How world sees SA: In desperate need of new beginnings after the hard compromises of peacemaking

Two countries that were once divided by violent conflict, South Africa and Northern Ireland, have both undergone peace processes that have brought about significant change. However, both countries now face challenges of political decay and a lack of progress. In this article, former editor of the Sunday Times, Martin Ivens highlights the role of outside players in helping these countries achieve peace, and the importance of continued support from key allies such as the US. While compromise is a necessary part of peacemaking, it can also leave a bitter taste, and both South Africa and Northern Ireland require new beginnings to address their current issues.

Northern Ireland and South Africa both need new beginnings

By Martin Ivens*

A few weeks ago, in a Cape Town restaurant overlooked by Table Mountain, Robin Renwick — Britain’s influential ambassador to South Africa’s when the country’s apartheid regime surrendered power — spoke to me about the hard compromises involved in peacemaking. 

I first met Renwick at the end of the 1980s, when he and his boss, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were trying to head off a race war that would have cost thousands of lives. As in Northern Ireland, where President Bill Clinton played an active role in securing the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago, the prestige and fresh thinking of outside players helped South Africa untangle a seemingly intractable local quarrel. 

Modern democratic South Africa and Northern Ireland are very different societies, but they share some things in common. Both are the creations of peace processes that have run their course, and both exhibit the symptoms of political decay. One important difference is Northern Ireland can still call on the help of benevolent outside actors, while South Africa is distancing itself from its Western friends.  

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This week, many British commentators let fly at Joe Biden for his truncated visit to Belfast. The US president overdoes the sentimental Irish blarney, I agree, but he is a key ally to the UK in upholding that fragile peace deal. He spent only a few hours in the city because Northern Ireland’s politics are broken.

Thatcher’s interventions in South African affairs were similarly resented. She became a hate figure among some African nationalists for resisting sanctions on the white minority government. Yet her incessant lobbying for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison paid off. It would have been a disaster had the African National Congress’s (ANC) inspirational leader died behind bars.

Renwick, who played an important part in bringing the opposing camps to the peace table, pulls no punches about the state of the country today: South Africa needs “a new beginning,” he told me recently. The ANC has ruled without a serious democratic challenger since 1994, which shows in the parlous state of a country that should be the industrial powerhouse of the continent. Daily power cuts caused by political corruption and mismanagement are crippling the economy. The unemployment rate tops 40% by some metrics.

Meanwhile, the ANC has developed a “foreign policy that suits autocrats and despots,” Renwick says. The South African Navy conducts exercises with Russian and Chinese warships. Under Mandela’s moderate leadership, his lieutenants ruled pragmatically, but after his death the rot set in. The ANC now exhibits the arrogance common to most first-generation national liberation movements.

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Yet the gains of peace still outweigh the losses. That is the nature of political compromise. 

Twenty-five years ago, outsiders also helped bring peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian violence. As the Nobel Peace Prize committee acknowledged, much of the credit belongs with John Hume, then the leader of the largest Catholic nationalist party, the SDLP, and David Trimble, his moderate Protestant unionist equivalent. Tony Blair’s Labour team also put in an extraordinary effort with crucial support from the Dublin government to bring the warring parties together. 

But Clinton and his representative, Senator George Mitchell, played their part too, using the prestige of the White House to smooth the egos of bickering small-town politicians. At one point, Trimble insisted on standing up to receive a telephone phone call from Clinton — sitting down would show insufficient respect for the leader of the free world. 

The winners were the people of Northern Ireland. The “Troubles” claimed 3,500 lives before the Belfast Agreement brought most of the violence to an end. The UK was spared the expenditure of yet more blood and treasure, and the Irish republic was freed from a lingering threat to its legitimacy from republicans. 

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Compromise, however, can leave a bitter taste. The victims of violence and their families had no redress. Republican and loyalist paramilitaries who committed atrocities were let out of jail; those tried later for murder spent only two years in prison. And the chief flaw of the peace deal was to enhance the status of hardline political parties on both sides of the sectarian divide, as they were seen to have “delivered.” Sinn Fein, allied to the IRA, overtook Hume’s SDLP in the polls. And having opposed any concession to Catholics for more than thirty years, Ian Paisley’s DUP prevailed over Trimble’s party.

Like the ANC, the hardliners have held a monopoly of power ever since. Northern Ireland now needs “a new beginning” too. The communities are still divided. Statutory power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein has broken down more than a third of the time. The DUP last walked out of the province’s devolved assembly a year ago in protest at the UK deal with the European Union that drew a customs border in the Irish Sea. It has not come back. The province feels adrift and the UK’s intelligence agencies warn that the men of violence are plotting a comeback.

In South Africa, it will take an unprecedented rebellion by the voters in elections next year to curtail the ANC’s abuse of power. In Northern Ireland, support for a non-aligned centrist party is growing fast, but under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it is excluded from a seat at the table. Politics are stuck. London and Dublin need to reengage. But if change comes, it will be useful to have President Biden’s full-throated support.    

*Martin Paul Ivens is an English journalist and editor of The Times Literary Supplement. He is a former editor of The Sunday Times.

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