WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

POISED FOR CHANGE

SOUTH AFRICA DEBATES REFORM PROPOSALS AFTER FOUR DECADES OF APARTHEID

JOHN BIERMAN March 13 1989
WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

POISED FOR CHANGE

SOUTH AFRICA DEBATES REFORM PROPOSALS AFTER FOUR DECADES OF APARTHEID

JOHN BIERMAN March 13 1989

“White domination, insofar as it still exists, must go." — Frederik de Klerk, leader of South Africa’s ruling National Party

“We are outraged by Mrs. Mandela’s complicity in the recent abductions." — statement by South Africa’s Mass Democratic Movement

Statements like those, from both sides of South Africa’s yawning political-racial divide, would have seemed unthinkable only a few months ago. Within days of the disavowal of white domination by the head of the party that introduced apartheid, leaders of the internal resistance to that system publicly cast out the longtime heroine of their struggle. To be sure, there was no direct connection between the two events, and no implication that the two sides were moving closer to each other. But each in its way signified that something very important may be happening in South Africa. De Klerk’s statement, which also called for “a totally new South Africa,” was an acknowledgment that his National Party’s guiding philosophy is at the very least outdated. And the statement by black leaders showed that they had the will to purge their movement of the gruesome internecine violence that disfigures and divides it, even at the cost of disowning a figurehead as potent as Winnie Mandela, wife of jailed African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela.

In fact, South Africa—from minority white government to black resistance—seems to be in a state of political flux unparalleled since 1948, when the National Party swept to power and launched apartheid. The new impetus for change within the ruling white minority coincides with the sidelining of President Pieter Botha, 73, after a stroke on Jan. 18. Since then, de Klerk has been joined by other prominent South Africans in calling for a resumption of a process of gradual reforms that Botha began in the early 1980s but then largely abandoned.

Stink: Harry Oppenheimer, the former chairman of the Anglo American Corp. mining conglomerate and, at 80, still the country’s best-known business figure, called in a speech for “a bold commitment to consistent, long-range reform.” The country’s racial policy, he added, “has made South Africa stink in the nostrils of decent, humane people around the world.” Also last week, the pressure for reform was reinforced by Johan Heyns, the head of the church that provided the scriptural justification for apartheid. In a newspaper interview, the leader of the 1.7-million-member Dutch Reformed Church, to which most of the South African cabinet belong, said that the government should open talks with the outlawed ANC without requiring it first to renounce violence.

Last week, Botha, 73, issued a statement saying that he intended to “resume my task as state president” by the end of March. But some observers expressed doubts about Botha’s capacity to return to work and members of his own party have called openly for him to step aside. In that atmosphere of ferment among South Africa’s white community of five million, court appearances by a number of people linked to Winnie Mandela’s discredited bodyguard—the so-called Mandela United Football Club—highlighted the disarray among the 26-million-strong black majority. By week’s end, six men and two women had been charged in connection with the murder of 14-year-old political activist Stompie Moeketsi.

He was allegedly abducted to the Mandela home two months ago and killed by members of her bodyguard in a dispute. The usually loquacious Mandela, after first defending herself publicly, maintained silence after a meeting with her husband, who is serving a life sentence for treason in a house on prison grounds near Cape Town. The scandal surrounding his wife had not apparently tarnished Nelson Mandela’s own reputation, but black nationalist sources said that he had told her to remain silent to prevent further damage to the cause.

The current sense of impending change in South Africa began to evolve during last month’s opening of parliament in Cape Town. It was then that de Klerk—in his new role as National Party leader and most likely successor to Botha as president—made his speech on the end to white domination. Then, acting president Chris Heunis said that any new constitution negotiated with leaders of the black majority would have to conform to “acceptable world standards.”

Still, Cape Town’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu—the voteless majority’s best-known voice—was skeptical. In an interview with Maclean’s he said that “only the most gullible” would be impressed by the Nationalists’ reformist rhetoric (page 22). Indeed, that rhetoric seemed to be in part designed to make South African policies more acceptable to world opinion and to head off further economic sanctions, especially from the United States (page 24). But the far-right Conservative Party, which advocates a return to the rigidities of old-style apartheid, expressed concern. “It is only a matter of time, under the present dispensation, before white people will have no future in South Africa,” said CP leader Andries Treurnicht in a speech to parliament.

Pressure: Outside parliament, in the predominantly English-speaking business community, there seemed to be few such fears. Said Gavin Relly, who succeeded Oppenheimer as chairman of the Anglo American mining conglomerate: “The thralldom of apartheid is withdrawing—of that there can be no question. I find it totally encouraging.” And in another Maclean’s interview, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who commands the loyalty of most of South Africa’s largest tribal group—the six-million-strong Zulu nation—said: “I think they [the Nationalists] mean it. They are under great pressure not only from us, the oppressed people, but from within their own ranks.”

Although some of the changes now in the wind were initiated during the earlier years of Botha’s reign as president, his style often disguised the substance of such reforms as the abolition of the Pass Laws restricting the movement of blacks. With his explosive temper and his finger-wagging hectoring of rebels at home and critics abroad, Botha projected an image of stern authoritarianism. Indeed, his awesome capacity to dispose of opponents with a figurative snap of his jaws earned him the title among political insiders of “the big crocodile.” The reform program has been on hold since widespread black violence led to the declaration of the current state of emergency in June, 1986. But at a public meeting in the mining town of Nigel last week, de Klerk declared, “Things will have to change drastically." And in a clear message to black leaders, he added, “We must now—immediately—begin penetrating talks on how we can reconcile the aspirations of your followers and mine.”

Vague: Still, despite their declared readiness to start the negotiating process, there is no sign that the National Party has reached a consensus on the country’s constitutional future. For the moment, it appears determined to resist a one-person-one-vote, British-style unitary state as demanded by the banned ANC and United Democratic Front (UDF). “The typical one-man-one-vote model results in majority domination,” de Klerk told foreign journalists in a recent briefing. “That would be catastrophic for South Africa.” But while he was clear about what his party would not accept, he was notably vague about what it would agree to. “We believe,” he said, “that the interests of all the people can best be served by allowing groups to elect their own leaders and to get those leaders to participate in joint and common structures, where they can share power on a basis of nondomination of any one group over the other.”

Other government sources said that the Nationalists are, in fact, groping their way toward a decentralized system of so-called parallel democracies. Under that idea, a number of supposedly equal governing bodies, broadly representing the country’s major ethnic and tribal elements, would separately administer their own schools, hospitals and other facilities. They would co-ordinate some activities at local, regional and national levels, while a central government handled such matters as defence, finance and foreign policy.

Model: Another possibility widely discussed is the so-called Indaba process for popularly elected government at the provincial level—a potential model for a new national system. That plan was drawn up by constitutional experts in Natal province at the initiative of Buthelezi, chief minister of the semiautonomous KwaZulu “homeland.” Botha last year rejected it as giving too much power to the blacks but his successors are now expressing a cautious new interest. Acting president Heunis, who has responsibility for constitutional matters, is due to discuss the plan with Buthelezi’s representatives later this month.

Meanwhile, as de Klerk and his ruling Nationalists struggle with the constitutional issue, they are trying also to shed their racist image. In a recent analysis, the government-run South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC), which closely reflects official thinking, appeared to be trying to reconcile the traditional policy of maintaining separate development of ethnic groups with proposals to remove openly racist elements from national programs. The analysis said that a central feature of National Party policy would remain “the recognition and protection of group rights and interests”—a shorthand phrase that most South Africans interpret as keeping the races separate and unequal. But in future, the analysis went on in apparent self-contradiction, “racist criteria” would be “firmly excluded.” Instead of the government deciding what group a person belonged to, individuals, “acting from voluntary choice and conviction,” would decide for themselves. Added the SABC commentator: “Whereas in the past, the government saw ethnicity as the major determinant of group formation, it now acknowledges that other factors can also be decisive [including] language, culture and religion.”

Taken literally, that might be interpreted to mean that a black could classify himself as white and a white as black. Clearly, that is not the government’s intention and there is speculation that a new category will be officially added to the existing whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians—a nongroup of people who do not wish to fall into any of those categories.

In many ways, the semantic and constitutional contortions of the Nationalists seem to point toward a paler version of the solution proposed by Treurnicht’s Conservatives. With 22 seats in the 178-member, whites-only House of Assembly, the CP constitutes the official opposition. Its leaders claim that in the next general election—to be held by March, 1990, at the latest—they will emerge as the biggest single party. To many observers, that appears unlikely. But the ruling Nationalists plainly fear that if they force the pace of reform too fast they might well lose a number of seats to the CP. And with its clearly articulated policies—and strong support among rural and urban blue-collar whites—the CP undoubtedly poses a bigger electoral threat to the government than the newly formed coalition of liberal politicians in the Democratic Party.

Race: Like the Nationalists, the predominantly Afrikaner Conservatives insist that they are not racist. In an interview, Moolman Mentz, the CP spokesman on law and order and constitutional matters, declared: “Our policy is not based on race, but on our ethnic consideration as a volk”—the Afrikaner word for a people. Mentz claimed that the approach could not be considered racist because English-speaking whites were included in the concept of volk. “They are so closely bound to us that we look on them as part of our people,” he said.

On the future structure of South Africa, Mentz said that the country should be split into a number of different states, based on the existing 10 black tribal “homelands” created by the Nationalists, with a state for the coloreds, another for the Indians, and one for the whites. Under that system, Mentz said, the millions of blacks who would work in white areas would be there as foreigners without voting or residence rights. And to accommodate the Indians and coloreds, he said, the CP was prepared to cede some territory in the areas where those two groups were most numerous—Cape province for the 2.5 million coloreds and parts of Natal for the 900,000 Indians. Mentz did not dispute that, under that arrangement, by far the largest, richest and most productive part of South Africa would remain in white hands. “Legally, it is all our territory,” said Mentz, “but we are prepared to give up part of it.”

Boycott: But a boycott of white businesses in Boksburg, a mining town 25 km east of Johannesburg, provides a warning of the economic consequences of trying to enforce old-style apartheid in today's changed circumstances. In municipal elections last October, the CP captured Boksburg (population 90,000) and a number of other localities in Transvaal province from the Nationalists. Then, the victors immediately began to reimpose many of the so-called petty apartheid restrictions which in recent years had withered away, and barred nonwhites from such public amenities as parks, playing fields and swimming pools. But as the “Whites only” signs went up again, the non whites struck back with a devastating boycott of white-owned businesses. Declared Buchanan (Butch) Jantjies, municipal leader of Boksburg’s colored Reiger Park township: “The CP wanted the town white, now they’ve got it white.” The actions show that although deprived of political power, South Africa’s nonwhite majority now wields economic strength that no government—local, regional or national—can afford to ignore.

Break: The reformist legislation that led the Conservatives to break away from the Nationalists in 1982 included the creation of separate—though largely powerless—parliamentary chambers for the colored and Indian communities and the repeal of some laws regarded as the cornerstones of apartheid. Among them: the Immorality Act, which outlawed inter-racial sex; the Mixed Marriages Act, which banned inter-racial marriage; and the Pass Laws, which required all blacks to carry identification documents at all times. Now, Heunis has indicated that changes are being considered to three other apartheid laws. Those are the Group Areas Act, which dictates where members of different racial groups may live; the Separate Amenities Act, which, as in Boksburg, permits local authorities to bar nonwhites from such facilities as public parks and swimming pools, and the Population Registration Act, under which all South Africans are classified by race.

Ban: But those reforms might not be sufficient to satisfy even the most 2 moderate nonwhite politicians. Many white liberals would agree that, as veteran MP Helen Suzman told Maclean’s, the repeal of those three acts “will be the touchstone of the Nationalists’ sincerity in saying that they want to end discrimination.” And for black leaders—from Oliver Tambo, the outlawed and exiled ANC president, on the left, to Buthelezi on the right—total repeal of the remaining apartheid laws is an essential precondition for negotiations with the Nationalists. So, too, is the release from detention and jail of all black activists—most notably the 70-year-old Nelson Mandela, who has been detained for 26 years. Black leaders are also unanimous in demanding the end of the state of emergency that gives the security forces draconian powers of arrest and detention and has effectively stifled the media. As well, the leaders demand the lifting of the 29-year-old ban on the ANC and removal of legal restrictions that have effectively paralysed other black organizations.

There is no firm evidence yet that the Nationalists are ready to meet those conditions. But analysts note that the party is showing signs of a new flexibility in many ways. Adriaan Vlok, minister of law and order, surprised many anti-apartheid activists late last month by his flexible handling of a mass hunger strike of detainees. Instead of force-feeding the prisoners and cracking down on the media for reporting the strike, as many had feared, he undertook a review, leading to the release of many of the 800 people still detained without trial.

Still, the government remains hesitant to end the state of emergency and repeal its remaining racial laws. Fear of a conservative backlash may be as much a cause of that attitude as a lingering attachment to the principles of apartheid. But as long as the government holds back, de Klerk’s call in his parliamentary speech for “a totally new South Africa” will sound hollow.