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At a Stand-Off in South Africa : 'Reforms' Are Intended to Satisfy--or to Fool--Outsiders

October 04, 1987|ALEX BORAINE | Alex Boraine, a former liberal member of the South African Parliament, is a co-founder of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — The Botha government is presenting itself as bent on reform. The motive is not reformist in the usual sense; essentially, it is part of a strategy to foil "the total onslaught" of international reprobation, evidenced by sanctions and boycotts.

The less obvious part of the reform strategy is designed to ensure the retention of white domination. The thesis is that reform cannot guarantee stability; stability requires white control.

If we keep this basic objective in mind, what the government is doing right now begins to make sense.

The state of emergency, which was declared nearly 16 months ago, remains in place, severely limiting freedom of association, particularly for black South Africans.

The police and military presence are part and parcel of the black township's daily existence. Thousands have been detained without trial and thousands more are harassed with banning and restriction orders thrown in for good measure.

The foreign press is severely controlled, hence security action is absent on U.S. television. The impression is given that normality has returned, and the government then receives more sympathetic treatment from the international community. The local press is not only censored but operates under the constant threat of state action.

Universities, which have often been centers of resistance, have had their autonomy severely threatened, thus curtailing and discouraging young South Africans from taking a more militant stand against government policy.

On the other hand, the state, with its security apparatus in place, is pushing ahead with the National Statutory Council that will give blacks a forum in which to express their aspirations and even their demands. This is a high-level body with the state president as chairman. Several cabinet ministers, homeland leaders and state appointees make up its composition. Nine blacks would be elected from areas outside the homelands, which would mean one black delegate for about one million voters.

The government insists that it wants these leaders to be elected rather than nominated so that they can begin dialogue with genuine black leaders. The catch isthat the men recognized as black leaders, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, are automatically excluded; the former is still in prison and the latter remains in exile.

The government has also considered amending the Group Areas Act, a much-hated law that demarcates residential areas along strict racial categories. But the government has made it clear that its object is only to amend rather than scrap the law.

The other side of the South African coin is the disaffected and dissident black majority who resist government policy and see the mere reform of apartheid as spurious and fraudulent.

Ironically, the meager attempts at reform by the government have served only to intensify the spirit of resistance. For example, in 1983 the government introduced legislation to offer limited representation to so-called colored and Asians in separate houses within a single parliament. Instead of reducing resistance, this action by the government brought about the formation of the United Democratic Front. This organization, with more than 600 affiliates, is the focus of opposition and, despite far-reaching persecution and harassment by the state, continues to be a considerable thorn in the flesh of the government.

The African National Congress, which is banned in South Africa and therefore cannot operate or mobilize, still plays a very significant role from outside the country. Independent surveys have indicated that the ANC enjoys very considerable support in the black townships. It has been helped considerably by the government's determination to identify it as the major opponent.

In contrast to the government's reform program, most of the groups in opposition would agree that there can be no resolution of the present conflict until all apartheid legislation has been repealed. Furthermore, they demand the lifting of the state of emergency, the release of political prisoners and those who are detained without trial, and the free association of organizations such as the ANC, so that a negotiated settlement brought about by a meeting of black and white leaders on equal terms can take place.

South African political forces have reached a stand-off. The government cannot govern without force because it lacks the consent to govern from the overwhelming percentage of South Africans; but through military and security apparatus the government can keep the lid on for a long time.

On the other hand, the black majority have no way of overthrowing the government, either with forces from outside or from resistance within. Therefore blacks, too, must hold position and seek new strategies to realize their goals. Clearly the romantic illusion of a "quick fix" finds little support.

South Africans are in for the long haul, and all involved in the struggle have to adapt their strategies to fit this scenario. Tragically, it is probable that the situation has to get even worse before it has chance to get better.

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