Pick your poison


WITH ALL the excitement, drama and media hoopla, it's easy to believe that a lot has changed in South Africa. The reality is that not much has changed at all. The end of apartheid is a blessing, but South Africans may have merely voted to exchange white authoritarian rule for black authoritarian rule.

Though the African National Congress is usually portrayed as a progressive band of liberators who have brought democracy to the tip of Africa, the reality is that the ANC leadership -- from Nelson Mandela on down -- learned the art of governing at the knee of the white-run, ruthless, democracy-be-damned National Party. Like the Nats before them, many of the ANC leaders think the best way to run a country is to keep the power centralized, maintain a tight rein on the media and demonize all opponents.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of last week's election results is that the ANC got so close -- 62.6 percent -- to the magic total of 66.7 percent of the vote, which is the figure needed to ratify the new constitution. ANC leaders say they would not use a two-thirds majority to alter the interim constitution substantially.

But that's just the problem for the (obviously) small minority of South Africans who think the interim constitution, written primarily by the ANC and the National Party, is an authoritarian's dream. They were betting that aggressively pro-federalist, free-enterprise candidates from several small parties would get enough seats in the Parliament to make a difference.

But from the looks of the results now, it appears that at least 90 percent of the members will be hard-core central planners and the remainder will not be able to pose a serious challenge to their hegemony.

The closeness of the ANC and the National Party is certainly not a new phenomenon. It's no longer startling to hear ANC officials defend a policy by declaring that the National Party leaders had done the same thing at one time or another.

That goes for everything from continuing the tough restrictions on private broadcasters and the press to the ANC's proposal to once again ban hawkers from the city centers so that the places will look nicer. In fact, it's become sort of a game to bet when an ANC official finally will slip and declare in all seriousness that two wrongs make a right.

The examples are legion. For years, the ANC railed against the government's use of states of emergency to crack down on ANC activists.

Yet the ANC encouraged President F.W. de Klerk to impose a state of emergency on the Natal Province last month, in a move that was seen as a way to crackdown on the Inkatha Party, the ANC's long-standing rival. This state of emergency, said the ANC, was different.

During negotiations on the interim constitution, human-rights activists lobbied to get rid of the notorious Section 29, which allows the police to detain anyone under harsh conditions without charging them with a crime.

Yet the ANC negotiators, most of whom had languished in jail cells for months or years under the old regime, refused to abolish detention without trial. They promised that they would use such a device more wisely.

And, more ominous for the whole of South Africa's 40 million people, the ANC and the National Party drew up a bill of rights that begins with promises and ends with a limitation clause that can negate each and every right.

So what does it all mean? Though there are myriad examples of irregularities during the ballot counting, there's no doubt that the election will be declared "free and fair."

The new Parliament convened Friday and elected Mr. Mandela president. The country will celebrate his inauguration tomorrow. And hopefully this relatively violence-free period will continue.

But when the last speech has been delivered, the TV cameras have been turned off and the foreign dignitaries have gone home, South Africans are going to wake up with a major hangover that feels awfully familiar.

Maureen Sullivan is a writer for the Financial Mail, a weekly news magazine in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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