Thabo Mbeki: “Talking to the Enemy”
The speech by former South African President Thabo Mbeki at the Al Jazeera Forum in Doha, Qatar, is published on the African Arguments website. It is a meticulous account of the steps taken by the ANC in deciding why, how and when to negotiate with the Apartheid regime, with some closing comments that compare the South African experience with the current situation in Israel/Palestine.
There has been one comment so far (by the indefatigable Abd al-Wahab Abdalla) suggesting that the Sudanese situation is different again.
Abd al-Wahab focuses his critique on the structural conditions of Sudan’s political economy. He is right to argue that there are important contrasts between South Africa and Sudan. I would like to draw attention to the issue of leadership.
The negotiated end of Apartheid highlights the importance of leadership, on both sides, beginning with intellectual leadership. Analytical acuity was fundamental to the success of the ANC’s struggle against its enemy, as President Mbeki’s lecture demonstrates. For both the ANC and the National Party, continuing the armed confrontation was an option. Both were undefeated and had reserves they could yet draw upon to escalate or prolong the conflict.
The two were enemies, both extremely determined. The Apartheid regime had resorted to a wide range of dirty tricks in its total war against liberated Africa. But each was clear sighted in pursuing its objective. The ANC in particular was astonishingly consistent in its goals. It was a reliable enemy to the Apartheid regime, not shifting its position during three decades. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he reiterated that the objectives of the struggle had not changed. His speech disappointed many in the international community who had expected that the deputy leader of the ANC would immediately adopt a flexible and conciliatory tone. But he was bound by the discipline and decisions of the party, and he did not deviate. Consistency and clarity — but not rigidity — was the hallmark of the ANC, and a key element in its ultimate triumph.
The ANC, putting itself in the shoes of its enemy, accepted the need for a soft landing for the leaders of Apartheid. They would not give up power completely or overnight. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an element in this, setting aside the UN General Assembly decision to determine that Apartheid was a crime against humanity. Populist sentiment in South Africa might have demanded that the Apartheid leaders be tried for their crimes, or insisted on one Boer, one bullet. But leadership — I am tempted to say visionary leadership — insisted that the party should lead the people rather than follow them.
Both parties compromised on dearly-held goals, but the ANC did so in pursuit of its ultimate and unchanged objective of a democratic and nonracial South Africa, an objective it duly achieved. Clarity about ultimate goals, and about the difference between strategic and tactical objectives, was an intellectual tool as important as any material or military resource. As President Mbeki shows, a careful and deeply informed analytical assessment of the forces at work, and the opportunities that arose, were essential in the victory.
Looking back, gifted leadership may seem no more than an inevitable following of the tracks of history. Hindsight gives us reasons for optimism. Circumstances at the time make things appear somewhat differently. The democratic transition faced the threats of White supremacists and the “third force” sponsored by the Apartheid regime. For much of the transition, it seemed that civil war, chaos or racial massacre was the likeliest outcome.
The lessons are there to be learned for Sudan. Leadership is crucial, but it is not a magical gift, and a substantial part of leadership is intellectual. Ten years after the CODESA talks that transformed South Africa, the NCP and SPLM leaders began the comparably gruelling and complex Machakos-Naivasha talks. Unlike CODESA, which involved everyone, Machakos-Naivasha included the principals only. But the leaders of the two delegations — Ali Osman Taha and John Garang — showed the kind of intellectual capability and political vision that turned a remote dream into a reality.
The CPA of course suffered several disabling flaws — the death of its mentor, the Darfur war, and the fundamental ambiguity in that it promised both a New Sudan and the option of southern secession.
As the CPA draws to a close, it becomes ever more evident that a successor agreement or agreements will be needed — post-referendum arrangements and new constitutional dispensation(s). The importance of analytical acuity and intellectual leadership is no less than before.