About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Exploring Reasons for the Collapse of Apartheid

In South Africa, apartheid mandated the forms of relationships that existed between blacks and whites. When apartheid began to crumble, the absence of political and social space to create new forms of relationships, except among certain elements of the elites, widened the divide between blacks and whites and further encouraged the youth to make the townships ungovernable when it became increasingly clear that the government no longer had the stomach to pay them the price control that the townships exacted, given its own uncertainties and divisions -- as to the way forward. These uncertainties were reinforced by the government's reluctant conclusions in the mid-eighties that apartheid was no longer a viable proposition nor one that could be indefinitely propped-up by made-to-order reforms. Yet, it remained unsure what to replace apartheid with, and unwilling or unable -- to contemplate the ramifications of the inevitable a universal franchise and a total dismantling of the apartheid apparatus, in short, the surrender of power. Nevertheless, while the social controls to regulate the conflict deteriorated, they did not collapse providing the leeway for the risks both the ANC and the NP had to confront in their respective communities in order to convince their constituencies that neither was about to sell them out in negotiations.

When formal multi-party negotiations got under way in 1991 after the release of Mandela, and the unbanning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ANC and the ruling National Party (NP), the two major parties to the conflict, found that once away from the formal setting of the negotiating table, which included 19 parties and as many viewpoints, one-on-one Indabas were a way to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that tied their hands and enabled them to pound out their differences. For without their agreement on the way forward, there could be no way forward, a platitude so obvious that the failure of many of the smaller parties to grasp the point was a measure of the hubris they had imbued themselves with either in exile or in the insular confines of an internationally isolated South Africa. That recognition agreement on what sufficient consensus meant in practical terms -- gave a concrete context to the process within which the peace process was going to either advance or regress.1

And without that framework, embodying the implicit acknowledgment that the political space necessary to somehow enable the two major pillars of polarization to "depolarize" would have to be excavated, there could have been no agreement that would allow South Africa to begin to accommodate, if not overcome, the hurdles that lay in the minefields of differences that had to be "dismantled" before a truly lasting, if at times unstable, accommodation could be created.

To get to the understanding that both parties could only accommodate their differences through negotiations and that they could not resolve them through a protracted and indefinitely drawn-out war of violence and counter violence took the better part of a decade. Forsaking war rooms for negotiating tables was not an option particularly palatable to either side, but one dictated by the logic of inevitability. Perhaps a chess analogy is most appropriate. Neither side could achieve checkmate; permanent stalemate was the alternative to declaring a draw. Draws means deals.

In short, once both sides came to realize that the one could not hold on to power through its repressive security policies and the other recognized that it could not seize power through an armed "liberation" struggle the options for both became more narrow, and more importantly, more crystallized.

The process of crystallization is a process within a process. First, there is the "outer" crystallization a coming to terms with the harsh implications of existing political realities rather than elusive potentialities. Second, there is the "inner crystallization" the psychological "deficits" that decades, perhaps centuries of denial have to be acknowledged, dealt with, and overcome. In South Africa, both the ANC and the NP had to reassess both their strategies and tactics within the confines of these constraints.2

Afrikaners traced their roots to a trading post their forebears established on the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Unlike, say, the British settlers who colonized South Africa - and much of the rest of Africa - in the case of the Afrikaner there is no "mother" country to which the designated "settler" population can return, nor would the designated "mother" countries regard themselves as such and open their borders to hordes of foreigners masquerading as prodigal sons.

Indeed, if the "mother " country criterion became the yardstick to adjudicate matters of nationhood, few countries would pass the "purity of origin" test. In many countries, indigenous populations are indigenous only by virtue of the fact that they decimated the previous claimants to the distinction or had reduced their numbers to an infinitesimal proportion of the country's current population, and in so doing precluded their reemergence as dispossessed claimants to territory previously theirs. One might call it the "whose on first" syndrome,3 a resurrection of historical reversibility as the random arbiter of human destiny. While many divided society conflicts have roots in the indigenous/settler dichotomy, especially where the settlers disposed of the indigenous as the ruling elite, they are in themselves insufficient explications of the root causes of why conflicts emerge in some multi-ethnic societies and why it is absent in others.

Certainly, the degree to which indigenous and settler populations intermix, the prevalence of inter-marriage, the level of social integration, the degree to which religious or ethnic affiliations become purveyors of the perceived threats of difference rather than the perceived enrichments of diversity, and the salience of dispossession as one group's historical starting point contribute enormously to political and socio/economic imbalances, which eventually express themselves in conflict, where satisfactory forms of equilibrium among competing interests become impossible to calibrate. On the other hand, the "narcissism of small differences," first articulated by Freud, which postulates that the more objectively alike opposing groups are, the more they magnify their pseudo differences in communities that have been suppressed for long periods of time by the state, either colonial or otherwise. The suppressed people identify the police as one of the state's instruments of control part of the state's armory to keep them in their proper places rather than as the custodians of law and order ensuring the safety of the citizenry have far different attitudes to policing than communities who dominate others in every sphere of life and are the well from which the police are drawn. The latter are far more disposed as seeing the police as the impartial enforcers of the law, protective of their safety, there to be called upon when danger threatens.

Social scientists and the like will scour archives, looking for the causes for the collapse of apartheid. They will find none. They should look instead to Gibbon's; a good reading of The Fall of the Roman Empire4 provides more insight into the causes for the collapse, or better still, the creeping disintegration of apartheid that began with the invention of apartheid itself, than the sheaves of academic treatises that will provide fodder for scholars and historians to fed on. Birth-pains and death-pangs were different sides of the same coin. It would be uplifting if we could ascribe its demise to the impact of moral bankruptcy, or some such delinquency, but bankruptcy implies that there is something there which can be bankrupted, but in the case of South Africa there wasn't, and therein the fascination.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.