Unity-Builder in South Africa

Former politician has become a key mediator in his country's bitter ethnic and political drama. OSCAR DUMISANI DHLOMO

OSCAR DUMISANI DHLOMO is at the cutting edge of this country's striving for a national identity and a democratic order based on political tolerance and reconciliation.As founder and chairman of the recently established Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, he has set himself the awesome task of promoting an awareness of democratic values in a country torn apart by ethnic and racial divisions. A political power-struggle threatens to derail a tentative inter-racial dialogue. "While it is a certainty that South Africa is undergoing a process of political transition, there is no certainty that this transition will result in democracy," said Dr. Dhlomo (he has a doctorate in education) in a recent interview in the Institute's headquartPHOTO: ers here. In the short space of 12 months, Dhlomo has made an astonishing transition from pivotal political player to one of the country's most sought-after mediators in the unfolding political drama. His role was recognized recently when the United States Agency for International Development gave $2 million to his Institute - the largest US grant to a nongovernmental organization in South Africa. In June 1990, Dhlomo summarily quit as secretary-general of the Zulu-based Inkatha movement: He had been Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's right-hand man. He resigned from Inkatha and the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, a semi-autonomous Pretoria-backed body that administers the fragmented Zulu tribal homeland in Natal province.

Time for family He also quit his key post as Minister of Education and Culture in the KwaZulu Cabinet. Despite rumors that he had had a showdown with the temperamental Chief Buthelezi, Dhlomo insisted blandly that he needed to devote more time to his family and other interests.eyboard} Whatever the personal differences between Dhlomo and Buthelezi, he still defends the Zulu chief against accusations that he is orchestrating the violence to further his own political ambitions. "I do not have any visible proof to show that Chief Buthelezi could have used such a barbaric method as violence to show that he is a force to reckon with," says Dhlomo. For the next six months he faded into the political background. But those who had come to know him as the acceptable face of the stridently pro-Zulu Inkatha movement knew that he would not disappear for long. After exhaustive talks with a wide spectrum of South Africans, Dhlomo emerged in January this year to launch the Institute at a well-attended function in one of Cape Town's plushest hotels. Dhlomo insists that the two essential prerequisites for a lasting democratic order are reconciliation and the fostering of an over-arching South Africanism. He is a passionate advocate of black unity and he sees no conflict between an inclusive, goal-oriented unity and a flourishing multi-party democracy. "I don't regard black unity as synonymous with uniformity," he told the Monitor, peering above his neat spectacles. "I am not talking about the kind of black unity that is exclusive, hostile, and inward-looking. That would be counterproductive in terms of achieving a culture of democracy. "What we need is to focus on common goals and achieve a unity of purpose about the future," he says. "Naturally, that will involve a variety of strategies and opinions. There must be an acceptance that people have the right to subscribe to different political beliefs without fear or hindrance." Dhlomo is an urbane man who appears to have integrated the skills of politician, academic, and diplomat. "He has an avuncular charisma which is immediately attractive," says Prof. Mervyn Frost, a political scientist from Natal University at Durban who serves on the Institute's 35-member board of trustees. "He has an uncanny ability to listen to all sides, identify the positive in each argument, and then present a total picture which makes everyone feel good - and he gets what he wants," Professor Frost continues. "Although he is a politician to his fingertips, he avoids rhetoric and is an excellent listener." The Institute intends to run democratic leadership courses for politicians. "Democratization demands that South Africans must unlearn all the political experiences of past decades," says Dhlomo, "and begin to build a democratic state on the basis of a common nationhood."

A key bridge-builder In a special issue of the prestigious magazine Leadership, Dhlomo was recently singled out as one of four key bridge-builders in South Africa. (The other three were Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former liberal opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, and Prof. Hendrik van der Merwe of the Centre for Intergroup Studies at Cape Town University.) Political scientist David Welsh, professor of southern African studies and Cape Town, says it was legitimate to ask whether Dhlomo's long association with the controversial Inkatha movement - it has since become the Inkatha Freedom Party - disqualified him from being a credible bridge-builder. "Dhlomo's qualities of wisdom, patience, and evident negotiating skills far outweigh the drawbacks that past political connections may cause," says Professor Welsh. "He has the capacity to inspire trust, and - even in the short time since his withdrawal from politics - his quiet role and gentle dignity have made an impression over a wide part of the political spectrum."

Sought-after speaker Since the Institute was launched in January, Dhlomo has re-emerged as a central player on the the South African stage. He played a key role in preparing the ground for the January 29 summit between Chief Buthelezi and ANC deputy President Nelson Mandela. He writes a weekly column in the major English-language Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Times, and is a sought-after speaker at conferences dealing with transition, peace, and the shape of the post-apartheid South Africa. Dhlomo says it is vital to involve the black community in joint management of the security forces during the political transition. He also says the ANC has made fundamental errors since it was legalized 17 months ago. "For many blacks, the ANC projects an image of an ethnic organization whose leaders speak only English and look down on the traditional practices and culture of the black man," he says. "So far the government has completely outmaneuvered the ANC in negotiations," he continues. Dhlomo's commitment to his mission was demonstrated recently when he turned down an approach from government to be South Africa's ambassador to the United States. In academic and political circles, Dhlomo is seen as an obvious candidate to co-chair the constitutional negotiations that are expected to get underway before the end of the year. "Men of his caliber have a crucial role to play in building a democratic tradition," says one Western diplomat. "Having shed his party political label, he has acquired a broad credibility throughout the society." One of the tasks of the Institute will be to promote new national symbols - a new South African flag, national anthem, and national holidays. "We are starting from a position where we have nothing in common except our humanity," says Dhlomo. "There is no recorded history of South Africans living and governing together since the country was founded."

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