As government, ANC prepare to open talks today on South Africa's future . . .

December 20, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Joe Mkwanazi settles back behind an empty desk in a sparsely furnished office and speaks the words that excite radical blacks but petrify some whites in South Africa's changing society.

"The PAC is not talking about apartheid. We want the land," he says bluntly, explaining the continued radicalism of the Pan Africanist Congress as other groups begin to negotiate South Africa's future.

"We will get the land by getting political power and taking over the land. We will find means of getting the land. Some people will have to give it back. Maybe if they don't give it back we might be forced to take it."

For Mr. Mkwanazi and other left-wing activists, the fight against white minority rule has not changed and the government of President F. W. de Klerk is not fundamentally different from its predecessors that oppressed the black majority here for 350 years.

The constitution makes no provision for black political participation.

"There is no basic change in South Africa," Mr. Mkwanazi says. "We don't think this government will willingly give up power. We don't think they are capable of making the change themselves, without pressure."

But for the African National Congress, the main black political organization in South Africa, the long-awaited moment has finally arrived as the government sits down with blacks to negotiate a democratic constitution for this divided country.

The talks, which begin today, represent the true beginning of a process that is expected to dismantle the white government. Many observers also expect it to result in a government led by Nelson Mandela's ANC, which has spent decades clashing with South Africa's white minority governments.

More than 20 black and white political groups will gather for the historic Convention for a Democratic South Africa. The government and the ANC are the essential parties in the talks, which could continue for a year or more before a new constitution is drafted.

The conference must reconcile major differences between constitutional proposals already presented by the government and the ANC.

Mr. de Klerk has proposed a decentralized government with a three-man presidency, a free-market economy and special protections for the white minority. The ANC wants a highly centralized government and supports state intervention to redress the economic hardships that apartheid created for blacks.

Black left-wing groups are boycotting the talks, saying the government has no serious intention of eliminating white privileges or allowing black majority rule.

"The government is trying to establish an authority which will appear democratic in the eyes of the world, which will free them from the pressure of sanctions," says Mr. Mkwanazi, 63, who spent 28 years in exile and became a top leader of the PAC during the 30 years it was banned by the government.

"They are trying to bring back apartheid with a better face, with some black faces," he says, suggesting the de Klerk government was using the ANC. "I can't understand what has happened to them."

Right-wing whites oppose the negotiations as vigorously as left-wing blacks. They say Mr. de Klerk is selling out his own people and creating a situation in which whites will lose the land and rights they have had for so many years.

Extremist groups, with their marginal followings, are not expected to have any serious impact on the political process. But observers say right-wing groups might gain new support as white fears about the future increase, and the left wing might gain support from blacks unhappy that change will not come fast enough to meet their expectations of a better life.

"I think the PAC hopes to attract a lot of radical youth by sitting out the process," says Helen Suzman, a former liberal member of Parliament. "And there are a lot of radical youth out there, under 25 and unemployed."

But she says the right wing is a more serious threat because it is well financed and well armed. "They are not contemplating an election," Ms. Suzman says. "They are contemplating a revolution. They think they have everything to lose."

Right-wing leaders have threatened to go to war to preserve "white land" and white rights. Under apartheid, 87 percent of South Africa's land was allocated to the white minority of 5 million people, while the black majority of about 28 million was allowed to own 13 percent.

Apartheid laws also denied black South Africans a vote in national affairs or representation in the national government. The current reforms, which began when Mr. de Klerk became president in 1989, are aimed at ending the country's long history of official discrimination and the international isolation that resulted.

The process is not likely to be smooth. In addition to the boycott by black and white radical groups, there has been considerable grumbling from Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who thinks his people are not being allowed adequate representation at the talks.

Mr. Buthelezi announced Wednesday that he would boycott this week's meeting as a protest but that his Inkatha Freedom Party would send a delegation.

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