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


Avoid S. Africa Chaos - Restrain Buthelezi

By Robert I. Rotberg. Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in CambridgeMass. / October 20, 1993



VIOLENCE threatens to spoil South Africa's hard won transition to democracy and delay next year's elections. Unambiguous actions by the government and the new multiracial, multiparty Transitional Executive Council (TEC), including the deployment of military force in the troubled black townships, are essential. The government and the TEC need to discipline troublemakers, especially Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Skip to next paragraph

Some 9,000 South Africans, nearly all black, have been killed in the three years since Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Those killings, more than 100 a week, are due to vicious antagonism between the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress (ANC) in and around the cities of Natal and urban Johannesburg.

Inkatha is led by Chief Buthelezi, whose personal and party rivalry with Mr. Mandela and the ANC is at the heart of South Africa's internal conflict.

Buthelezi and the Zulus want either a major slice of the national political pie or autonomy in their home province of Natal. Their proximity to the violence has made Buthelezi and Inkatha more critical to the negotiating process than might have been expected of a regional party. But they have been denied hegemony in Natal and, if Buthelezi can no longer hope to play a significant political role nationally, he at least wants to dominate his home area.

Natal is the home base of Zulu-speakers, South Africa's largest ethnic group (9 million out of nearly 40 million). The Zulu also work as migrant laborers on and near the mines and industries surrounding Johannesburg.

A year ago Buthelezi and President Frederik de Klerk were informally aligned. At one point Mr. De Klerk's government helped fund Inkatha and some of its security forces may have supplied Inkatha with destructive arms. More recently, De Klerk realized that the enduring peace and prosperity of South Africa depended upon cutting a realistic deal with Mandela and the ANC.

At a personal and tactical level Buthelezi has always been a spoiler. De Klerk's white National Party collaborated with Inkatha on that basis, and with the hope of slowing down the pace of change in South Africa.

Now, however, the ANC and the National Party are partners (along with 23 other minor white and black political groups) in the TEC, which has been created to manage South Africa's transition from apartheid to majority rule. Inkatha refuses to take part in the TEC, but that may soon change.

Sustaining the peace effectively is impossible without both securing the details of its implementation and establishing oversight bodies for election, fair play by the media, and security issues. But eliminating internecine Inkatha-ANC violence is even more important.

Rising death tolls will obviously inhibit organizing, mobilizing, and campaigning for the elections, now scheduled for April. Turmoil helps Inkatha as well as those groups of the white right who are opposed to majority rule. It also strengthens those who still hope to undercut the political predominance of the ANC.

The ANC has moved to defuse hardline whites by talking to paramilitary groups like the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and the Afrikaner Volksfront. But it and the government hardly know what to do with Buthelezi. Do they try to co-opt him - or declare him a chief disturber of the peace?

To do the latter takes the sides of the ANC. But that is precisely what the government (now allied with the ANC through the TEC) must do.

The alternative is chaos. The army, not just the police, must be sent into the townships in order to separate the ANC and Inkatha, and impose a peace. De Klerk needs to assure himself that elements among the local security forces do not once again, as has been suspected, work covertly with Inkatha.

Absent a containment of Inkatha, and a strong public reprimand of Buthelezi, South Africa's hard-won transition may easily be undermined and its carefully, painfully, constructed interim constitution and transitional arrangements be disrupted. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.