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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.1

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”), the secret society that has always been an influential force in Nationalist Party politics. For the party to maintain power, two conditions are necessary.

First, de Klerk would have to negotiate a new constitution that would hinder if not block the ANC’s hopes for majority rule by explicitly giving minority parties, such as the Nationalists, a de facto veto in government decisions. Second, when the first free elections are held, the Nationalists and their coalition allies would have to make a good showing, and win at least 30 percent of the vote. With somewhere between 45 and 60 percent support in recent opinion surveys, the ANC is the country’s single most popular political organization.

From the day that de Klerk gave the order in February 1990 to release Nelson Mandela from prison, he and his colleagues have been engaged not so much in a historic act of reconciliation as in preparing for the toughest re-election fight of their lives. They have made the most of their very considerable assets: control of the country’s television, the tacit support of the powerful military and police apparatus, and a relaxation of international pressure on the Nationalist government. They have kept their adversaries, including the ANC, constantly on the defensive.

As with Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, the loosening of Pretoria’s hold was bound to rekindle political and tribal rivalries. But the Nationalists’ strategy has tended to increase rather than cool down the conflict. Richard Goldstone, a justice of South Africa’s supreme court, who has been conducting an official inquiry into political killings, has repeatedly criticized the government and the security forces for not taking actions that might have reduced the violence in the townships. Instead of producing a climate for putting aside past divisions and negotiating new political arrangements, de Klerk has helped to let loose a scramble for power.

When I arrived in South Africa three years ago, during de Klerk’s presidential campaign, I called on his brother, Willem de Klerk, a professor in the communications department at Rand Afrikaans University, who helped me to understand how deeply the family had been involved in the history of apartheid. Willem’s office is on the university’s Johannesburg campus, a monument to Afrikanerdom in the mining city built by the Oppenheimers and other English-speaking capitalists (“the Hoggenheimers,” as anti-Semitic Afrikaners used to call them). The clean-cut white students might have been at an American Bible college. The modern high-rise classroom buildings were constructed in a broad circle, symbolizing the laager, the wagon circles of the Great Trek, which brought the Afrikaners to the Transvaal from the Cape in the nineteenth century to escape British colonial domination.

Willem, or Wimpie, as everybody calls him, is sixty-four, eight years older than his brother. Speaking in Afrikaans-accented English, he told me that as a young man he had been ordained and served ten years as a Dutch Reformed pastor and then had been a professor of philosophy at the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education. In 1973 he turned to journalism, serving as editor for fourteen years of Die Transvaaler and then of Rapport, two of the largest Afrikaans newspapers. He was fired from Rapport in 1987 when his relatively liberal opinions became too much for its pro-Nationalist owners.

Willem and his brother had many heated arguments about politics over the years. Until he became president, F.W. de Klerk had always been thought of as one of the party’s hardliners. Willem, by contrast, was widely known as the spokesman within the Afrikaner establishment of a verligte, or more enlightened, approach to political relations with blacks. While F. W. was being elected leader of the National Party in February 1989, Willem was helping to establish the Democratic Party, the organization of mainly English-speaking liberals which grew out of the old Progressive Federal Party. Not long after he wrote F.W. De Klerk: The Man in His Time, published in South Africa in 1991, one of the best sources of information about his brother.

Willem jokes that his brother has been in politics since birth. Their father, Johannes de Klerk, who was always called Jan, was an influential Nationalist politician for thirty-seven years. In 1936, when Frederik Willem de Klerk was born in Johannesburg, Jan de Klerk was teaching Afrikaans and other subjects at a local high school. He was also a National Party organizer and he became party secretary for the Johannesburg area. In 1945, he was named secretary of the European Workers Protection Society, organized to safeguard the interests of white garment workers. A year later, he was promoted to chief Nationalist secretary for the Transvaal province.

He was carrying on a family tradition of Afrikaner nationalism and strong racial prejudice: during the 1930s and 1940s a relative, J.C. van Rooy, a professor at Potchefstroom University, was chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the organization established in 1918 to advance Afrikaner power. Jan’s father, an earlier Willem, had been a Nationalist organizer in the Transvaal.

Jan de Klerk became prominent in the party in 1948, when his work as an organizer in the Transvaal helped the Nationalists win an upset victory over Jan Smuts’s United Party. In 1954, Prime Minister Johannes “Hans” Strijdom, a former Nationalist leader in the Transvaal who had married Jan de Klerk’s sister Susan, brought him into the cabinet. For the next fifteen years, Jan was a member of the cabinet of successive Nationalist governments, first under Strijdom until 1958, and later under Hendrik Verwoerd and of John Vorster. He was variously minister of labor, of public works, of mines, of interior, of immigration, of education, arts and sciences, and of information.

Jan de Klerk tended to work behind the scenes, but as a high party and government apparatchik he was a member of the group that created the system of Afrikaner supremacy that was to make South Africa a pariah nation. He fought the 1948 election on the Nationalist platform which called for more rigid segregation than before, and charged that Smuts, a more tolerant Afrikaner with a long association with Britain, would accept unchecked black migration to the cities and would allow South Africa’s traditions of racial separation to break down. The first Nationalist prime minister, Daniel Malan, proceeded to enact legislation requiring strict apartheid in living areas, schools, jobs, and sexual relations.

Strijdom was even more fanatical than Malan. His supporters called him “The Lion of the North,” but his detractors preferred “Heil Hans,” a reference to his apparent pro-Nazi sentiments. In 1940 he presided over the Nationalist Party meeting in the Transvaal that voted to deny membership to Jews. During his four-year term, Strijdom advocated a frankly white supremacist interpretation of apartheid, called baaskaap, or mastership.

Malan had left it to Strijdom’s government to undertake the often brutal measures necessary to carry out apartheid, including the eviction of thousands of blacks and Indians from their homes. As Strijdom’s labor minister, Jan de Klerk supervised an amendment that legalized the previously informal system of reserving the better jobs, even menial ones, for whites. Overnight, all the black elevator operators in Johannesburg were discharged.

The Nationalist measures provoked an angry backlash among blacks, and Strijdom’s government increased its repression. Just before Christmas in 1956, the authorities arrested 156 anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, and put them on trial for treason. By 1961 they were acquitted, but one year later, under Verwoerd, the authorities again arrested Mandela, after he had formed the ANC’s guerrilla wing, and sentenced him to life in prison for trying to overthrow the government.

According to Willem, “F.W.,” as he has been called since childhood, was close to their father during the years when the Nationalists were consolidating their power. Father and son spent many holidays with the Strijdoms at their estate in the Kruger National Park. “He was quite somebody, my father,” Willem told me. “Capable. Active. Charming. Warm. A man who could present himself to the public. The typical politician. A real conservative.” Jan’s second son grew up to be “an Afrikaner establishment man.”

As an undergraduate law student at Potchefstroom, the younger de Klerk was vice-chairman of the student council, an executive member of the Afrikaanse Studentebond, either of the student newspaper, and active in the National Party’s youth wing. He was a minor celebrity on campus because his uncle was prime minister and his father was in the cabinet. Not long after graduation, de Klerk set up a law practice in Vereeniging, a conservative industrial city south of Johannesburg. He began dabbling in local Nationalist politics and in 1964 was invited, like his father and brother before him, to join the Broederbond.

In 1972, while his father was serving as president of the senate, F.W. de Klerk stood for a seat in parliament and won. As Jan’s son, he moved swiftly up the ranks. At age forty-two, young by Nationalist standards, Vorster made him a minister, in charge of white social welfare and pensions, and he went on to become minister of sport, of post and communications, of mining, of interior, and of white education. He gained experience in running white South Africa, but he did nothing in particular to distinguish himself, seeming to take pride in his party obedience. “The silver thread throughout my career,” he has said, “was my advocacy of National Party policy in all its various formulations. I refrained from adjusting that policy or adapting it to my own liking or convictions. I analyzed it as it was formulated, to the letter.”2

De Klerk’s first notable achievement was in helping to defeat the threat to Nationalist dominance that was posed by Andries Treurnicht, the ultranationalist Transvaal party leader who, in 1982, formed the new Conservative Party, which is committed to strict apartheid. Nationalist elders turned to de Klerk to take on Treurnicht and stop the flow of Transvaal followers to the new right-wing Afrikaner camp. In February 1989, President P.W. Botha resigned as party leader following a stroke, and the Nationalist caucus elected de Klerk to succeed him. After three rounds of voting, he defeated Barend du Plessis, the finance minister, by a vote of 69 to 61. De Klerk became acting president six months later when Botha was forced to retire, and he was elected to a full five-year term in September.

Ironically, de Klerk was regarded as the conservative, Du Plessis the reformer. When I spoke with Willem de Klerk in September 1989, however, he was optimistic that F.W. could bring about change. “For the first time in his life,” Willem told me, “he is really being exposed directly to international attitudes, African attitudes, and to the black leadership within South Africa. As he is a pragmatist, I am sure this exposure will be for the good. He acknowledges that, to be successful, he must introduce solutions.”

De Klerk made history on February 2, 1990, when he announced in an opening session of parliament that his government was lifting the bans on liberation groups, easing security measures, and releasing Mandela. I was in Cape Town that day, and everybody I spoke with, including anti-apartheid leaders like Reverend Allan Boesak, was surprised by the boldness of de Klerk’s moves. What was new about the speech was its unequivocal acknowledgment that the various liberation groups, and not merely blacks of Pretoria’s liking, must be directly involved in negotiating the country’s future.

The truth, though, is that, as some of his colleagues have acknowledged, de Klerk acted because apartheid was reaching a state of acute crisis as a result of mounting social and economic pressures, exacerbated by sanctions, withdrawal of investment, and loan cancellations. South Africa has had a zero or minus-zero economic growth rate in each of de Klerk’s years in office. Notwithstanding the to-hell-with-the-world posturing of the Nationalist leaders, international isolation was a devastating blow. Du Plessis, the minister of finance from 1984 until his retirement this year, recently said in a radio interview:

There would have come a time when the backlogs [i.e., unmet social costs] would have become so large as a result of the extremely large numbers of unemployed people that there is no way any government could have governed this country. So, we had to move politically, internally, to change the situation.

With the demise of communism, de Klerk saw the chance to make a virtue of necessity; he was convinced that any strategic gain the ANC would make if it were legalized would be offset by the benefits to the Nationalists, such as a greatly improved international image. “The ANC,” he said in 1991, “was formerly an instrument of Russian expansionism in southern Africa. When that threat fell away, the carpet was pulled from under the ANC. Its base of financing, counselling and moral support had crumbled. It was as if God had taken a hand, a new turn in world history. We had to seize the opportunity.”3

De Klerk accepts credit for taking the initiative in changing government policy, but he also emphasizes that the reforms were drawn up by the cabinet and then unanimously approved by his party colleagues. He praises his fellow ministers, notably the justice minister, Kobie Coetsee, for having earlier laid the groundwork for the reforms. Amid the turmoil of the mid-1980s, Coetsee and then other officials had secret meetings with Mandela, at Mandela’s request, aimed at resolving the country’s racial conflict.

Coetsee had Mandela driven from his prison quarters and brought to Coetsee’s house for discussions about history and politics. By the time de Klerk released Mandela, he had twice met with him himself and had become confident that Mandela would be willing to negotiate with him in good faith. In his speech from Cape Town City Hall only a few hours after his release, Mandela pointedly described de Klerk as a “man of integrity.”

De Klerk has had remarkable success in changing the sinister image of the National Party. Blacks still do not have the vote, the government remains bloated with Afrikaner bureaucrats and state-managed industries, yet the Nationalists have appeared to reinvent themselves as the party of democracy and free enterprise. Simply by agreeing to negotiate, de Klerk gained acceptance for the idea that his party has as much right as any other political group to govern the “new South Africa.” Part of his success is explained by the contrast between de Klerk, an unassuming and approachable man, and such arrogant leaders as Strijdom and P.W. Botha. André Brink, the Afrikaans novelist, who went to school with de Klerk in Potchefstroom, described him as “a man who wants to be liked.”

As South African leader between 1978 and 1989, Botha started out as a reformer but came to manage the apartheid crisis in the manner of Pinochet. A former defense minister, he ignored his cabinet and parliament and used the security forces to enforce his “Total Strategy” against the “Total Onslaught” on South Africa by global communism. De Klerk immediately restored the primacy of parliament in Nationalist rule. “The most important thing about de Klerk,” a British diplomat told me in 1989, “is that he is a civilian.”

By his own testimony, however, de Klerk has been doing nothing more remarkable than putting into effect a Nationalist reform policy adopted nearly a decade before he took office. Ideologically, the great leap, such as it was, actually occurred under Botha early in his administration. Two years after the Soweto uprisings of 1976, he began to dismantle the policy of “separate development,” Verwoerd’s ruthless, expensive, and ultimately unworkable policy of banishing blacks to remote and impoverished tribal homelands so that South Africa could be purely white.

Botha proposed a system of “power sharing,” as distinct from the ANC’s idea of “majority rule.” In what Nationalists regard as the first stage of power sharing with nonwhites, Botha changed the constitution in 1984 to enable Indians and Coloreds to have representation in racially segregated chambers in parliament. The so-called “tricameral parliament” was a sham because it kept all meaningful power, including responsibility for the armed forces and the economy, in the hands of the white chamber. It provoked the black reaction that led Botha’s security forces to clamp down on most forms of black protest. It nonetheless introduced a precedent that gave a jolt to many Nationalists: it tacitly accepted that South Africa was a unitary and multiracial country where whites would no longer have exclusive political power.

De Klerk sees his political policies as essentially in line with Botha’s. The difference is largely tactical: where Botha hesitated, de Klerk had the courage to start serious negotiations with blacks and to accept the implication contained in “power sharing”: the days of unilateral white decision-making are over. In his brother’s book, he justifies himself as follows:

When those of us in the inner circles, courageously led by P.W. Botha, had reached the conclusion that our policy had to shift from separate development to power sharing, I gave it my full support. Once we had gone through the process of reassessment I took a leap in my own mind, more decisively than many other National Party politicians, that power sharing with blacks was the right course for a new political dispensation. From then on, for example in the 1987 election, I was the one who stuck my neck out furthest to sell that idea all over the country.4

Many religious leaders, including Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, feel that de Klerk, as leader of the Nationalists, should go further and apologize for apartheid. Especially in view of the Nationalists’ determination to continue having a share of power, they believe genuine reconciliation requires that de Klerk’s party seek forgiveness for the misery its policies inflicted on generations of blacks. This de Klerk refuses to do. Part of his strategy, in fact, involves a subtle effort to establish a moral equivalence between his party and the liberation groups. Apartheid may have had bad effects, de Klerk says, but so did communism, an ideology embraced by many ANC leaders. On two occasions, in order to get the ANC to open negotiations, de Klerk had to release hundreds of its members who had been imprisoned for offenses involving violence committed during the fight against apartheid. Determined to deny their actions any legitimacy, de Klerk arranged for the simultaneous release of tens of thousands of common criminals, including murderers and thieves.

In a speech in October, de Klerk addressed the moral questions about apartheid more extensively than he had previously done. “We have sinned,” he said, “and we do not deny this.” The statement rang hollow, though, because de Klerk did not identify the sin or sins being confessed to. In fact, his speech sounded more like a defense of apartheid than an apology for it. Speaking to an audience of Afrikaners celebrating the 150th anniversary of a Vortrekker town in the Orange Free State, he warned them against glorifying their past. Then he proceeded to condemn people he believed were trying to “manipulate” the country’s history to present it in a negative light. Speaking of the Afrikaner people, he said:

The search for justice flows through our history like a gold thread. Within the framework of what was internationally acceptable, we have a very honorable history. We are proud of it.

De Klerk, in fact, has not changed the premise underlying all the Nationalists’ proposed reforms: whites, as a group, have an inherent right to govern South Africa. The Nationalists, de Klerk says, are not prepared to exchange “one form of domination [forty-four years of white minority rule by Nationalists] for another,” i.e., black majority rule by the ANC. For the past three years, de Klerk and his colleagues have been formulating a two-part strategy which amounts to a plan for preserving white privileges and Nationalist power.

The most important part concerns a new constitution.5 Having conceded that absolute rule by the white minority cannot continue, the Nationalists propose that the ANC or any other party representing blacks must not have full powers to rule even if it gets a majority of the votes in a free election. Instead, Nationalists seek a constitution that guarantees minority parties, such as their own, “effective participation” at all levels of government.

A central feature of a new constitution would be the transfer of many of the powers of the central government to regional governments that would be “autonomous.” De Klerk has not so far specified the number of regions he has in mind, their borders, or their powers. It has been generally assumed, though, that the Nationalists would insist on some kind of gerrymandering that would give them a strong position in some of the regions. With the central government thus weakened, the powerful office of the president would be abolished. In its place there would be a collegial three- or five-person presidency. The candidates getting the most votes would be represented, virtually assuring that a Nationalist would be one of the presidents.

The party also proposes a bicameral legislature. To satisfy the liberation groups, the first house would be elected on the basis of one-person, one-vote and proportional representation. The second house, which would have to pass on all legislation, is designed to “guard over the interests of minorities,” such as whites, and would be elected according to a system favoring minority groups and parties such as the Nationalists. Its members would be elected in equal numbers from the various regions, as with the American Senate. But like the multiparty executive proposed by the Nationalists, the parties getting the most votes would have an equal number of seats without regard to differences in electoral strength.

Important legislation would have to be passed by a large majority of the second house. At one stage in the negotiations the Nationalists proposed 75 percent. In this extreme form of the principle of checks and balances, the aim is to make it difficult, if not impossible, even for a political party with a large majority to enact measures without the consent of the Nationalists and other minority parties.

Once they have a constitution favorable to small parties, the Nationalists hope to work out a strategy for winning elections. Although many blacks initially praised de Klerk for his reforms, the Nationalists have made very little effort so far to recruit them into the party in large numbers. They have only recently opened a branch in Soweto, a city of two million people. De Klerk would like to attract some black votes, but he and his colleagues would prefer to remain the white man’s party and not risk the possibility that its white membership would be swallowed up by new black members. Most of their energies have been put into increasing their following among whites to the right and left of the National Party.

Some Nationalists have spoken of winning an election outright by building a successful coalition with conservative black groups as well as with smaller parties representing whites. This alliance would try to defeat the ANC, or at least keep the victory of Mandela’s group narrow enough that the “checks-and-balances constitutions,” as some Nationalists call it, would prevent it from governing on its own terms.

A Nationalist alliance along these lines would probably not look much different from the government’s recent political arrangements under the divide-and-rule apartheid system. Several black parties joined the Nationalist camp in the constitutional negotiations last year but they were ethnic or puppet organizations, or both, that have been ruling for many years in the “homelands” created by Pretoria to carry out apartheid. Naturally they strongly support the Nationalists’ proposals for regional autonomy.

Seemingly central to the Nationalist strategy, moreover, is an eventual alliance with Chief Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party, a group whose members come mostly from the six-million-strong Zulu tribe of the Natal province. Buthelezi, a Zulu prince who is the only homeland leader with a large following, is pushing for strong powers for the Natal region which incorporates Zululand. Polls have given Inkatha no more than 10 percent support throughout the country, but Buthelezi would no doubt be fairly successful in his home region and hence contribute substantially to a Nationalist-led alliance in parliament. A Nationalist-Inkatha alliance would have a good chance of controlling the regional government in Natal.

De Klerk’s strategy has already done much to shape the future, but not necessarily for the better. Ethnic differences cannot be glossed over; yet if South Africa is to be salvaged from the wreckage of apartheid, the hope probably lies in encouraging the strongest possible allegiance to the ideal of a common South Africa. This is not necessarily the impossible challenge it would appear to be. With the exception of a relatively small group of Afrikaners, and some of the homeland officials, most South Africans say they would prefer living in a unified South Africa to seeing the country splinter into a number of small ethnic states. In spite of apartheid, South Africa’s ethnic groups are sufficiently spread around the country and the economy to have encouraged a general sense of one nationhood. Neither the Afrikaners nor any other ethnic group, with the possible exception of the Zulus in Natal, can stake their claim to a territory that could become an economically workable state on its own.

De Klerk, however, would like the new system to be based on political parties that are essentially representatives of the country’s various ethnic groups. By so entrenching ethnic competition in government and politics, de Klerk increases rather than decreases the risk that South Africa will wind up like Lebanon or Yugoslavia.

Undoubtedly, the fears of the white minority must be addressed in an eventual settlement. South Africans have plenty of reasons to fear ANC rule. In post-colonial Africa, liberation organizations have not usually produced governments that respect individual rights and the rule of law. The ANC has at times during the negotiation process failed to restrain its own militants from engaging in provocations and acts of violence. The ANC claims to respect democratic values but it has acknowledged having set up detention camps in Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda, where people suspected of being spies or traitors were tortured and in some cases executed. According to an internal ANC investigation ordered by Mandela and released in October, the gravest abuses were carried out at the ANC’s Quatro camp in Angola.6 Typically held without any form of trial, the detainees were kept in cells that were overcrowded, excessively hot, and unsanitary. They were subjected to physical and psychological hardships, including backbreaking manual labor. According to Amnesty International’s report on the camps, “former prisoners at Quatro described being forced to crawl through or sit on red ants’ nests.” 7

The worst abuses, though, involved severe beatings, the use of torture to extract confessions, and executions. The report described the pompa, in which the victim was required to puff out his cheeks while being slapped in the face, causing excruciating pain and in some cases burst eardrums and bleeding from the ears. The prisoners were also subjected to the “gas mask,” in which a hollowed-out papaya was pushed against the victim’s face to restrict breathing, and to “napalm,” in which a poisonous bush plant was rubbed on a victim’s skin to cause severe itching and burning.

The ANC’s investigators said that some prisoners were apparently executed following a mutiny over conditions at Quatro in 1984, and they reported serious allegations that other prisoners were murdered or disappeared. The report put much of the blame on the ANC’s security department, which it said had become a law unto itself. While some senior ANC officials had tried to halt the abuses, others, according to the report, did not.

Much remains obscure about the detention camps: How many people were held in them, on what charges? Who was responsible for the abuses that have been acknowledged? How the ANC now deals with these questions will say much about its actual commitment to protecting human rights. The organization has announced that a commission whose members do not belong to the ANC is making a new investigation of charges that members currently serving in the security department are guilty of past abuses in the detention camps. So far Mandela, with the support of influential allies in the ANC, has taken the initiative in investigating what happened, and in making the findings public.8

Mandela and most of the other senior ANC leaders have also acknowledged the need to deal with white concerns about a future of tyranny by the majority. They emphasize that South Africa’s economy can hardly survive without white skills and investment. They have also recognized that ignoring reasonable demands by minorities for protection will increase the risk of a civil war that would deprive their supporters of the benefits of apartheid’s end. In November, after months of internal debate, the ANC’s national executive committee formally endorsed a proposal for a “sunset” clause, which would guarantee minority parties a role in governing for a limited time even beyond the transition period. The ANC has also generally agreed to grant some powers to regional governments and strongly supports a bill of rights and an independent judiciary.

What the ANC probably will not accept is a constitution that entrenches white power so deeply that the majority would be prevented from exercising its will in vital matters, such as economic policy. One of de Klerk’s most serious failures has been in not accepting, or not frankly acknowledging to his supporters, that his initiatives imply that whites will one day have less political power than blacks. Instead, he has stuck to the reassuring line that the more things change the more they will stay the same.

De Klerk’s strategy, whether intentionally or not, has had a part in producing the violence of the past three years. The worst bloodshed has involved factional fighting between the ANC and Inkatha. Clashes between the two groups began in the Natal province in 1986, after the ANC concentrated both armed and propaganda attacks on Buthelezi as part of its violent strategy of making South Africa ungovernable. Through the influence of the Pretoria government, Buthelezi became chief minister and chief of police of KwaZulu homeland. He appealed for Mandela’s freedom, and he said he opposed apartheid, but he also used his position to build up an impressive power base. While the ANC was banned, and its members jailed for merely trying to organize meetings, Inkatha was free to carry on its activities. Its largely Zulu membership, which has an old warrior tradition, responded to the ANC’s attacks with attacks by its own fighting groups.

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. 1

    Figures were taken from State of the National Report, South African Institute of Race Relations, January 1993.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Willem de Klerk’s biography, F.W. De Klerk: The Man in His Time (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1991), p. 24.

  3. 3

    Quoted in F.W. De Klerk, p. 27.

  4. 4

    F.W. De Klerk, p. 25.

  5. 5

    An outline of Nationalist thinking is contained in “Constitutional Rule in a Participatory Democracy,” issued by the party’s federal council in Pretoria on September 4, 1991.

  6. 6

    See the report of the Commission of Enquiry into Complaints by Former African National Congress Prisoners and Detainees, ANC, August 1992.

  7. 7

    See Amnesty International, “South Africa: Torture, Ill-Treatment and Executions in African National Congress Camps,” released on December 2, 1992.

  8. 8

    In its report Amnesty International has underlined the continuing danger facing the prisoners released from the camps. “The issue of most urgent concern to former prisoners of the ANC is their own physical protection from attacks by ANC supporters in the townships of South Africa. The problem has been aggravated by the past failure of the ANC leadership to account fully for the behaviour of its security department and by the frequent public denunciation of former prisoners as agents of the security forces. First, many of those imprisoned and tortured were clearly not agents of the South African state. Secondly, their torture would in any event not have been justified. And thirdly, blanket denunciation of former prisoners in this way is an open invitation to ANC supporters to commit acts of violence against them.”

  9. 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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