In South Africa, a Plague of Suspicions


August 14, 1991|By HENRY L. TREWITT

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — Albuequerque, New Mexico - These are snapshots of South Africa today, and some of the suspicions -- and some of the truths -- that threaten peacemaking even among men of good will:

At 5:45 one recent morning, five armed men boarded the train from Soweto, the teeming black township, to Johannesburg and began firing at random. Eight passengers died at the scene; three others later. Near Durban, unidentified gunmen wiped out a family of 12. In both cases the killers disappeared. Murderers and victims were black. The deaths fit no ethnic or political

pattern. Because they made no sense, they helped convince many blacks that white right-wingers had mastermind black-vs-black slaughter to forestall democracy.

Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it is only partly true; true in some cases. Perhaps it is true of some white madmen; not true of the government. The government of President F. W. de Klerk claims ignorance. But black suspicion soared when the government admitted supporting Inkatha, the political party of Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu chieftain. The money was intended, government spokesmen said, to encourage Chief Buthelezi's opposition to foreign sanctions. But it also undeniably encouraged Chief Buthelezi's and Inkatha's rivalry with Nelson Mandela's much larger, ethnically diffuse African National Congress.

It is a long way from there to proof that seemingly random killings have government support or tolerance. In some cases, private scores no doubt are being settled behind the cloak of general disorder. Even some ANC radicals, demanding all or nothing, now, resist orderly compromise. But the suspicions alone, and their political impact on all sides, delay maneuvering toward an equitable system for 6 million whites and 33 million non-whites. All who wish South Africa well cringe at every disruption. Steps already taken -- abandonment of most race laws -- are breathtaking. Yet they amount to no more than brush-clearing.

The commitment on both sides is under constant challenge. In today's turmoil, the only certainty is that the old status quo can never be restored. It is hard in retrospect to pick the point of no return. A philosopher might say it simply evolved, unrecognized, from every desperate gesture by whites over the years to hold back the tide.

It is more practical to cite Mr. De Kerk's ascent to the presidency in August, 1989. Within six months he had agreed to dismantle gradually the system of apartheid, or racial ''apartness,'' and to free Mr. Mandela, who had spent more than 27 years in prison.

Here are two superb politicians. Mr. De Klerk has drawn most powerful whites along, many kicking and screaming. It seems improbable that he backed a white, right-wing murder conspiracy -- though one may well exist, as it did once among police -- if only because that is the shortest route to the bloodbath he seeks to avoid.

It is quite conceivable that he supported aid to Chief Buthelezi to dilute the power of Mr. Mandela and the ANC -- and got caught. But that ought to be forgivable. If his guilt is indeed deeper, then it is a tragedy for all sides, for it means that a leader genuinely committed to reform sacrificed his commitment, and himself, to reduce white dissidence. Because they could no longer deal with him, black leaders would have to risk dealing with someone probably worse.

South African blacks are unlikely to meet another white who can both gain power and offer negotiable terms. Probably no one understands better than Mr. Mandela the need for white money, education and expertise. It is true that South African wealth and the glittering cities of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town were built by whites partly from the sweat of blacks. But whites made creative decisions and they control the money. Mr. Mandela cannot wish for those cities to crumble as others did when the colonialists left Africa.

He needs whites doing what they were doing before, except exploiting and suppressing blacks. In addition he needs white help with education and training of a black population 50-percent illiterate. Whites must teach the mechanics of governance. The growing specter of AIDS demands white science. Mr. Mandela needs white help to bring Chief Buthelezi and other ambitious black leaders into the system on tolerable terms.

Recognizing reality and forsaking personal revenge, Mr. Mandela has surrounded himself as new president of the ANC with mostly moderate leaders. His rhetoric remains socialist, and he has cut a deal with communists. But few Mandela-watchers expect him to waste much effort on a discredited system. They will be watching him more for his management of disparate forces in a diversified economic and political system.

Mr. Mandela's survival is critical, as Mr. de Klerk's may be. Mr. Mandela may even share that judgment about Mr. de Klerk; it would explain his measured reaction to government support for the Zulus. It is possible that equally moderate leaders would emerge to succeed these two. But no one stands out with the same clarity on either side. In any event, no one of good will wants to see the proposition tested, for no one is confident of the consequences.

Henry L. Trewitt, former Sun diplomatic correspondent, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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