Port Alfred formula -- talks

SOUTH Africa is awash with violence as blacks vent their fury at a white regime which continues to deny them political rights. Amid the tragedy, however, in one town local blacks and whites have come to terms. In this comparatively isolated instance, whites, succumbing to pressure, realized that Africans vastly outnumber them, consulted the future, and decided to negotiate with Africans. What whites have done at the exclusively local level -- to begin the process of bargaining in good faith -- is the intermediate objective for which Africans have been clamoring at the national level. If, and the if is very problematic, this example multiplies, it is just possible that the resolution of the larger questi on of South Africa may turn an essential corner.

Port Alfred is a small Indian Ocean harbor town between the major shipping metropolises of Port Elizabeth and East London. Like most small, white-dominated towns, it is dependent on African trade, labor, and goodwill.

Throughout the past year the African township that abuts Port Alfred was overcome with protest and riots. Its crisis was no different in such respect from most black townships in the volatile eastern Cape Province. Like few other townships, however, the Africans of Port Alfred decided that random militancy could accomplish little directly. So they organized a boycott of the white business establishment of Port Alfred.

The supermarkets and specialty shops of South Africa depend on black customers: Blacks have long shopped in white-owned stores, where prices have been less expensive and choices less limited than in the smaller ghetto stores.

What was unique in Port Alfred is that the boycott by Africans of the white commercial community led the whites to form an Employer's Federation. Its establishment was essential, for it enabled both whites and blacks bent on settling their differences to bypass the organized governmental authorities who, to Africans, represented the enemy.

The Employer's Federation decided that the way to save their own livelihood, and to end the boycott and rioting, was to talk to Africans. That simple decision relaxed a tense confrontation.

The secret of this successful endeavor is that the local whites rediscovered an obvious ``magic formula'' -- talking -- and that whites dealt with the ``real leaders'' of the Africans. The macrocosm -- the wider south Africa -- is waiting for the white government to adopt both aspects of this illuminating endeavor.

Talks between blacks and whites in Port Alfred ended the boycott and local peace and prosperity were resumed. In their talks, Africans presented 20 demands. The Employer's Federation promised to solve all the local problems and support the Africans in making their political demands to local and central governmental authorities. The employers explained that they would not and could not do anything about political issues over which they had no control, and Africans accepted their mutual powerlessness and their solidarity. Indeed, the response of the whites was put to a vote of 6,000 Africans in Port Alfred, and accepted.

Africans are boycotting black businesses in East London, and there have already been serious talks, but as yet no resolution, between whites and Africans there. Perhaps the success of Port Alfred will be copied.

Boycotts are also under way elsewhere in South Africa. But it is too early to tell whether these will have the kinds of results which occurred in Port Alfred.

Port Alfred stands alone for what it accomplished. What happened constitutes a ripple, if not a whirlpool, of conciliation through self interest and thus an example for South Africa. However, the coming together of white and black was so threatening to the police or the state that, late last month, the leader of the blacks was detained. The boycott was resumed, and the hopes of both whites and blacks in little Port Alfred have been deferred.

Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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