Post-Apartheid South Africa

A cheat sheet for the news.
June 8 1997 3:30 AM

Post-Apartheid South Africa

Four years after apartheid's end, press accounts of South Africa's transition to multiracial democracy tell a muddled tale. On the one hand, President Nelson Mandela is compared to George Washington. On the other, the Mandela-led coalition government of several disparate political parties has crumbled. The largest white party bolted, and has taken an increasingly intransigent stance toward Mandela. What's the deal?

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Since World War II, two organizations have dominated South African politics. Founded in 1914 by Afrikaners--descendants of 17th and 18th century Dutch settlers--the National Party demanded the end of British colonial rule. South Africa was a Commonwealth member until 1961. When the National Party took power in 1948, it imposed apartheid, disenfranchising and officially segregating the country's black majority. Millions of blacks were transported to "homelands," small tracts of land considered foreign countries. In the '60s, the African National Congress, a party founded by the country's small black middle class in 1912 to combat segregation, adopted a Marxist line. The ANC also started receiving funding from the Soviet Union and employing terrorist tactics.

The ANC and the National Party were forced into one another's arms in 1990: Economic sanctions and political pressure applied by the international community on South Africa weakened the National Party's resolve, and the collapse of the Soviet Union left the ANC without outside funders. When the ANC renounced its Marxist intentions to redistribute wealth, it no longer threatened white privilege. Frederik W. de Klerk, the head of the National Party and president of South Africa, released ANC president Mandela, who had been jailed for 27 years, and lifted a longtime ban on the ANC that had forced the group into exile in Zambia.

In April 1994, South Africa held multiracial elections. To ease the transition to democracy, de Klerk and Mandela agreed that the first post-apartheid government would include all major political parties, with each party's Cabinet representation proportional to its electoral strength. The ANC won more than 60 percent of the vote and the National Party won 20 percent, making Mandela president and de Klerk only a secondary player. It was an untenable relationship. The National Party disagreed with too many of the ANC-led government's liberal policies, including affirmative action, legalization of abortion, and abolition of the death penalty. Last June, the National Party withdrew from the government.

One of the National Party's main grievances is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission impaneled by the government to investigate political violence from the apartheid era. Headed by Nobel Peace Prize-winner and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, the committee grants amnesty to all who confess to political crimes, as long as the crimes are not "disproportionately" heinous. By the time the commission stopped accepting amnesty applications two weeks ago, it had received more than 8,000 requests. Most came from low-level white officers in the police and army. Only two former Cabinet-level government officials applied. Most apartheid-era officials take de Klerk's position, denying knowledge of assassinations or instances of torture. Tutu, however, protests that he reported cases of illegal government violence to de Klerk several times.

Last month, de Klerk's National Party repudiated the Truth Commission, calling it a politically driven "witch hunt" bent on proving the existence of a systematic program of violence where none existed. Blacks have also criticized the commission, complaining about the generous amnesty provisions.

Tutu has mostly received high praise for his even-handedness. At one point, he threatened to resign if the ANC did not admit that it had ordered violence. Four members of Mandela's Cabinet have admitted to plotting ANC brutalities. Deputy President Thado Mbeki, whom Mandela has anointed as his successor, has also admitted that he commissioned acts of terrorism when he was a member of the ANC's national executive committee. Tutu will issue a report of his findings at the end of the year.

The National Party's obstreperousness could bode ill for South Africa. The armed forces, police, and bureaucracy are still dominated by holdovers from the apartheid-era government who have longtime allegiances to the National Party. They could erode the credibility of Mandela's government. Also, the National Party's "witch hunt" allegations could undermine the spirit of reconciliation that the Truth Commission and coalition government were intended to foster.

De Klerk has also discussed moving the National Party toward the center, campaigning on a platform of Christian values intended to appeal to black conservatives as well. But some local National Party leaders are allying with right-wing radicals who are campaigning for a separate white state. These local alliances could presage a shift further rightward.

Despite its tactics, the National Party is slipping in opinion polls. Meanwhile, the ANC enjoys wide support, though its popularity has as much to do with Mandela's charisma as with its own platform. (Mbeki, notorious for his wonkish style and nervous tics, polls poorly.)

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