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THE WORLD FROM... Pretoria

Unrepentant South African foreign minister learns timely lesson in what democratic accountability means

By John Battersby / July 30, 1991



GOVERNMENT officials - back in the chillier climes of this lofty administrative capital after the annual move from the legislative capital in Cape Town - are slightly less sure-footed as they await President Frederik de Klerk's response today to the secret funding scandal.Since the scandal broke 10 days ago, Western diplomats have been treading a well-worn path to the Union Buildings, which house the Foreign Ministry, to hear assurances that the rules of the negotiating game have not changed. Perhaps the most telling sign that the government is losing its confidence was a telephone call Foreign Minister Roelof "Pik" Botha made to African National Congress President Nelson Mandela on July 23, while Mr. Mandela was on a visit to Spain. During the conversation Mr. Botha raised the funding scandal to gauge the ANC's mood and how it was likely to respond. Mandela said that it was not the kind of issue to discuss on the telephone, and said he would deal with it when he returned. The exchange reflects how the balance of power at the negotiating table has shifted because of disclosures that Pretoria secretly financed the Inkatha Freedom Party, and its trade union, after the ANC was legalized last year. Regardless of Mr. De Klerk's expected assurances about future control of government funds and the immediate ending of secret funding of political allies, it is doubtful the government will regain support for its claim that it should retain control during the transition to majority r ule. The view that the government can no longer manage the transition alone is now far more persuasive than it was two weeks ago. Watching Botha in a televised interview on July 25 was like being back in the "old South Africa," as though the only thing that mattered was to convince the voters that you were still a nice guy. "I have full faith in the judgment of major responsible governments throughout the world that they will not be deflected ... that their attention will not be distracted because not a single one of the substantial issues has been affected," he said. The following day, Friday, July 26, Foreign Affairs Director-General Neil van Heerden had to do another round of Western nerve-calming in the Union Buildings. "What Pik forgot was that the rules of the game have in fact changed," said a Western diplomat. "Pretoria can no longer rely solely on convincing the white electorate, but must also win the support of the majority of South Africans and the international community. It was a timely lesson in what democratic accountability really means." Displaying a new level of sophistication, the leadership of the ANC has been restrained in its response, apparently content to watch Pretoria squirm while carefully planning its next move. Western diplomats have been encouraged by Pretoria's apparent concern about its international prestige. "This gives foreign governments real leverage," says a US diplomat. "It weakens their resistance to some form of international mediation." South Africa's trading partners still have enough sanctions in place to exercise considerable leverage on that score. The government is calculating that - when it comes to a negotiated settlement - the ruling National Party is the only game in town. But Botha appears to have taken too much for granted. "Some people seem to forget - now that the summer is approaching - how cold the winter was and who did what to make it possible for the country to survive that winter," Botha said to drive home the government's role in countering sanctions. "Mr. Botha's problem is that he seems to have forgotten who was responsible for causing the winter in the first place," said a Western diplomat.

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