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South Africa and Iraq: the missing example

About the author
David Mikhail currently teaches political science and criminal justice at Rutgers University.

A nation is liberated and its tyrannical past withers into history. After a period of political and sectarian violence an interim constitution is drafted. The provisional government consists of one party possessing a 63% majority which peacefully coexists with a number of other political parties, including ethnic-based organisations. Within two years a final constitution is drafted, approved by the country’s supreme court, and ratified into law. The country celebrated the ten-year anniversary of its inaugural elections and will soon celebrate the ten-year anniversary of its permanent constitution.

This is not – except in the idyllic perception of some of the Iraq war’s architects and advocates – a vision of the Iraqi state in 2013. Rather, it is a description of the most successful process of democratisation in recent political history – that experienced in South Africa. While the world was transfixed by the spreading Iraqi insurgency in 2004, South Africa was celebrating a decade of democracy that had not been aborted even by the viciousness of civil war. In 2006 the country will mark a decade since its permanent constitution was installed.

South Africa deserves praise from the international community that it has not fully received (its absence is owed partly to the global attention on Iraq, partly to the South African government’s approach to HIV/Aids and its uncomfortably soft relations with Zimbabwe). It is now overdue: for with a social landscape that is just as ethnically diverse as Iraq’s, and bearing just as much potential for violent division along those ethnic lines, South Africa has created an enduring democracy based on the rule of law, a strict adherence to federalism, and a commitment to a power-sharing model of governance.

But a successful example can also, in principle, be an inspiration or at least offer a practical lesson. Understanding why South Africa has managed this democratic transition can help both to explain Iraq’s failures, and provide a guide to assess its own attempts to move beyond a dictatorial past and establish the foundations of democracy.

The art of sharing

The fate of South Africa was seemingly decided within the first moments of the post-apartheid era in 1990; specifically in the decision to create a system centred on political fairness as opposed to power consolidations. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were recognised by many to be the clear political victors in this embryonic period of South African democracy. Mandela’s messianic narrative alone would have ensured the ANC a political hegemony.

Instead of adopting a winner-take-all electoral structure, as had previously existed under Afrikaner rule, both the national assembly and provincial elections were subject to proportional representation. The desire to cultivate an inclusive republic ensured the participation and relevance of other major ethnic-based parties, as well as staved off the looming potential for civil war between ethnic factions. The Xhosa dominated-ANC pursued the inclusion of the Zulu based-Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in spite of their shared, atavistic history of ethnic-based violence that had claimed between 12,000 and 20,000 lives. The National Party, the facilitators of the apartheid structure and the jailers of Mandela, were also invited to participate in the future government.

The democratic structure also forced the more extremist political elements of the country to recede to the periphery, or even to complete extinction. The environment of political and sectarian stability rendered any brand of ideological extremism largely obsolete. The militant wings of both the ANC and the IFP, except in occasional instances, have been dormant since 1994.

The National Party dissolved into virtual death, its cause of racial supremacy no longer viable in a landscape where the black-African majority (79% of the population) had become enfranchised. In its place, the New National Party, its current variation, has separated itself from the NP’s original tenets, advocating equal rights and equal protection for all South Africans in its manifesto. Moreover, strongly sectarian political parties – the more insular black-South African parties such as the Azanian People’s Organisation and the Pan-Africanist Congress, or the apartheid-advocacy group Freedom Front Plus – failed to establish more than infinitesimal weight at the national level.

In contrast, the birth of Iraqi democracy has been defined by the grabbing of power as opposed to the sharing of it. The Shi’a and Kurdish push for ratification of the constitution, in the face of deep Sunni disagreement over revenue-sharing and federalism, may be the beginning of a long-lasting constitutional crisis. At the same time, the concessions made to ensure the passing of the constitutional referendum in October (notably the effective abandonment of the “de-Ba’athification” programme) seem to mirror the logic employed in South Africa.

The experience of post-conflict integration in other states – with the IRA in Northern Ireland, or with the FMLN in El Salvador, for example – suggests that the early incorporation of Ba’athists into the new government would have presented far fewer problems than has their exclusion from it. This, combined with the unresolved issue of federalism and the claims of Kurdish and Shi’a populations, has provided a tremendous political impetus to the Iraqi insurgency in its secular and religious manifestations alike.

Deciding to join the party

Democracy also took root in South Africa because its main polarising actor agreed to become a political partner. Where Iraq has Muqtada al-Sadr, South Africa has Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was and currently is the head of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Just before the 1994 interim elections, Nelson Mandela himself, as well as pan-African delegations and foreign diplomats like Henry Kissinger, made strenuous efforts to ensure Buthelezi and his party’s inclusion in the new government.

Buthelezi, like al-Sadr, spent much of his time wavering between political involvement and militant engagement. He cited the ANC’s intent to consolidate its power as undermining the attempt to include the IFP in the political process. Human Rights Watch estimates that political violence between Buthelezi’s IFP and the ANC in the four-week period surrounding the interim elections cost more than 400 lives.

The ANC drew on the failures of post-colonial African democratisation to understand that a successful republic was just as dependent on stability between the Zulus and the Xhosas as it was on that between the Afrikaners and black South Africans. This was especially evident in light of the fact that the vast majority of the Zulus (almost 8 million out of 11 million) resided in the IFP stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal province.

In a striking last-minute reprieve, when the ongoing carnage had made defiance politically untenable, Buthelezi agreed to bring the IFP into the interim elections. The party became the third largest in the national assembly with forty-three seats. Since then, the IFP has been heavily involved in coalition politics, agreeing to a power-sharing relationship with the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, and with the Democratic Alliance Party to challenge the ANC in the 2004 elections. The IFP has come in third in all three national elections.

The Zulu population has also acquired representation at the highest levels of government, including the appointment of a Zulu vice-president in Jacob Zuma (before his controversial sacking and prosecution). The key to this process was Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who always had a clear understanding of what he wanted in a new South Africa: to be the leader of a KwaZulu-Natal province with substantial autonomy.

This is in stark contrast to Muqtada al-Sadr, whose lethal ambiguity over whether he is soldier or politician has resulted in the deaths of thousands, Iraqi and American.

The centre and the regions

South Africa has also succeeded in an important way that Iraq has so far failed: the national distribution of government revenue. The drafters of the country’s permanent constitution codified the national government’s duty to disburse federal resources fairly among the nation’s nine provinces. In addition, the Pretoria government has also invested millions of Rand into infrastructural development for areas most in need, including KwaZulu-Natal.

Moreover, while the provincial councils are allocated a fairly large degree of political power, their economic authority is minimal; their fiscal responsibilities do not extend beyond their ability to levy taxes, raise capital, and acquire loan financing. In regard to the national assembly, the constitution states that among the cases where national law specifically trumps provincial law, there are instances relating to “economic unity”.

The greatest benefit of this approach is that it has provided a degree of political and economic cover to the South African government to implement its economic plan. The CIA profile of South Africa states that the country’s approach to generating economic growth has been a methodical one, focusing on inflation and trade liberalisation. At the same time, South Africa remains a country where poverty and high unemployment affect historically disadvantaged groups on a large scale.

The combination of a fiscally conservative economic programme with a political framework that provides for equity of treatment between the provinces has been crucial in containing the potential for political instability or violence.

In Iraq by contrast, it is far less clear how revenue distribution under the new constitution – which in many respects gives great autonomy to the country’s nineteen constituent regions – will operate. Meanwhile, the Sunnis have vigorously asserted their rights in relation to their oil-laden neighbours in the Kurdish north and the Shi’a south, and their determination to avoid being subordinated within a federal system.

The one-man civil society

The fundamental key to South Africa’s democratic success was not of design, but rather of destiny. The reality and attendant myth of Mandela did what whole political structures are created to do: build a civil society that encourages and directs diverse populations willingly to live together.

Every day of Mandela’s twenty-seven years of incarceration served as the collective subconscious of the anti-apartheid movement. When the actual democratisation process had begun, a critical mass of the country had already identified themselves in a way that transcended their ethnicity, as supporters of their imprisoned messiah, and as South Africans. Mandela alone created the landscape where whites, Zulus, Xhosas, “coloureds”, and others were willing to dispense with their individual pursuits in order to gain a stable, democratic state.

Mandela’s period as president also allowed for the solidifying of a South African civil society, ensuring that a multi-party system born into the world as a cult of personality would not remain that way. Without his initial presence it would have likely taken many more years to achieve the democracy South Africa currently enjoys, or the process itself could have vanished just as apartheid had.

The greatest error of the Iraq war may have been the United States’ belief that Ahmad Chalabi was to be the equivalent of Nelson Mandela. When it became apparent that he could not coalesce Iraq’s historically adversarial sects, and that his political and financial dealings were far less straightforward than they needed to be for a potential national leader, the vacuum of post-Saddam leadership was even more cruelly exposed. The search for a legitimate Iraqi government, already difficult, became a nightmare for many of its people.

A democratic resource

It is now well established and universally accepted that planning for post-conflict Iraq was baleful and inadequate. A key part of this failure was that no comparative exercise was conducted at the highest levels of decision-making. The 20th century, after all, was replete with post-tyrannical experiences – from the end of European colonialism in Asia and Africa to the ex-Soviet bloc in Europe – that provided plenty of models that could have been applied in an analysis of Iraq’s democratic potential. The case of South Africa, however, presented a successful example of democratisation in a former dictatorship with a highly heterogeneous population. This model could have been used to determine the potential and the path for Iraq’s democratic success.

The main consequence today – as the Iraqis vote for a national assembly, though in extremely exacting conditions of violence, insecurity, sectarian division and lack of basic services – is that the rich lessons of South Africa have been comprehensively neglected in discussions of the future of Iraq.

There is little doubt that the United States bears the main responsibility for this neglect. Despite the pressure the US has exerted on the political process in Iraq over the last thirty-three months – including the presence of its ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, during the drafting of the constitution – Iraq is not much closer to being South Africa now than it was when the Saddam Hussein regime fell in April 2003.

So long as Iraq is defined more by occupation, violence and insurgency than by politics, its people will continue to struggle to make sense of their present and plan their future. It may be too late for them to undertake the analyses that the United States should have made in 2002-03. But from their present supremely difficult circumstances, Iraqis may yet find the example of South Africa a resource for democratic dialogue and regeneration.


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