South Africa´s negotiated transition to democracy

An inspiring model for future conflicts?

Term Paper, 2014
10 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction and background

2 Important steps of South Africa's negotiated transition to democracy

3 Impact of main factors and key players

4 Reasons for a peaceful transition

5 Conclusion

5 Bibliography


In the twentieth century South Africa was characterized by a doctrine of racial and ethnic segregation. Starting with the electoral victory of the National Party in 1948 under slogan of apartheid the white supremacy enhanced vastly. To pass laws, which suppressed and neglected the coloured people, the politico-philosophical ideology of the South African Apartheid system was enforced with brutality (Deegan, 2001:23-25). This political attitude led to pure spite and violent attacks among racial groupings.

The apartheid, and especially the violence between races, was at its height during 1960, when 67 demonstrators were killed by the police at the Sharpeville Massacre, and 1976, when the Revolt in Soweto took place (Butler, 2009:10-11). During 1984 and 1988, more than 4000 black South Africans died due to political reasons. In 1990, President FW de Klerk announced a turning point in the struggle for democracy. Releasing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and lifting the ban on the anti-apartheid organizations opened the door to negotiations. In April 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa and it ended in ushered in a new era of reconciliation and restitution (Boaduo, 2012:954).

South Africa’s way from apartheid to a non-racial democracy has attracted a lot of attention of the international audiences. The carefully arranged ‘transition to democracy’ with its negotiation and reconciliation can be regarded as one of the miracles in the twentieth century. It may be served as an inspiring model how to peacefully approach with a seemingly unsolvable political conflict. The question that is thus posed is: what factors played an important role in making sure that the transitions from apartheid to a non-racial democracy ended up peacefully in negotiations and not in a civil war?


According to Sang-Hyun (2008:7), the concept of transition to democracy can be defined as a political shift from an authoritarian dispensation to a democratic dispensation. Apparently, implementing radical changes in political systems is always a lengthy process, thus also the South African transition to democracy. It takes a long time to build up mutual confidence and a reciprocal dialogue. Kim (1997:3) has identified three main phases of the South African transition: the ‘initial phase of transition from 1978 to 1989’, the ‘crucial phase of transition from 1989 to 1991’ and the ‘maturity phase of transition from 1991 to 1994’.

The ‘initial phase of transition’ had its origin in the student uprising in 1976. It was the start of serious attempts reforming the political system in South Africa. This phase was further characterized by reforms advancing liberalization and democratization initiated and imposed from above. In this regard, the assumption of Prime Minister Botha was an important stage in the reform and transition process. Unless he was known as a hard- line NP leader, he had to begin contacts with the ANC and support limited power- sharing with South Africa’s coloured and Indian population. These first steps led to the rise and mobilization of an anti-regime civil society (Sang-Hyun, 2008:17). Due to the fact that he criticized demands for more extensive reforms, he had to resign and hand over his office to De Klerk.

During the ‘crucial phase of transition’ the negotiations for democracy were initiated through compromises between the ruling party and the anti-government camps. The most important step in this phase was the speech of President De Klerk on 2 February 1990, which put South Africa emphatically on the road to negotiation. The release of Nelson Mandela brought about important changes in the political society. The ANC realized that a shortly change in political dispensation could not be achieved by a ‘Civil War’ but had to be negotiated. The Harare Declaration in 1989, which emphasised on Commonwealth contribution to democracy, human rights and equality, underscored this new strategy. Further steps towards negotiations were the meetings Groote Schuur Minute (1990), Pretoria Minute (1990) and the National Peace Accord (1991) between the NP and the ANC, represented by De Klerk and Mandela.

The ‘Maturity Phase of transition’ was characterized by the actual transition to democracy with all the negotiations, the compromises and the first democratic election in 1994. In 1991, the composed and exhaustive negotiations ended with a joint commitment through a Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). All 18 political groups taking part in CODESA agreed to the goals of an ‘undivided South Africa’. Furthermore, they came to a mutual agreement that all citizens are able to enjoy a free and balanced democracy with a bill of rights as well as a multi-party system, separated power, civil liberties and specific freedom (Butler, 2009:27-28). Notwithstanding that during the proceedings there were several moments of stalemates, the successful outcome of this phase brought out an interim constitution and South Africa’s first non-racial, democratic election. Thus, in this transition the ruling racial minority peacefully handed over power to a new regime with an agreement working together.


It is obvious, that a milestone of such magnitude cannot be explained by referring to a single cause or a single person. There were main factors that facilitated South Africa’s movement towards a transition of democracy by causing general pressure to implement democratic institutions and practices: On the one hand, external or international incidents influenced the government’s decision to reform the political system and to negotiate. The collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the independence of Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia affected the apartheid system enormously. The end of the Cold War and the democratisation in the buffer regimes seemed to leave South Africa with no option but to follow (Giliomee and Schlemmer,1994:188). The pressure of the United States and the United Nations pointed the same way. Mainly advanced by the Harare Declaration, the target was to promote the human rights, condemn racism and obtain democracy. More and more, the international environment began to shift against the apartheid regime, but also was a source of motivation. All these developments outside South Africa made the ruling elite initiated their reforms from above.

On the other hand, even more important are the domestic factors, for instance the rising liberation movement which worked to raise awareness in their own country as well as worldwide and, thus, aimed to isolate the South African government and its supporters.


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South Africa´s negotiated transition to democracy
An inspiring model for future conflicts?
Stellenbosch Universitiy  (Political Science)
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Tim Eichler (Author), 2014, South Africa´s negotiated transition to democracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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