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South Africa on the Edge

It was widely predicted that the rivalry would intensify once the ANC was legalized and free to try to build up its own strength in Natal Province. Instead of trying to calm the situation, the de Klerk government’s actions often have had the effect of egging the parties on. Less than a month after lifting the ban on the ANC, for example, the Nationalists began secretly to give at least $600,000 to Inkatha, much of it through the South African police, so that Buthelezi could hold large rallies to counter the ANC’s shows of strength.

In mid-1990, Buthelezi’s aggressive recruiting campaign around Johannesburg touched off heavy fighting between ANC members and Zulu residents of the migrant workers’ hostels who supported Inkatha. After the clashes erupted, de Klerk’s government lifted rather than tightened restrictions on carrying tribal weapons, such as the Zulu spears, in public.

The most objective assessment of the violence can be found in the periodic reports issued by Justice Goldstone, the chairman of the Commission of Enquiry Regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation. Although formally appointed by de Klerk, the commission derives its authority from the “national peace accord,” an agreement reached by most of the political parties in September 1991. Goldstone says that he found no evidence directly implicating de Klerk or other senior officials of the government—as opposed to parts of the security forces—in sponsoring violence; nor has Goldstone been able to support the suspicion, voiced by Amnesty International and other outside groups, that security forces have actively colluded with Inkatha’s violent attacks on the ANC.9 But he has criticized the government for not taking steps to halt the violence. His findings thus lend some credence to the ANC’s claims that de Klerk sees political gain for the Nationalists in the fighting between the ANC and the Zulus.

In April, Goldstone’s commission identified the migrant workers’ hostels near Johannesburg, mostly dominated by Inkatha supporters from Natal, as the centers of the worst violence. The commission said that the Zulu practice of carrying spears and other tribal weapons constituted “provocative and unacceptable behaviour,” and recommended that hostels be fenced in and monitored closely by the police, and that cultural weapons be banned in public.

In July, a plainly annoyed Goldstone issued a statement in which he criticized the government for ignoring his recommendations. Goldstone also criticized the behavior of the security forces, particularly in the 32 Battalion, a unit of Portuguese-speaking Angolans recruited by the South African defense force. In April, the battalion became involved in a gun battle with people in the Phola Park squatter camp south of Johannesburg. The camp residents charged that members of 32 Battalion then went on a rampage in which innocent civilians were murdered and raped. The Goldstone commission found that the 32 Battalion had in fact been “perpetrators of violence” and had acted “in a manner completely inconsistent with the function of a peacekeeping force.”

The commission was disturbed by the attitude of the 32 Battalion’s commander, who “justified the use of what would normally be regarded as excessive force by soldiers on the grounds that they were involved in what amounted to a war.” The commission found no justification for the use of such force, and said it was concerned that the commander’s attitude “might prevail elsewhere in the defense force.” It recommended that the 32 Battalion be withdrawn from peace-keeping duties. It was not.

In his July statement Goldstone also criticized the government for sponsoring another mercenary counterinsurgency unit called Koevoet, which consists of Namibians and which was used to fight the South West People’s Organization in Namibia. “The infamous reputation of Koevoet,” Goldstone said, “is such that the very existence of such a group in South Africa in 1992 is calculated to cause yet further distrust and suspicion of the security forces.” Indeed, Goldstone went on, ignoring his commission’s recommendations “can only be calculated to diminish if not only of the commission but also of the government.”

De Klerk has also failed to act on the evidence that South Africans have been killed while in police custody. In July, Dr. Jonathan Gluckman, one of the country’s leading private pathologists, said that his autopsies indicated that more than two hundred people had been murdered in police custody since 1986, including the period since de Klerk became president. Gluckman, a former president of the Medical Association of South Africa, told a number of journalists including myself that he had written to de Klerk personally four times without results. “I can’t stand it any longer,” he said in a front-page interview published in the Johannesburg Sunday Times. “The lower rungs of the police are totally out of control.” In December, de Klerk’s minister of law and order, Hernus Kriel, said Gluckman’s charges were false. But Kriel based his conclusion on an internal police review, which fell far short of being a thorough reinvestigation of the cases cited by Gluckman.

Recent revelations have prompted other serious questions about the higher ranks of de Klerk’s security forces. In November, Goldstone used his powers of search and seizure to raid a building that turned out to house a large unit of the government’s military intelligence department. According to Goldstone’s report, the seized files disclosed that the South African defense force had hired a convicted murderer, who submitted a plan for using prostitutes, homosexuals, and drug dealers to criminally compromise members of the ANC’s military wing. The man, Ferdi Barnard, had previously been employed by a defense force covert operation unit known as the Civil Cooperation Bureau that carried out acts of violence against anti-apartheid activists. Military intelligence put Barnard on its payroll between May and December 1991, despite de Klerk’s explicit public promise in July of that year, after the covert funding of Inkatha was exposed, that security forces would no longer be used for political purposes.

Goldstone’s reports pose a central question about de Klerk. If he is committed to pursuing a political and not a military solution to South Africa’s problems, why doesn’t he take stronger action against the security forces? Has he lost control of them? There is evidence to suggest that de Klerk does not see eye to eye with all the security chiefs and that he has underestimated the power of the large security establishment, which was built up under Botha, to frustrate some of his initiatives. De Klerk approved some of Goldstone’s investigations, and it seems that he would like to rein in the security forces, although he has found it difficult to do so.

In a cabinet reshuffle in 1991, de Klerk replaced the defense minister, Magnus Malan, the most prominent hawk in the cabinet, with Roelf Meyer, a young member of de Klerk’s negotiating team who had spent his military service in the air force choir. After Meyer took steps to reform the military, a prominent retired colonel, clearly expressing a feeling widespread inside the military, sharply criticized Meyer in a letter published by the Johannesburg Sunday Times for destroying esprit de corps. It wasn’t long before de Klerk shifted Meyer back to the group that was negotiating with the ANC.

A week before Christmas, however, de Klerk took his strongest action yet against the security forces. In what the South African press called a purge he announced the retirement or suspension of twenty-three defense force officers, including two generals. De Klerk said he took this action following an internal investigation of defense force intelligence activities that had been prompted by Goldstone’s findings. Without giving details, de Klerk said that the investigation had revealed illegal and sometimes unauthorized practices on the part of the defense force.

The move received praise from many parties, including from some ANC officials. But hard political calculations probably explain why de Klerk has taken so long to curb militants within the security forces as well as to restrain Inkatha’s violence. Most military officers are not fundamentally opposed to de Klerk’s proposals for “power sharing,” which he presents as the best defense against black domination. If negotiations for reform collapse, he will need the security forces to defend white interests. In announcing his action, de Klerk declared, “I stand by our security forces and our intelligence services.”

Last June, the ANC stopped taking part in negotiations being conducted in an all-party forum called The Convention for a Democratic South Africa, or CODESA, after a particularly horrible massacre of some forty ANC supporters in Boipatong, a township south of Johannesburg, for which scores of Inkatha supporters have been arrested. The underlying reason for the breakdown, however, was the ANC’s frustration over the government’s approach to negotiations. It was particularly annoyed by what appeared to be a Nationalist plan to install, for an indefinite period of time, a government of “national unity,” of which the Nationalists would be a key party, and thus impede the transition to full democracy.

In September, to get the ANC back into negotiations, de Klerk finally promised to take several of the measures to limit violence that the ANC had been demanding and that Goldstone had recommended. He had previously announced that the 32 Battalion and Koevoet would be disbanded and now he pledged that he would ban Zulu spears and other cultural weapons, and closely monitor workers’ hostels.

De Klerk’s moves were followed in December by a meeting at a country bush retreat between leading Nationalists and ANC officials, which was intended to make up for lost time. From all reports, the two groups arrived at further understandings, and, as. I write, there is speculation that the all-party convention could be reconvened as early as February. The convention, or so it is hoped, would appoint a de facto cabinet that might be installed by mid-year to supersede de Klerk’s government and prepare for elections in which people of all races would participate. They would vote for a constituent assembly, which would then write a constitution.

There is no sign, however, that de Klerk has dropped his demand for a constitution that gives minority parties guaranteed participation in government, or what amounts to a permanent veto over majority will. In fact, he, and associates, have hinted recently that he would have to remain in power until the ANC agreed to his proposals for safeguarding minority interests. His own proposed timetable for the transition to democracy would put off the elections until 1994.

South Africa may not be able to wait until then. Many blacks have been led to expect fundamental change and the townships will become more volatile if it is put off too long. The frustrations will be aggravated by an economy that is getting worse by the day. I was one of the relatively few whites who attended the funeral of the Boipatong massacre victims in June, and I was alarmed by what I saw there. Boipatong and neighboring townships are about twenty-five miles south of Johannesburg, next to de Klerk’s old Vereeniging constituency. Small groups of black youths from the pro-black-power Pan Africanist Congress, mistaking me for a South African, followed me around chanting their organization’s slogan, “One settler, one bullet.” While a mass service was taking place at Boipatong soccer field a few blocks away, a gang of ANC supporters dragged a suspected Inkatha member out of his house, beat him, ran over him with a car, and then “necklaced” him, putting a tire filled with gasoline around his body and setting him ablaze.

With a visiting black reporter from Newsday in the passenger seat, I drove for nearly an hour behind the cortege through Sharpeville township to the cemetery. Thousands of townships’ residents turned out. We saw groups of armed youths racing past the procession, firing rifles and pistols in the air. Other groups armed with spears, pangas, and knives were parading through the streets. At the burial ground, several white reporters were physically attacked by young men.

When darkness began to fall, we sped out of the township behind a BMW carrying Chris Hani, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party. He is one of the most popular black leaders, and we hoped that following him would provide some protection. When I returned to the calm and orderly suburb north of Johannesburg where I live, I did what any white South African might have done. I poured myself a double Scotch, and wondered how much longer the people in the townships will wait for de Klerk to give way.

—January 14, 1993

  1. 9

    See “South Africa State of Fear: Security Force Complicity in Torture and Political Killings, 1990–1992” Amnesty International, June 1992.

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