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Reflections on how COMSA shaped South Africa’s first democratic elections

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Picture: Reuters file – Former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

As South Africa’s nascent democracy turns 29 in 2023, it is important to look back and reflect on the long journey that the country has travelled since February 11, 1990. It was on this day when the apartheid government under President Frederik Willem de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from Victor Verster prison after he had spent twenty-seven years in jail.

This historic moment was preceded by the ascendence of De Klerk to the leadership position in the National Party and in government. His subsequent decision to unban liberation movements and to release their leaders and members who had been unfairly incarcerated was widely applauded.

Such developments marked a watershed moment in South Africa’s beleaguered political history. They paved the way for negotiations that took place between the apartheid government and various liberation movements. The Groote Schuur Minute of May 4 1990 and the Pretoria Minute of August 6, 1990, marked the early stages of South Africa’s negotiated settlement. It was during these meetings that the roadmap for negotiations was discussed.

Picture: Philippe Wojazer/REUTERS – African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, left, shakes hands with Inkatha Freedom party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, right, as Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithin, 3rd left, and South African President F.W. de Klerk look on during South Africa’s peace summit on April 8, 1994.

The meeting in Durban on October 25, 1991 of ninety-two organisations that were opposed to apartheid gave birth to The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). Despite many challenges and adjournments, CODESA was able to eventually bear fruits, which culminated in or was epitomised by the first democratic election that took place on April 27, 1994.

All these events are indisputably part of the history of South Africa’s journey to freedom. However, another issue that is hard to ignore is that the international community also played an important role in ushering in freedom in South Africa. In addition to individual countries imposing economic sanctions against the apartheid government in order to force it to liberate the country’s masses, various bodies made their own contribution in the 1990s to ensure that the journey to freedom picked up the pace. This point is expounded below.

On January 1, 1993, the Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa (COMSA) published Phase 1 of its report, which was titled “Violence in South Africa”. In it, COMSA covered the period October 1992-January 1993. It is important to provide the context within which COMSA got involved in South African politics – especially the country’s journey towards embracing a democratic order. This is important as part of the process to trace back the road that the country has travelled to be where it is today, almost three decades later.

The report mentioned above did not just surface from nowhere. It was an outcome of a decision that was taken by the Commonwealth Heads of Government, which was held in October 1991 in Harare, Zimbabwe. At this summit, the Commonwealth Secretary-General was mandated to visit South Africa with the view to explore with the principal parties, different ways in which the Commonwealth as an organisation could assist South Africa in its transition period.

In particular, the Commonwealth was willing to lend a helping hand in the negotiations that were set to commence between the outgoing National Party government and those who had been fighting for the liberation of the oppressed masses following the decisions taken by De Klerk as outlined above.

In July 1992, the Secretary-General made his third trip to South Africa. It was during this visit that he proposed to both the government of the day and the principal parties that it would be advisable to have a multidisciplinary Commonwealth team of experts to provide practical assistance to South Africa in order to address the issue of violence which was ravaging the country. This proposal was premised on the understanding that it was the ongoing violence that impeded negotiations, which would lead to a new political dispensation in South Africa.

It was this discussion that caught the attention of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and forced it to debate the matter extensively. Subsequently, Cyrus Vance visited South Africa on behalf of the UN Secretary-General to see things for himself. His report, which was discussed by the UNSC resulted in the UNSC adopting resolution 772 on August 17, 1992. Among other things, this Resolution authorised the UN Secretary-General to deploy UN observers in South Africa. Their mandate was “to address effectively the areas of concern noted in his report”. The Resolution also identified areas of concern, such as political instability in hostels, the prevalence of dangerous weapons in the country and other issues.

Subsequently, the Commonwealth Secretary-General constituted COMSA. On October 18, 1992, this group descended in South Africa to begin its work. This was after having been briefed by the Secretary-General in London about its mandate in South Africa. On its arrival in the country, COMSA held meetings with various stakeholders since it was instructed not to be partisan. These stakeholders were political parties, various organisations as well as FW de Klerk and his Cabinet Ministers, among others.

In executing its responsibility, this group considered the political context in the country, the state of violence, mechanisms to strengthen the structures of the National Peace Accord, the administration of justice, as well as policing.

Through its work, COMSA made a number of observations. One observation was that violence in South Africa was “deeply rooted in the country’s history and continued political uncertainty”. Thus, the recommendation was that establishing a government which was going to be accepted by all the people of South Africa would make it possible for such a government to address violence.

Another observation was that the claim about the existence of a sinister ‘third force’ had credence. This view was derived from the revelations of the Goldstone Commission that the South African Defence Force (SADF), through its Military Intelligence, was determined to discredit the ANC after negotiations for a political dispensation had started.

However, COMSA commended De Klerk for his initiative to review the workings of the Military Intelligence. In this regard, COMSA urged government to rid the army of all covert practices and to undertake a major reassessment of its security apparatus. In COMSA’s view, this would make it easier for government to draw a clear distinction between external and internal threats to peace and security.

The third observation was that there was a need to investigate all armed formations in South Africa. The idea was that this would exorcise the mutual suspicions and fear that were hindering progress towards a truly democratic society.

The fourth observation was that there was a need to reform South Africa’s criminal justice system. This view was premised on the understanding that until this time, the criminal justice system in South Africa had been associated with the apartheid regime and saved a selected few while oppressing the majority.

The fifth observation was that the National Peace Accord had to be supported because it remained one of the most significant developments in the country as it embarked on the transition period.

Lastly, COMSA observed that the presence of international observers in South Africa had played an important role in calming the volatile political situation. In this regard, COMSA recommended that an international presence in whatever form had to be maintained in South Africa, both up to and during the first democratic elections. Indeed, this is what happened.

Phase II of COMSA’s report, which focused on “Violence in South Africa” covered the period February-May 1993. Phase III, which focused on “South Africa in transition”, covered the period August-December 1993. Eventually, South Africa held its first democratic election on April 27, 1994.

This background history demonstrates in vivid terms that COMSA played a significant role in contributing towards South Africa’s transition from apartheid to a new political order. All those who were involved in these processes appreciated the significant role that was played by the international community in ushering in a new political dispensation in South Africa.

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that South Africa embraces multilateralism. This claim is buttressed by the fact that the country participates in a number of multilateral institutions – both within the African continent and globally.

In a way, South Africa’s foreign policy agenda is informed by this belief. Preferring the soft power approach, which is predicated on finding diplomatic solutions to conflict situations, is in line with the country’s recollection of how democracy was achieved in South Africa. Hard power – epitomised by the deployment of soldiers in conflict situation is not South Africa’s first approach to conflicts. This is partly because the country’s liberation was not achieved through the barrel of a gun but through negotiations – which included the efforts made by COMSA.

Therefore, the recommendations and directives that were made by COMSA in 1993 played a critical role in bringing South Africa closer to achieving the goal of democracy. Surely, no single action was a panacea to convincing the apartheid government to relinquish power. It was a combination of factors – both national and international that guided South Africa towards a new political order. COMSA was undoubtedly one of the key role-players in this regard. It left an indelible mark in South Africa’s history.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu – Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University

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