Iraq faces a crucible after Mosul: South Africa offers some useful lessons

The remains of the University of Mosul destroyed during a battle with Islamic State militants, in April 2017. South Africa offers lessons in rebuilding. Reuters/Marko Djurica

The defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul and the apparent death of its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi are great cause for celebration in Iraq.

But beyond the horrors of the Islamic State, Iraq faces a crucible. The challenges ahead are monumental: the reconstruction of flattened cities, the plight of thousands who fled their homes, the threat of Kurdish secession, marauding Shia militias, and the fact that the Islamic State retains the capacity to conduct or inspire terrorist attacks in Iraq and across the world.

However, arguably Iraq’s biggest challenge is the creation of an inclusive and robust political arrangement that can overcome deep-seated differences and heal still bleeding wounds.

In trying to forge such fresh political arrangements, Iraq could learn much from South Africa’s peaceful and patient transition from apartheid to a relatively robust and stable democracy.

Similarities and differences

At first glance, the differences between Iraq and South Africa may appear too large to justify useful comparison. But the two share much more in common than is usually acknowledged.

They both have a history that includes colonialism and brutal oppression, which still evince sharp memories. Both were crippled by international sanctions that isolated the country and hampered development. Both are rich in natural resources and hold the promise of being economic powerhouses, yet a great number of their respective populations have always been poor.

With the end of apartheid in the early 1990s and the toppling of the Baath in 2003, both countries wrote towering constitutions amid great political upheaval and saw their citizens vote for the first time to great international fanfare.

Since then, both have seen the emergence of newly empowered political elites who had a great deal of experience in opposing the former regime, but little experience in governing. Sadly, both have seen their new democracies cynically undermined by those who rely on populism, nepotism and corruption as vehicles to achieve and retain power.

Despite such similarities, South Africa has chartered a very different course to Iraq. It’s mostly peaceful transformation stands in stark contrast to Iraq which rapidly degenerated into a patchwork of competing factions, virtually all of whom have been prepared to use horrific violence to achieve their goals.

Four key lessons

There are four key lessons Iraq can learn from South Africa’s example.

The first is that South Africa’s transition was organic and internal. Yes, its transition was both resisted and encouraged by various actors in the international community. But its “long walk to freedom” was largely its own. The apartheid regime was undone by its own brutality and a persistent movement to undermine it.

The Baath regime was toppled by a foreign military intervention that imposed democracy. The Iraqi people were not the agents of change. Today, however, they have the opportunity to be the drivers of an inclusive future.

The second key lesson for Iraq can be found in South Africa’s pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

By openly engaging with the traumas of the past, South Africa enabled understanding and forgiveness of the pain inflicted by the state. To a large extent, this served as a bulwark against further violence.

In Iraq, the US-led coalition preferred a wholesale dismantling of the former regime – “De-Baathification” – to any lengthy and emotive reconciliation process. The people of Iraq were never given the opportunity to deal with their trauma and to address the divergent narratives of suffering and remembrance.

The defeat of the Islamic State represents a unique opportunity to correct this wrong. South Africa could play an invaluable role in Iraq by sharing its experiences of reconciliation.

The third key lesson from South Africa is its extensive nation building programme.

Both South Africa and Iraq are home to a complex mosaic of people with divergent ethnic, tribal, religious and political affiliations that cannot easily be divided into discrete categories.

Following the end of apartheid, and particularly under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, South Africa underwent a concerted nation building programme. The new flag was one among many symbols of a collective national consciousness.

The US and the Iraqi political elite have undertaken no such initiative. The creation of national narratives towards a cohesive and united identity factored little in the minds of neo-conservatives in Washington or power-mongers in Baghdad.

Here, too, the defeat of the Islamic State represents an opportunity to change course. And Iraq would do well to look to South Africa.

The final, and arguably most important, lesson that Iraq can learn from South Africa is that democracy, reconciliation and nation building are always, in the words of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, “to come”. That’s to say that a truly robust and democratic society is an ideal that must be constantly fought for and renegotiated.

This is widely understood in South Africa today – from student protests demanding the decolonisation of their curriculum, to sharp editorials denouncing “state capture”.

It is South Africa’s spirit of vibrant but peaceful debate, of respectful agonism, that is a vital lesson for Iraq if it’s to emerge from the horrors of the past into a viable and peaceful future.

South Africa’s experience has been far from perfect. But its unique story offers invaluable lessons for the Iraqi people as they strive for a new future beyond the Islamic State.

Benjamin Isakhan is visiting South Africa as Adjunct Senior Research Associate, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.