Tunisians could learn a lesson from South Africa

Nobody disputes the peaceful transformation of South Africa from a racist bastion into shining example of freedom

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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Over the last few days, Tunisians and South Africans have been debating the particular meaning of two watershed events in the history of their respective nations. South Africa (and most other nations of the world) looked back with admiration at the legacy of a departed historical giant, Nelson Mandela. At the same time, in the northernmost tip of the continent, Tunisians were pondering the significance of third anniversary of the December 2011 uprising, which eventually led to the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

Beyond mere historical juxtaposition, the two events carried meaningful synchronicity from one end of the continent to the other. Tunisians, and many other Arabs, could not miss the relevance of South Africa’s experience, from the time of Nelson Mandela and beyond, to their current challenges.

Even if it has managed to avoid the fate of many other parts of the Arab World which have fallen prey to violent civil strife, Tunisia remains a house divided. It is still a country badly in need of brave and visionary acts of reconciliation. The same acts which twenty years ago earned Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk their joint Peace Nobel Prize.

Today, Tunisia and other turbulent Arab countries could also gain from looking at how South Africans assess the track record of post-Apartheid rule and look to ways of further developing Mandela’s legacy. The recent proposal by the South African Institute for Justice and Reconciliation has constituted a worthwhile contribution in this regard. In the 2013 edition of the “South Africa Reconciliation Barometer Survey,” the Institute called for “Radical Reconciliation,” an interesting concept aimed at addressing the lingering challenges of post-Apartheid South Africa by introducing a wider and more ambitious approach to reconciliation.

The relevance of South Africa’s experience, during the time of Nelson Mandela and beyond, is obvious for Tunisians and many other Arabs

Oussama Romdhani

Nobody disputes the peaceful transformation of South Africa from a racist bastion into shining example of freedom, democracy and multiracial co-existence. Economically, South Africa has become a regional powerhouse. A recent report by Goldman Sachs recognized the economic advances made by South Africa during the last twenty years, not least of which was the tripling of the country’s GDP. However, the same report pointed out the enduring socio-economic and racial inequities. For instance, 85 percent of blacks are still in the lower income categories, while 87 percent of whites are in the middle to upper class strata.

To address such socio-economic inequities, the “radical reconciliation” concept, suggested by the South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey, establishes a correlation between the fight against economic exclusion and the realization of comprehensive national reconciliation. “Reconciliation, exclusion and inequality are intimately tied to one another,” explains the survey.

Mandela’s pragmatism and extraordinary sense of history drove him, twenty years ago, to give priority to the peaceful transfer of (political) power, from the ruling white minority to the disenfranchised black majority. He brilliantly succeeded in his endeavor. As part of the power transition process, he steered away from score-settling and political vendettas against former rivals. He had the greatness of spirit to do so despite the egregious crimes of the Apartheid regime. “Instead of vengeance, Mandela sought truth and reconciliation. He was not a saint, but rather a political genius. He did what he did because it saved his country,” recently wrote CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

By contrast, Tunisia and other post “Arab Spring” countries have not yet found their way to a Truth and Reconciliation process. About three years after the revolutions erupted, they are still consumed by the feuds of power transition. They are also confronted with other concomitant dilemmas, which South Africa has in a way postponed addressing till today. The task of the new regimes in the Arab World is even more daunting because they have had no “grace period.” In today’s egalitarian and e-connected environments, Arab youth have been less willing to accept the notion that problems of unemployment and socio-economic injustice could wait a few more decades before being resolved. And that is the quandary which countries like Tunisia have to grapple with. The small North African country – with limited natural resources - does not have the luxury of fully dedicating itself to overcoming the turbulence of its democratic transition, then looking at a later stage for a fix to the decade-old socio-economic imbalances. All its problems are on the table at once. Having a sense of priority saved Mandela (and South Africa) from being overwhelmed by an avalanche of “all problems at once. ” That’s why he chose to do away with racial and political antagonisms first.

Yawning gaps

“Almost 20 years after the transition,” the 2013 South African Reconciliation Barometer survey finds that “for ordinary citizens, issues of economic inequality and material injustice are the biggest blocks to reconciliation.” According to the survey, the divisive factors that still have to be addressed in South Africa are, by order of priority (according to public opinion percentages): “the gap between rich and poor” (30 percent ), HIV/AIDA and other diseases (20.7 percent), the adverse role of political parties (16 percent), race (14.6 percent), religion (8.6 percent) and language (4.8 percent).

With a few adjustments, these factors are among the issues that still divide and could even further destabilize the countries of both North and South of Africa. So, if socio-economic inequality (intertwined with race) is the most potent dividing hurdle in South Africa today, socio-economic conditions (intertwined with region) are among the most resilient sources of division and potential unrest in Tunisia. At both ends of the continent, one could argue that such divides have to be overcome if comprehensive reconciliation is to happen.

Socio-economic disparities, coupled with regional development imbalances, were among the key catalysts which sparked the December 2010 uprisings in Tunisia’s mid-western regions of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine. Overcoming the economic roots of regionalism remains a necessary tenet of comprehensive reconciliation. Because of the ongoing concerns stemming from political turbulence and security incidents, the “post-revolutionary” governments of Tunisia have not yet been able to address the problem of unemployment, especially among the youth. This problem has, for decades, disproportionally affected Tunisian provinces in the south, the mid-west and the northwest.

Identification with one part of the country or the other still determines social and political behavior in Tunisia and other countries of the MENA region. Without formally recognizing this factor, successive governments, since independence, have dealt with regionalism and its thinly veiled ancestor: Tribalism.

After the radical regime changes of the region, inherited development imbalances have led to the worsening of the problems of instability and insecurity; whether in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen or Egypt.

Unavailability of employment or sources of revenue have led the populations of some of the poorer regions to look for solutions outside the formal economy. Fraying security institutions and porous borders made the problem even worse. In a report published in November about “Tunisia’s Borders: Jihadism and Contraband,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group talked of a widening gap “between a Tunisia of the borders – porous, rebellious, a focal point of jihad and contraband – and a Tunisia of the capital and coast that is concerned with the vulnerability of a hinterland it fears more than it understands.”

Regionalism constitutes a potential distorting factor in the electoral processes, as it can be more decisive than any national planks in determining the outcome of votes. According to Tunisian pollster Hassen Zargouni: “Belonging to one region or another better explains voter decisions better that the age of the voter, his genre, his socio-professional affiliation or his level of education.”

Political ‘wisdom’

The Reconciliation Barometer Survey argues for confidence-building between the political class and the population. It “hypothesizes that in order for reconciliation to take root it is important for citizens to view political leaders, public institutions and government as legitimate, accountable and responsive.”

Despite 20 years of democratic governance, age-old distrust between South African politicians and voters has been hard to dispel. But, this is not solely a South African problem. In fact, the issue is probably more acute in countries with a less deeply engrained democratic experience. In Tunisia, for instance, the legacy of distrust of politicians is more pervasive. It grew under the decades of post-independence authoritarian rule. Then, it was fueled by the dissatisfaction with the performance of the new governments after 2011. A U.S. International Republican Institute (IRI) survey (published this month) showed that 70 percent of Tunisians do not believe that “politicians in Tunis care enough about local problems in the rest of the country,” and that 83 percent believe that “political parties are doing little or nothing “to address the needs of people.” Such distrust is the source of a high ratio of voter procrastination and possible abstentions. According to the IRI survey, 31 percent of voters say they will not vote in next elections and 27 percent say do not know for whom they will eventually vote.

The South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey also suggests ways to move forward. “If citizens are able to form relationships across divisions, reduce their negative stereotypes about one another and are committed to deep dialogue, then reconciliation is possible,” it counsels. The advice would be relevant in Tunisia’s highly polarized society where the gap between the vying definitions of the role religion in politics still constitutes a yawning chasm and a potential catalyst for civil strife.

Thanks to Nelson Mandela, South African society has managed to cross from the past to the future. Today, about 64 percent of South Africans, black and white, “want to move forward from the past in unity,” with only 9.1 percent disagreeing. Even without the horrors of Apartheid and racial cleavages, many of the transitional Arab countries are still dwelling on the past.

To cross that bridge, Mandela had an asset called “wisdom.” American writer Juan Cole was probably right in noting that “South Africa was as authoritarian, corrupt and ethnically divided as the Middle East. What is clear is that most Middle Eastern elites have lacked Mandela’s mature wisdom.” Traditionally-pragmatic and moderate Tunisians could still prove him wrong. If they do, they will be the first in the Arab World to truly honor the memory of Mandela.


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington, DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. His work can be accessed at oussama-romdhani.com.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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