Let South Africa be the example

August 11, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

THE DEADLY dance that plays out almost daily between the Israelis and Palestinians is reminiscent of the violence that gripped South Africa a decade ago. But unfortunately, the response of Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat does not bring back memories of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.

By July 1992, the good feelings that spread through South Africa when Mandela was released from prison slightly more than two years before seemed to have evaporated. In that month, 45 people died in a horrible slaughter in a pitiful squatter camp south of Johannesburg called Boipatong. It was one of the worst incidents of the factional fighting that had troubled black townships for a decade.

Mandela's African National Congress saw the hand of de Klerk's white National Party government in the massacre. There were ominous - but never confirmed - reports of police vehicles assisting the killers. The ANC called off negotiations that were supposed to lead to a new government. Instead, it launched strikes and demonstrations that plunged the country into turmoil.

In September, a major demonstration was aimed at Ciskei, one of the black homelands set up by the apartheid government to foster the illusion that blacks were not citizens of South Africa but of these tiny, tribal-based countries. The Ciskei leaders promised to resist the action, and when the demonstrators poured through a hole in a fence that was supposed to keep them from a stadium in Bisho, Ciskei troops - led by white officers - opened fire. Twenty-eight demonstrators died.

South Africa literally perched on the abyss. On one side was its oppressed majority, some 35 million people of color. On the other was the powerful minority of 7 million whites whose government controlled an impressive military machine. But instead of letting the violence plunge the country into a bloody civil war, both sides backed away from the edge. The ANC reduced its demands for resuming negotiations. The National Party agreed to them. The talks were back on.

These events come to mind as one violent act in the Middle East is met by another, of a suicide bomber wreaking carnage on the innocent in Israel resulting in tanks rolling and bombs dropping on the Palestinians. Something about Boipatong and Bisho made both sides in South Africa realize that they could not let the perpetrators of such violence dictate the progress of their negotiations or the shape of the settlement.

I arrived in South Africa as the correspondent for The Sun a few months after Bisho. Just days before I got there, the country suffered one of the most shocking acts of political violence in the entire transition - the assassination of popular ANC leader Chris Hani by a white right-wing zealot. Many thought this would be the event that would end the possibility of a peaceful transition. But the negotiators showed up the next day and kept talking, apparently with a greater resolve to get the job done. They hardly batted an eye a few weeks later when white militants invaded the site of the talks and held negotiators hostage for a few hours.

The violence did not cease. Many black townships remained battlegrounds. White extremists, trying to maintain the apartheid structure, come to the defense of another of the homelands, Bophuthatswana. Others conducted a series of bombings. Black extremists shot up a white church and killed a saintly American aid worker named Amy Biehl. It was a yearlong roller-coaster ride before South African voters, black and white, went to the polls, but somehow there was never any doubt that the transition to democracy was securely on the track.

In the Middle East, one wonders if there would be an the act of violence that would make both sides realize that there must be a better way. Instead, every terrorist horror is followed by proud claims of responsibility from some shadowy group along with half-hearted denunciations from political leaders accompanied by bombastic blaming of the other side. Then comes the reaction from that other side - the tanks and troops and bulldozers and more bodies.

Richard Goldstone, a white South African judge, was trusted enough by all sides in those tense days of a decade ago to be named head of a commission to investigate the violence. There was plenty of evidence of white involvement in the township deaths as those in the National Party opposed to the reforms used the old anti-ANC alliances to continue the fight after Mandela's release.

But Goldstone was convinced that de Klerk was not behind it, that de Klerk was committed to the transition and did whatever was in his power to reduce the violence. By the same token, Mandela resisted calls from the militants in the ANC who wanted an armed insurrection.

Goldstone later became the chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, which gave him a view of the ethnic violence that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. When asked why that didn't happen in his native land, Goldstone had a one-word answer: "leadership."

It came right from the top - Mandela and de Klerk. Though their personal relationship soured, they were committed to seeing this thing through. Below them were people like their chief negotiators, the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Party's Roelf Meyer, who kept talking even while the formal talks were suspended.

Joe Slovo, the Communist leader once dubbed "Public Enemy No. 1" by the white government, came up with a crucial compromise. Derek Keys, the white government's finance minister, convinced Mandela of the danger of economic turmoil.

People like these must be in the Middle East, people with a vision to see beyond the blood. Reports of continuing talks even during the current turmoil give one hope that these people exist. Without such leadership, the power to determine the fate of this region remains in the hands of those wedded to chaos.

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