the SACP. As late as October 1987, our armed forces had been involved in large scale conflict with Soviet and Cuban-led forces in southern Angola. The Battle of the Lomba River in October 1987 was one of the biggest battles in Africa since the Second World War.

These concerns - which we thought were reasonable - received little or no sympathy from the international community.  

Yet despite all this, within a few short years all the major parties had reached agreement on a new non-racial constitution - and 24 years ago on 10 May 1994 -  President Mandela was inaugurated as the first President of South Africa’s new constitutional democracy. 

Speech by former President FW de Klerk 
20 April 2018

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