“BRICS: in the Mirror of Times” The role of Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s democratic transition
The fourteenth episode of the joint project by TV BRICS and GAUGN is devoted to the events of the 1980s-1990s in the country
In the fourteenth episode of the joint project by the international network TV BRICS and GAUGN “BRICS: in the Mirror of Times”, dedicated to the abandonment of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Aleksandr Voevodsky, PhD in History, Senior Researcher at the Centre for African Studies of the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told how South Africa managed to avoid armed conflict at the turn of the century.
The project was supported by a grant from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science as part of the federal project “Popularisation of Science and Technology”.
On 27 April 1994, the first free non-racial elections were held in South Africa. Shortly before this event, diplomatic relations between South Africa and Russia resumed, and the president of the republic arrived in Moscow for the first time. All of this took place against the backdrop of South Africa’s gradual abandonment of the apartheid regime. What role did first the USSR and then Russia play in this complex process? And how, at the break of eras, did South Africa manage to avoid a bloody war?
The 1980s and 1990s in both Russia and South Africa were contentious. What was going on there and why did it happen?
In the 1980s, the situation in South Africa was getting more and more complicated, it was harder for the apartheid regime to keep the situation under control. At the same time, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and proclaimed the course of perestroika. This was not only true for domestic policy: very important changes were also taking place in the USSR’s foreign policy. This was what Mikhail Sergeyevich called “new thinking” in international relations, in foreign policy – the rejection of confrontation with the West and the cessation of the Cold War by 1990-1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is, the foreign policy backdrop has changed.
For the South African regime, what they considered to be a communist threat declined because they considered the opposition, the African National Congress, to be a pro-Soviet, pro-communist force. And with the crisis that the Soviet Union was going through, accordingly, such a threat was reduced – that’s firstly. Secondly, under Gorbachev, there is a change of course with regard to support for African national liberation movements. In 1989, the USSR begins to withdraw from Angola. A multilateral agreement was signed that led to the recognition of Namibia’s independence in 1990 and the withdrawal of Soviet advisers, and beginning the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.
South Africa has stopped supporting anti-government forces in Angola. That is, the civil war did not stop there, but the external sponsors of this civil war disappeared – the détente began both in the world and in the region. And the South African government against this background is becoming more attuned to change, so already in the late 1980s contacts between government circles and the opposition African National Congress appeared.
Nelson Mandela’s situation has changed: he has actually been moved to more comfortable conditions of detention, and moreover, the government is beginning to take care of his health because he has become perceived as a symbol of resistance to the regime. On the international stage, his figure takes on a special significance, so that the government starts literally dusting him off – unlike the first decade and a half or two decades of his detention. Government officials are already beginning to make contact with him and negotiations are beginning. That is, a preliminary still secret stage before the start of official negotiations between the apartheid government and the African National Congress – on what conditions the negotiations will begin. The disappearance of the Cold War confrontation certainly played a favourable role in the development of this preliminary negotiation process.
What was Nelson Mandela’s role in South Africa’s transition to democracy?
In 1990, the officially new President of South Africa, Frederik de Klerk, announced the end of the apartheid policy. It came as a surprise to everyone. He spoke in Parliament in early February 1990, and Nelson Mandela was released a week later. And from 1990 for four years there was a negotiation process in which, of course, Mandela’s role was huge, because it was he who, when he came out of prison, became the national leader. And not only for Africans: there was a similar attitude on the part of whites – it was a delight, it was a very rapid collapse of this rather repressive machine. And within South Africa and among the white population too, opposition to the Russian direction was growing. And Mandela, who came out not with a desire for confrontation, but immediately addressed exactly the idea that we need to build a new Africa together, made a very important positive message.
The country itself was predicted by most analysts at the time to be in a civil war. If you polled a hundred or a thousand experts in the late 1980s, 90 per cent predicted the inevitability of a bloody civil war. Mandela, with his authority, acquired also during his years behind bars, and his attitude to negotiation, to reconciliation, did much to prevent this from happening. He was a very competent politician. Negotiations were difficult, Mandela defended the interests of the African National Congress quite rigidly, but was willing to make certain concessions.
The result is the compromise that led to the 1994 election, truly the first free election where there were no racial barriers or restrictions.
What about relations between Russia and South Africa?
In the 1990s, the Russian Federation was not concerned with the African direction in its foreign policy. The number of diplomatic missions has also decreased overall. Naturally, in South Africa our diplomatic mission was preserved and is still working safely. But nevertheless there are very few economic ties. The trade turnover between South Africa and Russia even now, last year, is $1.3 billion. But in the political sphere between Russia and South Africa everything is quite well – interstate agreements have been concluded, according to which Russia and South Africa are strategic partners. On many foreign policy issues, the positions of South Africa and Russia are also close, but economic ties, unfortunately, are still lagging behind this level.
Many things are changing, even in the last decade there have been repeated attempts to intensify Russia’s co-operation with South Africa. South African business is even more active than Russian business. You can find South African produce in any supermarket, both wine and fruit. In the educational sphere, which I think is very important, co-operation is also developing. There is co-operation in the scientific sphere, also limited: in particular, there is our famous Institute of Nuclear Physics in Dubna. It has an agreement with South Africa and South African students come there for internships.
There are also projects and programmes in the sphere of space cooperation, because in South Africa there is a large observatory, built, by the way, by modern Englishmen in the vicinity of Cape Town. There are highlands and, therefore, clean, clear air, which is very favourable for astronomical observations. Of course, there is room to move and there is something to develop in various areas of co-operation. The foundation is serious and good, the USSR was involved in Africa.
Many of the older generation of leaders of the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, went through Soviet educational institutions. They still remember the Soviet Union and the help it provided, they have an emotional, personal relationship to Moscow.