SA Ex-Presidents visit Norway - 28 July 2011
In May 2011, The South African Embassy in collaboration with Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, had the honour of hosting not just one, but two former South African Presidents. The occasion was the annual Oslo Center seminar, where Mr. Thabo Mbeki and Mr. FW de Klerk had been asked to attend and share their personal experiences from the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. The Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights is an independent foundation that works with human rights, democracy and inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, and whose founder and president is Mr. Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former Prime Minister of Norway.
The seminar was held on 12 May and was attended by 400 people, with more than 100 people on a waiting list for the popular event. Mr. FW de Klerk kicked off the seminar with a presentation. He emphasised the situation in South Africa during the 1980’s, when the country was caught in a downward spiral of violence, international isolation and economic decline. He said that although racial war seemed inevitable, 17 years ago a new non-racial agreement was reached and Nelson Mandela became the first President of South Africa’s new constitutional democracy. Mr. FW de Klerk then listed some factors that he thought made the transition possible and what other states could learn from the process in South Africa. In conclusion, Mr. De Klerk stated that the main lesson learned from South Africa’s democratic transition is that the process never ends and admitted that there are still many areas that South Africa needs to improve.
The second session was with Mr. Thabo Mbeki. He began his presentation by indicating some distinguished features of the South African democratic transition. The transition was negotiated, which required that the ANC and NP had to sit down and agree on an outcome rather than seeking to defeat each other. The two parties had to accept that they also shared some important common objectives, and one of these was to agree that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. Another was that continuing violence would be counter-productive and only a democratic order would finally bring this violence to an end.
Furthermore, a matter of shared agreement was that neither side must fear the transition to democracy and should use negotiations to construct an appropriate democratic system. Throughout the transitional process, all sides respected the principle of inclusion. In addition, Mr. Mbeki made the point that it took six years to complete the transition, beginning negotiations in 1990 and adoption of the Final Constitution in 1996. Also those negotiations were conducted inside the country and without any foreign facilitation. Mr. Mbeki said that the major negotiating parties managed to “put themselves in each others’ shoes” and entered into agreements which ensured a “soft landing” for all, which was much needed in order for supporters to accept a final negotiated agreement. At the end of his presentation, Mr. Mbeki said that he believed that if the South African experience communicates the important guidelines, it might very well help constructing the global community of democratic states to which the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights is committed.
Following the presentations, both speakers participated in a panel discussion and a Q&A session by moderator Einar Lunde, who is a well know Norwegian journalist with a broad knowledge of South Africa. Guests also enjoyed an artistic performance under the auspices of the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet.
After the seminar, the South African Embassy hosted a drinks- and canapé reception. This was combined with a cultural performance by Mr. Zwai Mbula, a South African artist who lives in Norway, together with his band. Both Mr. FW de Klerk and Mr. Mbeki joined the reception and mingled with guests.
The two former Presidents stayed in Oslo from 11-13 May, during which they also made time to meet Norwegian government officials, who included the Norwegian Minister of International Development, Mr Erik Solheim on the developments in Sudan and a courtesy visit with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
Astrid Mannion, SA Embassy Oslo, Norway