Scrutinising South Africa’s “success story”: learning from yesterday’s mistakes and today’s dilemmas

By Bahar Başer

From my base in South Africa, I am watching Turkey from afar. Watching the last shred of hope for a peace process rapidly vanishing before my eyes.

Students protest for #FeesMustFall in South Africa. Source: Paul Saad/ Flickr

Students protest for #FeesMustFall in South Africa. Source: Paul Saad/ Flickr

When I was last here, in November 2016, clashes between the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish security forces were escalating dramatically. And yet many still agreed that there were hopes for both sides to return to the negotiation table. Both seemingly with too much left to lose if the fighting continued.

With the Middle East imploding, one would assume that neighbouring countries would want to ensure stability, as much as possible, in the domestic arena: in order to endure whatever chaos the current crisis is yet to bring forth. But it did not happen that way. Turkey was rocked by a failed coup attempt on July 15, which, had it been successful, would have meant a huge regression for society and democracy.

However, its prevention did not exactly bring democratic consolidation either. Mistrust, ethnic, religious and ideological tensions now prevail. In terms of the PKK – Turkish state conflict, both sides now believe instead that they have too much to lose if they make concessions. No matter how many lives have been lost in this conflict over the last few years, we are apparently yet to arrive at the so-called “mutually hurting stalemate” which could bring an end to what can now only be characterised as ‘mutually assured destruction.’

With the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and hopes for a potential resolution in the back of my mind, I am observing South Africa – as a post-conflict country – with the aim of understanding both the successes and the mistakes of its reconciliation process.


The owner of the guest house picks me up from the airport in Johannesburg. I am nervous because it is my first time in the city. As he drives, I look out the window at the electric fences that protect elite villas and houses of Melville from the rest of the city. The sign on most of these high walls reads “armed response”. I cannot help but wonder how people live this way.

But I am now at ease with this world of high walls and electric fences. Before I came here, several colleagues felt it their duty to warn me about crime in South Africa: “You are going to the crime capital of the world.” In the past year, almost 15,000 carjacking incidents have been recorded. Sadly, this marks a 14 percent increase from previous years. This is in addition to approximately 50 murders and 142 sexual assaults daily. These warnings and the ‘statistics’ are often designed to induce panic and I approach them with caution.

I had come to give a talk at the University of Johannesburg. This was part of my research trip to investigate the South African peace process as “a success story”. I am trying to understand what lessons we can learn from this experience, and whether the South African model could be exported to Turkey. For my talk, I planned to focus on what I perceived to be the failure of the Kurdish-Turkish peace process. The argument I prepared to make was that the peace process a la Turca, even with its own particularities and flaws, could do with an injection of the South African experience.

Unfortunately, my talk never happened. I woke up with an early phone call telling me that the ongoing nationwide student protests in South Africa had turned violent. The University campus was no longer safe. I was of course disappointed but not surprised: I still remembered the protests from my first visit to Stellenbosch, Western Cape in November 2015.

These student protests have coalesced under the symbolic movement known as #FeesMustFall. As the largest protest movement since the end of apartheid, the #FeesMustFall movement seeks to attain free education for South African. But these protests are not solely about tuition fees; they are just the tip of the iceberg of much larger social problems which have been left to fester for many years.

The current wave of protests is the outcome of multiple smaller scale protests over recent years which did not make international headlines. Whereas many of these protests had petered out in the past, the establishment of a nationwide movement now means the whole world is watching. While the destruction of property is often deemed most newsworthy, it is worth bearing in mind what South African journalist Greg Nicholson says of this movement: that “Fees Must Fall is about how a democracy deals with a history of oppression. It’s about healing broken bones, about a generation’s phantom limbs and its children refusing amputation.”

A number of my interviewees would agree. There is the sense that the current generation of young people believe the generation before them “sold their cause” for the sake of reconciliation. While the peace and reconciliation process shifted the balance of political power from the hands of white South Africans, it has done so little in terms of contesting the economic legacies of the apartheid era. One of those legacies is poor access to good education for most young black people.

An interviewee who was an activist for the African National Congress (ANC), the liberation party in power since 1994, who worked with the late former president Nelson Mandela says that the ANC leadership failed the youth to a certain extent. The state’s stoic unresponsiveness also agitated the protestors, as the interviewee asserts, only taking notice when the protests turn violent. She says ANC activists hadn’t even used these violent strategies during the liberation struggle.

When I asked about how they evaluate the South African peace process, some interviewees said South Africa actually “oversells” its experience.  Apparently many issues are still to be addressed and the South African revolution is not complete. Others would say whatever necessary at that time has been done. But today, the remaining tensions have reached boiling point, as thousands take to the streets daily, rocking South Africa’s post-apartheid order to the core. The ongoing protests not only show how addressing horizontal inequalities, land reform, economic justice among other key issues, are important during a peace process, but also demonstrate that peacebuilding is a project that never ends. A full peace process demands further attention to deeply embedded issues, many of which are swept under the carpet for the sake of sustaining consensus during peace negotiations.

“There was a lot of misgovernance but perhaps even more than that, there was simply no governance,” says journalist R.W. Johnson in his recent book How long will South Africa Survive? If you go to any South African book shop, the bestsellers are well-written recipes by well-known academics and journalists, local and international, on “how to save South Africa.”There is a public perception that corruption has been on the rise during the last decade. In their book, A Manifesto for Social Change: How to Save South Africa, Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of the second post-apartheid president, Thabo Mbeki) and academic Nobantu Mbeki point out that without understanding the complexity of political economy dilemmas in South Africa, one cannot fully grasp what is going on. They point out problems such as a brutal police force using violence to suppress demonstrations, a failed education system which reproduces existing racial inequalities and corruption. So the current protests should be evaluated in this context.

Yet, despite this seemingly gloomy picture, South Africans still seem to push forward every day. The people of this country appear to be very resilient. And, perhaps even more, they appear hopeful. Those I speak to believe in positive change, and that their actions will bring about that change. As Professor Willie Breytenbach from Stellenbosch University told me during our interview, South Africa is very fortunate for its robust political institutions. The constitution is much stronger and fairer than most and the judiciary is independent. These institutions are established on constitutional principles, accountability and transparency.

This situation may be changing however. A recent report by Thuli Madonsela, the outgoing Public Protector, warns of the capture of key state institutions by economic elites, and the particular influence of shady individuals close to the regime of President Jacob Zuma. The Public Protector, an independent watchdog whose head is appointed by the president yet which has significant independence and authority, has come under attack from a political class unwilling to admit that the ANC is fast losing ground and credibility. The Public Protector has so far resisted attempts to silence or denigrate her and her office’s work.

As long as these institutions work, there is hope. In this, South Africa differs from Turkey. The continued erosion of the main pillars of a healthy and functioning democracy are the source of Turkey’s political malaise. South Africa looks like it stands on strong principles and values which will only be strengthened by the current crisis and transition that it has to bring. Countries like Turkey could have a lot to learn beyond South Africa’s the success of the peace negotiations.


While I was conducting these interviews, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chairs and MPs were arrested. Although South Africa had a lot of domestic issues to worry about and the U.S. election continues to monopolise international news coverage, some radio stations and newspapers showed interest in what is going on in Turkey. A few dozens activists from the ANC, the South African Communist Party and other NGOs organised a briefing on the HDP arrests. Many see a link between the ANC’s struggle during the apartheid regime and the struggle of Kurds today. The Kurdish movement does not enjoy the international solidarity the ANC and Mandela enjoyed before the fall of the apartheid regime. Though I find more differences than similarities between the two struggles, witnessing this transnational solidarity firsthand offers some insights.

Looking at South Africa’s political history, one might see that even the most violent phases did not totally eradicate the liberation movement’s desire for negotiations. During the 1980s, the height of the violence, secret talks between imprisoned struggle leaders and the ruling white supremacist National Party were ongoing, sometimes even against the will of politicians. Returning to the negotiation table was always possible, despite repeated and extreme violence right up until the first democratic election in April 1994. Both sides made compromises when international politics compelled them to do so. Another lesson to learn from South Africa is that imprisoning academics, journalists, politicians or activists is not a solution to any intra-state conflict – as a tactic for suppressing dissidents, it failed to work. On the contrary, these actions only intensify the demands of the oppressed group for liberation.

I want to believe that Turkey still has hope and that even after such a tumultuous period of violence and protracted fighting, a negotiated settlement might still be possible. What Turks and Kurds could learn from South Africa is that negotiations can last for decades, meet stalemates many times but can eventually prevail if there is commitment from both sides – or the knowledge on both sides that to continue fighting is to risk the future of all the country’s inhabitants, not only its political elites. It is all about maintaining trust. And once that happens, the underlying issues of the conflict should be addressed taking into account political as well as economic dimensions. No issues should be swept under the carpet. As the South African experience demonstrates today, unresolved grievances will always find a way to come to the surface.

*Dr. Bahar Baser is a permanent research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. She is currently a visiting research fellow at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA), Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, funded by the National Research Foundation.

**The author would like to thank Dr. Toni Haastrup, Dzeneta Karabegovic and the editors of Independent Turkey for their comments on earlier drafts.

Leave a Reply