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Violence Need Not Deter Rise of New South Africa : Negotiations: Apartheid took decades to install, and realists inside and outside the country should not expect it to be dismantled without snags.

August 30, 1992|Jeffrey Herbst | Jeffrey Herbst, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University, is spending this school year in South Africa on a Fulbright fellowship

JOHANNESBURG — The South African government, the African National Congress and other black groups will soon resume negotiations that will lead to the establishment of an interim govern ment. The road to this momentous event has been an emotional roller coaster.

As recently as March, after the referendum in which an overwhelming majority of white South Africans affirmed President Frederik W. de Klerk's mandate to negotiate a new constitution, there was euphoria inside the country and optimism throughout the world that white minority rule would soon be abolished. However, in June, after dozens of people were massacred at Boipatong and constitutional negotiations hit a snag, there was deep gloom within South Africa and skepticism worldwide that the country could avoid an upward spiral of terror.

The belief that South Africa was at the brink of catastrophe was furthered when the African National Congress announced a campaign of "mass action" that eventually led to a two-day general strike beginning Aug. 3.

To better understand South Africa during this turbulent and dramatic era, it is first important to be realistic about the time requirements of any real transition to non-racial rule that benefits the black majority. South Africa's system of racial domination has been created incrementally over the past 300 years. Since 1948, the National Party has gone to great lengths to codify and institutionalize apartheid. Given entrenched white political and economic power, this system cannot be torn down overnight.

Americans who are accustomed to seeing Congress debate the deficit or the MX missile for years should understand that a process that will involve revolutionary change in almost every institution in South Africa--from the courts and parliament to the electric power grid to land rights--will inevitably be halting. Indeed, true non-racial rule--where blacks have a share of economic power roughly proportionate to their percentage of the population--will not occur for decades. Thus, it is important to avoid instant analysis, which only considers events of the past week, and to look at the longer term trends in South Africa.

Despite the recent talk of the country hurtling toward catastrophe, it remains the case that if anyone had been told in November 1989 of the progress South Africa would make by August 1992, he or she would be astonished. Most striking is the fact that all of the major white and black players now agree that they are involved in a process of negotiations.

The overwhelming white vote on the referendum in March indicated that the dominant group in South Africa had at last accepted the idea that minority rule was dead. It was one of the few times in history that any group in any country has consciously voted to significantly diminish its own political power. Similarly, ANC President Nelson Mandela himself noted that the purpose of the mass action was not insurrection, as some black radicals demanded, but to restart the negotiations so that an interim government could be put in place.

There remain real disagreements between the parties. But resolving conflicts in a transition process, however ugly, is a vast improvement over the politically impervious South Africa of a few years ago.

The breakdown in formal negotiations was specifically caused by the demand of the white government to use the transition process to secure a de facto white veto on the design of the future constitution and the ANC's natural refusal to countenance such an institutionalization of white power.

While not critical in and of itself, this question of constitutional engineering is symbolic of the central issue that the South Africans confront: How much power can the whites retain so that they feel comfortable yielding control without hamstringing the next (black) government so much that it cannot begin the historic mission of eliminating apartheid's inequities?

The issue of the white veto will soon be resolved because the negotiators know that only white and black radicals are served by too long a delay. But the more general question of white power cannot be resolved overnight because it is too complicated. Resolving that matter will depend on hundreds of compromises--the new constitution will only be the first.

Correspondingly, the real test of white and black ability to compromise will not be apparent from every twist and turn of the negotiations. Rather, it will require developing a mutually acceptable method of working together to resolve conflicts that will inevitably occur over the next few decades. Strikes, and other forms of mass action, will be an integral part of this process as blacks muster their numbers against white privilege.

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