Alliance under strain

October 17, 2002

THESE ARE fateful days in South Africa. Eight years after white minority rule was abolished, Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid alliance is under serious stress. The reason: Its dreams have collided with reality.

On one side is President Thabo Mbeki's government, which is trying to erase the apartheid era's legacy of wrongs. On the other are the government's historic allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the country's Communist Party. They have been demonstrating against Mr. Mbeki's regime, charging it has sold out to global capitalists.

This is more serious than mere class struggle rhetoric. If the alliance falls apart, polarization and racial hostility could destroy the noble idealism that has guided the ruling African National Congress for nearly 50 years, and destabilize South Africa.

During recent marches around the country, protesters have accused the government of forgetting the poor and the downtrodden. They have bitterly attacked the government's campaign to privatize state-owned monopolies. "Privatization," demonstrators have charged, "is born-again apartheid."

Tempers rose in September, when operatives of the National Intelligence Agency visited the offices of the Anti-Privatisation Forum and questioned its leader. The incident was seen as government harassment of an umbrella group that also includes the Landless People's Movement and a committee urging land reform.

Since then, things have gotten more tense. Dozens of land activists have been arrested for protesting that whites own the most productive farmland.

President Mbeki's government is making steady -- but slower than expected -- progress in bringing electricity and piped water to previously unserved black areas. But it has also come to realize that free enterprise, rather than socialist experimentation, is the key to South Africa's future prosperity. Communists and labor radicals may be shocked by the government's shift, but they also must understand its necessity.

The rising tensions have not worried Mr. Mbeki, who prefers dealing with foreign affairs. But this is shortsighted. If he allows the anti-apartheid alliance to collapse, the Freedom Charter's nonracial dream may be discarded. That would unleash all kinds of pent-up hatreds and destructive enmities.

President Mbeki only needs to look at neighboring Zimbabwe to see where that would lead.

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