It is a great pleasure for me to address you today on the topic of South Africa’s transition to democracy. This is now my ninth visit to Taiwan and with each visit I have admired the manner in which your country has progressively consolidated and deepened your own democratic system.
Our progress in South Africa was different. In our country the challenge was not so much a transition to democracy but an extension of democracy to all our people.
The country we today call South Africa was created by the British Empire only 108 years ago. As was the case with many other African countries, the British drew borders on the map of the continent that arbitrarily included a great variety of peoples with different languages, cultures and levels of economic development.
Unlike most other African territories, the new country included a large community of European descended people who had been in the subcontinent for 250 years. They already had a long tradition of democratic government in the British self-governing colonies of the Cape of Good Hope and Natal and the formerly independent Afrikaner Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
When the British created the Union of South Africa in 1910 – and in keeping with the imperialist values of the times – they gave the democratically elected white parliament a virtual monopoly of political power despite the fact that whites comprised only 20% of the population. South Africa was a parliamentary democracy – but only for whites.
For the next 40 years South Africa developed more or less along the lines of the other Commonwealth dominions like Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Until the mid-50s, in a continent that was still dominated by European powers, white minority rule in South Africa seemed unexceptional. In a world in which racial discrimination was still shockingly the rule, South Africa’s segregation policies elicited little criticism.
However, as the tide of imperialism ebbed from Africa during the 1960s South Africa was left stranded and floundering in the continent’s last pool of white rule. Its apartheid policies were an affront to the new international norms of racial equality and non-discrimination.
Newly independent African and Asian countries saw South Africa as a painful reminder of their subjugation by European powers. Western countries – anxious to distance themselves from their own imperialist and racist pasts – vociferously joined in the growing chorus of condemnation.