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Why Hope Survives in South Africa

Despite the break-off of talks, violence, and recriminations, a democratic future is the only reasonable option

SOUTH Africa is still heading, unexpectedly, toward majority rule and elections. That optimistic assessment holds despite the bitter friction of the last seven weeks between the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and the ruling white National Party (NP).

In May, June, and July, each of the major players in the South African drama loudly blamed the other for upsetting their six-month-long negotiations in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). President Nelson Mandela of the ANC and President Frederik de Klerk of South Africa virtually called each other a liar. Each believed he had been misled.

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The ANC, some of the younger and more militant members of which had long been wanting to flex their political muscles, decided to stage mock trials and mass demonstrations to show its disgust with minority rule and to put pressure on the state, the economy, and the white population.

The ANC's militant trade union ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) ordered a four-day national strike in August. That worried South Africa's largely white business community. Side bargaining took place in mid-July between representatives of big business and Cosatu. There was hope that South Africa would not be brought to its knees economically by a strike. Business leaders initially agreed to support a list of Cosatu's political and economic demands, and jointly to sponsor a single day's expression of anti-government solidarity on Aug. 3. But on July 22 the talks deadlocked, both sides claiming that unacceptable demands were being made.

Neither side can really afford a strike, and the country cannot afford further turmoil at a time when the worst drought in 30 years, a falling gold price, political uncertainty, and high population growth is resulting in negative economic growth rates. Moreover, inflation is running at about 15 percent a year and, for the first time in 60 years, there is white unemployment as well as massive black unemployment.

Blacks and whites know that there is no real alternative to continued negotiations. Both blacks and whites are trapped in the reality of today's South Africa. A return to apartheid is unthinkable, and unworkable for economic reasons. The indefinite stall, a possible white tactic, would be met by mass action, possible violence, and blows to investor and corporate confidence that would plunge South Africa more deeply into negative growth and disinvestment.

Both sides, encouraged by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's visit as a United Nations envoy, appreciate that talks have to be resumed, and soon. Face will somehow be saved.

But it won't be easy. Even with the abrupt conclusion of the CODESA II sessions in May, the government may not fully be ready to concede the majority rule and transitional arrangements favored by the ANC.

Indeed, the government had hoped to drag out negotiations and concede as little as possible. Militants in the ANC thought its leaders had given away too much. Shuffling on both sides is inevitable. The NP side now seems to embrace the black Inkatha Freedom Party of KwaZulu and the homeland parties of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana.

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Bringing the major sides closer together will be the task of Mr. Vance and persons of goodwill in South Africa. Here are the possible outlines of an eventual compromise:

1. South Africa would become a federation, including nine or 10 regions in place of the existing four provinces. All sides appear to agree that limiting the power of the central government and giving regions authority over schools, hospitals, roads, and so on would ease white fears and prevent a runaway ANC-dominated national state. Residual powers ("states' rights") would be exercised by the regions.

2. The regions would also elect members of an upper house or senate. That upper house could have concurrent authority with the lower house of the new, popularly elected parliament. The NP appears to have dropped its insistence on a minority veto in the senate, and on an undemocratic method of electing representatives to it. But those ideas may still resurface during the course of talks.

3. There would be an entrenched bill of rights. The bill of rights would include specific clauses protecting private property against nationalization and safeguarding religion, speech, and judicial independence. The entrenched provisions would be designed to quell white (and Zulu) worries.

4. There would be some kind of elected constituent assembly, chosen on straight proportional representation, to write the new constitution. Proportional representation at this stage and in the eventual lower house of parliament would, it is thought, ensure the representation of a variety of ethnic groups.

There seems to be an agreement on an interim executive composed of the heads of all of the major (and some minor) parties. Whether this (or almost anything else) is workable has yet to be tested in any effective way.

Little consensus, however, is evident on how long the transitional period would be and how and when it would end, especially if the assembly has not arrived at a final agreement. The ANC does not want the NP and its allies to procrastinate and thus defer majority rule for more than a year. Whites want at least a three-year interim period.

Precisely how the homelands are to be reintegrated, and how the military and the police will be led, and by whom, are critical unresolved issues. Taxing powers have been discussed little. Even the precise shape of the regions has been assumed without much discussion.

Loose governmental strands need to be gathered together and knitted into a comprehensive agreement. That is a cause for pessimism, given the growing antagonism between the NP and the ANC.

Then there is the atmosphere of violence that engulfs South Africa, and that may or may not involve provocative involvement by the police or military. Vance and United Nations monitors may be able to calm the roiled waters, or even pinpoint real blame.

Optimism comes from an appreciation of how much constitutional progress has already been made, the conceptual concessions and compromises that have occurred, and the mutual recognition that South Africa can only resume its march toward prosperity for all (now three years in abeyance) after a coming together of the ANC, the NP, and other groups across the country's political spectrum.

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