It is known internationally that most voters in other countries do not generally make their electoral choices based on the promises made to them on foreign policy. Even American voters – whose country’s global presence remains, arguably, more influential than most – are not always knowledgeable about the world beyond the borders of their country.

Flag of South Africa , This is a computer generated and 3d rendered image.

Flag of South Africa , This is a computer generated and 3d rendered image.

To such insular individuals, their country is the whole world. All they want to know is that whoever assumes power will protect their land and national interests around the world from foreign enemies.

As citizens of a relatively young and ambitious democracy, South Africans shouldn’t be like this. It is a good thing that many do have the hunger to experience other parts of the world, only if they can afford to travel.

From the birth of our post-apartheid democracy, we have been expected to do so, by others in Africa and around the world, and have sought to position ourselves as key role players in African and world affairs.

The Cyril and Roelf Show

Following the Boipatong massacre on the night of June 17, 1992, tensions between the National Party and the ANC led to a breakdown of the multiparty negotiations that were to give birth to our new dispensation.

With the termination of formal contact between the two sides, Cyril Ramaphosa, then ANC Secretary-General – a highly respected one compared to what we have today – and Roelf Meyer, then Minister of Constitutional Affairs, became the sole channels of communication between their respective parties.

Their role, which lasted from June 1992 to November 1993, became known as the “Cyril and Roelf Show” and consisted of many telephone calls and private meetings aimed at preventing an irreversible breakdown in talks and a possible return to the edge of a bloody precipice.

The world watched the crucial role played by the two men in that volatile period and, in June 1996, invited the duo to share their experience in Belfast, Northern Island, a country that was also torn-apart by conflict. Their lecture, dubbed “The South African Experience: How the New South Africa was Negotiated”, was hosted by The Irish Association in June 1996.

In a subsequent paper written by Pedraig O’Malley of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Ramaphosa and Meyer’s lecture in Belfast was described not as one aimed at offering their solution to the Northern Ireland conflict, nor to put themselves as mediators of some sort, but as one where they were invited to share with the people of Northern Ireland how they did it in South Africa.

They went to Belfast to share their shared belief that common principles are germane to a successful negotiating process and are applicable, with the required modifications to take local circumstances into account, to all conflicts in deeply divided societies.


One message

In his closing remarks following the lecture, Meyer said the following to the people in attendance, “If nothing else remains in your minds this evening, I would like to emphasise the following again; that what we experienced in South Africa’s case required a change of mind-set to bring about negotiations and to bring about a peaceful negotiated settlement. Had we remained stuck in our own political thinking, like it used to be, those changes would not have been possible.

“That concept, that message, is applicable under all circumstances wherever you are. In all problematic situations where conflict exists, that message is applicable. Not that the substance is always the same, but the idea of how to get a process going and keeping it on track is, I believe, essentially the same everywhere in the world.”

When his turn came, Ramaphosa had this to say: “How did we communicate with our constituencies, particularly when we had to reach compromises that would place us in difficulties with those constituencies?

“I have to admit that at certain points during the negotiation process it was very tricky, and difficult when we had to reach compromise on a number of issues.

“For instance, just to give you a quick example: The suspension of armed action by the ANC caused enormous problems within the movement. Many people did not understand and could not identify with the decision that had been taken at the top.

“But leadership had to be given. From the top. The leadership had the courage to make the decision and to stick with it in the face of a lot of criticism on the ground. We had enormous difficulties within our ranks to get people to understand.”


Credible peacemakers

With the experience it has, South African could still play a role in other parts of the world where conflicts that have gone on for ages and remain intractable to this day can be solved if a new way of thinking, a third approach, as it were, were adopted.

Although it has already repeated mistakes made by a country like the USA in the Middle-East, for instance, where its siding with Israeli positions on hot issues has robbed it of its neutrality as a credible peace partner, it shouldn’t be late for South Africa to consider its approach.

Without this, South Africa can never again be considered a credible mediator in conflict situations where it can demonstrate the ability and willingness to understand seemingly intractable issues of concern on both sides of any conflict.

Such a leadership is needed in a world where many countries seem to coalesce again behind cold war positions, either behind the USA on one hand, or Russia and China on the other.

By sticking its neck out on old positions and in solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organisation against all odds, or with the Polisario Front (the independence movement for Western Sahara), South Africa will help ensure lasting conflicts. Both Israel – which has America firmly behind it – and Morocco – which demonstrated recently that it has most African states behind it – are unlikely to accept mediation by a South Africa they believe to be biased.

Nobody can say where South Africa would be, today, if we didn’t have pragmatic leaders on both sides of our own conflict in the late eighties and early nineties.

Ramaphosa, or whoever becomes president after the elections, must embrace the principle that a “winners take all” approach to conflict resolution can only fuel endless cycles of bloody retribution.

The majority cannot always be right, whether here at home or elsewhere in the world. If we get it right on issues that divide us today, like we did in the early 90s, we shall again stand a chance to be seen by others as the leaders we should be, alongside others in the rest of Africa and other parts of the world.