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The World : Why South Africa's Success Story Can't Be Duplicated

October 09, 1994|Michael Clough and Nancy Bodurtha | Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Nancy Bodurtha is a program associate at the council

NEW YORK — Last week, Nelson Mandela came to the United States to celebrate the triumph of democracy in South Africa--and raise investment money for his country. As far as Bill Clinton was concerned, he could not have come at a better time. With the Administration's foreign policy under heavy attack, and the verdict still out on its intervention in Haiti, the South African success story is one that the President and his advisers are eager to trumpet.

For many senior officials in the Clinton Administration, South Africa is both a beacon of hope and a model to be replicated in the struggle for democracy around the world. The President made precisely this point in thanking Mandela for agreeing to meet with Haiti's soon-to-be-restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He observed that the Mandela delegation should provide the Haitian people with proof "that you can bring a country where there have been deep, even bloody divisions together . . . in a spirit of freedom, reconciliation, democracy and mutual respect."

The White House can justifiably declare South Africa a success and claim credit for putting in place policies that will help to ensure that it remains one. It will take a lot of "bread and work" before the country's fledgling democracy is secure. But the progress that Mandela's government has made in gaining broad-based public support and instituting sound policies is truly impressive.

Yet, it is unclear whether the South African success story can be as easily replicated in Haiti and elsewhere as Clinton hopes. More important for policy-makers, is it unwise--indeed, foolish--to use such achievements to justify approaches that place great faith in external pressure as an agent of democracy.

The remarkable reconciliation in South Africa that allowed blacks and whites to overcome centuries of hate and distrust to come together and elect a multiracial government was not the result of external intervention, either divine or American. Rather, it was the product of a long internal struggle that was fought in the townships of South Africa and in the minds of Afrikaners.

Former President Frederik W. de Klerk and his followers accepted the necessity of ending apartheid only after they recognized that it could no longer be defended, save at a cost that was too high for even the racist die-hard. While international sanctions certainly accelerated this outcome, it was the anti-apartheid movement's long campaign, best symbolized by the 27 years Mandela spent in jail, that created the circumstances in which external pressures made a difference. And when the time came to settle up, there were only South Africans sitting around the table.

Mandela and De Klerk, along with their constituents, concluded that an agreement that protected the legitimate interests of both sides was not just the only way to end violence; it was also necessary for their potentially rich country to prosper. It is also quite significant that black leaders never expected, nor demanded, that the old white rulers leave the country--or stand trial.

Creating similar conditions in countries that have neither South Africa's long history of struggle nor its leaders' shared sense of mutual interest is not easy. External pressure and support can, as it did in South Africa, help to reinforce pre-existing internal movement toward reconciliation and democracy. But it cannot substitute for it.

The truly remarkable extent of U.S. support for South Africa's drive to build a viable democracy is also the result of unusual circumstances. Mandela and South Africa have captured the imagination of most Americans in a way that no other foreign leader or country has. More important, many Americans became personally involved in assisting black South Africans. As a result, they developed a stake in the success of democracy.

Pre-existing emotional and political ties are now being reinforced by the perception that support for South Africa makes good economic sense. Last week's announcement that a group of prominent African-American investors, among them actor Danny Glover and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, have become partners in a Pepsi-Cola bottling-plant venture represents exactly the kind of shift from anti-apartheid politics to pro-development politics that Mandela and Clinton are eager to encourage.

Unfortunately, no other country in the world where democracy is beginning to take root can claim a broad-based U.S. constituency of support--and without such a constituency, it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the Clinton Administration to provide the kinds of assistance to Haiti and to other countries that it is providing to South Africa.

The lessons to be learned from South Africa are twofold. First, where the preconditions for a lasting settlement do not exist, the best option is to concentrate on strengthening democratic forces already at play rather than on using U.S. might to force a premature accommodation. Unfortunately, such a policy requires a degree of patience seldom found in politicians, who are eager to bask in the glow of dramatic breakthroughs.

Second, government efforts to promote democracy abroad are unlikely to succeed unless they enjoy strong and broad support at home. It is thus a serious mistake to believe that presidential action can rally support after the fact of an intervention, as Clinton apparently thinks he can do in Haiti.*

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