South Africa at the crossroads

March 10, 1994|By Loretta J. Ross

SOUTH Africa is at a crossroads. In April, it will have a general election that for the first time will permit black South Africans to vote. But the election process is menaced by right-wing groups, which threaten civil war.

When I visited South Africa last September, I saw not only a political war of words, but a brutal, terrorist war -- and the casualties still are mounting. In the three years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison, more than 15,000 people have died. Will South Africans risk their lives to go to the polls?

The Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the Afrikaner Volksfront are only the most renowned of the dozens of well-armed groups fueling this war and undermining the elections. Working under the misnomer "Freedom Alliance," these opponents of the electoral process are poised for a devastating civil war. They vow to make South Africa ungovernable by Mr. Mandela's African National Congress, which is heavily favored in the April elections.

Inkatha, wearing two faces, threatens to boycott the elections while it secretly accepts funds from Western countries to register voters.

The far-right Volksfront, which seeks a separate homeland for whites, makes thinly veiled threats of violence.

Aided by the economic crisis left by apartheid, these reactionary forces can use terrorism and fear to destabilize the country. As in Zimbabwe a decade ago, many skilled whites may flee the combination of black rule and civil unrest, leaving the economy in tatters.

Mr. Mandela proved the strength of this threat when he announced dangerous concessions to the Freedom Alliance last month. In a last-ditch attempt to draw the far right and conservative parties back into the democratic process, Mr. Mandela even promised electoral changes that would strengthen his opponents and give more autonomy to the provinces.

Movement toward autonomous states within South Africa -- complete with their own police, military and civil service -- could lead to the same kind of balkanization that destroyed Yugoslavia. No single province in South Africa is economically, ethnically or politically viable by itself. Too much autonomy inevitably will lead to turf fights between competing ethnic groups.

The new government needs to lure foreign investment into the country, which it cannot do if a new civil war erupts. Sensing this, Mr. Mandela has admitted that without concessions to the extremist groups, civil war is inevitable, pitting conservative blacks and whites against a new ANC government. The ANC ironically may end up resembling the National Party it replaced if it has to declare martial law to keep peace after the elections.

Even if South Africa can keep the peace, significant pressure inevitably will be placed on the winners of the April elections -- probably Mr. Mandela and the ANC -- to correct the legacy of apartheid. South Africa's blacks are 40 percent unemployed and 80 percent illiterate, requiring a massive public investment. Many black South Africans also will vote with expectations that some of the land they lost under apartheid will be returned. White land owners nervously hope for the opposite.

Mr. Mandela is walking a dangerous line. He may be elected to the office of president, but he will be expected to be a miracle worker.

As Americans we must act now to ensure that apologists for apartheid do not impede the transition to democracy. We should demand that our government send election monitors to South Africa. We should refuse to give a platform in this country to representatives -- black or white -- of political parties who claim to support the democratic process while secretly undermining it. We must not return to the conditions of the 1980s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush when U.S. money funded destabilizing groups like the Inkatha Freedom Party.

As citizens, our experience in civil rights can help build strong civil rights organizations to bolster democracy. The power of investment -- once wielded in the form of sanctions and divestment -- now should be exerted in support of a legitimately elected government.

Will South Africa ever really have a democracy and peace? I think so. During my visit, I could feel the breathless optimism in the air. The people were beaming with hope despite their desperate conditions. I don't think either massacres or threats will keep blacks in South Africa from voting. Their lives are already on the line even before one ballot is cast.

Loretta J. Ross is the Research Director of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, Ga.

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