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In South Africa, a Massive Black-White Impasse

May 11, 1986|John de St. Jorre | John de St. Jorre, author of "A House Divided: South Africa's Uncertain Future," recently spent six weeks in South Africa

NEW YORK — In the last 20 months, South Africa has suffered the longest period of continuous civil turbulence since the Boer War early this century. The violence has spread throughout the country, and its tempo is rising. Almost 1,500 people have died, nearly all black.

Although a visitor to South Africa is struck by the business-as-usual feel of the cities and the calm of the white neighborhoods, a sampling of black politics in the segregated, run-down townships reveals a drama that most whites seem to have missed.

For the first time in South Africa's turbulent history, blacks have seized the initiative.

"Last year was the watershed," said Prof. Chabani Manganyi, one of South Africa's few black clinical psychologists. "There was a dramatic broadening of resistance, and blacks finally broke the psychological barrier of thinking that the whites were all-powerful and could not be challenged. In 1976, it was a children's war. Now everyone is involved".

The government has not lost control, far from it, but it reacts to events, rather than initiates, follows rather than leads.

"I will restore law and order to South Africa, and no one in the world will stop me," President Pieter W. Botha promised last summer. But all Pretoria's efforts--a state of emergency, repression, accelerated reform, sweet words, harsh words--have failed to halt the tide of black protest.

Blacks have paid a heavy price in lost lives, damaged property, disruption of education, in a daily attrition that threatens to undermine individuals, families and communities. The balance of power remains against them, and many blacks know there is worse to come.

Yet there is a great feeling of buoyancy, of hope, of having placed a foot on the threshold of historic change. It is this that keeps the black David face-to-face with the white Goliath.

Sustaining black protest has been an almost tropical growth in local grass-roots organizations activated by local and national grievances, and loosely coordinated by umbrella groups like the multiracial United Democratic Front, the black consciousness National Forum and various labor federations.

Outside South Africa, the banned African National Congress, the country's oldest and most powerful black nationalist movement, has both assisted and profited from the rebellion. Pursuing a three-pronged strategy--armed struggle, dialogue with as many segments of South African society as possible and rallying international pressures against Pretoria--the ANC has had mixed results.

The guerrilla and sabotage campaign received the highest rhetorical priority but has, in reality, remained low key. The threat of bringing a "people's war" into the white areas has largely failed to materialize. But the search for recognition, both in South Africa and elsewhere, is working remarkably well.

Businessmen, clerics, students, politicians and even black homeland leaders have traveled the road to Lusaka, Zambia, to talk to the ANC. More will be following.

International pressure on South Africa has increased. The violence in South Africa has sent direct and powerful signals to foreign businesses and governments, encouraging them to ratchet-up the country's risk rating and to take measures to factor it in, as the international banks did by refusing to roll over their loans last summer.

Inside South Africa, the ANC's stature has been greatly enhanced. Nelson Mandela, the movement's imprisoned leader, remains as potent as Banquo's ghost. No national black leader has emerged to usurp his place, and no settlement of black and white differences, or intrablack rivalries, is likely in his absence.

The largest rift among blacks is between the United Democratic Front, backed by the ANC, and Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Zulu Inkatha movement. Buthelezi's influence outside the KwaZulu homeland has declined. But if his current bid to unite KwaZulu with the white-dominated Natal province succeeds, he will consolidate his already formidable regional power. He has also launched a new labor union, a move that threatens to bring internecine black strife to the factory floor.

The government retains considerable cooptive powers. It can count on support from the four nominally independent black homelands, and a new one--KwaNdebele--is due to join them in December. The non-independent homelands and the black urban councils still in place remain dependent on the government. Pretoria has no difficulty recruiting blacks for the army and police.

For the average white, the good life goes on, tempered by the economic recession and rumors of war on the other side of the hill. For thinking whites, the crisis is serious, partly because the world has told them so.

Small groups have become involved in black politics under the rainbow-hued umbrella of the United Democratic Front. "I wouldn't live anywhere else," said one politically active white woman. "It's inspiring and it's heartbreaking. I'm living history every day."

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