S. African General Strike Seen as Black Referendum
SEBOKENG, SOUTH AFRICA — THE two-day work strike in support of political demands by the African National Congress (ANC), heeded by millions of black workers nationwide, has raised hopes in diplomatic circles of an early return to negotiations over an interim government.
"I believe yesterday's [Aug. 4] results were a demonstration of the success of the ANC," said United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen. "[The mass action] might contribute to a solution if it gives a mandate to the ANC leadership to continue negotiations," Mr. Cohen told reporters during a two-day visit to South Africa.
The two-day general strike appears to have done just that. Leaders of the anti-apartheid alliance between the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Communist Party proclaimed the protest a "resounding success."
They said the response showed overwhelming support for the ANC's peace and democracy campaign, bolstering the ANC's position as the major political representative of black South Africans.
Cohen, who met President Frederik de Klerk Aug. 3 and ANC President Nelson Mandela and the Inkatha Freedom Party's (IFP) Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi Aug. 4, said he was hopeful that the parties now were committed to restarting negotiations.
He said a return to the negotiating table was more urgent than ever because the situation in South Africa was "not only stagnating but going backward."
Cohen cited the drought and negative economic growth and a lack of local and foreign investor confidence as evidence of the deterioration. He said that the private sector, as a percentage of the economy, was shrinking while the public-sector share was rising.
He added, however, that the government needed to do more than it had thus far to contain political violence, and that black leaders needed to do more to promote internal reconciliation.
"The partial ban on dangerous weapons should be followed up by a total ban ... and there needs to be a follow-up on government promises regarding the men-only hostels," he said, referring to the townships' volatile worker dorms.
Cohen said he had urged government officials to carry out a "reconfiguration and retraining" of the police force and create greater separation between prosecutors and government. He said officials were receptive to both suggestions.
Cohen also inquired about the condition of two journalists shot in Sebokeng township Aug. 3 when their automobile was stolen by a unidentified gunmen.
Paul Taylor, South Africa correspondent for the Washington Post, and Phillip van Niekerk, a South African journalist for the Weekly Mail, Toronto Globe and Mail, and Boston Globe, were in stable condition Aug. 4.
Mr. Mandela was expected to lead a protest march to the administrative headquarters of government in Pretoria Aug. 5 to present a list of demands and address demonstrators outside President De Klerk's office.
The government edged further toward meeting the ANC's conditions Aug. 4 by declaring a ban on all dangerous weapons in 20 declared "unrest areas" nationwide.
But the government has not responded to ANC demands that it act against senior security-force members who have been identified in media reports as architects of a clandestine campaign to eliminate anti-apartheid activists.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission, a group that monitors state repression, has warned that the declaration of 20 townships around Johannesburg as unrest areas amounted to an attempt by the state to introduce a back-door national emergency.
"It is a state of emergency by stealth and achieves much the same purpose," the Commission said. "It should be condemned and rejected as a violation of human rights."
In the run-up to the strike, the ANC warned that intimidation and violence from within its ranks would not be tolerated.
For the first time, political parties agreed to a church-brokered code of conduct governing the actions of political groups, employers, and the authorities during the strike. The 14 points of the code underscored freedom of choice and the right of noninterference.
But the ANC sharply criticized the government's decision to deploy about 5,000 police in strife-torn black townships prior to the strike as an act of intimidation.
As the strike began, a team of United Nations observers, led by UN political official Hisham Omayad, spread out across the country Aug. 3. The UN team, the first to monitor a political protest in South Africa, filed daily reports to a head office in Johannesburg staffed by the multiparty National Peace Committee.
In one potentially explosive situation in Boipatong, UN observers intervened between the community and security forces to facilitate a march to the local police station.
The ANC alliance claimed that 4 million black workers nationwide stayed away from work; the South African Chamber of Business, the main representative of organized business, put that figure at 2 million.
The ANC's three major rivals - the Zulu-based IFP, the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the Azanian Peoples Organization - opposed the strike.
Business leaders did not dispute that the strike was one of the biggest in the country's history. But they said the strike's impact on the country's ailing economy had been cushioned by agreements between workers and employers to offset production loses by making up lost labor hours.
(The financial daily Business Day reported Aug. 3 that Mandela had contacted 30 leading businessmen before the strike to suggest he might seek an early return to talks provided there were no mass dismissals of workers.)
Relieved government officials conceded Aug. 4 that the strike had been relatively peaceful and police reported sporadic incidents of intimidation and conflict.