New Parliament proves South Africa's once-violent abyss can be breached

November 19, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- On a window sill in the office of Renier Schoeman is a bowl decorated with a picture of the Voortrekker Monument, that stolid symbol of Afrikaner dominance over this land.

Not far away, in the office of Blade Nzimande, is a poster celebrating the 70th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Such are the strange bedfellows who have been thrust together in the new South African Parliament, which ended its first sitting this week.

"We literally fell into government," is the way Johnny De Lange, an African National Congress member of Parliament, put it. "One day we were elected and the next we were governing. I think we were just glad that Parliament didn't collapse around our ears.

"Here were some people who had been jailed and tortured sitting opposite other people who were responsible for those things, at least because of the laws they passed and supported," Mr. De Lange said.

And yet somehow, as Parliament adjourned, there was a general consensus this motley group had made it work; they had not only become a working governing body, but an important part of the nation-building process.

Wednesday night after adjournment, in the tradition of legislative bodies around the world, the members celebrated with a party.

National Party members and ANC stalwarts danced into the wee hours as if they were Democrats from Dundalk and Republicans from Rosedale, not people who had until four years ago stared at each other across a violent abyss.

"It was a wonderful evening," Mr. De Lange said.

Though the top echelons of the ANC and the National Party had gotten to know one another during the years of negotiations that led to April's election, this was not true of the rank and file, the people who populated Parliament.

"I didn't know most ANC members from a bar of soap," admitted Mr. Schoeman, the National Party Deputy Minister of Education who served nine years in the old all-white Parliament.

The new ruling party brought its own style. Gone were suits and ties. In were colorful African outfits. Gone was respective silence. In were cheers and applause.

"A lot of people who had been around here had to adjust to a new style of things," Mr. Schoeman said.

The National Party also had to adjust to being out of power for the first time since 1948.

"I think it has gone considerably better than I actually anticipated," Mr. Schoeman said.

"It has been a significant adjustment, but we've been preparing ourselves for this situation since the second of February 1990," he said, referring to when then-President F. W. de Klerk announced the freeing of Nelson A. Mandela from prison and the lifting of the ANC ban.

"We all knew then what we were letting ourselves in for," he said.

But more than that, Mr. Schoeman said that he had to get to know and respect his new colleagues.

"We started to have interaction with one another and learned that none of us was what we had always been made out to be," he said. "That cut both ways. It was good for everybody's soul."

For Arnold Stofile, the ANC's chief whip, it wasn't the National Party members who bothered him, it was those from the Inkatha Freedom Party, which has fought a bloody battle with the ANC for dominance in certain black communities.

Mr. Stofile said that he did not know how he should react when he saw Themba Khoza, a tough-talking Inkatha leader in the violent East Rand area near Johannesburg.

But the first time Mr. Stofile encountered him, the Inkatha legislator was, like so many other newcomers, lost in the labyrinthian halls of the Parliament buildings, trying to find his new office.

"I didn't know how I would deal with the situation," Mr. Stofile said. "But at that moment, he was just a lost human being like myself, so humble and so traumatized by the situation like we all were."

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for ANC members was going from being protesters to being legislators.

"It's a totally different experience," said Mr. Nzimande. "Sometimes it's frightening that now we are part of the system. We hope it is a good, new system, but it is different being part of it."

For Mr. Schoeman, there was a extra dividend to being a member of this Parliament that he did not anticipate.

"The reception of people for someone who was a member of this government, everywhere I've gone, has been one of receptiveness and openness," he said.

"The greetings I've received everywhere have been wonderful. I've been in politics long enough to be fairly cynical, but this has had a rejuvenating effect on me.

"It really has been a lovely feeling to know that I'm in a Parliament that really represents everybody. In the past, that was not the case."

Parliament will reconvene in January.

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