A New South Africa Takes Its First Steps

The Parliament that built apartheid has some new tenants, and they might change the decor

THIS scenic port town at the foot of majestic Table Mountain, which for more than 80 years has symbolized the legislative authority of white minority rule, will never be quite the same again.

On Dec. 7, a multiracial commission consisting of 19 parties gathered in a small chamber adjoining the parliamentary complex and gave South Africa's black majority the first formal say in government in the country's 350-year history. For the first time, officials of the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid groups took their seats in an organ of power that alone can bestow legitimacy on government decisions until the country's first nonracial election in April next year.

It marked the moment at which the white-dominated Parliament became a lame duck - still needed to bestow legal authority on multiparty decisions but unable to change them.

It was a moment loaded with symbolism for black South Africans who have fought for their rights since Britain handed independence to the Union of South Africa in 1910 without resolving the crucial issue of black political rights.

Talking to reporters before the first sitting, ANC chief negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa appeared uncomfortable with the symbolism of his new surroundings. ``Our entrance here means that we have disinfected this chamber of the bad odors,'' said Mr. Ramaphosa in a reference to the legacy of apartheid.

Inside the chamber, South African Communist Party chairman Joe Slovo - for decades the bete noire of the apartheid regime - captured the incongruity of the occasion: ``It's a poetic irony that we are sitting here in a chamber that was built to prop up apartheid as we begin the task of destroying the pillars of apartheid,'' he said.

The ornate gray-and-pink chamber had been used since its refurbishing in the late 1980s as the meeting place for the President's Council. The council, an advisory body made up of white, Indian, and mixed-race or ``colored'' legislators, was part of a system instituted in 1984 - known as the tricameral Parliament - that sought in vain to stem the growing clamor for majority rule by co-opting racial minorities into government.

Following the multiparty accord on an interim constitution on Nov. 18, chief government negotiator Roelf Meyer took Ramaphosa on a guided tour of the green-carpeted and wood-paneled Parliament chamber with its huge paintings of former white leaders and overpowering portraits of successive apartheid Cabinets. They spoke about changes to the decor and which paintings could stay, which should go.

At the time of Union in 1910, the Boer (Afrikaner)-dominated Transvaal province and more liberal Cape could not agree on the seat of government, so they settled for an awkward compromise: Pretoria as the administrative seat of government, Cape Town as the legislative capital. This has meant an annual shuttle of government officials, diplomats, and journalists from Pretoria to the Cape for what is usually a six-month session of Parliament from January to June. The logistics are awesome: Tons of documents and official paraphernalia must be transported. Housing must be provided for legislators and schools for their children.

Foreign diplomats, who often complained about the disruptive shuttle, nevertheless grew to look forward to Cape Town with its scenic beauty, easy lifestyle, and manageable workload.

Addressing diplomats last week, Mr. Meyer said the transitional government would have to address whether it is time to merge the capitals. He did not venture to suggest whether the new seat of government would be Cape Town or Pretoria. But the mood at the parliamentary complex is reflective and downbeat.

``It's the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,'' says one white legislator who will not be returning. ``Perhaps, it's not such a bad idea to move Parliament to the seat of administrative government in Pretoria. But I wonder whether the north-south divide will be any easier to resolve now than it was in 1910.''

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