Black hopes, white fears: a balancing act

PRESIDENT Nelson Mandela sat motionless as the young senator from the African National Congress warned of the growing perception among the party rank and file that their leader was forgetting his constituents in the pursuit of national reconciliation.

``My comrade has now warned me that there is an element of truth in the saying that I have neglected our people and am concentrating on the whites,'' Mr. Mandela replied. ``I appreciate the spirit in which this has been said because people are angry, impatient, and they have suffered for centuries and are still suffering today.''

The exchange, which took place in the red-leather-upholstered Senate during the Sept. 14 debate on the president's budget vote, captured the central dilemma facing South Africa's first black-led government: how to balance black expectations with white fears.

Given the potential for conflict and even civil war, the first stage of South Africa's transition to democracy has been remarkable in several respects.

Reconciliation and national unity have taken hold to a degree unimaginable even five months ago. The government has rapidly embraced the new economic ground rules: fiscal discipline, free enterprise, and economic growth as the engine for development.

Despite some rumblings in government quarters about the newsmedia, a robust and vigorous debate is raging about the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), and the new provinces are demanding their share of power from the central government.

``If one considers that the Government of National Unity [GNU] has been in power for only four months, what has happened in this country is indeed a miracle,'' Mandela said in the Senate debate.

But severe problems lie ahead and the future fault lines are already visible.

Learning the new game

Liberation leaders thrust into governing the country with a white-led civil service are groping to get a handle on the levers of policy formulation and political power.

Four decades of applying apartheid laws have undermined respect for the rule of law throughout the population. A culture of entitlement that evolved in the anti-apartheid resistance is proving difficult to reverse.

The government is battling escalating crime with a police force that was once responsible for implementing apartheid and has yet to establish its legitimacy among the majority of the population.

Residents in the black townships, accustomed to more than a decade of rent boycotts, are reluctant to resume paying rents and service charges; frustrated squatter communities have begun occupying land illegally, and frustrated activists have taken ANC officials hostage to highlight their grievances.

A restive work force - well-organized in a powerful trade-union movement - has turned up the pressure for higher wages and better working conditions while the majority of the blacks remain unemployed.

A rapidly growing inflow of illegal immigrants from impoverished neighboring nations has also intensified the scramble for jobs. The need to reserve employment opportunities for black South Africans is frustrating the government's plan to create a regional trade bloc, which demands the dismantling of trade and immigration barriers.

In a Sept. 8 Monitor interview, Mandela conceded that the success of the fledgling government depended on its capacity to improve the lives of the black majority who suffered under apartheid. ``I don't have any fears that we will lose control of the process,'' he said.

``Once we are able to deliver through the RDP, I think we will enjoy the support of the people.

``But without suppressing crime, it is going to be very difficult for us to create the environment whereby the RDP can succeed.'' He added that he favored an increase in the numbers and pay of the police force.

In the Senate exchange with Mandela, Sen. Bulelani Ngcuka spoke of rank-and-file rumblings about the number of white appointments to senior positions. It was the most forthright criticism of Mandela's leadership that has emanated from the all-race Parliament.

``The government of national unity will stand or fall on the basis of delivery in regard to the ... Reconstruction and Development Program,'' Mandela said in the Senate debate.

``But I would ask the honorable senators to have the necessary patience,'' he said. ``To address the basic needs of a community is not something that can be done overnight. It is a process that will take a year, two, or even as much as five years to achieve.''

Mandela had delivered a similar message when he addressed restive trade unionists at their triannual conference on Sept. 7. A spate of strikes had presented the first major challenge to his leadership.

Mandela, a master at combining praise and admonition, defused the challenge even as his ministers drove home an uncompromising message that less militancy, more productivity, and wage restraint were necessary to attract foreign investment to stimulate the creation of jobs for the country's roughly 5 million unemployed.

Mandela has also delivered an unambiguous message to his followers that political hostage-taking - as has occurred on several occasions recently - will not be tolerated.

Search for unity

Since his inauguration on May 10, Mandela has directed most of his energy toward achieving national unity and reconciliation - with some dramatic results.

Nowhere has his priorities been clearer than in his handling of a flare-up in the power-struggle between rival Zulu factions loyal to his African National Congress (ANC), on the one hand, and the Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Home Affairs Minister Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, on the other hand.

By bowing to demands from Chief Buthelezi that he reverse his decision to attend the traditional Zulu festivities known as Shaka Day on Sept. 24, Mandela made it clear that he puts the unity of the government above an essentially regional power struggle in KwaZulu/Natal Province.

Meanwhile, white right-wing violence, which at one stage threatened to disrupt and even wreck the democracy process, has all but disappeared because of two key events that enabled the forces of change to triumph over the apartheid legacy.

The first was a pact between the ANC and the military that ensured that the military and the civil service would remain largely intact for the five-year term of the government of national unity.

The second factor was the extraordinary role of former South African Defense Force leader Gen. Constand Viljoen, who persuaded the majority of Afrikaners to follow the constitutional path rather than insurrection.

In the Monitor interview, Mandela acknowledged General Viljoen's role: ``General Viljoen has been remarkable.... His action emasculated the bad elements in the right wing.''

In a subsequent interview this month, Viljoen agreed with Mandela's assessment: ``There is no doubt that we did prevent a war. But I did not disrupt right-wing unity for anything but the saving of our people.''

The contact between Mandela and Viljoen, the subsequent talks, and the agreement on a forum to discuss an Afrikaner homeland after the election turned the tide away from rejectionism and conflict toward negotiation.

``The trust that developed between the ANC and the Freedom Front [a right-wing political party founded by Viljoen to contest the election] is what saved the country,'' Viljoen said.

``We had the choice to disrupt the election or accept the hand of friendship offered, not by [former state President Frederik] de Klerk, but by the ANC.

Three deciding factors

``There were three factors that made me decide that it would be unwise to wage war,'' he says. ``The first was that I was always convinced that change was necessary. What I was opposed to was the way in which the National Party effected change.

``The second was that to disrupt the election would have gone against the grain of the whole world. Militarily, we could have seized a Volkstaat [Afrikaner homeland], but we would only have been able to last two or three weeks because we would have been cut off and isolated by the whole world.

``Thirdly, I had to take into account that a large part of Afrikanerdom - about 50 percent - did not want to wage another war.

``So,'' he concludes, ``it was not my intention to divide the right [wing] to save the country. The right divided themselves because they would not take my advice that it would be suicide to wage war.''

In recent months, Viljoen has continued to play a vital role in identifying friction points between Afrikaners and the new government - particularly the redistribution of farmland, the status of the Afrikaans language in schools, and the form of the proposed Truth Commission, which will indemnify officials who committed political crimes and compensate victims.

Another encouraging development since the election has been the increasing tension that has developed between the central government and the nine new provinces over their political and fiscal powers.

``During the election campaign Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was always seen as the main advocate of a federal devolution of power,'' says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at Natal University, speaking of the Inkatha leader. ``Now the impetus for a more federal system is coming from the ANC's own provincial premiers,'' he says, adding that this was an example of how the government was developing its own momentum for change.

Social blueprint

There is less visible progress with implementation of the much-vaunted Reconstruction and Development Program - an evolving blueprint for addressing the socioeconomic needs of a deprived black majority after decades of apartheid.

Western ambassadors say that funds contributed by foreign governments to the RDP have not been utilized and complain that there appears to be a logjam in the workings of the government.

``Critics should be more sympathetic to the initial needs of newcomers to the system of parliamentary democracy to find their feet, adapt, and get settled,'' Deputy President De Klerk told the Monitor in a recent interview. ``What we have been through is not just a change of government, but a fundamental change of an entire system.'' De Klerk was hopeful that the publication of the government-policy document on the RDP on Sept. 22 would herald a new era. ``When we talk about the RDP, we are talking about a new policy framework that encompasses 80 percent of all important issues,'' he says.

But there is mounting member criticism that the ANC leadership has slipped too comfortably into the shoes of their predecessors. Critics say the ANC officials have accepted large salaries and benefits without showing tangible proof of their commitment to uplift all black South Africans.

The next major political event will be local government elections scheduled for some time next year.

It is here that the government will confront expectations and dissent from the grass roots, which has experienced few material benefits from the transition to democracy.

``There has been a spectacular change at the national level where the government - for the present at least - enjoys a high degree of legitimacy among the population as a whole,'' says analyst Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. ``But there is an unresolved crisis of legitimacy at local level where resistance politics is still the order of the day.''

Mr. Slabbert says there are encouraging signs that the government is getting tough with mass action - such as rent boycotts, political hostage-taking, and the illegal occupation of land. ``They will have to be tough - not for the sake of being tough - but to ensure that the RDP can be effectively implemented,'' he says.

To keep perspective in South Africa one has only to look back at the dark cloud of apocalyptic confrontation that hung over the country before the elections in April this year.

``It is a miracle that we are sitting together today exchanging views to find a common consensus on the major national questions which had split us from top to bottom,'' Mandela told the Senate on

Sept. 14.

A miracle indeed.

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