Those of us of a certain age have lived through some amazing historical events in recent decades. I was living in Germany when the wall came down and East and West Germany were reunited in what was a relatively peaceful process. I was living back in the UK when the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement came into force and saw the cessation of IRA terrorism and the devolvement of power to the Stormont government. And I remember the “Free Nelson Mandela” songs and the anti-apartheid marches and movements, the release of Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established in the mid nineties, not long after I left university.
Against the backdrop of civil war and mass bloodshed in Syria, the rise of ISIS, renewed terrorism on the streets of Manchester and London and in other cities around the world, these relatively peaceful revolutions and resolutions of longstanding conflicts and injustices are all the more amazing and hope-giving.
Why was a peaceful transition possible in South Africa, rather than the predicted full-scale revolution, ‘fighting to the last drop of blood’, and so on, possible? What lessons, if any, can be learned for other contexts and conflicts? In his extensive analysis of the South African context, Welsh draws together various strands as to why South Africa has been able to dismantle apartheid and transition from a racial oligarchy to a democratic order without major bloodshed or civil war.
The first reason that this was possible was leadership. On a course entitled Leadership with Global Perspectives, it is particularly interesting to consider the roles of De Klerk and Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, other church leaders, business leaders and so on. In the midst of chaos, injustice, fear and ferment, courageous leadership was vital to steer South Africa through to a more peaceful democratic future. Welsh quotes Eglin on how important this leadership was:
“South Africa […] took a unique route, largely because of a rare display of leadership: a relatively conservative Afrikaner leader decided to negotiate before he had lost, and an imprisoned leader of a liberation movement decided to negotiate before he had won.”
What Welsh does not do, thankfully, is paint an overly simplistic picture of these leaders, of good versus evil, the good guys and the bad guys. These are all human beings, with their respective flaws and weaknesses. However, it is their leadership and courage in the face of overwhelming odds that helps to deliver South Africa from the oppression and destruction of apartheid. The resulting peace is fragile and complicated and imperfect and messy, but it is peace and it is progress.
While leadership was vital, however, Welsh points out that there was no single-factor cause that can satisfactorily explain the transformation that took place in South Africa. Shifts in society, capitalism and economic realities, pressure for change ‘from below’, the role of church and business leaders, international sanctions, and the political reality of the inevitable failure of apartheid (as was the case with communism in the USSR) all contributed.
Finally, I would like to highlight the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a vital factor in this whole process. The truth shall set you free. When I have spoken on forgiveness, I have always emphasised the importance of apportioning blame, of naming the crime, of speaking the truth. Forgiveness is never about letting people off the hook, or minimizing what they have done. The TRC was vital in achieving this – speaking truth and bringing reconciliation to a divided nation. The end result has not been neat and tidy, but as Welsh concludes: “even if it is a democracy of a poor quality, South Africa is nevertheless a vastly better society than it was under apartheid.”
I am looking forward to experiencing this first hand in September!
 Welsh, David. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2010, Kindle Edition, loc. 12914.
 Welsh (2010), loc. 13186.