The Bloody Irony of the Dismantling of Apartheid


Cape Town, South Africa. -- Nearly three years after the dramatic reforms launched by President F. W. de Klerk, parts of South Africa are slipping into chaos. Local newspapers, with reason, talk of looming civil war.

People are dying at a rate of nearly 10 a day. The number of policemen killed in violence has doubled in three years. Motorists are being stalked and shot at random on highways near Johannesburg. Black train commuters in Transvaal province are regularly attacked by armed thugs.

Political leaders find themselves frequently burying colleagues and supporters massacred in political violence.

In such a bloody spiral, whose fault it is become largely irrelevant. Mindless tit-for-tat violence eclipses the question of blame, and threatens to bring everyone and everything crashing down. The local and foreign peace-keepers wring their hands, but the massacres and assassinations go on.

The economy, slowed by years of under-performance caused by apartheid, international sanctions and now a cruel drought, teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

The growth rate is negative. Unemployment is a staggering 40 to 50 percent. Former optimism about the future has turned to foreboding. The business community is at its wit's end, knowing that foreign investment to reconstruct the economy will arrive only when society is stable and government democratically secure.

The irony is that the very act of dismantling apartheid, far from bringing about peace and stability, has unleashed new passions in the body politic, particularly among Africans, who have streamed freely to cities in large numbers.

The apartheid era had a crude order about it. Those who got out of line were simply clobbered by a heavy-handed white government. As apartheid goes, its residual evils in the black community -- warring tribal fiefdoms and once-favored elites, poorly-educated jobless youngsters, the gangsterism born of hopelessness -- conspire to defy those seeking peace.

A country once ostracized by the world, with a white government previously hostile to international involvement, now bristles with invited peace-keepers -- from the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the European Community -- not to mention South Africa's own overworked National Peace Accord secretariat.

Commissions, thick with lawyers, plod vainly around the country trying to get to the bottom of the most appalling incidents of violence. Arrests are too few; killings go on.

Clearly, the most dangerous area of all is the sub-tropical province of Natal on the eastern seaboard, where an obdurate Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi guides his Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, which defies laws banning the public carrying of dangerous weapons such as spears.

The Zulu people are divided between those who support the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela, and those who support Chief Buthelezi, who is politically closer to Pretoria -- indeed, not uncomfortable even in the company of whites who stand to the right of Mr. de Klerk.

The Buthelezi dispute with the African National Congress, though it goes back to a breach in 1979, is in essence a power struggle over who emerges with what influence in the new South Africa. Chief Buthelezi is battling to shore up his Zulu power in the face of opinion polls which give him low public support. He remains a formidable, and troublesome, factor in South African politics.

Unless the ANC-Inkatha quarrel can be patched up it will cost many more lives. In fact, Natal at times raises the specter of Biafra, which waged an unsuccessful separatist struggle in eastern Nigeria twenty years ago.

Scattered around Natal province, the Zulu "homeland" is not one piece of territory, which complicates a separatist strategy. But Chief Buthelezi could, playing a last desperate card, issue a call to arms throughout Natal -- which would see his Zulu followers in bizarre coalition with conservative English-speaking whites who traditionally ran the province.

Some ANC quarters are generously advocating a coalition between the ANC, the ruling National Party and other groups, not just for the interim period but lasting for some time after free elections. But continuing violence will inhibit any attempt at democratic process. It fuels mistrust among all South Africans, black and white.

Apartheid was internationally condemned, and rightly so. Now the ending of apartheid, a violent and risky enterprise, is arguably the responsibility not only of the distrustful South African players, but of a once-critical world. Because of its past, South Africa is an abnormal country.

The world community, led by the United States, could do much to coax the players to a durable settlement. More, it should move to underwrite -- in every way possible -- the resulting agreements, which could open up a peaceful era in Southern Africa.

Anthony Hazlitt Heard was formerly editor of the Cape Times, Cape Town.

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