Peres Centre for Peace
Vision and Reality
Conference 22 September 2003
COMMENTS BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK DURING THE PANEL DISCUSSION ON GEOPOLITICS AND PEACE
RESOLVING INTRACTABLE DISPUTES
The South African experience during the past fourteen years has shown that even the most intractable political problems can be resolved peacefully to the benefit of all the parties involved.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to suppose that the experiences of South Africa in the early ‘nineties can be transposed to other complex conflicts or that there is any simple formula for the resolution of long-standing disputes.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of South Africa’s experience that may be relevant to those who are grappling with conflicts elsewhere. I should accordingly like to share some of our experiences with you – and will leave you to decide whether – and to what extent – they may be relevant.
- The first requirement for a successful peace process is the genuine acceptance by all of the parties to the conflict that there is no possibility of a military solution. If the balance of forces is such that any side believes that it can secure or indefinitely maintain its core interests by military force, it will probably not be willing to make the very painful comprimises required for genuine settlements. All of the major parties to the conflict in South Africa had reached this conclusion by the late 80s. The former South African government enjoyed overwhelming military superiority and could probably have maintained itself for another twenty years. However, we realised that there would be a terrible cost to pay: we would have become increasingly isolated; our economy would have stagnated; and with each year of continuing repression and escalating conflict the prospects for a peaceful solution would have receded further and further into the distance. It was not the kind of future that any of us wanted.
- The second requirement is that the process must be as inclusive as possible. We found that we could not dictate who should be at the conference table and who should be kept away. For years we refused to negotiate with people that we regarded as terrorists or with parties that were involved in an armed struggle against us. Finally, in 1989-90 we reached the conclusion that there could be no solution unless all the parties involved in the conflict were present at the table. This meant inevitably that all the other parties involved had to sit around the negotiating table with groups and individuals that they had traditionally regarded as their sworn enemies. The essence of peace-making is that real enemies to sit down together to try to find real solutions.
- Negotiators should be careful not to paint themselves into corners by demanding complete compliance with agreements. Although a clear commitment to peace is a prerequisite, and although parties must hold their opponents to their undertakings, there is no way that any side in a complex situation will ever be able to stick 100% to the terms of agreements. This is particularly the case when parties are not fully in control of all the forces and factions that are associated with them. If negotiators insist on perfect compliance with all conditions they give extremists on all sides the ability to stop the process at any time by committing acts of violence or breaches of the agreement. There are usually plenty of factions and individuals on all sides who welcome every opportunity of stopping the peace process.
- Workable solutions inevitably require parties to make extremely painful sacrifices. If any of the parties walks away from the process with all its bottom line demands completely intact, the chances are that there is something wrong with the agreement. If other parties feel that they have not been able to secure at least some of their basic interests they will not be committed to the success of the process. There must be a reasonable balance of pain and gain for all the parties involved. Win/win outcomes are essential.
- There is no way that complex and long-standing conflicts can be solved without taking calculated risks. At certain critical points in the process parties have to put their faith in one another and in the process that they have begun. We took a serious gamble when – to the consternation of our security advisers – I permitted peaceful demonstrations and unbanned organisations that we had long regarded as terrorists. I also took a major risk when I decided to hold a referendum among white voters in 1992 to establish whether they still supported the peace process. We had lost a number of bye-elections and the right-wing opposition was claiming that we no longer had a mandate for our reform initiatives. They were wrong. Almost 70% of whites gave me a green light to continue.
- Perserverance is essential. Any process designed to unravel years of conflict and to reconcile widely divergent interests will inevitably experience numerous crises. This was the case with our process in South Africa. We had to weather repeated crises – walk-outs by negotiating parties; massacres; mass demonstrations; assassinations of leading figures; deep mutual distrust; vitriolic abuse and criticism. After each crisis we simply had to get up, dust ourselves off and resume the process – because we knew there was no alternative.
Peace-making is not for cissies. It is difficult, dangerous, frustrating and often thankless.
However, in South Africa’s case the rewards of peace have been worth every one of the sacrifices that we all had to make and the tribulations that we had to endure. After generations of trying to live apart, we are all beginning to reap the benefits of living and working together. We are no longer isolated. We are no longer at war with one another. We no longer regard one another as enemies, as oppressors or as terrorists. We live in a free and open democracy. Our economy is well positioned for economic growth. We have still have many serious problems and challenges and there is no room for complacency. However, South Africa is a far, far better country for all its children than it would have been had we not embarked upon the difficult and dangerous road to peace fourteen years ago.