When deferring a question to his colleague at a recent event, Mohammed Bhabha made a comment the way only close friends can.
“He can answer. Age before beauty after all,” said Bhabha, taking a playful shot at Roelf Meyer, who chuckled goodheartedly.
It was not so long ago when, under apartheid, these two South African politicians viewed one another as enemies, each thinking the other was committed to ending their existence.
“I hated Roelf. Not as a person, but what he represented and how he was the instrument of pain for the majority of South Africa. Hate is an understatement in this instance,” Bhabha said.
“(White Afrikaaners) themselves had just come out from a system, where they themselves, thousands of them, had died at the hands of the British. And yet when they got into power, they were doing exactly the same thing,” he continued. “How could they do such a thing?”
Meyer worked for the National Party, the political group that instituted apartheid in 1948, while Bhabha was of Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress. While on different sides of the political spectrum, they worked together to dismantle those racist structures at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. To this day, they have continued to work together consulting in peace processes in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and other countries.
Their experiences forging a new system from the racist structure of the past was the subject of Lessons from South Africa: Moving Beyond Toxic Polarization in America, a local discussion sponsored by Rochester-based Civic Genius and Beyond Conflict, based in Boston. Through their knowledge and stories, both organizations hope individuals can apply lessons to the current polarized political crisis and find a way forward together.
The apartheid system institutionalized racial segregation in the country. It dictated housing, education, travel, employment opportunities, voting rights, land ownership, and much more in terms of racial categories. At the top of the system was the minority white South African population, which maintained power through intimidation and police-state tactics.
After decades of internal resistance, economic embargoes and tense negotiations, the system was finally ended in 1990 and a new government was formed. While issues persist in South Africa, including land reform, nationwide power deficiency and corruption, Bhabha calls it a “miracle” that apartheid ended peacefully.
Both men agree that three elements played a major role. The first was that leaders on both sides were strong willed but also gracious at giving up power. F.W. de Klerk, the head of the NP, initiated the end of apartheid and signed the order to release ANC leader Mandela from his 27- year imprisonment.
“One of the first things (Mandela) did was visit the widow of the man who had put him in prison. Just to have a cup of tea with her,” said Meyer, who was instrumental in Mandela’s release and worked with him directly. “Not a single moment ever, did he ever ask, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ He never touched that subject. He was always looking forward.”
This graciousness extended to the political sphere where Mandela supported limiting the influence of a majority political party, ceding power the ANC stood to gain.
The second element was an inclusive approach. Nineteen groups participated in CODESA and included those with seemingly small interests or populations. For example, Bhabha is Muslim, a religious subsection that even today represents approximately 1.5 percent of the population.
At the end of apartheid, white South Africans made up 13 percent of the total population. The 2022 midyear census estimates that percentage has fallen by nearly half to 7.6 percent. Bhabha said that although it was admittedly a long process, he learned as a student leader that white South Africans were acting out of fear and began to see them as victims of the system of apartheid as well.
The third element Bhabha and Meyer identified as crucial to their success was building trust across that divide, specifically by understanding the other side. For example, Bhabha said understanding Meyer and other white South Africans’ perspectives made it easier to connect with his political opponent.
“The fears Roelf had as a minority, I also had. And those fears were heightened (in his case), because of vindictiveness. If we can address those fears, understand those fears, and then find solutions to the fears, we can find the right way forward,” said Bhabha. “That epiphany only came with dialogue.
“We identified Roelf as one of the people we could rely on. When things get tough, and when the negotiation process is under threat, we know he could be the bedrock we rely on. The others may waver, because there wasn’t a genuineness about them, it was pragmatism about them,” Bhabha continued, commending his friend for staying faithful even amid death threats from the right wing of his own people.
Looking back, Meyer says he is ashamed of previous statements he made, and that his paradigm shift did not happen overnight. He cannot pinpoint the day it happened, but sometime between the beginning of his political career and before Mandela’s release, Meyer found himself truly believing in dismantling apartheid.
“(For de Klerk), it was intellectually necessary, he could see the writing on the wall. But with different measures that one can apply, I can say, he never took it really on as a real deep commitment,” Meyer said. “I keep arguing that, if you don’t have the commitment at the level of the soul, in your heart, if you’re not able to live that change, then it is not real.”
While Bhabha and Meyer are quick to say that every country’s reconciliation process is different and depends on where the fracturing comes from, Jillian Youngblood, executive director of Civic Genius, sees potential in their approach.
“Something that hits me every time I talk with Mohammed and Roelf, is there’s this undercurrent of fear, from all directions,” said Youngblood. “How often do you have a really meaty discussion about politics with someone who has a different opinion than you?
‘If you’ve been the victim of hate speech, why would you want to sit down with someone who’s used those words against you? If you feel like your way of life is changing beneath your feet and you can’t do anything about it, why would you want to talk with the people who were doing that? But of course that’s precisely the reason we have to sit down and talk with one another.”
Civic Genius was founded in 2017 with the goal of putting individuals on a path to active citizenship. Its Genius Guides give direction for understanding government structures or issues, attending board meetings, participating at town halls, meeting with elected officials, advocacy and workshops.
Particular to the issue of polarization, It’s Your America and other civic problem solving events by Civic Genius bring people across the political spectrum together to learn about, discuss, and tackle critical national issues.
“We’ve had someone with a Second Amendment rights shirt and someone else with a very different view sit down together and actually come to an understanding. As (Bhabha and Meyer) said, that’s one of the key elements in helping solve the issue,” Youngblood said.
Similarly, Bhabha and Meyer see reasons for hope in both their home country and the United States. They see positive changes in leadership and a long history of rights that, very often, Americans take for granted.
“We had to fight for those rights,” Bhabha said. “We know how important they are to changing a system.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].