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A Pause Might Salvage Democracy : South Africa: Political panic is leading to anarchy; the only way out may be an all-inclusive interim government.

September 16, 1993|THAMI MAZWAI | Thami Mazwai is the editor of Enterprise, a South African business magazine for blacks, published in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG — The planned "multiracial transitional council" in South Africa, agreed on in talks dominated by the African National Congress and the white government, is under heavy fire from dissident parties. Right-wing whites predict it will bring "unrest and chaos" unless they and the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom Party are brought aboard.

Such threats are typical these days, and the sort of violence that led to the death of Californian Amy Biehl a few weeks ago has become common. In the latest horror, at least 21 blacks were massacred Wednesday in two separate incidents. So the transition agreement, signed only the day before, is already dripping with blood. It is not likely to either stem the violence or increase the chances of a successful permanent government coming from elections next April 27.

The situation has gotten so dismal that it is time to consider a different kind of balloting next April: Instead of voting for a Constituent Assembly whose aim is to immediately write a new constitution, South Africans should use their first true multiracial ballot to endorse a less-radical shift of power--let's call it a "Government of National Unity." This election would apportion power to the contesting political parties and buy time while the violence is brought under control.

Citizens would express their party preferences instead of voting for individual delegates, who may well not be ready or able to sit down and write a constitution. Seats in an interim assembly would be apportioned by percentage of the vote; any party that got more than 5% would be guaranteed representation and a cabinet slot. This would allay fears of a complete ANC takeover of the new government and bring into the fold the groups now intent on sabotaging the ANC-government talks.

The only alternative may be a continued slide into Angola-style anarchy as organizations across the political and racial spectrum struggle to gain or retain power before the elections.

The unity government would need to rule without interruption for a decade, with full control over security forces of the current government and the armed-struggle wings of all participating groups such as the African National Congress, Inkatha, the Pan-Africanist Congress and the right-wing white militias. True, it would be far from full democracy, but look where the prospect of democracy is leading:

South Africa's murder rate is three times that of the United States, and its overall rate of violent crime is the highest in the world. The nation's ugly political rivalries are responsible for the deaths of 1,675 people so far this year, including 150 police officers murdered in the "Kill a Cop" campaign conducted by ANC and PAC youths. Yet, the same police are blamed for not stopping the violence. Attacks on whites, particularly farmers murdered on their land, are on the increase.

South Africans now kill each other in churches, in shebeens (speakeasies), in their homes, on their farms, in hostels, on trains and moving buses. Killers drive around in stolen cars and spray pedestrians with AK-47 gunfire. The whole picture is a kaleidoscope of political intrigue, opportunism, immaturity and ruthlessness, aimed in large part at sabotaging the April 27 elections.

The ANC's black opponents, including Inkatha, PAC and the Azanian People's Organization, feel upstaged by the ANC's talks with the government, though they refuse to join in.

It is this supercharged political environment, in which killing a cop, a farmer, a random white or a political rival guarantees political respectability in some circles, that killed Amy Biehl. The youths charged with her murder are merely its gullible products. Only a government that brings all of South Africa's significant political forces into the fold can combat this environment. No election that is seen as being dominated by the ANC can succeed.

The nation needs an opportunity to build its economy, and the previously divided population needs a less-charged atmosphere to become better acquainted. If all parties have a stake in the government, without having to commit themselves by putting up formal candidates in advance, they will be less likely to continue their destabilization campaigns. A separate committee can be established to write the constitution, taking time for compromises to be reached on controversial issues.

A major issue for Inkatha, the distribution of regional power, could be untangled. And, not least, taking this step back from the brink would help the nation define its national symbols--flag, national anthem and the like--with less emotion and no haste.

The final argument for a 10-year breather is this: It is only when more blacks have homes and jobs, and whites no longer fear black domination, that people will be ready to use their brains, and not their emotions or their color, to choose the government of the day.

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