South Africa at the crossroads

May 03, 1994|By Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo

LAST WEEK I traveled to the South African Consulate in Washington, D.C., with mixed emotions. I was elated because there I would be allowed to vote for the first time in my life as a South African citizen. But I also had grave concerns about what I would actually be voting for.

I was born a year after apartheid was adopted as the official policy of my country. The generation of blacks to which I belong lived through the implementation of apartheid, and I can say from my personal experience that it was a ruthless, brutal system.

The Bantu Education Act, designed to deny blacks free and compulsory education, entailed a maze of laws that restricted our movement from city to city and our ability to have any voice in the political decision-making process of our country. Though we did not make the laws, we were forced to obey them.

So last week when I and millions of other blacks voted and broke the 46-year disenfranchisement of apartheid, I felt elated. For the first time I was able to exercise my political right to participate in the life of the South Africa.

And yet many things still trouble me. We did not, for example, vote for a majority rule last week, one on which the party that gets the most votes governs the executive branch and where, as in America, the president of the winning part gets to choose his own vice-president and cabinet members.

Instead, we were voting for a five-year interim government of "national unity." Under this structure, the party that wins the most votes will gain the presidency and two deputy president positions. The party that gets the second largest number of votes will choose the vice-president. And any party which wins at least 5 percent of the total is entitled to a cabinet position.

Thus we actually voted for what will be in effect a multi-party executive branch. No one knows whether this complicated and cumbersome structure will be able to govern effectively.

Then there is the legislative branch, a parliament called the Constitutional Assembly, which is supposed to write a new constitution for the country. The assembly requires a two-thirds majority rather than a simple plurality to pass legislation, however; that will give smaller parties and minority factions great power to obstruct reforms they oppose and could easily paralyze the government.

There are also land issues. As blacks, we were stripped of our lands. We have witnessed police baton charges during removals of people who were disenfranchised overnight and became squatters in places they had lived on for generations.

Today, the majority of blacks live on just 13 percent of the land of South Africa, virtually all of it barren, while whites live on the 87 percent of the country's most fertile land and also own virtually all the richest gold and diamond mining areas.

During the negotiations leading up to the elections, the whole issue of land redistribution and reparations were deliberately left unresolved. Likewise, the makeup of the army, police and civil service will basically remain the same except for cosmetic changes.

Unfortunately, the issue of violence, which was endemic to South Africa through all the years of apartheid, will continue to be a major problem. Many right-wing whites want to cling to apartheid at any cost. Among blacks, there are those who prefer a federal system rather than the strong central government envisioned by the African National Congress. Still other blacks have already lost faith with the process of compromise that produced last week's election.

Apartheid was and is a form of institutional violence against which the only means of resistance was armed struggle. Thus it produced a culture of political violence that will not be easy to change. It is going to take time to develop a new culture of political tolerance and amity, especially if the government does not move quickly to meet the expectations of black South Africans who form the majority of the population.

Elections may be compared to a wedding. After the elation of wedlock comes the hard task of marriage. We wanted a relatively quick political solution, symbolized by the elections, but we have a long way to go before we are near to resolving the basic issues that have divided South Africans for so long.

Still, I have hope that ultimately we will create a new example for the world. Let history judge whether we have done well. Our election was not perfect, but it was an important step on the long road to freedom and justice that lies ahead.

Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo writes from Baltimore.

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