In February 1990, twenty-seven and a half years after he was captured by police along a lonely road in Natal province, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison before a live international television audience. While in jail, Mandela had reached the stature of a messiah for many black South Africans. Once released, he became a mere mortal. "Forget the saintly Mandela who was going to soar above politics to bind the wounds of South Africa," said The Economist. "That was the invisible, jailed Mandela who lived mainly in the imagination of his hagiographers."

South Africa did not need a messiah. It had had enough of holy war, righteous rhetoric and crusading. What South Africa needed was a pragmatic lawyer to search for compromise.

Within days of his release, Mandela the man proved to be infinitely more useful than Mandela the symbol. Even before setting foot outside the prison farm where he was last held, Mandela helped persuade the new South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk to free most of the leading political prisoners and legalize long-banned political organizations including Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party. De Klerk also lifted restrictions on 33 other groups, including the United Democratic Front (UDF). Three other changes soon followed during the dizzying first eight months of the year: the four-year-old national state of emergency was lifted, the ruling National Party opened its membership to blacks and the ANC suspended its armed struggle.

Something about it all appealed to the human longing for great men and grand gestures. And what better suited duo could there be than Mandela and de Klerk for the final act in a long, bitter morality play.

De Klerk had been a conservative member of the previous cabinet who had championed apartheid and tried to expel dissidents from the country's more progressive universities. Then in late 1989 he emerged, Gorbachev-like, from the ranks of the party faithful to renounce a bankrupt ideology and search for a new social compact.

Mandela, with his lack of bitterness, projected an inner confidence and strength. He had first risen to national prominence the same year Dwight D. Eisenhower became president of the United States. Like a ghost from another era, he emerged as a figure out of time. He and de Klerk each hailed the other as a "man of integrity," and they shared a special rapport.

Yet the 1980s had seen the emergence of a grass-roots politics and an unprecedented level of participation by ordinary blacks who were loath to take orders from anyone, be they white police officers or returning political exiles. And among whites, a strong right-wing element appeared determined to stop de Klerk through ballots or bullets. If a new political order is to have any legitimacy, or if it is to have any hope of outliving de Klerk and Mandela, it cannot be a deal between two men, whatever their stature. It will have to take into account a wide range of South Africans and various social and political forces.

Without a sense of these dynamics, it is impossible to interpret events as they unfold in South Africa or to recognize how the United States, now a spectator, might eventually play a constructive role. The South African government is seeking an end to sanctions and the extension of financial aid. The World Bank and the European Community are considering aid plans. This has become possible sooner than expected, thanks to a 1989 U.N. resolution linking the end of sanctions to signs of "irreversible progress" toward the end of apartheid, rather than the actual transfer of power to the black majority. In the coming months Western nations will be asked to judge whether South Africa has, in fact, embarked on such an "irreversible" course.

Despite obstacles, however, the chances of a successful negotiated settlement over the next three years remain high. Though long at odds, the interests of the ANC and the National Party have suddenly converged. They have staked their reputations on finding a negotiated settlement to the racial conflict. Failure to do so would prove their respective left-wing and right-wing adversaries to be correct. Moreover, time is pressing. The National Party, its popularity uncertain, is not planning on ever holding another all-white election, which would be required by 1994. The aging members of the ANC's old guard are eager to see, as they said in the 1950s, "freedom in our lifetimes."


In retrospect the stage was set for the events of 1990 by two key events in 1989: the election of de Klerk to the presidency and the Harare Declaration by the ANC.

When F. W. de Klerk became National Party hoofleier, or leader-in-chief, in February 1989 by beating a more liberal opponent in the party caucus by the slim margin of eight votes, there were few indications that he would undertake sweeping changes. The son of a Nationalist senate president and the nephew of a Nationalist prime minister, de Klerk had been a circumspect politician. A lawyer by training, he was elected to parliament in 1972 for the conservative constituency of Vereeniging and became National Party leader in the Transvaal province after Andries Treurnicht led a right-wing revolt within the party there and formed the Conservative Party. De Klerk's own conservative leanings were an asset in holding the National Party together in the face of Treurnicht's defection.

During his years in parliament de Klerk supported racial separation in labor, denied black claims to permanent residence in "white" South Africa, fought against trade union rights for blacks and against their right to strike, favored separate amenities and separate residential areas for different races, and ardently championed the notion of "own affairs."

Yet it was inevitable that the election of de Klerk as president on September 14, 1989, would at least mark a change in style, if not substance, for the South African government after the autocratic Pieter W. Botha. Botha, a former defense minister, brooked little dissent within party ranks and ruled largely through the military. De Klerk has a different temperament; whereas Botha was inclined to bombastic outbursts, de Klerk is levelheaded. He also has no special ties to the military. He has breathed life into the moribund National Party caucus, placed civilians in charge of the state security council, restored the cabinet to its place as the highest policymaking authority, and dismantled the quasi-military shadow government that had been known under the euphemism "National Joint Management System." He also disbanded the security teams that plotted day-to-day developments in two different situation rooms with one of the country's largest collections of Lego blocks.

Nonetheless, de Klerk's great leap toward nonracial democracy remains something of a mystery. De Klerk's brother, Willem, has said the party leadership realized it was in a political "cul-de-sac." De Klerk has told acquaintances that he was motivated by a combination of principle and pragmatism. People underestimate the nature of the spiritual leap that he has undergone, he told an acquaintance in a private conversation last February. A religious person, de Klerk said he had come to recognize the fundamental injustice of apartheid.

His more pragmatic side involves a demographic and economic calculation that, sooner or later, black aspirations would need to be accommodated. The steady crush of black urbanization, the integration of blacks into the skilled economy and the corrosive effect of international sanctions were all pushing in that direction. Within ten years, South Africa's population will grow from about 35 million to 45.1 million, with blacks making up nearly the entire increment. Whereas only 16 million people lived in urban areas in 1985, there will be 35.7 million people living in South African cities by the year 2000. International trade and banking sanctions have not crippled the economy, but they have made it difficult for the economy to thrive. The current debt rescheduling agreement between South Africa and its foreign banks drains about $1.5 billion a year out of the country. Nearly as much money is leaving the country in the form of capital flight by individual white South Africans.

Moreover, political developments signaled the failure of apartheid. A series of coups in the nominally independent "homelands" heralded the collapse of the system that was the cornerstone of grand apartheid. Under that plan, blacks were not considered citizens of "white" South Africa but of distinct ethnic states. One by one, however, the homeland governments tumbled. The Transkei government was overthrown at the end of 1987 by a pro-ANC Transkei army major. On December 1, 1989, 50,000 people rallied in Umtata, the Transkei capital, in support of the ANC. On March 5, 1990, the Ciskei government was overthrown. On April 5 the Venda government was ousted. In both cases, pro-ANC black soldiers took over.

The breakdown of the heavily subsidized homeland system mirrored the crisis in the black townships. Local elections failed to produce credible black leadership. Rent strikes and boycotts continued unabated, depriving the government of revenue and flouting its authority.

Once de Klerk accepted the need for eventual negotiations, it made sense to move quickly. White South Africans' bargaining position would only grow weaker with time-and not just because of external pressures. Even within the white laager, consensus was crumbling on both the left and the right. The right wing was slowly gaining political strength because of a backlash against relatively modest reforms. In the 1989 elections, the Conservative Party gained 17 seats in parliament and became the official opposition. At the same time the liberal Democratic Party did well, considering that black demonstrations on the eve of the elections frightened many white voters back to the National Party. Overall the National Party's majority was reduced, giving its leaders "a healthy fright," according to de Klerk's brother, Willem.

Aside from the election results, there were increasing qualms among whites about apartheid and the harsh means used to suppress blacks. It has always been part of the peculiar nature of white South Africans that they view themselves as moral people, justifying apartheid as an opportunity for people of different cultures to fulfill their aspirations separately. The brutal methods used to put down the black insurrection from 1984 to 1986 exploded that myth in the minds of white South Africans.

Finally, young South Africans were war weary from fighting in Namibia and the townships. In response to this and the independence settlement in Namibia, one of de Klerk's first measures as president was to reduce the length of mandatory military service from two years to one.

The crisis of confidence spread through the elite institutions of Afrikanerdom. By the time De Klerk was elected, the Dutch Reformed Church had confessed that apartheid was a sin. The Broederbond, the secret society of influential Afrikaners, had established contacts with the ANC and in 1989 came up with a reform plan that envisaged a democratic system that included blacks while protecting group rights. De Klerk, like his predecessors, is a Broederbond member.

In addition, de Klerk told several acquaintances, he was encouraged to act by the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. The rapid fall of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania showed how quickly a seemingly secure system can crumble. Moreover, east European countries, the Frontline states in Africa, and the Soviet Union were now all pressing the ANC to make compromises in order to bring about negotiations, strengthening the government's bargaining hand still further.

The ANC also helped set the stage for the events of 1990, perhaps unwittingly, with the adoption of the Harare Declaration in 1989. The declaration laid out the steps that would create "a climate for negotiations": the "unconditional" release of Mandela and other political prisoners, the unbanning of outlawed organizations, the removal of all troops from the townships, a halt in executions, the scrapping of security legislation and the lifting of the state of emergency. At the time it seemed farfetched that the conditions would ever be met and the adoption of the Harare Declaration received little notice.

In the new climate ushered in under de Klerk, however, what initially looked like another pro forma declaration by the movement in exile took on the appearance of a negotiating offer. In his opening speech to parliament on February 2, de Klerk adopted much of the Harare Declaration, only leaving a state of emergency in place in Natal and keeping in jail some ANC guerrillas who were convicted of murder or arson.

Nine days later, Mandela was released and gave a speech in Cape Town that sounded militant by comparison, signaling that he had not compromised himself in order to win his release. "Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts," he said, and added that "the factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today."

But Mandela also reciprocated by hinting at the imminent end of the armed struggle. In the middle of his speech, Mandela said armed struggle might not be needed once de Klerk created a climate for negotiations. The steps needed to create such a climate had already been defined by the Harare Declaration, and they were within reach. That nugget was the concession de Klerk wanted.

Mandela also mapped out the course that the negotiating process would take for the next year. There would be preliminary talks to prepare for formal negotiations and to normalize the political situation. Substantive negotiations would take place only after the ANC held a national conference to elect new leaders. The ANC soon scheduled a congress for December and formal negotiations were expected to start in January 1991.

Early in May 1990, representatives of the government and the ANC met at Cape Town's historic Groote Schuur residence. They issued a joint statement committing themselves to a peaceful process of negotiation. In a second meeting on August 6, the government agreed to a phased release of remaining ANC prisoners, and the ANC suspended all armed actions "in the interest of moving as speedily as possible toward a negotiated political settlement."

By jointly committing themselves to negotiations, the two longtime foes, the ANC and the National Party, now shared common interests: the achievement of a speedy negotiated settlement to the political conflict, the establishment of peaceful and normal political activity, and the crushing of extreme left- and right-wing militants. There could be no more dramatic demonstration of this convergence of interests than the ANC's call for government troops to be used to restore order in the Transvaal townships in June, just five years after the UDF mobilized township support with the slogan "Troops out of the townships."

Another indication of their common interests was the ANC's changing position toward sanctions. The ANC is likely to call for the phased lifting of sanctions this year. This is in part a recognition of the reality that international adherence to sanctions is crumbling. But it is also a recognition that the ANC increasingly shares the government's interest in promoting growth in the South African economy. If left until the inauguration of majority rule, economic problems will be unmanageably immense. Said a diplomat involved in enforcing sanctions: "The economic crisis of apartheid cannot wait, and it can be more destabilizing than violence."


The lifting of restrictions has transformed the ANC and forced it to grapple with a host of issues it could avoid as a banned organization. The most dramatic change was the elevation of Mandela to the organization's leadership. Upon his release, Mandela insisted that he was no prophet, only a mediator. He took pains to emphasize that he had not negotiated with the government, that he had merely discussed issues that would bring about negotiations. But like Cincinnatus, Mandela gained more power by renouncing claims to it. Within three weeks, the ANC national executive committee named him deputy president, and he set off traveling around the world during much of the first half of the year.

Caught unprepared for life as a legal organization, the ANC set itself three goals: to enlist members, formally bring allied organizations into its fold, and hold a consultative conference at the end of 1990 to give a mandate to its leadership before the start of formal negotiations. The ANC, however, failed to achieve any of these goals. Most surprising, the membership drive lagged. By early December only 150,000 people had signed up. This was barely more than the ANC membership in the 1950s and a fraction of what the ANC's rival Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi claimed to be the membership of his Inkatha organization. ANC organizers blamed the lackluster enrollment on the 12-rand fee required, on fears that possession of an ANC card would risk violence from rival black groups or unreformed police, and on a sense among the people that those who survived the repression of the 1980s did not need to prove their allegiance.

The ANC did make some progress in the formidable task of rebuilding its structure inside the country after a thirty-year hiatus. The Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee, a predominantly white UDF affiliate, dissolved on May 18 and broke up into neighborhood ANC branches. In neighborhoods where the mere mention of the ANC was recently taboo, people now unceremoniously joined branches as if it were the Rotary Club. Some black women's groups merged with the ANC women's federation. The Transvaal and Natal Indian Congress, founded by Gandhi, also voted conditionally to dissolve.

But the ANC failed to absorb most of its allied organizations inside the country. Black trade unions and scores of civic associations refused to give up their independence. The Congress of South African Trade Unions refused to bow to the ANC's moribund and memberless union arm, called the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Recognizing COSATU's strength, the ANC disbanded SACTU. Civic associations and the UDF also refused to disband. Many of their leaders favored dual membership with the ANC.

Although scheduled for December 1990, the ANC's first formal national conference in South Africa in more than thirty years had to be postponed. Only a scaled-down meeting was held. Mandela and other ANC leaders feared that a full national consultative conference would slip out of their control, resulting in the defeat of much of the leadership in elections and in the adoption of hard-line positions on the economy, armed struggle and negotiations. At the end of 1989, during what was supposed to be a ceremonial visit by the long-imprisoned Walter Sisulu, discontented rank-and-file members of the ANC in exile asked the newly released Sisulu to shake up the organization and oust corrupt leaders. The organization's number-three official, Alfred Nzo, was considered among those most likely to go down to defeat. "There are too many variables that the movement is not in control of," said an ANC youth leader in exile who would have attended the congress. "The ANC still doesn't know what the outcome of the conference will be and it has got to know what it wants out of the conference beforehand."

The ANC leadership was also unprepared to deal with tough questions about its strategy. Even the scaled-down meeting produced tough challenges over the ANC's negotiating posture and the suspension of the armed struggle. ANC leaders were also seeking to avoid a showdown over their economic policy. For years, the organization had managed to avoid clarifying its 1955 Freedom Charter, which promised that "the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole." (The Freedom Charter did not actually use the word nationalization.) It was a document that everyone could interpret as they saw fit. Mandela said upon his release that he favored nationalization. Within days, Anglo-American Corporation chairman Gavin Relly, the country's most powerful businessman, visited Mandela in Soweto, a symbol of the shift in power. But in March, the diamond mining conglomerate De Beers moved its corporate headquarters to Switzerland. If a future government chose to nationalize the company, the Swiss-based company would thus retain control of the diamond market and of its mines in Botswana, Namibia and elsewhere around the world. It was a sobering signal to the ANC, and in subsequent meetings the ANC sought to soothe business anxieties.

Beneath the uncertainty over strategy and policy lay more fundamental contradictions in the ANC's role. Was it a political party with a platform or a broad umbrella for South Africans of differing views? During a visit to the offices of The Washington Post in June, Mandela said:

The ANC has never been a political party. It was formed as a parliament of the African people. Right from the start, up to now, the ANC is a coalition, if you want, of people of various political affiliations. Some will support free enterprise, others socialism. Some are conservatives, others are liberals. We are united solely by our determination to oppose racial oppression. . . . There is no question of ideology as far as the odyssey of the ANC is concerned, because any question approaching ideology would split the organization from top to bottom.

And yet the ANC could not avoid those questions as people looked toward a free South Africa-and that was straining the organization. In addition the ANC was trying to act as both a party of national reconciliation and a liberation movement. As a result Mandela would pronounce de Klerk a man of integrity who could be trusted while warning at township rallies that the armed struggle could be reactivated. In the space of one fortnight at the beginning of December, Mandela was launching a campaign of mass action (partly to rally support for the ANC among blacks) while telling European countries that there was enough progress in talks with the government to start lifting economic sanctions.

The roles are directly at odds, and the ANC risks being torn apart in two directions. The failure of the ANC and Mandela to resolve those roles will probably remain a persistent problem as they try to reach out to white South Africans without losing their footing among blacks, especially the legions of impatient black youths. Forty-two percent of blacks are below the age of 15, a volatile constituency that no one can claim to control. So far the ANC has finessed the issue by telling black youths that negotiations are simply "another weapon of struggle." The danger is that the ANC will fail on all fronts, that it will instill more fear among whites and will not convince the explosive black youth to go along with negotiations.

Nonetheless the ANC remains the most popular political organization and the one with the best hope of rallying broad support among black South Africans. Its Africanist rivals, including the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Azanian People's Organization, marginalized themselves by refusing to take part in negotiations. Moreover their own organizational problems made the ANC look like a well-oiled machine. Buthelezi and Inkatha remained mostly a regional force in Natal. Although Buthelezi could be a disruptive force not to be ignored, he would never play a unifying role.


At the same time that the ANC and the National Party were preparing for national negotiations, about 40 sets of negotiations were being held at local levels to resolve rent boycotts and to merge adjacent white cities and black townships into single municipalities. These talks showed that change was bubbling up from below, not just handed down from above.

They addressed head-on the economic issue of redistribution central to the transformation blacks are seeking. Ending apartheid is about more than a bill of rights or a common voters' roll.

Nothing illustrates this better than the four-year rent boycott in South Africa's largest metropolis, Soweto. That boycott ended September 24, 1990, with the signing of a historic accord by Soweto community councillors, the Transvaal Provincial Authority, and the Soweto People's Delegation. The national cabinet, the state-owned electricity company and the Johannesburg City Council also took part in the agreement. Under the accord, the government agreed to write off 500 million rand in rent arrears, give away state-owned houses to residents, subsidize electricity in Soweto, and form a Metropolitan Council that would oversee the transition to a postapartheid united municipality for the sister cities of Soweto and Johannesburg.

Long devoid of business districts because of apartheid restrictions on black enterprises, black townships in South Africa are not financially viable. Meanwhile, through labor and consumer power, blacks fuel businesses that subsidize white residential electricity and tax rates. Per unit electricity rates have been significantly lower in wealthy Johannesburg than in poorer Soweto.

The release of Mandela interrupted talks that had been in progress since 1989 over the Soweto rent boycott between the government, the state-owned electricity company and black community leaders. But the talks soon resumed. By July 1990, residents in 49 of the 82 townships in Transvaal province were withholding rent and utility payments. By August, arrears amounted to 1.1 billion rand. The company threatened to shut off all electricity to Soweto by the end of July, but de Klerk intervened and extended the deadline by one month. On the night of August 30, the negotiations came to a successful close, with cabinet-level approval for writing off rent and utility arrears.

While unable to succeed independent of progress in national negotiations, local negotiations can ease the transition to a nonracial society and provide a model for reallocating wealth and reconstructing the apartheid city. This issue is central to the creation of a "new" South Africa. "The establishment of a nonracial democratic government is not an end, but a beginning," said Brian Hlongwa, a leader of the South African Youth Congress. "We do not believe in the 'Big Bang' theory that the ANC black, green and gold flag will be raised and all our problems will be solved."

Economic disparity made the South African Communist Party a potential force in a postapartheid South Africa. Indeed, at township rallies in 1990, one of the most popular speakers was Joe Slovo, the good-humored white party chairman whose Jewish family fled Lithuania for South Africa in 1936. When the party made its membership (or at least part of it) public in July, it turned out that many of the country's leading activists were members. Former Robben Island inmate Raymond Mhlaba asserted that 23 of the 33 members of the ANC national executive committee were communists.

Banned in 1950, the SACP was an organization long shrouded in mystery and controversy. Until 1990 its membership and activities were secret. Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation, which is commonly considered the ANC military wing, was in fact founded jointly by members of the ANC and SACP in 1961. The party's allies in Moscow and the Soviet bloc were the most consistent donors of money and equipment aside from Sweden. The SACP had been shaped and scarred by the Stalinist era. Its chairman in the 1940s, Moses Kotane, had triumphed in a leadership battle after three rivals were purged during a visit to Moscow; they died in Soviet labor camps. Slovo himself was a defender of Stalin after World War II. "I was a blind defender. I'm deeply ashamed of it now," he told me in an interview in 1987.

In the wake of perestroika and the liberation of eastern Europe, however, the Moscow line changed, throwing the SACP into upheaval. Slovo declared himself an admirer of Gorbachev and endorsed multiparty democracy, a mixed economy and broad-based party membership. Many South Africans doubt the sincerity of Slovo's anti-Stalinist mea culpa and wonder whether the party's belated conversion to political pluralism was real or just the latest Moscow line. Moreover, international turmoil over the direction of communism and its past failures undermined support for the party. Most black South Africans knew little of the collapse of communism, but many key leaders were able to arrange trips abroad. After spending a week visiting Moscow, one rising star within the ANC who had been deeply influenced by South African communists while in prison, turned to a traveling companion and said, "They lied to us. All those years . . . they lied to us."

Compared to the ANC, the SACP could enunciate a relatively clear platform, despite being in flux. It favored strong central government and the nationalization of industry. It cemented strong ties to the labor movement. Slovo's personal appeal helped the party tremendously.

The ANC and SACP remained closely associated and allied, but the emergence of a public, independent SACP posed a threat to the ANC in the long run. If the SACP were to break with the ANC to establish its own identity and contest elections, the ANC could lose some of its most popular figures. But if leading communists continued to play a large role in the ANC, then the ANC would have trouble winning white and moderate black support. The question of party membership will undoubtedly become a subtext in choosing an ANC leader after Mandela.


Until 1990, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when police shot into a crowd of demonstrators killing 67 Africans and wounding 186 others, had set the standard for brutality. In 1990, it seemed, there was the equivalent of a Sharpeville massacre every couple of weeks. But in 1990 blacks died not only at the hands of security forces, but also at the hands of rival political organizations, rival ethnic groups and unknown assailants.

Though violence came from many quarters, the common danger was that it would establish, or already reflected, a "culture of violence" in which killing was the norm and force rather than democratic debate had become the way to resolve differences. The failure of the government, Inkatha and the ANC to end the killing reflected poorly on their commitment to peaceful political activity and on their ability to influence their followers. Perhaps nothing dramatized that impotence more than Mandela's speech on February 25, 1990, in Natal, in which he pleaded with his followers to stop fighting followers of Inkatha and to throw their guns and pangas (machetes) into the sea. There were scattered boos and hisses in the crowd and his appeal was ignored. Though the world stood appalled by the violence inflicted by rival black ethnic and political groups, the leading cause of premature death in the townships remained the government's security forces. Between January and August, 197 people were killed and another 2,490 were injured by police and soldiers.

In addition to shootings at public demonstrations, elements of the security forces were discovered to be running assassination teams, or death squads. In October and November 1989, a former black security policeman on death row confessed that he had been a member of an official hit squad. His story was confirmed by another black police officer and by their captain, Johannes Dirk Coetzee, who fled into exile.

In early 1990, a similar unit in the South African Defense Force, called the Civil Cooperation Bureau, was revealed. The bureau was implicated in 71 murders, including those of white academic David Webster, who had been a member of the Human Rights Commission in South Africa, and of Louis Ribeiro, a respected black physician from the Pretoria townships.

De Klerk appointed Justice Louis Harms to lead an inquiry into the Civil Cooperation Bureau. Harms discovered that the bureau had operated up to 64 offices around the world with about 200 agents. But Harms failed to call key witnesses or obtain a long list of key documents, many of which were probably destroyed. Senior military officers refused to answer questions, defying civilian authority. On July 31, 1990, the government announced that the Civil Cooperation Bureau was "officially" disbanded, but no one was dismissed or disciplined, raising questions about de Klerk's control over the security forces and about their loyalty. Perhaps to ensure the loyalty of right-wing police, de Klerk gave the entire force a hefty pay increase.

But whites alone could not be blamed for the violence in the townships. In Natal, fighting raged between Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha and followers of the ANC and its allies, the UDF and COSATU. The fighting started in late 1987, but it intensified in 1990. By April, more than 12,000 people had fled their homes as a result of the new wave of violence. By September 1990, more than 4,000 people had been killed in Natal since the fighting broke out three years earlier.

Though widely seen abroad as evidence of "tribal" fighting, the violence in Natal was almost exclusively among Zulus. The fighting in Natal was political in nature, involving Zulus from rival political groups and in the process splitting communities and sometimes even families.

The origin of the antagonism between the ANC and Inkatha goes back more than a decade. Buthelezi had been an ANC member as a student at Fort Hare University in the late 1940s. He later became chief of the Buthelezi clan after consulting then-ANC president Chief Albert John Lutuli. Like many ANC leaders, Lutuli believed the ANC could use such posts even though they required government approval. In 1970 Buthelezi agreed to serve as chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland. In 1975 he founded Inkatha ye Nkululeko ye Sizwe, borrowing the name from an old Zulu cultural society. Though open to all blacks, the membership of Inkatha is almost exclusively Zulu, and its constitution stipulates that its president must be Zulu. This clause violated the spirit of the ANC, which had always strived to transcend ethnicity. Nonetheless, the ANC gave its quiet blessings to Buthelezi's moves, because his refusal to accept independence for KwaZulu threw a monkey wrench into the government homeland strategy. Inkatha also adopted ANC colors and uniforms and KwaZulu schools taught ANC history.

With the radicalization of black youths during the ascendancy of Black Consciousness in the 1970s, the ANC was reluctant to be associated with Buthelezi, who increasingly denounced the ANC's strategy of armed struggle and international trade sanctions, which he saw as disastrous and futile. He portrayed himself as the true heir of the ANC tradition and referred to the ANC as the "mission in exile." The ANC denounced him as a government stooge, which enraged the thin-skinned Buthelezi. The UDF also complained that Buthelezi ran KwaZulu undemocratically; his opponents were prohibited from holding meetings and Inkatha coerced many people into joining. Buthelezi accused UDF "comrades" of intimidation. Tensions rose steadily throughout the 1980s, leading to the outbreak of all-out fighting in late 1987.

No matter how vast the gulf between Inkatha and the ANC, Buthelezi always insisted that he would never join negotiations with the government until Mandela was released. This was due to a lucid recognition that only the release of Mandela could bestow legitimacy to the talks. But it also represented Buthelezi's hope that Mandela would mend fences with him and treat him as a player in the talks.

After his release from prison, Mandela indicated his desire to meet with Buthelezi. While it would not have been sufficient by itself to end three years of fighting, a meeting between Mandela and Buthelezi might have helped break the cycle of retribution. But Mandela's plans drew protests from ANC allies in Natal, and he canceled a scheduled meeting and joint rally. Mandela's initial refusal to meet Buthelezi was uncharacteristic of the ANC leader, who had kept in touch with a wide array of black leaders through the three personal letters a month he was allowed to mail while in prison. Later events were to prove the cancellation a fateful error.

In 1990, for the first time, intense fighting between blacks spread outside Natal. The first major incident occurred on July 22, when about 4,300 men wearing Inkatha's characteristic cloth headbands, allegedly backed by balaclava-clad whites, raided a hostel in the township of Sebokeng near Johannesburg following an Inkatha Freedom Party rally at the local stadium. In the fighting that ensued, 24 people were killed. Nineteen were members of a COSATU affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, who were on strike at two different companies and who lived in two hostel blocks that were singled out. COSATU accused Inkatha, employers and police of being behind the attack. In August and September, clashes spread throughout the Transvaal province, often pitting migrant Zulu workers who lived in single-sex hostels against township residents, many of whom were ANC supporters.

Neither side had clean hands in the spiral of retribution. And as the fighting spread to the Transvaal, it took on ethnic overtones that it lacked in Natal. This aspect is extremely sensitive among black South Africans. The South African government has long argued that the end of apartheid would lead to fighting among black "tribes." Tribalism is a word that blacks see as a way of demeaning African ethnicity and relegating it to a category of barbarism. According to the government, the ANC, with a heavily Xhosa leadership, would combat the Zulu-dominated Inkatha. In fact, while Mandela, Mbeki and Tambo were Xhosa, many other ANC leaders were from other ethnic groups. But township fighting in 1990 was unmistakably ethnic.

To some extent the violence is part of the legacy of apartheid, which relied on migrant labor. Given the prison-like living conditions in the hostels and the isolation from the stabilizing influence of family, it is no surprise that migrant workers are restless. While Soweto's five hostels were built to accommodate 13,000 workers, some estimates of unofficial occupancy go as high as 39,000. Overall, about 125,000 migrant workers live in 31 hostels in the various townships east and south of Johannesburg.

In many cases, the cause of violent incidents remained a mystery. For example, on September 13, a gang of men armed with shotguns, knives and pangas methodically and indiscriminately worked their way through a crowded commuter train between Soweto and Johannesburg, killing 26 people and injuring more than 100 others. The day after the train massacre, Mandela met de Klerk and said that the latter had conceded that a "hidden hand" appeared to be at work in the townships. The same day, de Klerk issued a statement saying that "there are forces which do not wish peaceful negotiations to succeed." Blacks even allege they have seen whites in blackface taking part in township battles.

Notwithstanding the statements, the violence in the townships pointed to a failure of political leadership. De Klerk moved slowly to stop the killings; when he acted in Natal, he deployed the "32 Battalion," a largely expatriate unit infamous for its ruthlessness in fighting in Namibia and southern Angola. Black nationalist activists who were veterans of the 1980s complained that the ANC leadership seemed to think it could stop the killings by proclamation. Mandela's futile speech in Natal was one example; Mandela and de Klerk's joint appeals were another. Neither did Buthelezi help to stop the violence. He said that his people were entitled to defend themselves, a thinly disguised blessing for acts of revenge.

On June 1, Oscar Dhlomo, the president of Inkatha and the number-two official after Buthelezi, resigned from the organization. His resignation was a blow to the organization's image because Dhlomo was widely respected among white South Africans and even among Inkatha's opponents. "There are no angels in this violence," Dhlomo said. "Until leaders stop saying that when people are attacked they must defend themselves, there will be no end."


Where does the situation go from here?

Early in 1991, the government and the ANC are scheduled to start formal negotiations on the substance of a new constitution and on how the drafting process will work. The negotiations will take at least two or three years and there will be sharp disagreements all along the way.

The government's goals in the negotiations are not clear, and in this the analogy between de Klerk and Gorbachev is apt. Each leader has been courageous enough to cast off his party's past, but neither seems exactly certain where he is going. With a near unanimity reminiscent of the Soviet bloc's "reconstructed" communist parties, National Party caucuses in each province rejected apartheid and opened membership to blacks. But that left them without a clear platform. De Klerk has described his vision in broad terms:

The agenda is open and the overall aims to which we are aspiring should be acceptable to all reasonable South Africans. . . . Those aims include a new, democratic constitution; a universal franchise; no domination; equality before an independent judiciary; the protection of minorities as well as of individual rights; freedom of religion; a sound economy based on proven economic principles; dynamic programs directed at better education, health services, housing and social conditions for all.

While opponents of apartheid agree with many of those principles, there are still important differences. It is not clear how the government hopes to ensure that there will be "no domination" under a postapartheid government. De Klerk has often cited the Federalist Papers and James Madison's argument for limits on the power of a democratic majority to impose its will on smaller factions. The fundamental objective of the government was succinctly summed up by a former security policeman, Craig Williamson, who said, "What we are trying to do is make sure that no future government has the power we did."

To some extent, an independent judiciary and a bill of rights would protect the interests of whites and other minorities, based on individual rights rather than group rights. But the government is likely to seek additional protections in the electoral process. A high-ranking cabinet minister has said in private that he hopes that minority groups would have blocking or veto rights under a new constitution on certain sensitive issues, such as education or the shape of the economic system. While he acknowledged that defining those minority groups by race would not be possible, he said it might be possible to define people by "cultural or linguistic" group. He saw the possibility of both common and separate voting rolls. The objective of the group veto, he said, would be to prevent "unsophisticated peasants and poor people from seizing control of a sophisticated economy."

Those constitutional proposals will clash head on with the ANC's goals. The ANC has long insisted on one person, one vote in a unitary state. It has been leery of any form of federalism and of an "upper house" that would dilute the power of the majority. It sees those measures as ways of protecting white privilege. Some of its supporters, especially in the trade union movement, want a new constitution to explicitly provide for economic redistribution and for nationalization of key industries. The ANC also rejects outright any racial identification in voting and demands the abolition of the Population Registration Act.

Mandela has said, however, that he recognizes the need for structural guarantees that would address whites' concerns about the protection of their rights and security. In that, government officials find some hope that the ANC might be willing to negotiate and compromise.

The two sides must settle other issues too. The ANC wants its military wing merged with the South African Defense Forces, an idea ridiculed by Defense Minister Magnus Malan. Some members of the ANC want a constituent assembly to be elected. But the government has the same problem with that as it does with a straight Westminster-style parliamentary system. As a minority, its views would have no chance of prevailing.

Some ANC members are discussing the idea of a panel of "wise men" who would help to mediate between different parties to the negotiations. One ANC member said that possible candidates for that role could include former parliamentary opposition leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, former Inkatha President Dhlomo and South Africa's current chief justice.

Finally, the National Party and the ANC must find a way of bringing other parties into the negotiations if a new constitution is to be widely accepted. This will not be an easy task. It is not clear what shape a larger table would have or on whose side homeland leaders or Buthelezi would sit, if invited. And the Pan-Africanist Congress, many of whose followers believe in the slogan "one settler, one bullet," is unwilling to join the talks. Despite these obstacles, talks must be broadened. The more people are excluded from negotiations, the greater the threat that they will disrupt a new governing system rather than participate within it.


Just as important as the nature of the postapartheid state, however, will be the nature of society outside the state. Though the South African government has held on to the traditional levers of power-the parliament, military and civil service-in the 1980s it lost its grip on virtually all other aspects of society. South African opposition groups have run trade unions, sports leagues, weekly newspapers, professional and civic associations, women's federations, youth, study and church groups, printing presses, T-shirt factories, think tanks and cultural committees. If such associations and groups can continue to maintain their vitality and independence under majority rule, they can become bulwarks of democracy in a truly free South Africa. Much will depend on what the ANC becomes, and how its relationship with these groups develops.

Within the ANC alliance, organizations have asserted their independence-an auspicious sign for a healthy and diverse political environment to come. Black trade unions, wary of ANC intentions, have vowed to fight to avoid becoming subservient to it, and the ANC has not included trade union leaders in preliminary negotiations with the government. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu had told his clergymen not to take up ANC posts because to do so would compromise the independence of the church. The press, both black and white, has scrutinized the ANC closely. Progressive newspapers critical of the government have also broken stories about ANC detention camps, the misdeeds of Mandela's wife, Winnie, and problems in the negotiating process. Civic associations that formed the core of the United Democratic Front and of the black revolt during the 1980s remain a force. There is a growing sense that civic groups can play a role uniting communities across party political and ethnic lines.

The ANC is gradually adjusting to the views of its independent allies and is changing its view of a postapartheid society. In a meeting at The Washington Post, Mandela said: "In the new South Africa . . . parties will be free to form themselves, and the ANC has no right to say to any political party, to any group, that you can only exist if you join us, if you accept us as an embracing organization."

Perhaps the most important contribution Mandela can make to a future South Africa is a sense of restraint reflected in his first speech after his release from prison, when he emphasized the need for negotiations to be carried out in a democratic fashion. Since then, however, many of his admirers have been disappointed by his taste for overseas travel, by his move into the ostentatious Soweto mansion his wife built while he was in jail, by what they see as his authoritarian manner, and especially by his attempts to rehabilitate his wife's political career. He has installed her as head of the ANC social welfare department, despite an outcry from ANC branches and from black social workers.

The last of these complaints is the most disturbing. The "problem of Winnie" has plagued the antiapartheid opposition for several years. While Mrs. Mandela won international fame for her brave defiance of the government, her defiance seems more like arrogance in the context of black political organizations. While charismatic, she has rarely participated in community or political organizations. She became intoxicated with the admiration people showed her. While her husband was in jail, she surrounded herself with sycophants and a Mandela "football team" that was little more than a gang of thugs. The team was involved in the assault and murder of a 14-year-old black activist, an incident that prompted the Mass Democratic Movement to distance itself from Winnie Mandela. In early 1989, MDM leaders issued a statement that said:

The democratic movement has uncompromisingly fought against violations of human rights from whatever quarters. We are not prepared to remain silent when those who are violating human rights claim to be doing so in the name of the struggle against apartheid. . . . We are of the view that Mrs. Mandela has abused the trust and confidence which she has enjoyed over the years. . . . Often her practices have violated the spirit and ethos of the democratic movement.

A Johannesburg prosecutor is planning to try Mrs. Mandela in connection with the earlier assault and murder. She will have the counsel of the country's top political lawyers, but the trial will prove a distraction and an embarrassment, at best.

Establishing limits of power is an important element in the transfer of power. Many white South Africans who suggest this simply want to frustrate the aspirations of blacks and preserve the status quo. But it would be in the interests of all South Africans to leave space for civil society. It is not simply a tool for change; it is the essence of change. As the theorist of the Polish Solidarity movement, Adam Michnik, wrote, "The essence lay in the attempt to reconstruct society, to restore social bonds outside official institutions,"

No constitutional mechanism can serve as an ironclad guarantee of political pluralism, and the 42 years of National Party rule have not exactly set a laudatory precedent. Protection for the principles of restraint and pluralism can emerge only from practice, not only between different racial and political camps but within them as well. Those principles have been best expressed by Albie Sachs, a one-time Communist Party member and a white ANC lawyer working on the new constitution. Sachs, who lost his arm when South African agents tried to kill him with a car bomb, wrote a speech about postapartheid culture that set off a storm among those with a less tolerant view of the future. He said:

We think we are the best . . . but this does not require us to force our views down the throats of others. We exercise true leadership by being nonhegemonic, by selflessly trying to create the widest unity of the oppressed and to encourage all forces for change, by showing the people that we are fighting not to impose a view upon them but to give them the right to choose the kind of society they want and the kind of government they want. We are not afraid of the ballot box, of open debate, of opposition. One fine day we will even have our Ian Smith equivalents, protesting and grumbling about every change being made and looking back with nostalgia to the good old days of apartheid, but we will take them on at the hustings. In conditions of freedom, we have no doubt who will win, and if we should forfeit the trust of the people, then we deserve to lose.

If adhered to, such principles can make a new constitution a foundation stone for a new South Africa, rather than just another tombstone.

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  • Steven Mufson is a staff writer for The Washington Post and author of Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa.
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