South Africa On the Brink

April 04, 1994|By ANTHONY HEARD

Cape Town, South Africa. -- How much bloody mayhem can the South African body politic absorb? The answer, based on experience, is plenty.

But there is a limit. That point came dangerously close when the country's major city, Johannesburg, which had been bidding for the Olympic Games in 2004, was closed down last Monday.

Zulu demonstrators singing praises to their king went on the rampage, laying into civilians as snipers shot at them from

high-rise blocks, while resolute policing was conspicuously absent.

An attempt to storm the headquarters of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress failed, thank God -- otherwise, considering the likely deaths of key political players, South Africa could today be well on the road to chaos, military coup or sundry other miseries.

Perhaps 50 people died in Johannesburg's streets.

But the other casualty was South Africa and, because of the country's continental importance, Africa. If South Africa does not get its democratic act together, its reconstructive role in the eventual recovery of Africa will be scuttled.

Whether South Africans will learn lessons from these events and pick their way through inevitable further violence to democratic elections at the end of April is a matter for conjecture.

A nationwide rate of 10 deaths a day attributed to political violence has, in recent months, risen to more than that figure in one region alone, Natal -- an exquisite subtropical garden province in the east peopled by Zulus, Asians and English, and boiling with unrest.

Natal is the source of last Monday's conflict in Johannesburg.

This province's Zulu people, with a proud and militant if slightly overstated history, have spilled over into vast areas of Transvaal Province and the environs of Johannesburg where they live and work and organize. Hence the latest mayhem when they demonstrated to have a sovereign kingdom ''back home'' in Zululand, which covers large tracts of Natal province.

Their call was not unlike Quebec's for ''sovereignty association'' in Canada. But, unlike the relatively puny French separatist cadres, they have many millions of disciplined, spear-waving zealots to rely on if called into action by their king, Goodwill Zwelethini, a rather dull personage who was not until recently taken very seriously outside Natal.

The plague of violence, more than anything else, places a question mark over the future of the country. The big question is whether violence will accompany South Africans into the future or be left behind as a new government under Mandela settles into power.

The violence has its roots in the rough-and-ready delimitation of constituencies that has been going on among black groups in preparation for the elections. Blacks, denied the vote previously, are staking their claims for the imminent day they shall exercise their vote.

There is hope that -- continuing incidents notwithstanding -- there will be a gradual slowdown in violence after the election, partly because of a resolute security crackdown by a credible and legitimate new government. But more negotiation is needed.

The immediate future will depend largely on the contest between the merchants of violence and the forces of law and order. Some observers believe that there is too much pent-up anger, rivalry and resentment in the country -- or large parts of it -- to allow for an easy crossing to democracy.

They point to the seemingly intractable problems associated with Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party speaks for an undetermined and conservative section of the Zulus in Natal province, and those of Mandela, who has shown that he has substantial support among Zulus.

A last-ditch attempt to resolve the conflict by bringing in outside mediators, including Henry Kissinger, is now under way. There are also plans for an unprecedented summit involving President Frederik W. de Klerk, Mandela, the Zulu king and Buthelezi sometime next week. These two steps could be the last chances for peace, after which, in the words of the Zulu king, there could be a fight to ''the end.''

Whether the all-party Transitional Executive Council set up to usher in a democratic order can assert itself in Natal, by establishing a state of emergency, remains to be seen.

The violence in Natal and parts of Transvaal Province notwithstanding, large sections of the country are in a state of relative peace, causing foreign observers to note that free and fair elections can take place in 90 percent of the country. There may be ''mini-Bosnias'' in some districts, but no sign, as of now, that the general fabric of society is collapsing.

There are right-wing Afrikaner desperadoes in the white community, counting on some measure of support in the security establishment, who have been at work killing black civilians from passing cars, blowing up buildings and campaigning for a boycott of the elections. They are dangerous but finite in numbers, determination and resources.

The history of the Afrikaner, though rich in initial heroism in conflict with giants like the Victorian British Empire, generally shows the bulk of this Dutch-French-German-descended group settling with reality, and eschewing the ''bunker'' mentality, once they appreciate that they cannot win. This could apply in South Africa after April.

The Zulus, by contrast, have tended to fight to the last man against all comers, as they did in the famous battle of Blood River against the (Afrikaner) Boers.

The threat to the future, therefore, remains the millions of Zulus who might follow Buthelezi and their malleable king into suicidal opposition to the new order. They have to be lured into a broader, successful South African nationhood. That's the challenge.

Anthony Heard is the former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Town.

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