What Malaysia can learn from South Africa?

Many like to quote South Africa’s post-apartheid unity government between ANC and the National Party to justify their collaboration with powers-that-be as being reasonable and acceptable.

In the late 1980s, former South African president PW Botha started the process of private negotiations with Nelson Mandela and ANC for a reformed post-apartheid political system.

In 1989, Botha had a stroke and was later replaced by FW de Clerk who met Nelson Mandela in prison and both began the long process of dismantling apartheid and installing democratic constitutional reforms.

Nelson Mandela affirmed that the oppression by the powers-that-be decided the form of the struggle by the masses who were forced to use violence as a form of self-defense. He also reiterated that one could not expect his oppressors to be his own liberators but must liberate himself first.

International pressure and economic sanctions had forced the apartheid regime to admit that its rule was no longer sustainable. A drastic move away from its past was unavoidable and desirable for a peaceful transition to an open and democratic South Africa.

FW de Clerk responded with decisive and relevant measures to democraticise South Africa in a meticulous way such as opening the ruling all-white National Party membership to all South Africans, repealing the ISA as well as well as apartheid laws, legalising the South African Communist Party and ANC and releasing opposition leaders including Nelson Mandela himself from prison.

In 1992, an all-white referendum for constitutional reform was approved by an overwhelming majority. It is worth noting that even though the whole process had the cooperation of the ruling National Party, ANC and civil society obviously led the main thrust in the negotiations for these constitutional reforms.

The negotiations were coordinated by the United Nations and other international organisations but almost all South African political parties and civil society had heavy participation in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) and the Multi-party Negotiation Forum (MPNF).

Unlike the three-member Reid Commission which formulated Malaysia's post-independence constitution only among the ruling elite, the South African constitutional reform was a collective effort incorporating both the European and United Nations human right conventions, a universal suffrage and both a proportional and constituency-based electoral system.

At last South Africa has its very first universal general elections in 1994 under a new and free constitution, ending 80 years of segregated and tyrannical rule.

Nonetheless, South Africa’s successful transition to a new democracy depended on the determination of the opposition parties and civil society - in conjunction with the ruling regime's awareness - for a peaceful change.

The white elites knew they might have lost more in terms of their own economic and political powers if they resisted change. All parties were determined to have long-lasting constitutional reform.

When ANC led by Nelson Mandela and the National Party led by FW de Clerk formed the post-apartheid 'unity government', it was done only after successful constitutional reform.

Most importantly, a 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' was established to find out the truth about atrocities committed by the former apartheid regime and officers were tried and convicted through a proper legal process.

Former president PW Botha was convicted too, but his sentence was suspended possibly due to health and political amnesty reasons. It was not about vindication altogether but a clear message about what was right or wrong was shown to remind future leaders not to repeat the same mistakes.

What we could learn from South Africa is that Nelson Mandela and the ANC knew that the oppressed could never be liberated by the oppressors but it was their own determination to bring about democracy themselves that was the main factor.

Therefore, for those who believe that Malaysia needs former powers-that-be to reform and save Malaysia, it is as good as admitting that their own political struggle is a failure. South Africa gives us a valuable lesson that one's oppressor cannot be one’s liberator, and the oppressed must liberate themselves.

In the most recent development in South Africa's democraticisation, President Jacob Zuma has just been voted as ANC's president and he is expected to be charged on hundreds of counts of corruption in court.

A South Africa with rule of law is expected to grow with a tremendous confidence in terms of socio-economic benchmarks and political development.

Malaysia started out with a steady parliamentary democracy but it has decayed over the years. Our leaders cannot be talking about reforms by bringing back old figures, old ideas and old rhetoric without the courage to admit their past mistakes and pass on the baton of change to the younger generation.

While Anwar Ibrahim's call for stamping out 'Nepotism, Cronysim and Corruption' still rings true after 20 years, for his Asian Renaissance to succeed in Malaysia, no political horse-trading should be allowed before genuine constitutional and institutional reforms take place. 

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