Back on Track in South Africa

By , Robert I. Rotberg, president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., frequently writes on African affairs.

AFTER months of distrust and wrangling, the African National Congress (ANC) and the ruling National Party of South Africa are preparing to put their disturbed and violent country back on a hopeful course.

Although it is midsummer and holiday time in South Africa, when nearly all political activity ceases, the ANC and the National Party have pledged to continue meeting in a series of joint committees.

The work of the committees is meant to clear away the remaining conceptual and procedural obstacles to new constitutional arrangements satisfactory to both the ANC and to whites.

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In late January, leaders of the ANC and the National Party will meet in secret, as they did in early December, and prepare the way first for further multiparty talks about how South Africa's future will be arranged and, second, for multiracial constituent assembly elections in 1993.

The government's main concession has been to consider moving those elections up from 1994. Furthermore, President Frederik de Klerk and his Cabinet colleagues have promised ANC leader Nelson Mandela and others that the government will redouble its efforts to reduce the country's continuing cascade of random killings.

In an important move in late December, Mr. De Klerk dismissed a number of senior military officers who were suspected of undermining his detente with the ANC.

De Klerk has also assured the ANC that his party's alliance of convenience with KwaZulu Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party has ended. Both the ANC and the government now agree that Chief Buthelezi's recent unilateral declaration of autonomy for KwaZulu and the Province of Natal (which surrounds KwaZulu) was harmful to the democratic development of a unified South Africa.

De Klerk and his associates long have favored a federal arrangement for a future South Africa, but they regard Buthelezi's preemptive move as dangerously fissiparous.

De Klerk and other white officials now recognize how harmful to progress the violence between the ANC and Inkatha has been, even though elements of the government are accused of helping to foment that violence.

The economy of South Africa has suffered seriously because of violence and continued political uncertainty. The likelihood that South Africa faces another year or more of economic decline, not growth, has concentrated the minds of all responsible South Africans. After six years of minimal growth, the country's once robust economy can hardly endure more stagflation, capital flight, and instability.

In December, too, surprise attacks by the Azanian People's Liberation Army on whites and blacks in the eastern Cape Province (near King Williams Town and Queenstown) alarmed both the government and the ANC, as well as whites generally. The closing of the ranks of the ANC and the government was a natural next step, with both former antagonists wishing to move South Africa along to a constitutional future before the Azanian and Inkatha fringe groups disrupt the country (and economic growth) further.

The Azanian Army is a militant offshoot of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a black political grouping with a following very much smaller than that of the ANC. It has long opposed negotiations with the government. In the early 1960s, also in the Queenstown area near the Transkei, a movement allied with the Pan-Africanist Congress conducted a campaign of random violence until the government jailed its leaders.

Given these polarizing forces of violence, both the ANC and the government have decided that a marriage of convenience would assist the country's peaceful transition to the multiracial rule that both want, if in different degrees. The ANC has at last accepted that a new transitional government of unity will never come about without a comparatively strong National Party partner. Likewise, the government now views the ANC as a responsible group untainted by the ideological and violent approaches of the Aza nians or Inkatha.

Six months ago, such reasonableness on the parts of both negotiating partners was conspicuously absent. But the passage of time and clear threats to the aspirations of both those who hold on to power, precariously, and those who want it but worry that it may slip from their grasp, have renewed the promise of constitutional progress in South Africa.

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