Morality, reality propelled voting in South Africa

March 22, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- With a single vote last week, the whites of South Africa have redefined themselves to the outside world and to the 30 million blacks who live around and among them.

By endorsing President Frederik W. de Klerk's program of political reforms in Tuesday's referendum, they impressively shed the image that had made them pariahs around the world.

The referendum answered a vital question about Mr. de Klerk's ability to proceed: "Do you support the reform process started by President de Klerk on Feb. 2, 1990?"

But the more fundamental question that lay beneath it was one that Mr. de Klerk himself asked repeatedly in the weeks before the vote:

What message did whites want to send the nation's black majority, who had suffered for generations under white supremacist policies and who now had some hope for the future?

It was destined to be a message heard around the world.

And the answer was stunning, given the history of South Africa and indeed of the entire continent. By a two-to-one margin, white South Africans became the first whites in Africa to vote to abandon white supremacy and negotiate a future where the races would live together as equals.

Until last week, Mr. de Klerk appeared to be dragging the white populace along the road of reform, and his right-wing political opponents were increasingly confident that most whites did not want to go.

But the referendum results shattered that idea and left the pro-apartheid forces standing as a minority within a minority, forced to reassess their demands for a re-creation of apartheid. White South Africans said clearly and resoundingly that they are ready to abandon the racist regime in favor of an experiment in democracy that would inevitably lead to black majority rule.

The next question is why they voted the way they did, especially considering the level of anxiety in this society. Did they choose to boldly go where no whites have gone before? Whites here are anxious about violence and crime. They are frightened of losing their property and their schools. And they're far from comfortable about the prospect of black rule.

The answer is a combination of the moral and the practical.

On the moral side, many whites simply could no longer justify living under a system in which they denied blacks the rights that whites enjoyed. The inequities that grew from that system are well known: unequal schools, unequal housing, unequal incomes. The list is endless.

"I can't claim rights for myself that I'm not prepared to let everybody else have," a white Pentecostal minister said at one polling station.

But the practical side might have weighed more heavily at the polls. Veteran liberal political analyst Helen Suzman summed it up: "South Africa is sick and tired of isolation."

For more than a decade, South Africans have been chafing under international sanctions that hurt their economy and left them standing alone, shunned as the world's only openly racist state. Their athletes couldn't compete, their performers couldn't play, and their airline couldn't land in most countries. All of that began to change with Mr. de Klerk's reforms.

As if to underscore the change, the South African cricket team was in the midst of a much-celebrated world tour as the debate raged at home last week over reform.

"Never underestimate the significance of the cricket tour," said political analyst David Welsh of the University of Cape Town. "It was symbolic of something much deeper."

The political right tried to scare white South Africans with nightmare scenarios of the future: communist rule and a fast slide to economic ruin. But in the battle of the nightmare scenarios, Mr. de Klerk had the bigger gun. He said he knew what the outside world would do if whites voted "no," and he asked ominously at every stop, "What do you think 30 million blacks will do?"

In an era when communism has lost much of its scare value, the threat of massive black revolt and harsh new sanctions seemed more real, even for South Africans nervous about crime, recession and loss of privileges.

During the three weeks of the referendum campaign, a fascinating alliance came together to fight for reform: the National Party, the Democratic Party and the African National Congress. The "Nats" were long the party of apartheid and of Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers. The Democratic Party represented liberal English-speaking whites long at odds with the government. And the ANC was branded a den of communists and terrorists with which the government refused to talk until two years ago.

Together, they made a powerful force for change and an even more powerful statement about the changes that have taken place in the past few years. With those three parties driving the political process, South Africa is certain to move swiftly to an interim, coalition government and a new constitution that will be the foundation for democracy.

Right-wing elements opposed to democracy have threatened violence and will probably deliver.

But the referendum showed that most whites stand against them and would prefer to work with the black majority toward building a new society.

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