White Vigilantism Stalks South Africa

RECENT events in South Africa have raised hopes that the new de Klerk government will move not just to reform apartheid, but actually to begin preparations to dismantle it. Tolerance of peaceful protests and the recent release of significant political prisoners has raised the possibility that the new government may be moving toward creating a climate for negotiations with black leaders in that country. While the government's actions are giving new hope to the black majority, a small number of whites are increasingly pursuing their political views outside of the parliamentary process. For example, white liberals, such as the former leader of the Progressive Federal Party, Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, are not waiting for the government to come to the negotiating table. Mr. Van Zyl Slabbert has already organized visits to Zambia for prominent white South Africans to meet with members of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) in order to discuss the broad outlines of a post-apartheid South Africa.

Michael Oliver, founder of the Five Freedoms, has adapted the idea for the white business community and has taken businessmen to Lusaka to meet with the ANC. According to Oliver, the ANC is somewhat naive about international economics, but very anxious to learn. Both Van Zyl Slabbert and Oliver claim these trips are helping demystify the ANC for white South Africans.

But extraparliamentary actions are not confined to liberal whites. On the right, there is a disturbing trend toward white vigilantism inside South Africa.

During this decade there have been more than 60 political assassinations in the country. A fanatical right-wing group calling itself the ``White Wolves'' has taken credit for many of these violent acts.

In the past, the South African government has highlighted black-on-black violence and used it to propagandize the view that blacks cannot unite under one government and are prone to irrational violence.

The White Wolves have shown that ``white-on-white'' violence, though not publicized, is also part of the South African scene. For example, the White Wolves claimed credit for the assassination of David Webster, a white activist, in May, and they are believed to have been behind the August assassination attempt on Mark Beyer, a white anti-apartheid activist at Stellenbosch University. They also claim responsibility for the killing of Anton Lubowski, a white Namibian who was prominent in the Southwest Africa People's Organization.

In many of the assassinations, the White Wolves have had good intelligence on the whereabouts and movements of their victims - leading some to speculate that the information is being provided either unofficially by the South African police or by renegade officers in the security branch.

It is disturbing that of the more than 60 political assassinations, there has been only one conviction. It seems clear that either the government has not given these cases a high priority, or they have its tacit approval. This is an especially cynical approach, given that the South African government has claimed that it cannot ``unban'' the ANC because that organization espouses violence. For its part, the ANC has directed its violence by and large at ``soft targets'' and has not participated in political assassination.

Hopefully, the de Klerk government will move quickly to investigate, arrest, and convict White Wolves members who are are responsible for the assassinations. The problem it faces, of course, is that for so long the government itself has shown an extraordinary contempt for the rule of law. Everyone inside South Africa knows that the government has condoned the illegal torture of political prisoners by the security police. There is, sadly, no bill of rights in South Africa.

If Prime Minister de Klerk continues to move South Africa toward reform, he will increasingly come into conflict with the ``securocrats'' in his own country. And he can count on increasing vigilantism from the right.

The United States needs to maintain the pressure on South Africa, but simultaneously must recognize the tightrope de Klerk is walking.

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