With Apartheid Gone, What Do We Do Now?

In South Africa, some white leftists are happy bureaucrats, but others feel set adrift

A GROWING number of white leftists formerly involved in South Africa's underground anti-apartheid struggle are undergoing a malaise now that the African National Congress (ANC) and their hero, Nelson Mandela, are in power.

To be sure, many of the whites who made sacrifices in the form of solitary jail confinements, harassment by police, being exiled abroad, and enduring separation from loved ones are now glad to be walking the corridors of power. Many of the white activists who were rewarded with high positions in the new government that swept to power in the April 1994 elections are glad to be making policy rather than agitating - and happy to have normal lives.

But for others, pushing paper as bureaucrats is dull compared with covert political actions like gun-running. Affirmative action can sometimes make it difficult for white men to compete against black colleagues for jobs. And for those of a rebellious nature, being part of the new status quo is an uncomfortable strain.

White left-wing activists, who numbered in the thousands out of a white population of 5.5 million, range politically from liberals to socialists and communists. Now that the cause is won, many are thinking of leaving politics - or the country altogether.

Most ask not to be identified for publication; some had participated in illegal activities. ''For years I lived and breathed the struggle,'' said Stephen, a former ANC activist who served a jail sentence with other family members and was involved in grass-roots organizing.

Now he has gone to Britain to study politics and is not sure when he will return home. ''I want to focus on my own life now,'' he says.

Making the adjustment from rebel to bureaucrat has not be easy for one parliamentarian. After years of union organizing, his new life seems awfully structured. ''It's rather like being in school - set terms, set rules.'' Similar dissatisfaction was recounted by a civil servant who survived an assassination attempt while she was in exile as a member of the ANC's armed wing. Today, as an aide to a government minister, she is often stuck behind her desk. She waxes nostalgic about the days when excitement was an integral part of life.

For some, not struggling against the system has left a vacuum and caused the jealousy of former comrades who have been better rewarded in the new system.

There is the case of a health administrator who was passed over for several prominent positions in the Johannesburg area. A former member of the ANC's guerrilla wing, he lost friends, hid others from the police in his house, and risked prison. He blames his lack of success on affirmative action. Disillusioned, he contemplates going into the private sector.

The malaise extends to journalists and photographers who saw their work as part of the struggle for justice. Since the elections, one has committed suicide, several have turned to drugs, and others have left or are contemplating leaving the country because the story - and their raison d'etre - has changed. ''Life has lost its direction somewhat,'' says Mike, an ANC supporter turned radio journalist. ''Before, there was something to fight for, a cause. Now there's a sense of, 'So, now what?' '' He was preparing to go abroad for several months. Doing what? He wasn't sure.

But then of course there are many who are happy that the long fight is over. One erstwhile ANC security official who never used to leave home without a handgun, can now walk freely without worrying about evading the police. He is considering teaching or just drifting into quiet obscurity.

''I want to live an absolutely boring life,'' he says.

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