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Despite Tea Parties at the Top, South African Apartheid Prevails

August 13, 1989|Charlene Smith | Charlene Smith is a South African journalist

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — South Africa, it could be said, is being run by two governments. The first is the white-minority Nationalist government in Pretoria; the second is the banned African National Congress in Lusaka, Zambia.

Neither recognizes the other--officially. But neither can advance without the other, and any setback either suffers is a consequence of actions by the other. The majority of black South Africans are loyal to the exiled ANC and monitor instructions issued by the organization from Lusaka. Polls show that 41% of the white electorate support the National Party, in power for four decades and almost certainly returning to power in elections this September.

While the National Party is trying to fight these elections using the bogy of "ANC terrorists," its rhetoric has been undermined by the July tea party between outgoing President Pieter W. Botha and Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader incarcerated since 1964 after a sabotage conviction. The meeting went a long way toward "dedemonizing" the ANC, one observer noted.

In elections in 1987, the "Nats" successfully attacked the liberal opposition by saying liberals were "soft on the ANC" and had visited Lusaka for talks with the banned group. By stoking white paranoia they paved the way for an extreme right-wing official opposition.

Now, however, not only has the president met with the premier symbol of the black liberation struggle, but late in July two key government economists took part in discussions with the ANC in Lausanne, Switzerland, about the economy in a post-apartheid South Africa.

In the same month, a Nationalist Party member of Parliament visited the ANC in Lusaka with a group of white South Africans. There have been rumors of other top-level talks. It is clear that while it is not tactically convenient for either side to admit it, talks are taking place. Talks--but not negotiations.

Symbolic of the current climate, the initiative has not come from the government but from the people. Jay Naidoo, president of the powerful 1-million strong Congress of South African Trade Unions, summed up the mood: "Irrespective of what the government says, we, the people of South Africa, will dismantle apartheid ourselves."

On Aug. 2, despite a heavy police presence, about 300 sick black South Africans made history by entering and receiving treatment at segregated whites-only hospitals. It was the first step in a nationwide nonviolent Defiance Campaign against the racial segregation of public facilities. At the same time, black mine workers, the largest segment of the work force, announced they would press for desegregation of elevators, housing, toilet and change-room facilities and health care on South Africa's wealthy but racially ultraconservative mine properties.

The current Defiance Campaign is a reminder of the ANC-backed Defiance Campaign of the 1950s. That effort was the cutting point that changed the ANC's once-timid bargaining role to a more assertive posture and brought forth young leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo--the ANC's leader in exile.

Today's campaign is different. The Mass Democratic Movement, which includes most internal anti-apartheid organizations, has a larger, more politically aware base than the one enjoyed by the ANC in 1952. While that campaign was an acknowledgment that pressure for equal rights was being ignored, this one is an indication the opposite is now true and is intended to emphasize that government no longer controls the initiative.

The point is that while government postures now seem dramatic--peace in Namibia, tea with Mandela, handshakes with Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano--day-to-day apartheid in South Africa is little changed.

The Defiance Campaign, as an example, is illegal not only in terms of the four-year State of Emergency (a mandatory 10-year jail sentence and/or $8,000 fine), but in terms of the Separate Amenities Act, the Group Areas Act and a wide range of petty apartheid and security laws.

The message from South Africa appears to be that the brutality of apartheid is not just the dramatic events of detentions, assassinations and restrictions directed against a few thousand, it is the daily stripping of dignity and personal abuse directed against millions of South Africans whose yellow star is dark skins.

Black South Africans, and whites actively opposed to apartheid, have demonstrated that despite a harsh four-year State of Emergency, they have the will and grass-roots support to continue fighting a state that bans, restricts, detains, harasses--and, some say, assassinates--those opposed to an apartheid future.

A sign of this new, but fragile, era is the openness with which public speakers and the media often express support for the African National Congress or quote its members and plans or activities. A mere year ago this seemed impossible.

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