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Pretoria's Need for `Loyal Natives'

Using black collaborators against freedom seekers has a long history in South Africa

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TRAVELING in South Africa some months ago, I came across a relic of 19th-century colonial days that was an apt symbol for much that is going on in that troubled country. It was a stone monument in the town of Pietermaritzburg, erected in memory of soldiers who died ``suppressing the rebellion of the Hlubi tribe'' in 1873. Under a flowery inscription were several very British names, and then, at the bottom, ``also Elijah Kambule and Katana, loyal natives.'' The last two words are the key. South Africa's whites have always been only a small minority of the population, a mere 13 percent today. The problem they have always faced is how, with such small numbers, to dominate everybody else. A key strategy has been to use ``loyal natives'' - blacks pressed into service to suppress or outflank black revolts, whether by the Hlubi tribe in 1873 or by the African National Congress and its allies today.

One factor behind South Africa's present crisis is that two of the government's most recent attempts to create ``loyal natives,'' have been embarrassing failures. In the early 1980s, South Africa set up special houses of parliament for Indians and Coloreds (people of mixed race), to try to split these communities off from the country's African majority. It didn't work: Fewer than 20 percent of Coloreds and Indians now bother to vote. Their parliamentarians are so despised as collaborators that many have to live in special compounds protected by barbed wire.

Another disastrous experiment has been the Bantustans or ``homelands'' - desolate, overcrowded rural slums into which roughly half the country's African population has been crammed, sometimes by force. These unhappy pseudo-states have failed to win the allegiance of most people who live in them, except for a caste of well-paid governing officials often living behind more of those barbed-wire fences. In the last year or two, a number of these rulers have been ousted by popular revolts, and eight of the 10 homelands now have leaders sympathetic to the ANC.

Today, Pretoria needs ``loyal natives'' more urgently than ever. If the government can persuade the United States and Europe that blacks are supporting it, it can get economic sanctions lifted or lightened. What better way to do this than by installing a few black faces in prominent positions? Two months ago, Pretoria offered the post of South African ambassador to the US to Oscar Dhlomo, a prominent conservative Zulu politician. He turned the job down, but the government gained public-relations credit by leaking news of the offer. For similar reasons, it has already appointed several Colored and Indian ambassadors.

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