Partner to History: The US Role in South Africa’s Transition to Democracy

alt Princeton N. Lyman
Published by: United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, D.C., 2002
ISBN: 10: 1929223366 13: 978-1929223367

Reviewed by: Brendan Vickers
In Conflict Trends Issue 3 of 2002

In the early 1990s, South Africa was a cause ce’le’bre of the early US-centred ‘new world order’. Amid fratricidal war and communal conflict in settings as diverse as Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Kashmir, South Africans themselves – who were actively supported and encouraged by foreign political actors – negotiated an end to apartheid authoritarianism, as well as its ignominious exclusionary practices. The pariah state of the Cold War years soon emerged as the paragon and ‘miracle’ of the 1990s.

South Africa has always been a focus of international censure and concern. However, the role of Britain and the US in the 1980s - particularly during the Reagan-Thatcher era of constructive engagement - has been even more controversial. In Partner to History, Lyman – who was Washington’s ambassador in Pretoria during the post-1990 period, which has often been described as the most poignant and promising period of South Africa’s ‘new’ history – details how Washington policy-makers and the Pretoria embassy employed US influence, economic assistance and political support to help end apartheid, without sparking the dour predictions of a racial civil war. To its credit, the book reveals the hidden face of diplomacy, and implicitly evaluates - from a US perspective - the contribution of South Africa’s motley assortment of leaders (including reformers, nationalists, reactionaries, radicals and Africanists) to the transition.

Lyman arrived in South Africa as United States Ambassador in 1992. His arrival coincided with the most poignant and ominous period of the transition, and he was immediately thrust into the crisis. It was the time of deadlocked negotiations, mass action campaigns, threats of violence, and the clash of egos. Lyman details, in easy and accessible prose, the constructive nature of the US’s public and private diplomacy, which managed to ameliorate tensions, facilitate dialogue and dissuade potential spoilers (such as the far right and left, as well as Chief Buthelezi). In doing so, the book provides some rich insights into the role foreign political actors played in shaping the contours and outcome of the transition - a dimension of that period which has been neglected and overlooked.

At the time, De Klerk and Mandela insisted that South Africans would ‘own’ the transition process. As a result, several offers of direct mediation from Washington were politely rejected. However, notes Lyman, ‘This did not mean that the US, and the international community in general, did not have a vital role to play. What it did mean is that we had to fashion our assistance to this process [in order] to facilitate it, to help it through several crises, and encourage it in a multitude of ways... It was an active intensive involvement. And it made a difference’ (p4).

Part one of the book details the international community’s confrontational approach to South Africa: the so-called ‘world of telegrams and anger’. Part two shifts the scene to the US’s cooperative involvement - both politically and economically - in the South African ‘miracle’. Part three discusses the US’s involvement in South Africa’s post-apartheid reconstruction, as well as the lessons learnt from the transition. Lyman concludes with the ringing comment: ‘Living the American dream is the best policy for the US to follow, at home and abroad. It is a lesson we can take away from South Africa’ (p283).

The book represents an intellectual call to arms. South African negotiators, policy-makers and community activists who were engaged in the struggle and transition, should be similarly inspired to chart and preserve the institutional memory of this heady era in South Africa’s history.

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