The ANC drew lessons from watching its counterparts in the peace negotiations directed by international mediators in both Zimbabwe, where ZANU was forced to dilute its major objectives, and in Namibia, where SWAPO was shut-out of the negotiations. It was determined to seize the initiative while it had full support from allies and to avoid international mediation. The NP had found the experience of US and British pressure in the Namibian negotiations to be humiliating and it too was eager to avoid international mediation.
Thus South African leaders, with the assistance of civil society peacemakers and technical experts from home and abroad, slowly constructed an inclusive and principled process for managing the multiple transitions to a post-apartheid State, followed by a power-sharing transitional government, and finally a new constitutionally-mandated state structure and governing system. The process moved from the initial secret talks between NP and ANC representatives; to the post-February 1990 bilateral pre-negotiation talks between key parties to determine the shape of the negotiation process; to the initial multilateral negotiations between political parties to develop the 1991 National Peace Accord (NPA) to address the political violence; to formally constituted multi-party negotiations to agree the rules for a transitional government and key constitutional principles; and finally culminated in an elected Constitutional Assembly with an ambitious public consultation programme to draft the new Constitution. From its secretive origins, the process became slowly more open to public scrutiny and, in some cases, direct participation.
There were two main facets of the multi-party process: constitutional negotiations to create a new set of rules to govern the state and the NPA structures to prevent violence (much of which appears to have been instigated by some of the political parties). Although distinct, they interacted in important ways. Many of the party representatives involved in negotiating the NPA were also involved in the constitutional negotiations. The collegial relations formed in the NPA helped with the later negotiations, as did collaborative problem-solving techniques introduced by the business and church facilitators in the NPA process. The national, regional, and local structures set up by the NPA to address the problems of political violence appear to have both contributed toward stabilising the country during the transition and to creating spaces where South Africans could meet to address specific conflict issues in their community. At times when the constitutional negotiations were suspended, the national NPA structures remained active and continued to provide a channel of communication between the signatory parties that retained oversight of the process. The transition would doubtless have been much more difficult if either of these facets was missing.
The negotiated processes that guided the transition were rooted in the mass political organisation that had emerged over almost a century of struggle, as well as in the political organisations of South Africa's white population. Both had evolved representative political parties with systems to hold leaders accountable to their members and constituencies. During the negotiations, political leaders had to pay careful attention to bringing along their supporters when making agreements. The South African public had the opportunity to witness much of the later negotiations through media broadcasts. Many of the political parties consulted frequently with members to gauge their reaction to proposals and to identify issues of continued concern. There were opportunities to contribute ideas and comment on the draft Constitution and to participate in peacemaking through the local and regional peace committee structures of the NPA. It seems that these strategies greatly increased both the sense of public ownership of the terms of the transition and gave legitimacy to the new state structures that emerged from the process.
During the transition, South Africans started to debunk misperceptions and myths about each other. As trust increased, they began to make the political compromises necessary for a mutually acceptable future. They soon learned that the benefit of engagement was in the process itself as well as in its outcomes. Those involved gained a sense of the reasons why specific compromises were necessary and a commitment to ensuring the success of agreements reached. And to this end all stakeholders – and as many people as possible – needed to be engaged and the process as transparent and accessible as possible. The parties learned these lessons well and over time the negotiating forums became increasingly open. In so doing, the process itself created conditions for a radical change in South Africa's formerly exclusionary and secretive political culture and helped to create a more truly democratic state and society.