Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 1999
Volume 10
Issue 1
Page Numbers 177-81
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South Africa

The 3,500-page final report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, detailing the crimes of the apartheid era, was released on October 29 amidst court challenges and a last-minute ANC attempt to block its release. The report was presented to President Nelson Mandela by the Commission’s chairperson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at a ceremony in Pretoria. Excerpts from Archbishop Tutu’s Foreword follow:

We could not make the journey from a past marked by conflict, injustice, oppression, and exploitation to a new and democratic dispensation characterised by a culture of respect for human rights without coming face to face with our recent history. No one has disputed that. The differences of opinion have been about how we should deal with that past; how we should go about coming to terms with it. . . .

In our case, dealing with the past means knowing what happened. Who ordered that this person should be killed? Why did this gross violation of human rights take place? We also need to know about the past so that we can renew our resolve and commitment that never again will such violations take place. We need to know about the past in order to establish a culture of respect for human rights. It is only by accounting for the past that we can become accountable for the future.

For all these reasons, our nation, through those who negotiated the transition from apartheid to democracy, chose the option of individual and not blanket amnesty. And we believe that this individual amnesty has demonstrated its value. One of the criteria to be satisfied before amnesty could be granted was full disclosure of the truth. Freedom was granted in exchange for truth. We have, through these means, been able to uncover much of what happened in the past. We know [End Page 177] now what happened to Steve Biko, to the PEBCO Three, to the Cradock Four. . . .

The lies and deception that were at the heart of apartheid—which were indeed its very essence—were frequently laid bare. . . .

Thus, we have trodden the path urged on our people by the preamble to our founding Act, which called on “the need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.”. . .

Ours is a remarkable country. Let us celebrate our diversity, our differences. God wants us as we are. South Africa wants and needs the Afrikaner, the English, the coloured, the Indian, the black. We are sisters and brothers in one family—God’s family, the human family. Having looked the beast of the past in the eye, having asked and received forgiveness and having made amends, let us shut the door on the past, not in order to forget it, but in order not to allow it to imprison us. Let us move into the glorious future of a new kind of society where people count, not because of biological irrelevancies or other extraneous attributes, but because they are persons of infinite worth created in the image of God. Let that society be a new society— more compassionate, more caring, more gentle, more given to sharing—because we have left “the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice” and are moving to a future “founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.”

Like our Constitution, the Commission has helped in laying the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge.

My appeal is ultimately directed to us all, black and white together, to close the chapter on our past and to strive together for this beautiful and blessed land as the rainbow people of God.

The Commission has done its share to promote national unity and reconciliation. Their achievement is up to each one of us.


On October 25, four veterans of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Hoang Thuy Viet, Le Manh Nam, Doan Dan Thuc, and Tran Tri Tinh, wrote a letter to the National Assembly, deploring corruption at the highest levels of the Party, and contrasting this with the standards of integrity demanded of officials in other countries. The letter concludes as follows: [End Page 178]

Contradictions and contrasts in the life of the people are now at their extreme. The younger generation lives in an obstructed, future-less frame of mind. The people’s faith in the country’s future is shaken and has fallen to pathetic lows. Our country is actually on the brink of bankruptcy and risks instability in every aspect. The nation is facing extremely serious challenges and dire threats. There is only one correct solution for all the above: It is the road to all-encompassing democratization of the social and political life of the nation, and we must proceed to a profound transformation of the outmoded central-ized and socialist command economy into a free market and liberal economy. We must at all cost build a civil society and the rule of law, in which all social movements are regulated by just laws and in which “human rights” values must be considered the highest principles. We must truly bring our country in line with the fully civilized world, a world that is changing without stop. Only then can we promote the mind and talent of all our people and orient them towards a renaissance and reformation of our homeland. Only thus can we heal the great suffering that we have incurred after years of divisive war and hatred, and say a definite farewell to long nights of shame and bitterness. True democracy and freedom are the keys to bring our beloved Vietnamese fatherland towards a bright future.


On August 16–22 in Seoul, 52 young leaders from 17 Asian nations participated in a workshop sponsored by the Forum of Democratic Leaders in the Asia-Pacific. Along with a resolution on democratic and economic development in Asia, the workshop adopted a resolution on Burma calling for a transition to democracy. An address on the latter topic, presented on August 18 by Kyaw Kyaw of the Thailand-based All Burma Student’s Democratic Front, is excerpted below:

I am very pleased to have been invited to speak before such an esteemed audience that shares the common values of decency, freedom, and justice. All of us reject the notion put forward by some authoritarian regimes in our part of the world that Asians somehow are different from the rest of mankind and that concepts of human rights, freedom, and democracy do not apply to us.

I have searched diligently to find out what it is that causes an Asian tyrant to think that we Asians are so different from the rest of the world. The pain inflicted through torture is universal. The fear of arrests and imprisonment without due process of law is certainly not unique to Asians. The despair of parents whose children have disappeared at the hands of state security officers is, unfortunately, [End Page 179] beyond description in any language. When beaten, shot, or stabbed with bayonets, our blood is the same bright red as those who suffer similar atrocities any place in the world.

No, we are members of the human race, and as human beings, we expect, and now demand, that we enjoy the rights universally recognized as belonging to human beings.

At the same time, however, we have the experience to know that living in a just, free, and civil society is never without cost and sacrifice. Freedom is not free. . . .

It is no longer enough to “want” democracy. It is not enough to “demand” change. It is not enough to demonstrate our disapproval with massive street demonstrations. We must learn to think strategically about political power, the ultimate sources of power, and how those sources of power are made available to the tyrants and dictatorships who oppress their own people. To be successful, we must design our strategy to sever the sources of power from the tyrants. It would be both foolish and disastrous to wage a struggle for democracy today with armed conflict since the dictatorships possess overwhelming military superiority and are not reluctant to use violence to stay in power.

In Burma today, the democratic forces under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are waging a strategic nonviolent struggle against the outlaw regime of the military dictatorship. We recognize that democracy cannot exist without a civil society and civil societies are best nurtured where nonviolent struggle is adopted. The entire society has been enlisted in the struggle and everyone can be an active participant in his or her own liberation. As members of various organizations and institutions, each person contributes to our success through noncooperation. We call this form of struggle “Political Defiance.” . . . If this effort of noncooperation by the society is sustained, like a tree whose roots have been severed, the tyrant will wither and collapse. . . .

We are witnessing the collapse of the military dictatorship in Rangoon. On the surface, it still looks as though it is strong and in control. But the reality is quite different. The strategic approach to nonviolent struggle has been slowly, and with certainty, removing from the regime the power to govern effectively. Our struggle has shown quite clearly that without the consent and cooperation of the institutions and organizations within our society, no one, not even a regime as brutal as that in Rangoon, can survive. Like the Marcos regime in 1986, the attempted coup in Thailand in 1992, the apparently sudden collapse of the Suharto regime only a few weeks ago, the Rangoon regime will also find it cannot survive apart from the society on which it must rely for its power.

The key to our continued success will be our ability to encourage and assist in the defiance efforts of the institutions on which the [End Page 180] regime relies for its power and to create new and parallel institutions in society that are dedicated to democracy.

The fundamental truth is that power does, indeed, belong to the people. And strategic nonviolent struggle provides the vehicle for expressing that power for democratic change.


On September 20, a few weeks after he was dismissed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on charges of corruption and sodomy. Anwar asserted that he was a victim of a smear campaign, and the outrage of his supporters fueled strong antigovernment protests. Many people abroad, including some at the highest levels of government, offered expressions of support for Anwar, who has written eloquently in defense of democracy and tolerance. The passages below are taken from his book The Asian Renaissance (Singapore: Times Books International, 1996):

If the term Asian values is not to ring hollow, Asians must be prepared to champion ideals which are universal. It is altogether shameful, if ingenious, to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic rights and civil liberties. To say that freedom is Western or un-Asian is to offend our own traditions as well as our forefathers who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustice. It is true that Asians lay great emphasis on order and societal stability. But it is certainly wrong to regard society as a kind of deity upon whose altar the individual must constantly be sacrificed. No Asian tradition can be cited to support the proposition that in Asia, the individual must melt into a faceless community. . . .

The civil society we envisage is one based on moral principles, where governance is by rule of law not human caprice, where the growth of civic organizations is nurtured not suppressed, where dissent is not stifled, and where the pursuit of excellence and the cultivation of good taste take the place of mediocrity and philistinism. For that, we have to retrieve, revive, and reinvigorate the spirit of liberty, individualism, humanism and tolerance. . . .

Consequently, the Asian vision of civil society departs in a fundamental respect from that articulated by some Western thinkers, which is derived mainly from the social philosophy of the Enlightenment. The basic doctrine of this philosophy is that religion and civil society are intrinsically incompatible. Asians would find greater affinity with the precepts of the Founding Fathers of America in marrying civic republicanism with the Puritan religious heritage. This is because religion and spirituality run deep in the Asian psyche. [End Page 181] Religion has been a source of great strength to Asian society and will continue to be a bulwark against moral and social decay.

More fundamentally, the Asian world view and its intellectual re-sources will shape its civil society in its own direction. Foremost among them is the concept of man as a moral being with a transcendent dimen-sion, endowed not only with inalienable rights but also with unshirkable responsibilities: to God, to family, to fellow humans, and to nature.

Democracy is not a luxury that Asians cannot afford, as some would have us believe. On the contrary, it is a basic necessity for responsible and ethical governance. As Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Properly instituted, democracy will ensure order and stability. Because it allows for legitimate grievances to be aired and contentious issues to be openly debated, democracy prevents the accumulation of violent and disruptive forces.

The pursuit of economic prosperity is no justification for the persistent and flagrant deprivation of political and civil liberties. In fact, increasing wealth should be the occasion for the extension of freedoms to all spheres, these being the legitimate expectations of a civil society. Notwithstanding the moral basis envisaged in our concept of civil society, these include the expectations that certain fundamental liberties and rights are inviolable and cannot be taken away without due process of law. The Prophet of Islam in his Hajja al-Widac (Farewell Pilgrimage) said: “O Mankind, your blood, your property and your honour are as sacred as this Holy Land.”. . .

In resisting democratization, some would argue that the people are not sophisticated enough to practice democracy. To this, Dr Sun Yat-sen replied earlier this century, “Alas! This is like telling a child that he cannot go to school because he is illiterate.” . . .

In the multicultural, multireligious, and multiethnic context that we live in . . . each community will always have its extremist fringe, which if given free rein would whip up sentiments to plunge entire nations into turmoil and even bloodshed. It is crucial that we have a moderate majority, one that will be prepared to act firmly and decisively against extremist elements. Lest we forget, democracy itself can only flourish in a nation at peace, where there is mutual tolerance and respect between communities and ethnic groups.

The fact that democracy is often abused, leading to chaos and paralysis, does not mean that dictatorship is the answer. Rather, the solution lies in purging democracy of its excesses such as unrestrained individualism on the one hand, and mob rule on the other. Thus, democracy must be revitalized by infusing it with ethical principles and moral uprightness derived from Asian civilizational ideals and intellectual legacies.