Whites stand firm despite S. Africa violence, isolation
Tzaneen, South Africa
No smiles. Eyes forward, shoulders back. Hands, clenched into fists, held tightly at the side. The singing is as resolute as the posture. It is loud -- and determined.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The tune is the South African national anthem. "Die Stem," and it is sung by a crowd of some 500 whites in a small high school gymnasium in this eastern Transvaal Province farming town at the end of a political rally of the ruling National Party.
Closing rallies with the national anthem is a tradition with the Nationalists here. The song has been heard hundreds of times over the past couple of months, as a prelude to general elections in this white-minority-ruled country.
Now comes the finale, when the 20 percent of the country that is white heads to the polls (on April 29) to choose 165 parliamentarians. The outcome is not in doubt; the Nationalists will be returned with a substantial majority, and Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha will be returned to office.
But the unambiguous outcome -- like the resoluteness of the singing -- may well mask a deeper uncertainty among white South Africans. For their country is facing rising internal violence and growing international isolation. And that, in turn, is sparking widening disagreement over the country's future direction.
The election, despite its expected lopsided endorsement of the ruling party, will mirror that disagreement. Voters will likely move to the right and left of the Nationalists -- or simply abstain. And most commentators are predicting the National Party victory margin will be slashed in a number of key constituencies.
On the left, the official opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP), which favors negotiating a new power-sharing arrangement with South Africa's black majority, may well increase its 18-seat bloc in Parliament.
On the right, the Reconstituted National Party (Herstigte Nasionale Party, or HNP) -- champions of strict racial segregation in all spheres of life -- could win its first one or two seats in Parliament.
Gains by either party, or a substantial staying away from the polls, will be interpreted as a repudiation of the policies of Prime Minister Botha. Mr. Botha has sparked right-wing resentment for merely talking about change in racial policies -- and has been slammed by liberal whites for doing nothing but talking.
Willem Kleynhans, professor of political science at the University of South Africa, says there has never been a prime minister in the history of the National Party so unpopular. Professor Kleynhans says this is evidenced by the low number of postal and absentee votes that have already been recorded -- and by the low turnout at numerous National Party rallies.
That trend was evident at the party rally here in Tzaneen. Although two of the party's top Cabinet ministers were on hand, the front rows of the Ben Vorster High School auditorium were empty. The previous night, one of the speakers, Minister of Defense Magnus Malan, had drawn only 39 listeners at a rally in his home constituency. On this particular night, General Malan was on hand to sound what has become the central theme of the National Party's campaign: the "total onslaught" against South Africa from outside the country.
The general warned that South Africa was the ultimate "objective" of world communism, because of its strategic position and its mineral wealth. The rest of the subcontinent had fallen to communism, he warned, not because of direct military action but because of political developments -- notably, the loss of white resolve.
That must not happen here, he warned. Whites should reject the PFP's policy of capitulation, he said, as well as the hard-line segregation advocated by the HNP. Both would lead to confrontation, said the general.
That highlights one of the ironies of this election. It is that the National Party, which came into power by appealing to right-wing white-supremacist sentiments and Afrikaner nationalism, now is trying to retain power by portraying itself as moderate, even centrist, in outlook.
It does this by preaching a blend of soothing reassurances that whites' interests are being safeguarded and dire warnings of a growing communist-inspired onslaught that can only be met by bettering the lot of black people.