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South Africa: Nationalist Losses Mean More Violence

September 10, 1989|Charlene Smith | Charlene Smith is a South African journalist

JOHANNESBURG — Reputedly the most dangerous animal in Africa is the unpredictable buffalo. Bothered by parasites in its nostrils, it will go into a blind rage and trample or gore anything in range.

The South African government is a little like the buffalo when confronted by anti-apartheid demonstrators: It uses maximum force, without regard to the consequences, against a minimal threat--peaceful demonstrators.

Last week's elections saw the Nationalists lose 30 seats in Parliament, it's worst election losses in 41 years in power. It has lost to the right and the liberals among the white electorate. As its grip on power becomes more tenuous it appears to have lost the ability to reform or negotiate.

The violence directed against peaceful demonstrators by the security forces--29 people were shot dead in election violence, including 18 children, and hundreds were injured--also bodes ill for the next five years under President-elect Frederik W. de Klerk.

The harsh measures leveled against demonstrators opposed to Tuesday's apartheid elections upset the reformist image De Klerk has attempted to convey to the West--an image already clouded by the government's actions against those who, as part of the Defiance Campaign, are protesting segregation of such facilities as swimming pools, beaches, schools and living areas. It will be difficult to persuade the world that a white government that will shoot to keep blacks off white beaches is committed to power sharing and ending apartheid.

A failure to eliminate apartheid from the statute books will only increase the revolutionary climate within the country. As whites further polarize, the National Party will hemorrhage more supporters to the left or the right--as it did in this election.

Meanwhile, the South African government will confuse the world by chatting amicably to other African leaders about regional peace initiatives and then, when at home, taking out the tear gas, batons and shotguns to deal with blacks.

By lying to the world, the government has increased black frustration and white confusion. It says apartheid is an albatross and they will remove it from around the neck of South Africa, and then they shoot students who protest elections or baton-charge whites and blacks for attempting to hold a multiracial beach picnic.

The president entertains jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela at tea, and says the government is willing to negotiate, but blocks talks with internal anti-apartheid groups by banning them. Yet power sharing and negotiation have now been ingrained into the psyche of white South Africans.

The liberal Democratic party--pro-negotiation and power sharing--showed the greatest gains at the expense of the National Party. The ultra-conservative Citizen newspaper correctly interpreted this as "a stronger vote for faster reform."

Despite a narrower mandate from the polls and spiraling unrest, it seems unlikely that De Klerk is paying heed to the storm warning that election uprisings have given. Unless the new president makes some major concessions fast, South Africa could enter one of its cyclical turns to violence, repression and death.

For repression is only effective in the short term. Although it can crush revolt, resistance returns doubly militant and ever more widespread in the long run.

In 1985-86, there were massive detentions and deaths of black leaders leading to a lull in anti-apartheid protest in 1987 and 1988. However, the fire did not go out. The state, through massive intimidation, repression and censorship, merely put a screen before the volcano.

Last week's election brought seething discontent from behind the screen into the streets--just as the first tricameral election did in 1984.

Tuesday saw the worst day of violence in three years. Police stalked the streets of mixed-race townships in the Cape, firing shotguns at singing crowds protesting the elections. A young police lieutenant, Gregory Rockman, lodged an official complaint about "the brutal unprofessional conduct" of riot police against "peaceful crowds." Rockman, who was threatened with arrest by a superior when he tried to stop police battering civilians, said units "stormed the kids like wild dogs."

On the same day 3 million black workers stayed away from work to protest the racial elections.

These disturbances undercut the reformist facade that the South African government has worked so hard at, painfully aware that bankers and governments will not roll over debts or open the purse strings to future loans if conflict and repression runs high.

The positive impact of regional peace initiatives and talk about negotiations have been lost in the past few weeks as the government reacted harshly to the anti-apartheid Defiance Campaign.

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