South African peace force combines ex-enemies but stays out of hot spots


DE BRUG, South Africa -- Here is the dream: A National Peacekeeping Force composed of former enemies, designed to go out and keep order as South Africans vote in their first multiracial elections.

After months of training here, the peacekeeping force is finally being deployed. But they're not going to the big trouble spot of KwaZulu and Natal, where the worst pre-election violence has occurred and a state of emergency has been declared.

In the confusing world of South African politics, the force is considered too partisan for that assignment.

Instead, the initial destination of the force will be the troubled townships near Johannesburg where the South African army has already quieted the worst of the violence.

Identified with ANC

And even that assignment has drawn criticism for some who see the force as too much identified with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which has been fighting the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party in the townships.

That was the reason these troops were kept out of Natal. Inkatha, which controls KwaZulu, is boycotting the election. It kept KwaZulu police out of the peacekeeping force. But the ANC eagerly sent many members of its liberation army, UmKhonto we Sizwe.

The training of the peacekeeping force marked the first time former enemies -- members of the South African Defense Force and UmKhonto we Sizwe -- are pointing their guns in the same direction instead of at each other.

They were joined by black troops from the other homelands and the South African police to make up the first 3,000-strong contingent of peacekeepers.

The racial harmony the force was supposed to represent was jeopardized in January by reports of racial incidents. At one point, some beer-fueled former ANC fighters got to dancing the rhythmic, revolutionary toyi-toyi and chanting "One settler, one bullet," at unnerved white members of the force.

"Many of the reports were exaggerated but, yes, we had some problems," said John Young, a regular army sergeant major assigned to training the new peacekeeping troops. "I think if you're going to point a finger at anyone, you should point it at the politicians, not at the soldiers here."

By that he meant South Africa's Transitional Executive Council (TEC), the multiparty, multiracial group that is controlling much of the country's affairs leading up to this month's election. In trying to get the peacekeeping force off the ground, the ruling council put the cart before the horse.

The soldiers were sent to this camp before it was properly prepared. Living conditions were wretched.

There was no commander, only an officer temporarily in charge. And there was no code of conduct agreed upon by the disparate forces, meaning there was no way to discipline anyone.

In February, Maj. Gen. Gabriel Ramushwana, the former head of the military in the independent homeland of Venda, took charge of the peacekeeping force.

He was carefully chosen. Even though he is black, the general came from an independent homeland, which meant that he had participated in apartheid-era structures and had worked with the white South African government.

Admits problems

A quiet, confident man, who has shrugged off charges of corruption that trailed him from Venda, General Ramushwana admitted that there had been some problems.

"When I took over, I called everyone together and told them they were not compelled to be here," General Ramushwana said. "I said that those who were not prepared to stay and do the work should leave. That took care of most of the problems."

But not all. There was a short strike, apparently caused by the government promising one pay scale and paying a lower one.

What concerned some observers about the 70 who departed was that most of them appeared to be white former South African military men or policemen.

Force nearly all black

Their departure left the peacekeeping force practically all black, instead of the integrated, impartial force many hoped it would be.

The general said that getting a better racial mix also was complicated by the scrapping of the military's all-white draft and the institution of an all-race volunteer army.

The services just could not spare many trained whites for the force.

The mixture of experience did pose some training problems.

"People came from different cultures, different training," said Maj. Arnie Van Wyk, a square-jawed white military officer. "The [ANC guerrillas] were training to fight a bush war. They had a different discipline.

"It would be just like if you took NATO soldiers and Warsaw Pact soldiers and put them together," said Col. Duma Mdutyama, an UmKhonto we Sizwe veteran, second in command at the training base.

Trained by Warsaw Pact

Like most liberation army officers, he was trained in Warsaw Pact countries that aided the ANC's struggle.

Even the scenery seems to mitigate against the multiracial dream. Beyond the training camp, roads in the Orange Free State are plastered with signs reading "Hierde is Ons Volkstaat" -- "This is Our Homeland."

The right wing has claimed this province that was once an independent Boer republic as its temporary white homeland.

The training camp itself was named for Christiaan de Wet, a Boer commander who fought the British and then headed the Orange Free State.

Against this backdrop, as the training day ends, the roads are filled with platoons of men, raising red dust on the dry roads as they jog in step, chanting the rhythmic marches of soldiers, mainly in African languages.

Symbolic value

General Ramushwana struggles with the realities. Looking over the peacekeeping force's assignments, he comments on the difficulty of training soldiers for everything from combat to riot control to crime prevention and mediation.

But when he gets to protection of polling places, he laughs aloud. There will be 10,000 polling places. Even if another contingent training near Cape Town joins these 3,000 troops, there would only be one soldier for every two polling places.

Hope has faded that the peacekeepers will be a strong force, but many still see its symbolic value as going beyond one of racial harmony.

"They're probably going to have to kill somebody to get some respect," said one Western diplomat who specializes in military affairs. "If they move into a situation and apply force properly, and if the politicians back them up, then they could make a difference in the country."

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