Conservative S. Africans find strange bedfellows Whites, blacks join in opposition

September 27, 1993|By Newsday

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Faced with the loss of exclusive political power after 45 uninterrupted years, white Afrikaners who formed the backbone of the ruling National Party are abandoning the party, many of them drifting toward conservative blacks in a desperate search for new allies.

For the past several months, large numbers of conservative whites have defected to the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Others have fled to the once-demoralized white right wing, which has now rallied behind a group of popular retired generals.

The dramatic shifts in white politics, so close to the first all-race elections, scheduled for April, cast doubt on the future of President Frederik W. de Klerk and his party. Discarding their grand visions of retaining significant power even with the black majority voting for the first time, party leaders now acknowledge they are stuck around 20 percent in opinion polls.

At no time since he assumed the presidency in September 1989 and began dismantling apartheid has Mr. de Klerk appeared so visibly weak -- a lame-duck president preparing to transfer political power to blacks. Many whites fear he is all too ready to cede control to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which they say will snatch away their privileges in the name of black equality.

Those who have flocked to the conservative Zulu chief appear resigned to the inevitability of black rule, and view Mr. Buthelezi as the black leader least likely to threaten white interests. Mr. Buthelezi is chief minister of the homeland of KwaZulu, one of 10 self-governing territories to which millions of blacks were confined by apartheid in a failed attempt to deny them citizenship rights. The chief, a Zulu prince, is locked in a power struggle with Mr. Mandela.

"Whites have come to realize the future will be black," said Hennie Bekker, a National Party member of the whites-only Parliament who bolted to Inkatha in March. "It is now for them to decide how black it must be: ANC black or IFP black? Mandela black or Buthelezi black?"

Dissension in Mr. de Klerk's party has been so severe that party leaders in Natal province, who have longstanding ties to Mr. Buthelezi, openly toyed with the idea of joining Inkatha. Government ministers are sharply divided between those who favor a quick deal with the ANC that would guarantee the National Party a strong voice in government for several years and those who prefer to strengthen frayed ties with Mr. Buthelezi the best hope of preventing ANC dominance.

While Inkatha is one beneficiary of the white exodus, many others have joined extremist groups that insist on creating a separate country for South Africa's 3 million Dutch-descended Afrikaners. More than 25 members of Parliament reportedly are negotiating the terms of their defection to the once-fractious white right wing, which has lately been strengthened under the leadership of the widely admired former chief of the South African Defense Force, Gen. Constand Viljoen.

The right-wing groups and Inkatha have created their own "powerful coalition of rejection," opposed to the multiracial transitional governing council announced Sept. 7, as well as to the April 27 elections.

As his base erodes, Mr. de Klerk increasingly is seen as another Mikhail Gorbachev -- the Soviet reformer left behind by the forces he unleashed.

"That's de Klerk's current nightmare, I'm afraid," said Larry Diamond, an Africa specialist at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.. "Gorbachev unraveled because people went beyond him. But de Klerk's constituency is balking at the prospect of fundamental change that would turn over government to Mandela."

As Mr. de Klerk struggles to cobble together support, the white right wing has staked a claim to being the authentic voice of Afrikaner aspirations. "If de Klerk has another referendum, the National Party will not have 35 percent," General Viljoen boasted in an interview. In a March 1992 referendum, Mr. de Klerk had obtained nearly 70 percent white support to continue the course of change.

But last month, in a poll published by the pro-government Afrikaans-language Rapport newspaper, only 32 percent of Afrikaners identified Mr. de Klerk as their leader, while about 20 percent chose General Viljoen, a political newcomer who openly advocates white separatism. Remarkably, almost 10 percent chose Mr. Buthelezi as their national leader.

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