South Africa on the Edge

The main achievement of South Africa’s state president, F.W. de Klerk, has been to take the difficult political steps necessary to begin dismantling the system of white supremacy. Unfortunately, he has not shown similar courage or wisdom in leading the country toward the future. He has been particularly unsuccessful in dealing with the struggle over what will replace apartheid, which has pitted white against black and black against black, and which has resulted in some of the most appalling violence ever seen in South Africa. Since de Klerk was inaugurated in September 1989, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the townships, largely in fighting among black political groups. A smaller number of people, an estimated 2,300, were killed between 1984 and 1986, the years in which the government used extreme force to suppress black uprisings.

In the California-like suburbs where many whites reside, life goes on much as usual, but some of the townships, where gunmen stand watch at street barricades and gunfire is heard after nightfall, remind me of Beirut. Nearly every day, the Johannesburg Star, the Sowetan, and other newspapers report new acts of violence in a black community—the ambush of a carload of activists, the assassination of a local leader, the lynching of a suspected informant, indiscriminate shootings of commuters on trains and busses.

De Klerk has blamed the bloodshed on black political intolerance. He has admonished Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, the two most prominent groups representing blacks, to cease their destructive rivalry. Undoubtedly that would help decrease the number of killings; and there is no doubt that the violence between the black groups has been increasingly fierce. What de Klerk ignores, however, is that a large part of the continuing violence derives from repressive and divisive policies conceived and administered by his own National Party. During the past three years he and his fellow party leaders have been working out an approach to political reform that has increased political tensions.

The objective of the Nationalists, to put it no less frankly than de Klerk has done, is to keep themselves in power when apartheid is finally dismantled. I first heard de Klerk say something to this effect in November 1990, when he spoke on behalf of a National Party candidate in a parliamentary by-election in Randburg, a half-Afrikaans, half-English suburb of Johannesburg. During the question period following his prepared speech he said flatly: “We plan to be part of the majority winning the first election.”

If de Klerk now professes to support democracy, it is difficult to see how the party that institutionalized apartheid could expect to win a free election in a country of thirty-three million blacks and five million whites. In formulating its strategy for staying more or less in control, the party, I’ve been told, has drawn on the advice of the National Intelligence Service and the leading members of the Broederbond (“band of brothers …

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