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Gerrit Viljoen : Planning the New South Africa for Blacks--and Whites

December 16, 1990|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is The Times bureau chief in South Africa. He interviewed Gerrit Viljoen in the minister's Pretoria office

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — Soon after his election last year, President Frederik W. de Klerk went looking for someone to carry out the most important task of his administration--negotiating a new constitution with the government's black opponents.

At the time, De Klerk's promise of a "new South Africa" was highly suspect. He needed a person capable of luring black leaders to the table and, once there, coming up with an agreement that would be accepted by the white minority as well as the black majority.

For that nearly impossible job, De Klerk chose Gerrit Viljoen, a genial, white-haired intellectual.

In some ways, the 64-year-old Viljoen (fill-HEWN) was an unusual choice to become the minister of constitutional development and the government's chief negotiator. Although a member of former President Pieter W. Botha's Cabinet, Viljoen was neither a veteran politician nor a constitutional expert. In fact, he had spent most of his adult life in centers of higher education--as a professor of classics at the University of Pretoria and later as president of Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg.

His academic record was formidable--two master's degrees in the classics, including one from Cambridge; a law degree, and a Ph.D. For his doctoral thesis he chose a study of Pindar, a politically conservative poet in the Greek aristocracy of the 5th Century B.C.

Viljoen was a late-comer to elective politics, winning a seat in Parliament for the first time in 1981, at age 55. But he had been an intellectual force in the ruling National Party for nearly three decades and during the 1970s had served six years as chairman of the Broederbond (Brotherhood), the secret Afrikaner think tank that many consider the architect of the current reform plan.

Viljoen, who is married to a biochemist and has seven children, performs his delicate domestic diplomacy from a suite of offices, decorated in African paintings and sculpture, in suburban Pretoria. It is a couple of miles from the Union Buildings, the hilltop seat of government. But it is only a few blocks from the classrooms where, in the days when it was for whites only, he had been a professor of classics and his father before him had taught Greek.

The solemn, stocky Cabinet minister speaks earnestly of the road of reform in South Africa, sounding confident that his government will be able to persuade 27 million blacks of its sincerity.

Question: For 14 months, you and your colleagues have been trying to sell the idea of equal rights for blacks to your anxious white electorate. Has it been a tough sell?

Answer: It is a difficult job, not in the sense of getting people to accept the inevitability . . . of full black political emancipation and integration in the political process. But the biggest problem is (whites') concern about the maintenance of law and order and of what one could call acceptable norms and standards of public life . . . .

The contrast between the largely unsophisticated (black) masses--forming part of the Third World--and the smaller group of more sophisticated minorities--especially the whites, the Asians and, to large extent, the Colored (mixed-race) people--has a disconcerting and a worrying effect.

We have to prove three things in the political process. One is the inevitability of this change. Second is the impracticability of alternatives--especially the proven failure of what we tried out ourselves, namely grand apartheid . . . . And thirdly, we must be able to prove to the people that we are able to handle this transition without sacrificing basic stability.

Q: What are the chances of success?

A: It will be very difficult to sell this solution . . . if the element within the ANC (African National Congress) that seems to have not yet accepted the road of peaceful negotiation gets the upper hand, both in terms of continued armed activities and in terms of "mass mobilization" or "nonviolent action," which has a dangerous and destabilizing effect . . . .

But . . . my positive prognosis is largely based on the clear fact that leaders on both sides have come to realize . . . that the violent solution . . . is not workable or acceptable (and) that we must find a negotiated solution.

I think both Mr. (Nelson) Mandela and his supporters within the ANC . . . accept this necessity . . . .

Q: South Africa's future seems to depend, to a large extent, on Mandela and the ANC. Does it worry you that the ANC has had some problems pulling itself together as a non-revolutionary political force?

A: I think it's clear that the ANC has had difficulty putting its act together. (There are) different currents . . . of thought (in the ANC) about the methods of bringing about a new South Africa, but there's also the difficulty of . . . putting across its message and getting its followers to accept that message.

. . . But we have an understanding of their problems and, within limits, have been trying to be reasonable.

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