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A Dream That Goes Far Beyond Reality : Buthelezi must be sensible, for the good of South Africa

June 27, 1993

In a South African summit meeting that is significant simply because it took place, Nelson Mandela met last week with an old friend turned foe--Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. The political rivals talked for the first time in two years, a breakthrough of sorts. But Buthelezi, ever the obstructionist, refused to agree to a date for the nation's first multiracial election.

THE AMBITION: Unfortunately, Buthelezi cannot be ignored as South Africa shifts from apartheid to democracy. He heads the Inkatha Freedom Political Party, a force to be reckoned wherever his followers congregate.

As many as 9,000 black South Africans have died in factional fighting between the followers of Buthelezi and the African National Congress. That body count hasn't stopped Buthelezi from insisting on a rather large role in a post-apartheid South Africa. He has presidential aspirations when the white minority finally shares power with the black majority--never mind that Mandela's dominant ANC is likely to take half the votes in any multiracial election.

The white minority government openly encouraged Buthelezi's conceit for years. Many white leaders, fearful of black rule, viewed him as a conservative buffer to the ANC. With funds and privileges they built up Buthelezi's political dreams. The funds for military training and the other accouterments of power dried up when the government finally released Mandela from prison.

Since Mandela's release in 1990, South Africa has made uneven but significant progress toward dismantling apartheid and instituting democracy. The next milestone is the nation's first multiracial election. Representatives of the ANC, President F. W. de Klerk's ruling National Party and nearly two dozen other political groups have settled on April 27, 1994, as election day. That date gives hope to black South Africans impatient for reform.

An election date is also economically significant in a nation plagued by broad unemployment, a prolonged recession and huge differences in the living standards of whites and blacks. Real progress toward closing these gaps requires a booming economy. The lifting of international sanctions would certainly help. The resulting new investments would translate into jobs for poor blacks, most of whom revere Mandela. They can't be expected to wait much longer for improvement.

THE HOPE: Mandela and De Klerk are scheduled to meet separately with President Clinton next week. Mandela, who initially pressed the world to withdraw from South Africa, now wants the world to return. However, until an election date is ratified, he and De Klerk cannot guarantee progress--and an election date requires Buthelezi's agreement.

To their credit, Buthelezi and Mandela held a long meeting, a nine-hour session, arranged by Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. Too bad the thin-skinned Buthelezi spent much of the time harping on past conflicts. The session can portend hope, however, if it proves to be the start of continued dialogue and eventual compromise.

Nelson Mandela remains the racially divided nation's best hope for a peaceful and permanent transition from apartheid to democracy. His meeting with Buthelezi puts South Africa a step closer to democracy.

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