I often tell visitors to South Africa that our country is not like the rest of Africa – although we share much in common with other countries in our continent.  Nor are we like Europe or North America – although people visiting our cities and using our infrastructure would easily imagine that they were in a first world country.


In fact, South Africa is in many respects, much more like other middle-income countries in Latin America and Asia.  Like Mexico and Brazil, like Malaysia and Thailand and the other leading countries in Latin America and Asia, we are a country in transition.


We share many of the same challenges as other countries in transition:


All of these elements can create enormous tensions in our societies, tensions that can easily cause dissension and conflict.


Some key counties in your own region – most notably Venezuela and Colombia – are currently experiencing serious internal divisions and conflict.  In such situations nobody wins – everybody loses.  Conflict and dissension can effectively halt – or reverse – the transition to first world economic, social and political benefits.


It is accordingly of crucial importance for countries in transition to reach consensus between the contending political, class, ethnic and religious factions in their societies.


We, in South Africa, can speak from experience on this topic.


Fourteen years ago South Africa was a deeply divided country.   We have one of the most complex ethnic compositions in the world with four distinct racial groups; eleven national groups; and numerous cultural, linguistic and language groups.  Today no single language is understood by a majority of South Africans – English, Afrikaans and Zulu come closest – and we have no fewer than eleven official languages.


Politically we were even more deeply divided.


Indeed, it is difficult to imagine political parties that were further apart. Followers of the main parties saw one another – not as they really were – but as the diabolical stereotypes depicted by their own propaganda:


What enabled us to find consensus between all these widely differing communities and political parties?


I should like to suggest the following.


There was common acceptance that:


There were also certain objective circumstances – in the case of South Africa – that had created a window of opportunity for us to achieve national consensus:






The following lessons can be gained from our experience in trying to reach consensus between different cultural and ethnic communities.


We also learned important lessons regarding the mechanics of consensus-seeking in divided societies.  Looking back on our experience we can identify the following key factors that contributed to the success of our transition process:

statesmen to recognise such windows and lead their followers through, before history once again slams the window shut.


These are among the factors and processes that enabled South Africa to reach agreement on our peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy.   Some of them were developed specifically for our own complex situation.  Others may have a more universal application.


South Africa’s transition to full democracy is a monument to the fact that, given the right circumstances and a serious commitment from all sides, even the most intractable disputes can be resolved in a relatively peaceful and negotiated manner.  It means that even in the most difficult situations there is an alternative to the horror and hopelessness of violence and war.


However, the success of our transition process does not provide any room for complacency.  Constitutional arrangements and delicate inter-party and inter-community relationships – like any human relationships – require constant care and attention if we wish to ensure that they do not unravel.


The best contribution that we in South Africa can make will be to work day and night for the continued success of our own peaceful transition.   We must continue to show the world that there is another way,  that violence and conflict are not inevitable,  that it is possible to reach consensus between widely divergent parties and communities.


The achievement of such consensus is a prerequisite for the transition of middle income countries to full social, economic and constitutional development.


Although we are still wrestling with many of the serious problems that confront most middle income countries, we, in South Africa, have reaped numerous benefits from the national consensus that we achieved ten years ago:



We would have achieved none of this if we had not first reached consensus between our widely differing parties and communities.


Now, the road to the first world is open.