South Africa Dialogue

September 07, 1991

The constitutional proposal that President F. W. de Klerk of South Africa had his National Party endorse sounds appropriate to Northern Ireland or Yugoslavia. And that, of course, is Mr. de Klerk's point. He heads a country of divided population that he thinks should be governed by recognizing, rather than attempting to deny, the divisions.

The ideas of a three-person presidency and coalition government and one legislative house elected by proportional representation do not require close analysis here. Although nothing is defined racially, the scheme would deny total rule to any one party and require a multi-partisan, and therefore probably multi-ethnic, consensus before decisions are taken.

The ruling and formerly all-white National Party, he said, "has never asked for a mandate to hand over complete power to the African National Congress or anybody else. And we are certainly not prepared to exchange one form of domination for another." Small wonder the ANC denounced the proposal as a cynical minority veto on majority rule.

The ANC already has issued its proposal for a more American-sounding system of majority rule through three branches of government and a bill of rights to protect minorities. The point of both proposals is that they are opening positions for a round of bargaining and constitution-making that is not yet joined. And the fact of their being presented is positive whatever their content.

Previously unthinkable things are taking place in South Africa. The government has negotiated with the United Nations a free return of all political refugees with amnesty. The ANC is happy for this, even while denouncing Mr. de Klerk's constitutional vision, and is also embarrassed at tales some returnees tell of torture in ANC bush camps that parallels South African police brutalities. Three accused white terrorists, on a hunger strike before trial, were visited in the hospital by ANC President Nelson Mandela, who supports amnesty in exchange for what they might say about security service complicity in their deeds. One die-hard leader quit the extremist group, Orde Boerevolk, because it had welcomed Mr. Mandela.

The great South African dialogue has begun; the parties and players are positioning themselves for its formal rituals. This is constructive and far more important than the possibly outrageous or inadequate content of any particular speech in that dialogue. A great deal more will come.

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