South Africa: the Center Holds

September 29, 1992

Dramatic events in South Africa provide new hope that a political center with power to achieve the dream of a democratic, multi-ethnic society is slowly, painfully taking form. Its core is -- and must remain -- an alliance between the white Nationalist government headed by F.W. de Klerk and the black African National Congress under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

When these men are at odds, as was the case from last June to this past weekend, all progress stops. When they dare to agree, as they did in putting constitutional talks back on track, they have power to confront the many forces that would keep South Africa divided and at war with itself.

Their task is simply to do the unthinkable, and do it again and again. This time Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela released some black terrorists convicted of killing whites and some white supremacists convicted of killing blacks. Their purpose was not to encourage inter-racial violence but to defuse it and deny martyrdom to criminals.

As any number of Latin American regimes could have warned, amnesty for political prisoners (including some with blood on their hands) is an agonizing process in which moral absolutes are in conflict with the pragmatic imperatives of governance. That the foremost leaders of black and white South Africa could bring themselves to this act is a sign of extraordinary determination and realism.

Their added decision to take on the forces of tribalism personified by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi shows the South African center is not only holding but strengthening. Two de Klerk-Mandela assertions were especially provocative: that Mr. Buthelezi's followers would not be permitted to bring spears and other "cultural weapons" to political rallies of the Inkatha Freedom Party and that fences would be built to enclose hostels where migrant Zulu workers are housed to prevent the kind of black-on-black violence that has taken more than 6,000 lives.

Chief Buthelezi breathed defiance, asserting correctly there could be no peace without him. Government and ANC authorities were unfazed. The leverage of government subsidies for tribal "homelands," plus face-saving gestures, could bring the Zulu leader back into constitutional negotiations around the turn of the year.

Meanwhile, there will be continued tension and perhaps even greater violence. Just as white extremists vow to fight for separate white nationhood, some tribal leaders fear a loss of identity and power in a democratic South Africa. Yet so long as the most responsible and representative elements in the white and black populations persevere, this great enterprise can go forward.

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