Right-wing forces threaten transition in South Africa VIOLENCE

December 09, 1990|By S.M. Khalid | S.M. Khalid,S. M. Khalid is a reporter for The Sun.

South Africa's precarious transition from a repressive, white-ruled government to a multiracial democracy is being buffetted by continuing political violence that now threatens negotiations toward power-sharing between black and white leaders.

Political violence has long been a hallmark of South Africa, where the government declared states of emergency and used a ruthlessly effective state security apparatus -- including the South African Defense Force, police and National Intelligence Service -- to quash political opposition both within and outside its borders.

But a troubling series of incidents since August has raised suspicions that the real threat to South Africa's future may well be from right-wing elements of the security establishment and a network of conservative black collaborators, both of whom stand to lose the considerable power they have amassed in the event of a democratic, representative future government.

Recent violence last weekend claimed at least 52 lives in four black townships near Johannesburg, leading to the declaration of a state of unrest. The renewed violence took place a few days after a meeting between Nelson Mandela and South African President F. W. de Klerk. Mr. Mandela's African National Congress attacked the new crackdown.

The ANC said the declaration resulted in "granting the very police responsible for the carnage even greater powers over the lives of our people."

Among other recent incidents:

* Scores of black commuters were killed or beaten two months ago by a marauding gang of hooded men on commuter trains to Soweto.

* Six blacks were killed and 27 injured when gunmen opened fire at a crowded bus stop in Durban's KwaMashu township. Three white men were later arrested, along with an arsenal of AK-47 rifles.

* ANC leader Jeff Wabhena was killed last month, shot by a hooded man who walked into an ANC branch meeting in Mdantsane.

* Job Sithole of the Human Rights Commission was gunned down near his home in Johannesburg's Alexandra township the same day.

These attacks have stood out because they do not fit the general pattern of so-called black-on-black violence, which had been largely confined to worker hostels and adjoining black townships, where migrant workers were pitted against community residents.

"The general reaction in the townships is that what seems to be happening is very orchestrated," said Gay McDougall, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "Hostel dwellers and residents are identifiable, pre-existing groups. What we've seen is totally random violence, very clear attempts to create terror, fear and hysteria."

During the past 30 years, successive white-ruled governments have dramatically increased the size of the armed forces and the police force from from 10,000 to 500,000, including citizen and commando forces.

The security establishment also gained a larger political say within the government during that time as well, especially when former justice minister B. John Vorster and former defense minister P. W. Botha succeeded to the country's highest political office.

The common political position of their governments toward the black majority was simple -- no power-sharing, no negotiations and more repression. The security establishment became a "rogue elephant," given carte blanche to prosecute the white-ruled government's war against the anti-apartheid movement.

That was supposed to change last year, when Mr. de Klerk succeeded Mr. Botha as National Party leader, then as president. He set the government on a new path, largely halting military destabilization of neighboring black-ruled states, ending a four-year state of emergency and shifting from a past reliance on military solutions toward political ones.

President de Klerk also disbanded the powerful and extensive ++ National Security Management System, which ruled the nation as a virtual armed camp during the state of emergency. He told top police officials to change the 40-year-old focus of their daily operations from prosecuting political offenses to criminal ones.

A new political era was formally ushered in with the lifting of bans on opposition groups, specifically the ANC, the freeing of political prisoners, such as Mr. Mandela, and the beginning of the process of negotiations about power sharing and the return of political exiles.

"Look, the African National Congress and other black groups were the enemy, the deadly opponent, up until Feb. 2," said Maj. Ray Harrald, a police department spokesman. "You can't change that overnight. You can't."

The question being raised now is: Even if Mr. de Klerk leads the way, will the security establishment follow?

Has the security establishment fallen victim to the growing political division within the white minority that threatens to derail the negotiating process that Mr. De Klerk and Mr. Mandela have embarked upon?

Simply put: Can Mr. de Klerk reform a "rogue elephant?"

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