Head of apartheid nation won't accept its demise

March 10, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Writer

MMABATHO, Bophuthatswana -- If it is possible for a country that doesn't really exist to collapse, then Bophuthatswana seems to be such a place.

A vestigial remnant of apartheid that is now renounced by its founders, the leader of this so-called "independent homeland" for the Tswana people is stubbornly clinging to a seemingly absurd existence.

Under the new constitution, citizens of South Africa's four homelands that took independence -- Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei -- regained their South African citizenship on the first of the year. These countries, which were created to deny that citizenship to blacks and thus were recognized only by South Africa, are to dissolve after the April 26-28 election.

The leaders of Transkei and Venda agreed to that fate eagerly, throwing their support behind Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC).

Brig. Oupa Gqozo of Ciskei put up some brutal resistance initially but has reluctantly approved the transformation.

The lone holdout is Lucas Mangope, the former school headmaster who has been Bophuthatswana's only president since it was founded 17 years ago.

Virtually the entire civil service has gone on strike, a dispute that began over the fate of their pensions, but soon became an ANC-backed bid for reincorporation into South Africa.

This week, the strikes escalated into running street battles between demonstrators hurling rocks and police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Though the demonstrations were tame by South African township standards, open defiance of Mr. Mangope's rule has been rare during Bophuthatswana's history.

The level of protests escalated yesterday, with battles between barricade-building students and police leaving Mmabatho's University of Bophuthatswana smothered in tear gas.

In nearby Mafikeng, 30 people were reportedly injured when police fired on demonstrators. They were taken to a hospital that was virtually deserted because the staff is on strike.

Mafikeng is a city rich in Boer War history. It was here that ColRobert Baden-Powell, commander of the British forces holding out during a 271-day siege, organized the boys in town to keep them out of trouble, inspiring his creation of the Boy Scouts.

It borders Bophuthatswana's capital of Mmabatho, a Potemkin village of apartheid, filled with impressive new government and other buildings including a huge stadium. The stadium, which has never been filled, was built with South African funds in the late 1970s and early 1980s to provide a facade of reality for the homeland illusion.

One of its largest buildings is the country's state-of-the-art broadcasting center, which houses two television and three radio stations, including the popular Bop TV, seen in much of South Africa and, via satellite, the entire African continent.

Its 800 employees walked out earlier this week.

All 800 fired

On Tuesday, their boss Eddie Mangope, the president's son, was locked in the building for several hours while negotiating with the strikers who were eventually driven out of the building with tear gas.

Yesterday his father showed up at the center and fired all 800 employees.

"He told us he could close it down just like he opened it up," said one dismissed worker. All broadcasting came to a halt.

President Mangope did that just after coming from a meeting with Johan Kriegler, the judge who head the Independent Electoral Commission, the body responsible for putting on South Africa's first non-racial election next month.

Judge Kriegler was seeking assurances that Bophuthatswana would allow voter education, free political activity and polling in its territory which is spread in seven different blotches across the northeastern part of South Africa and contains about 1.7 million potential voters.

Only 80,000 of them voted in Bophuthatswana's last presidential election, almost all of those for Mr. Mangope.

Judge Kriegler didn't get what he was after. Mr. Mangope turned the requests down, claiming they would require him to approve the current policy of the South African government to deny the autonomy of Bophuthatswana.

"He's like Hitler in the bunker at the end of World War II, ordering around divisions that didn't exist," said one highly placed government source of President Mangope. "He won't listen to anyone."

Refused to register party

According to the source, Mr. Mangope has ignored repeated advice from his top advisers to allow Bophuthatswana to peacefully give up its independence.

Last week, he refused to register his Christian Democratic Party for the April election, a decision that escalated the street demonstrations.

Those protests have not been confined to the Mmabatho-Mafikeng area. Yesterday, in Itsoseng, a town about 30 miles from the capital, several hundred youths gathered behind earth barricades that blocked the main road.

Many clutched stones, while a few carried Molotov cocktails, eyeing passing cars suspiciously while telling stories of police tear-gassing a meeting earlier that morning.

"We will destabilize the situation in every possible way until Bophuthatswana is re-incorporated into South Africa," said one man who declined to identify himself.

There was an unsuccessful military coup against Mr. Mangope in 1988. After the coup, the military was purged of opposition officers, a move many cite as the reason the troops have not rebelled this time.

That coup was put down by intervention by the South African military.

Such intervention is now being called for by the protesters, this time not from a South African government that wants to defend RTC Mr. Mangope, but from a post-apartheid government that would help defeat him.

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