Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


South Africa Enters Apartheid's Final Days

By Robert I. RotbergRobert I. Rotberg is president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. / January 31, 1991



SOUTH Africa is remaking itself. Apartheid is in its final stage, even if inequality lingers, and the precise form of shared power is as yet uncertain. President Frederik de Klerk tomorrow is expected to announce the repeal of two legislative pillars of apartheid. The Group Areas Act (which segregates cities) and the 1913 Natives Land Act (which prevents Africans from holding land or farming outside of segregated reserves) will be rescinded at last.

Skip to next paragraph

Opening parliament in Cape Town, Mr. De Klerk may also suspend the Population Registration Act, the very backbone of official apartheid. Doing so will deny officials the ability to discriminate legally and help bring about the lifting of United States sanctions.

Of equal importance, since nearly all South Africans understand that the 42-year long era of rigid segregation is over, De Klerk may boldly merge the structures of black and white local government. This is an essential step if black residents are to help control their own municipal services, and if rampant township violence is to be curbed.

The African townships have long been ungovernable. Affiliates of the African National Congress (ANC) have harassed black municipal leaders, calling them ``stooges'' of the state.

Black civic association militants have increasingly been seeking the kind of local-level results that the ANC, operating nationally, has not yet been in a position to provide. The local militants battled for freedom when the ANC was illegal and its leaders in exile. Now those who kept the struggle alive want power, and the white government (which for negotiating purposes needs a strong ANC) must help.

The ANC and the government, yoked together by their joint concern for South Africa's future, share concerns about the country's growing climate of violence. Ever since Nelson Mandela's release from prison a year ago, Africans have attacked Africans in order to enhance their political positions.

A recent massacre of blacks by blacks in Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg, was an act of criminal revenge. But it occurred in an area where ANC cadres and supporters of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party have been struggling bitterly for turf. Moreover, provocative elements within the white police force are suspected of fomenting violence between blacks and of using taxpayers' money to eliminate white and black antagonists of apartheid.

Despite these manifestations of a right-wing backlash against reform, a stagnating black educational system, and a growing distrust between young freedom fighters and senior ANC leaders, apartheid's end is irreversible.

De Klerk and his Cabinet affirm there is no turning back. Some in the Cabinet even say they comprise a true interim government, capable, even desirous, of passing power to blacks.

The discussions on how and when that transfer might take place will occur either in March or April at an all-party conference called by Mr. Mandela (in cooperation with De Klerk).

The conference will need to lay the ground rules for constitutional change. Ideally, blacks want full majority rule. But even whites who are prepared to accept change want a majority rule limited by minority vetoes.

The National Party is prepared to concede the presidency and important Cabinet posts to Africans, provided that whites control the ministries of defense and finance, and thus are able to support the decisions of an independent judiciary.

To avoid continuing economic decay and renewed waves of township violence, neither the government nor the ANC can delay negotiating in earnest.