South Africa May Find Democracy Isn't Easy

March 06, 1994|By PETER HONEY

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Johannesburg, South Africa. -- South Africa's brave new democracy may look a whole lot better on paper than in practice.

With the rapid approach of the April 26-28 election that will set the process in motion, one has to ask if the constitution is good enough, or will it permit a new tyranny to rise from the ruins of apartheid?

The question may seem churlish in light of the historic accord in November when nearly all of South Africa's political parties approved a draft of the country's first fully democratic constitution. It was rightly seen as a seminal event, the fruit of nearly four years of arduous negotiation, that would draw the blinds finally on white supremacist rule and embrace all citizens for the first time in a protective non-racial democracy.

But it also precipitated an ideological clash; a conflict overshadowed for years by the preoccupying struggle over apartheid. With that struggle over, the flash point now is between ethnic minorities demanding a pluralist federation and the cross-cultural majority who believe that centralist control and the dilution of ethnic identity are essential to nationhood.

Neither side seems ready to back down. In the last few months:

* Heavily armed white rightists have threatened to disrupt the elections and resort to war unless they are granted a secessionist Afrikaner "volkstaat."

* Terrorist attacks across racial and ethnic lines have escalated sharply.

* The powerful KwaZulu chief minister and Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and other conservative white and black groups, have refused to contest the election unless the constitution is amended to allow more autonomy for regional governments, many of which would have a strong ethnic flavor -- a boycott that would almost certainly spark widespread violence and practically negate any hope of a free election in several parts of the country.

* Leading Communist and African nationalist politician Joe Slovo, destined to play an influential role in the new government, has warned that militant right-wing resistance will have to be "crushed" for national reconstruction to proceed.

* The multiparty Transitional Executive Council, charged with overseeing government through the election process, has retained much of the old apartheid government's detention-without-trial law -- to the disgust of thousands of anti-apartheid campaigners, including some council members, who were jailed under it in their activist days.

These developments portend that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, virtually assured of a strong electoral victory and hence overwhelming dominance in the new government of national unity, will come to power not only with a fight on its hands, but with the ready inclination to strike back.

Analysts nowadays routinely assess the military strengths of political foes and gauge the government-to-be's ability to suppress subversion and insurrection. They generally agree that the superior powers of the state will prevail.

And when they do, what comforts will there be for the common citizen? The Bill of Rights comes equipped with a loophole allowing Parliament to curtail human rights in instances it considers "reasonable." And if that proves insufficient, the entire Bill of Rights can be suspended by a state of emergency.

Of course, this is playing on exigency. But in daily life, too, the constitution will not limit the role and purpose of government, nor prevent nationalization of industry or state interference in the free market system. It rejects the notion that cultural organizations such as social clubs, universities, chambers of commerce, or sports and the arts should be protected from government intrusion.

It is also no surprise, considering that one third of the ANC's top leadership is Communist, that the constitution minimizes regional autonomy and leaves the nine newly defined provinces financially dependent on the central government, granting them weaker governance than any U.S. state and less even than some counties.

When Chief Buthelezi raised objections to this, he was shouted down as a spoiler. Whatever his motives, he was not the only one troubled by the fact that the ANC and President F. W. de Klerk's National Party -- the two largest parties -- dominated the constitutional negotiations to the extent that they practically dictated the terms.

It also troubles many people (not just Chief Buthelezi) that the constitution will be scrapped and rewritten in two years by the parties elected in April. And if the ANC wins two-thirds of the vote (which it may), it will have exclusive powers to redraw the constitution, with the constraint only that it must abide by rather vague constitutional principles contained in the current document.

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