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'Bop': A Fitting Symbol for the New South Africa

March 20, 1994|Jeffrey Herbst | Jeffrey Herbst, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, just returned from a year in South Africa

PRINCETON, N.J. — Last weekend's overthrow of strongman Lucas L. Mangope in the South African homeland of Bophuthatswana was another milestone in the transition to post-apartheid rule.

Mangope, president of one of the black enclaves considered "independent" states during the days of grand apartheid, had refused to recognize the interim constitution that currently governs South Africa. As such, he had prohibited all campaigning for the country's first nonracial vote on April 26-28.

But he was overthrown when his own people, almost all of whom support the African National Congress, rose up against him, and his security forces made it clear they would not support him.

The final act of Mangope's rule featured thousands of right-wing whites streaming into Mmabatho, the capital of "Bop," on a fool's errand to try to save the former puppet of the white regime. The whites were quickly turned away but not before three of them were summarily executed by a black Bop soldier, an image broadcast around the world and one that will undoubtedly confirm all the worst fears the extreme right has about the new South Africa. Several dozen Africans were reportedly killed by the rag-tag white army in the hours preceding the execution. While all loss of life is to be regretted, Mangope was actually unseated with far less bloodshed than had been expected, given the vehemence of his opposition to the end of white rule.

The battle for Mmabatho is mistakenly cited by some as evidence that the extreme right is a spent force in South Africa politics. The mere fact that several thousand armed men could be mobilized at a moment's notice to invade Bop should be a chilling indication of the numbers that the extreme right commands.

More important, a direct armed confrontation, such as what took place in Mmabatho, is precisely the kind of battle that goes to the right's weakness. Although it commands thousands of well-armed men with military training, the right can never hope to match the firepower of the government's security forces. There is no chance of it overthrowing any South African government.

What the right can do is carry out individual acts of terrorism that may destabilize the country, or lead to a permanent atmosphere of uncertainty. For example, the white terrorist who killed Chris Hani, secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, in April, 1993, delivered, with one bullet, a more stunning blow to the transition process than all the bullets fired in Mmabatho, because Hani was a critical link between the aging black leadership and the "comrades" in the townships who are demanding radical change quickly.

Other assassinations, or acts of industrial sabotage, could also destabilize a country that, by necessity, will have uncertain politics for many years to come. As is evident in Northern Ireland, even exceptionally well-trained security forces dedicated to defeating the other side (characteristics that probably cannot be ascribed to the South African security forces, in light of the transition they are undergoing and the number of conservatives in critical positions) often cannot conquer a hard-core band of terrorists. Unfortunately, the right will probably live to fight another day.

Nor is it likely that any political accommodation can be reached with the the extreme conservatives. The right is unalterably opposed to majority rule. There is probably nothing that a future ANC-led government can offer that would tempt them to accept the new South Africa. Also, the right is so splintered that no one leader can speak for it, making fruitful negotiations almost impossible. Finally, what the conservatives say they want--a boerstaat that would be an independent country for the Afrikaners--will never be granted by an ANC committed to governing a united South Africa. Indeed, there is really no area of the country where whites are a majority and even the creation of a gerrymandered white "homeland" would still leave the majority of Afrikaners outside its borders.

Another scene that took place in Bop a few days after the battle was largely ignored by the world media but also has important implications for South Africa's future. Nelson Mandela went to Mmabatho and received a hero's welcome. Among those cheering were the numerous civil servants of the former homeland who could support Mandela because they had been assured they would keep their positions and their pensions.

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