Lurching Toward Freedom

December 30, 1991

Never mind the occasional walkouts, breakdowns and shouting matches. What matters most in South Africa is that something called Codesa (or CODESA; the authorities on such matters have yet to vote) is taking place. It has a momentum of its own. It creates expectations both among advocates and opponents. The expectation is that by Christmas 1992, South Africa will have a constitution calling for legal equality of individuals, the basic freedoms, multi-party democracy in a single country with full black participation.

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) is under way. Seventeen of 19 invited political organizations are taking part. It began with a much-photographed handshake between President F. W. de Klerk and the African National Congress (ANC) leader, Nelson Mandela. It has no rules for how big a vote is needed, proceeding on consensus. Before adjourning, the convention appointed five working groups to report back to a full session in February or March. They will deal with creating a climate for participation, drafting a new constitution, transitional arrangements, deciding the fate of four "homelands" and a timetable for change.

Tall order? Immense. Impossible? Certainly. But there is an alternative that is even less likely: None of the above. That is unimaginable. Seventeen of 19 groups are now committed to negotiating change. The holdouts are a white conservative party that favors restoring full apartheid and a black revolutionary party that wants to shut whites out. But the other 17, across a variegated set of political and ethnic spectrums, are engaged. The expectation now, even among those conservative whites who dread it, is overwhelming.

In its progress, Codesa will seem to break down. Its leaders will denounce each other and threaten walk-out and perhaps carry out the threat, as they debate in public for the benefit of their own constituencies. But Codesa will overcome these legacies of the South African past, and lurch forward.

One of the difficult moments is now. President de Klerk insists that the current parliament must approve the constitution to be drafted by Codesa. There is no black majority representation in that parliament. The ANC demands that it have no role in approving the constitution.

This is only one insuperable difficulty. Another is agreement on the length of a transition, which could be imagined as anywhere from one year to ten. On all these questions, compromises are available to be found. The one certainty is that South Africa has embarked on a course from which there is no turning back.

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