This is a great vantage point for watching the Arab world struggle to tailor itself a set of new democracies. It is nearly a generation since South Africa assembled its warring peoples and wrote what is certainly the most progressive constitution in Africa, perhaps on the planet. It prescribes all the safeguards of a democratic, humane and inclusive society. Its experience should be a shining model for the aspiring democracies at the other end of the continent as they fabricate basic laws and institutions.
I wish I could say the lessons from here are easy. But it is becoming clearer by the day that a glorious constitution carries you only so far if its values have not taken root in the culture.
So South Africa has an exquisite balance of powers on paper -- but is, in effect, a one-party state, riddled with corruption. It has a serious independent judiciary -- but is now contemplating loopholes to let tribal courts practice South Africa's version of Shariah. This country was years ahead of the United States in recognizing the rights of homosexuals, including same-sex marriage -- yet there is no openly gay leader in the ruling African National Congress, and lesbians have been targets of punitive rape and murder. It has a vibrant, diverse press -- and a president who keeps trying to muzzle it.
As a witness to its birth, I would not say the thrill of South Africa's democracy is altogether gone. South Africans are resilient, blessed with tourist-alluring beauty and abundant natural wealth; there is a growing black middle class and a robust civil society. And 18 years is still young. But I imagine that some days the news -- if it penetrates the fog that I'm told enshrouds the 94-year-old Nelson Mandela -- must break his heart.
In the course of a reporting trip for a forthcoming article, I've been asking some of the authors and guardians of South African democracy what advice they would offer to an Egypt, a Libya, a Tunisia and other places that are struggling to emerge from various forms of oppressive rule. Here's how I'd sum up the best suggestions.
Take your time, talk to everyone and don't be too proud to borrow.
For South Africa, there were five exhausting years -- from the first talks, through statements of principle and interim versions -- before its democratic Constitution went into force. The negotiating included 19 parties, factions and tribes, a huge public comment effort and copious study of the experiences of countries around the globe.
"We were shameless," said Nicholas Haysom, a legal adviser to President Mandela in the '90s who now works for the United Nations. "We looked at everyone. We took jurisprudence from Canada. We took power-sharing from Germany. We took constitutional principles from Namibia. The true exercise of sovereignty is in how one adapts these institutions to your own country, not in confining one's imagination to one's own limited constitutional traditions and experiences."
Not everyone has that kind of patience. Egypt's constitution-writing assembly, stampeded by President Morsi's Islamist majority, has spawned a mess of boycotts, street clashes and confusion where consensus and legitimacy are desperately needed. (Iraq, stampeded by President George W. Bush's desire to demonstrate the flowering of freedom, had a similar farce when it rushed its version of democracy.)
Peace before justice.
South Africa set out to heal the deep wounds of a ferociously cruel regime by creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those who tortured and killed for any cause could, by fully disclosing their offenses, win an amnesty. The result was not invariably full truth or full reconciliation, but by and large it worked. Alex Boraine, who ran the commission under the flag of its revered chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has spent the ensuing years traveling to other countries that want to copy the South African model.
Source: The New York Times | Bill Keller