The History of Democracy: Exploring South African Transition from Apartheid to Democracy

Nov 5, 2019

For the second installment of "The History of Democracy," Murray State professor of history, David Pizzo, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss the history of apartheid in South Africa and the democracy born from incredible racial tension and violence.

David Pizzo, Ph.D.:

"So now in the history of democracy, we're going to talk about South Africa. Very different context from late imperial Weimar Germany. South Africa, of course, has a long history as a racial settler state like Australia or the United States. There was a white minority divided by Afrikaan speakers and English speakers that had ruled the country in some form long as 400 years. It had a history of slavery, not unlike the United States. So by the 20th century, you have a situation where you have a white minority - that was probably about a fifth of the population - with a much larger majority of African communities of all sorts. [The African communities] were divided...they weren't a homogenous group. There was also a large number of...people from South Asia.

[South Africa] had segregation in place already in the '20s. That system gets more and more entrenched. There's an election in 1948. A group called the National Party - this was sort of an Afrikaan-speaking, right-wing nationalist party - takes over by a very tiny margin but uses that victory in '48 to build incredibly comprehensive, hyper-racist, at times, terror state to control the other nearly 80% of human beings who had no franchise, they had no vote, they weren't allowed to organize in any meaningful way. 

The ANC [African National Congress] had been born back in the segregation era. It takes up arms in the early '60s because...especially after Sharpeville, there's this massacre where a bunch of people are cut down for demonstrating its apartheid laws. Mandela decides we need to resist them. That arm resistance basically fails. They're all arrested and, as most people know, he and these leaders were put in Robben Island. He spent 27 years there. 

For a while, the state [of South Africa] has a lid on things. But then in the mid-'70s, things explode again. There are these huge riots in Soweto. By the '80s, the country was essentially ungovernable. One of the real questions was, was this going to end in a massive bloodbath? That's what had happened in places like Portuguese Angola; to some degree, Mozambique; Zimbabwe, at that point, was also embroiled in its own violence against settler rule. Things get bad enough by the late '80s that there's basically a coup against Botha. This guy named De Klerk, who once spoke at Murray State, decided he needed to negotiate with Mandela because if they didn't negotiate something soon, this whole thing was just going to dissolve into racist violence and be, probably, apocalyptic. 

Mandela had been out of touch with a lot of this for a long time. His wife, Winnie Mandela, had sort of been keeping the ANC alive. There's this back and forth that takes many, many months between the government, whose back is to the wall, the ANC, who in their own way, their back is against the wall, too. The Cold War's over, so neither bloc is supporting either side in this anymore. So they're both starved for resources. They come to a negotiated solution...its least quality is that it didn't really please anyone. It was not far enough for a lot of people, and it was way too far for others. 

So, apartheid is only abolished in '92. The franchise created includes everyone. In '94, that election, there was a tremendous amount of violence. About 12,000 people died during that election. When that election happened, there were lines that went for miles...the ANC won a crushing and stunning majority very clearly. After this, what for them, in many ways, had been a 70-year struggle, they had now managed to break through and bring real democracy to a state that had denied this for the better part of three and a half centuries."

When asked if Mandela was the 'perfect' person to bring about democracy in South Africa, or if he was just at the right place at the right time, Pizzo replies:

"Obviously, the ANC was a huge movement that was part of a much larger movement. The trade unions were involved, the churches, the communist party. But credit where credit is due, Mandela was uniquely positioned because he was still sort of the spiritual head of the ANC, and he was alive. The state had wanted to execute him, but the judge does not let them do this. When [Mandela] was [in prison and] spending time with these [mostly] Afrikaan guards, I'm sure he didn't like them, but he really did at least learn to understand their mindset and develop the whole sort of ethos of being able to essentially coexist at all. I'm not the first one to say this, but I think it really did create in him a sense that about the only way any of this was going to end was some sort of negotiated solution that, at least, took some white - especially Afrikaaner - sensibilities into account. 

In his career, he had been a non-violent activist, embraced violence, and then basically, in many ways, sort of rejected it again. He had, I think, by the end a very ambiguous and ambivalent attitude towards violence. It's one of the reasons he and his wife had a falling out because she was still much more radical in a lot of ways. So it depends on what you think ultimately about that transition [from apartheid to democracy]. If you think a negotiated solution was what needed to happen, then he absolutely was that person. Relentlessly and calmly and soberly and with empathy, [he] managed to sort of steer the ship. There were crazy things happening in that era in terms of violence between mobs of Inkatha Freedom Party...Zulu activisits...fighting the ANC, the government security forces were passing out weapons trying to encourage violence, there were right-wing white militias forming, so it was a crazy time. Given that, to me, the miracle is that things turned out as well as they did."

Pizzo describes the United States' involvement in South Africa's history as "a backstop for the apartheid regimes. [The U.S.] had viewed [the apartheid regime] as committed anti-communists...[the regime] was part of this anti-communist vanguard that was fighting communism in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique. So [the regime] had gotten away, literally, with murder...with our tax dollars. Pressure here mounts with the divestment movement starting in places like Duke, where students and universities start pulling their money out of South Africa. That becomes a mass movement. The big shift really was at the end of the Cold don't necessarily have a huge change in regime from Reagan to Bush, but we're worried about other things at that point. So our aid dries up." 

"There are so many things about [South Africa] - and I lived there, I took students there years ago - that remind me of our own country. One of the things that was so amazing to watch was, however many problems they had - and there are many - they were the most politically engaged and sort of active and awake people I'd ever met in my life. They made it really clear to me that they were aware of the problems they had, they were engaged, they were trying to work on them. Ultimately, I walked away feeling in some ways, almost embarrassed for [the U.S.] for how much easier, in some ways, we have it. We have some of the same problems they do. But how more unplugged we are and how less agitated, I guess is the word I would use. South Africans, they feel very strongly about these things. Even in the post-war struggle - that's what they call the campaign against apartheid - even after the struggle, they remain incredibly engaged in a way that I was kind of jealous of, to be honest," Pizzo concludes. 

David Pizzo will return to the Sounds Good studios to continue "The History of Democracy" series on Wednesday, November 20th. You can listen on-air at 12 noon or read the transcript here at