Overcoming Apartheid: Landmark survey reveals South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy

On April 27, 1994, as South Africans of every race streamed to the polls to vote in the nation’s first democratic elections, much of the world expected the country’s transition to be both long and painful. After all, the African continent has not spawned many successful democracies; few thought South Africa could be transformed without enormous bloodshed and heartbreak.

Now, as South Africa prepares to celebrate its first decade of democracy, a newly published book provides hard evidence that the nation’s success can be credited to its steadfast faith in the power of truth to promote national healing and reconciliation.

New book on *Overcoming Apartheid* argues that truth helped reconcile a divided South Africa.
New book on *Overcoming Apartheid* argues that truth helped reconcile a divided South Africa.

“Without the truth and reconciliation process, the prospects for a reconciled, democratic South Africa would have been greatly diminished,” concludes James L. Gibson, author of “Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?” — a book released this month by the Russell Sage Foundation.

Gibson, the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, bases this conclusion on his landmark survey of opinions held by 3,700 South Africans. The largest and most comprehensive study of post-apartheid attitudes in South Africa to date, the survey included a representative sampling of all the country’s major racial, ethnic and linguistic groups.

What accounts for South Africa successful transition to democracy, when so many other countries (especially in Africa) have failed?

Gibson’s systematic assessment suggests that South Africa’s remarkably peaceful transition to democracy is due, in large part, to the contributions of the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), headed by Nobel Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu. Working from the belief that understanding the past will help build a more peaceful and democratic future, South Africa launched the TRC as the mainstay of a concerted, institutionalized effort to come to grips with a bitter history of apartheid.

By placing its faith in the commission, South Africa sought not just to rectify the crimes of the past but also to create a reconciled society that would sustain democracy in the future. Perhaps no country in history has so directly and thoroughly confronted its past in an effort to shape its future as has South Africa.

Whether or not the TRC succeeded in its mission has been an issue of intense debate, but Gibson is the first to provide rigorous scientific evidence documenting precisely how the truth and reconciliation process made critical contributions to the nation’s healing process. For example, responses to his survey provide compelling testimony that the TRC succeeded in getting its version of the truth about the country’s apartheid past accepted by all types of South Africans.

“The most important lesson promulgated by the TRC is that both sides in the struggle over apartheid did horrible things,” claims Gibson. “If one accepts shared blamed, one might come to see the struggle over apartheid as one of “pretty good” good against “pretty bad” bad, not as absolute good versus infinite evil. Because all sides did horrible things during the struggle, all sides were compromised to some degree. It then becomes easier to accept the complaints of one’s enemies about abuses they experienced under the apartheid system.”

In fact, Gibson’s survey shows that South Africans who embrace the TRC view of the nation’s apartheid past are more reconciled with their fellow South Africans.

By creating a common understanding of the nature of apartheid — a “collective memory” for the nation — the TRC helped to foster reconciliation, as defined by the acceptance of basic principles of human rights and political tolerance, rejection of racial prejudice, and acceptance of the institutions of a new political order. Gibson’s analysis thus identifies key elements in the process — such as acknowledging shared responsibility for atrocities of the past — that are essential if reconciliation is to move forward.

“By convincing all sides that their hands were dirty, and that the other side — the enemy — also was unfairly harmed during thee struggle, a commonality was created that serves as the basis for reconciling South Africa,” Gibson concludes. “In this way, both a common history and common fate have been created for South Africans of all races.”

The bottom line, says Gibson, is that South Africans can thank the TRC for its contribution to the relatively stable and secure democracy that now exists in the country.

“The 10-year anniversary of South Africa’s first elections presents an ideal opportunity for looking back and asking why the democratic experiment seems to have succeeded, and looking forward to determine what remains to be done to make South African democracy broader and more secure,” Gibson said.

In his book, Gibson also speculates about whether the South African experience provides any lessons for other countries around the globe trying to overcome their repressive pasts.

Lauded by colleagues as a groundbreaking work of social science research, his analysis provides a primer for utilizing innovative conceptual and methodological tools in analyzing truth processes throughout the world. Although designed as a resource for political scientists, social scientists, group relations theorists and other students of transitional justice and human rights, the book is written to be accessible to people outside these disciplines.

Gibson has dedicated the book to three pillars of the reconciliation process: Desmond Tutu, the commission’s former president, Alex Boraine, the commission’s deputy chairman and a chief architect of its mission, and Charles Villa-Vicencio, the former national research director of the TRC.

Boraine is now president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a nonprofit organization that continues to promote justice and reconciliation in trouble spots around the world. Villa-Vicencio heads the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town (South Africa), an organization dedicated toward creating a more reconciled South Africa.

Editor’s Note: On May 4, from 6 to 8 p.m., the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) will host a “launch” for the book at its offices in lower Manhattan, (20 Exchange Place, 34th floor, New York, NY 10005). Tentative plans call for a discussion of the book and its findings, followed by a reception. For more information, contact Suzana Grego; office: (917) 438 9331; cell: (917) 704-1463; (Her assistant’s number is 917 438 9330); or visit the ICTJ Web site: http://www.ictj.org/staff.asp