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'If You Won One, Would You Keep It?' : S. Africa's 'Nations' Prove Political, Financial Drain

November 02, 1987|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

UMTATA, Transkei — The legislators of Transkei gathered recently under the tall green dome of Parliament to rail against corruption in their land. The new prime minister's shiny black Mercedes was double-parked on the street outside, and a few army officers stood nearby.

Less than two weeks before, Transkei's prime minister had fled amid allegations of nepotism, fiscal mismanagement, graft and plain extravagance, finding asylum at a Holiday Inn in nearby South Africa. The army had quickly persuaded six Cabinet ministers to resign, and Parliament had chosen a 50-year-old tribal princess as the new leader.

All in all, this would have constituted a fairly extraordinary period in Transkei nationhood--if Transkei were a country.

But Transkei is one of South Africa's independent black homelands, and its troubles last month were just another sign that all is not well with the "nations" that Pretoria created.

The homelands once were part of South Africa's master plan for total racial separation. But now they are becoming a financial drain as well as a public relations headache for South Africa, which spends $1.4 billion a year supporting them and is the only country in the world that recognizes them as sovereign states.

When Pretoria carved out 10 homelands for the country's black majority more than a quarter of a century ago, critics immediately said the scheme was aimed at weakening the blacks' claim to a share of South Africa.

The homelands are shaped like jagged puzzle pieces, and some are divided into half a dozen or more islands surrounded by seas of white residents. The government forcibly moved more than 3 million blacks into the new states, which often were on poor quality, undeveloped land far from major cities.

Today, about 15 million people, more than half of South Africa's black population, live in 14% of the country set aside for homelands. Four of them--Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei--have been granted independence by South Africa. The remaining six, although self-governing, are still part of South Africa.

The homelands ran into difficulties early on. Such things as jobs and medical care were much more scarce there than in white areas. The leaders, usually tribal chiefs, were often scorned by their people as puppets of South Africa's white minority government.

With plenty of Pretoria's money and little accountability, the new prime ministers and presidents bought expensive houses and cars, threw lavish parties and dug into state coffers to reward their friends.

Pricey Car and Palace

Venda's president bought himself a $50,000 BMW with tinted bulletproof glass and armored body panels. The president of Ciskei, with an impoverished population roughly equal to that of Kansas City, built a $500,000 palace in view of his people's mud huts. He reportedly has 200 Agriculture Department employees working on his farm.

"What on earth is to be done about the homelands?" the Financial Mail, a weekly magazine in South Africa, asked recently. "If you won one in a raffle, would you keep it?"

Some homelands have repeatedly tested the limits of their autonomy by arresting and deporting their political enemies, detaining visiting journalists without charges and triggering "international" imbroglios.

When Ciskei denied visas to a French couple who wanted to visit their son in jail earlier this year, South Africa refused to help at first, insisting that Ciskei was independent and responsible only to its own leadership. But under pressure from the French government, South Africa later intervened.

Accused in Attack

Simmering animosities between Transkei and Ciskei, Xhosa-speaking homelands separated by a 15-mile-wide white corridor of South Africa, boiled over in February when Ciskei accused Transkei troops of attacking the palace of Ciskei President-for-Life Lennox Sebe in an attempted coup d'etat.

Transkei denied the charge, but Pretoria warned that it would not allow its territory to be used by one state against another.

"Pretoria tries to create the illusion that these domestic crises are 'international' problems which have to be solved by 'their' (homeland) governments," said Peter Vale, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

The result, Vale added, is that "Pretoria is conducting foreign policy with itself."

Transkei (pronounced tran-sky) is the oldest and largest of South Africa's independent homelands. About twice the size of Massachusetts, it stretches from mountains in the north through a gentle swale of rolling farmland to a strip of waterfalls, jagged cliffs and beaches pounded by the Indian Ocean surf.

Visas for 25 Cents

Like most nations, Transkei issues passports, grants visas (for 25 cents each) to visitors, keeps a standing army, levies taxes and debates its future in a modern legislative building in the capital.

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