De Klerk Tries to Apply the Brakes

By , Robert I. Rotberg is president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

THE mills of progress grind slowly and sometimes hesitatingly in South Africa. Apartheid is ending, but the message of President Frederik de Klerk's opening speech to Parliament last week was decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, Mr. De Klerk, on behalf of his ruling National Party, correctly reminded his nation that since Nelson Mandela's release from 27 years of detention in 1990, South Africa had enjoyed "unprecedented and dynamic change." All South Africans, he said, had to "reconcile themselves once and for all" to permanent change.

But De Klerk also made it clear that the revolution had not come. Neither his party nor most whites were as yet prepared to accept the kinds of new structures that are preferred by the African National Congress.

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The ANC wants the present government and representatives of black political groups to establish a transitional authority capable of dismantling the remnants of apartheid and developing new constitutional and electoral mechanisms.

De Klerk, however, made it clear that he and his government are not prepared to stand down. He intends that any transitional authority would be subservient to parliamentary control and would have to submit proposed legislation to parliament for approval. "Government by decree," his understanding of the ANC proposal, was unacceptable.

Moreover, decisions during the transition would have to be made by broad consensus in order to prevent one group from dominating another - that is, to prevent the ANC from getting its way. He also declared more clearly than ever that there could be no progress in the negotiations unless there were "credible guarantees" to prevent domination.

The existing parliament will have to approve any constitutional amendments. And, as previously promised to suspicious and skeptical whites, any proposed changes must be approved through a referendum.

The need for a referendum would slow down constitutional development and create uncertainty. De Klerk additionally assured his listeners that each color group would have to approve changes separately. That is, each group would be able to veto whatever constitutional and transitional arrangements emerged from this year's ongoing negotiations between blacks and whites in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). That convention, he said, was an institution of no authority.

The president reiterated his commitment to a constitution that included a justiciable bill of fundamental rights. Within this bill he hopes to embed rights for minorities. Aware of experiences elsewhere in Africa, the government wants to find ways of cushioning the loss of white political and economic power.

HE National Party faces a tough by-election next month against the right-wing Conservative Party in the rural vastness of Potchestroom. That may explain De Klerk's unexpected statement about the self-determination of peoples. He hinted that he might even consider the possibility (within the new South Africa) of a white homeland. Yet homelands, 33-years-old in their modern, apartheid form, are an acknowledged anachronism for blacks.

Since the government this week cracked down on the extremist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, De Klerk's message must have been cynically received both by whites nostalgic for apartheid and by blacks.

While the ANC welcomed the arrest of prominent white resisters, they were outraged by the president's conscious slowing of the tempo of change. It is not expected that they will boycott the continuing sessions of CODESA, but their confidence in De Klerk has eroded.

He has now made it clear that the continuing negotiations for a stable and secure South Africa will be more arduous than may have been expected.

De Klerk does not intend to, nor could he, restore apartheid. He has himself chosen the road of progress and needs to maintain course toward an agreed-upon and fair transition. South Africa cannot prosper without permanent peace, and peace depends entirely upon a negotiated settlement in the near future.

The president holds the parliamentary keys, but only the ANC and the African majority can bestow legitimacy. The endgame of apartheid will have to be played with equal weight given to both black and white moves.

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