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A new deal for South Africa.

IN the first half of 1993, South Africa tentatively moved towards an outcome which had seemed highly improbable -- even absurdly unrealistic -- in the fierce political heat of 1992. That is a year which has now come to be regarded as the nadir of the country's post-1990 development. Paradoxically, President de Klerk's welcome referendum victory over the far-right Conservative Party (CP) in March of last year actually served to trigger a deterioration in government-ANC relations as the State President, misinterpreting the meaning of that victory, appeared to seek tighter control over both the pace and content of the reform process. This produced its almost inevitable response with the ANC's 'mass action' campaign designed to demonstrate to de Klerk that his hegemony in white politics should not be confused with national dominance.

Consequently, the period from June to September was characterized by 'megaphone diplomacy', demonstrations, industrial stayaways, civil disobedience and an unacceptably high level of political violence (there were over three hundred thousand politically-related deaths for the year as a whole). Despite these events, or perhaps because of them, the National Party (NP) government and the ANC managed to keep open channels of communication and, albeit hesitantly at first, shift ground towards more pragmatic positions. Although there have been cries of protest from a range of aggrieved parties, that process continued into 1993 and by March the broad contours of a 'historic compromise' were visible. The NP and the ANC, or at least the leadership elite of those organisations, had concluded that, while their electoral rivalry was likely to remain intense, some form of practical co-operation was necessary to steer the country towards calmer waters.

The nature of the 'new deal'

The essence of the deal which emerged from a tortuous series of bilateral negotiations from September 1992 to February 1993 is the adoption of a 'national unity' option (the ANC preferred description) or a 'power-sharing' arrangement (the term favoured by the NP). Under the terms of this agreement both sides have accepted that the first post-apartheid election -- provisionally scheduled for April 1994 -- will be followed by the establishment of a government of national unity drawing its personnel from all parties acquiring in excess of five per cent of the national vote. The ANC, however, has sought, and appears to have secured, NP acceptance that parties will be allocated portfolios within a new government in proportion to their electoral support. This was seen as essential by the ANC if 'national unity' was not to become a convenient euphemism for minority veto and political paralysis. Moreover, the NP has also conceded that this arrangement will be neither compulsory nor permanent but will instead last only until 1999 in a bid to ease in a more conventional form of majority rule. The term 'sunset clause' -- suggesting the gradual phasing out of white rule rather than one dramatic handover of power -- has been popularised in the South African media to describe this short-term arrangement.

Neither the distance which the parties have travelled to reach this destination nor the risks encountered en route should be underestimated. For the ANC this acceptance of a programme of democracy by instalment represents a clear dilution of its commitment to straightforward majority rule which has, hitherto, been an article of faith within the movement. As a result, the political risks are considerable and the personal stature of the ANC President, Nelson Mandela, is likely to prove crucial to the acceptance of this compromise project by the rank and file. The concessions made by the NP government are, however, much more sweeping although the, at times acrimonious, debate within the ANC over the national unity option has tended to obscure this reality. In fact, the NP has now retreated from most of the supposedly core principles contained within its constitutional blueprint of September 1991:

* The proposal for a constitutionally-entrenched, permanent power-sharing arrangement, which would secure NP influence into the foreseeable future, has been abandoned in the cut and thrust of negotiations when it was recognized that the ANC would never endorse such an idea.

* Opposition to the principle of an elected constituent assembly or Constitution Making Body (CMB) has been dropped. This is an implicit acceptance of the majority-rule model even if, within such a forum, the NP will seek to modify the practical impact of majoritarianism. The NP has even accepted, after prolonged resistance throughout 1992, that the CMB should conduct its business on the basis of two-thirds majorities.

* The commitment to a rotating Presidency, to be occupied for a fixed period by the leaders of the major parties, has been quietly shelved.

* The NP's belief in the merits of an upper house with disproportionate representation for minorities and with the power of veto over the decisions of a popularly elected assembly -- the so-called 'house of losers' -- has now been revised.

* The NP is no longer insisting upon an ANC commitment to a federal South Africa in advance of the deliberations of the CMB which will have the final word. That said, the NP continues strongly to advocate federalism and is working hard to ensure broad cross-party agreement on the regional question prior to elections.

These are historic concessions from a government which in September 1991 appeared to be digging itself into heavily fortified positions and they have been made in return for a guaranteed place in government for a five-year period only. This has produced a tangible sense of unease at the party's grassroots and a marked decline in de Klerk's overall white popularity reflecting the widely-held perception that the government has been pushed too far and is apparently abandoning the solemn undertakings about a permanent power-sharing future made during last year's referendum. The State President's contention that he has 'not abandoned a single principle' in negotiations is deeply unconvincing to increasing numbers within his white constituency. Whilst this is an unwelcome development for de Klerk, compensation is to be found both in the fact that he will never again have to face an exclusively white electorate and in the knowledge that he is making some inroads into non-white sources of support. The mixed-race or 'coloured' community is responding particularly well to the NP's electoral overtures now that a largely black government is more than a theoretical possibility.

Explaining the 'historic compromise'

Given the intense ANC-government hostility which disfigured South African politics for the bulk of 1992, how is this embryonic 'historic compromise' to be explained? Its roots lie in a series of disparate events occurring throughout 1992 which, taken collectively, helped concentrate the minds of the leading players. Indeed, it might be argued that, in the final analysis, the utter despair engendered by last year's events was instrumental in prompting a rethink and a genuine desire on the part of the principals to draw back from the edge of a potentially apocalyptic conflict. The massacres at Boipatong in June and Bisho (Ciskei) in September were a warning of the shape of things to come if both sides insisted on an all or nothing, 'zero-sum', approach to politics instead of seeing it as a complex process of bargains and trade-offs. The result would be a 'scorched earth' South Africa effectively written off by the international investment community, a development which, in turn, would send the country into a downward spiral of economic decline and endemic violence. In short, there was a recognition that an all or nothing approach would inevitably lead to precisely that -- nothing. From the moment that was understood -- in approximately mid-September -- the basis for a more productive relationship was re-established. Two further developments, influencing the thinking within the ANC and government camps, are also worth noting.

The ANC and the Slovo proposals

In October 1992 Joe Slovo, a leading member of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC) and chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP), floated some proposals designed to break the political log-jam. The proposals -- 'Negotiations: what room for compromise,' -- were carried in the SACP journal The African Communist and were essentially a sobering call for the movement to face certain realities and to abandon the politics of rhetoric and self-deception. Slovo argued that, unpalatable though the fact might be to many within the ANC, the South African regime had not been routed on the field of battle and, although weakened, its power base in the security forces, bureaucracy and economy remained largely intact. The ANC should, therefore, face this reality and do one of two things: either abandon negotiations and return to the armed struggle, with a view to weakening the regime still further, or frame a realistic yet creative negotiating strategy which took the existing balance of power in the country fully into account. Given the implications of the former option for lives, time and resources, Slovo viewed the latter to be the only practical possibility. Consequently, he proposed that the ANC should accept the need for a post-election 'government of national unity' for a fixed number of years (five years now appears to have gained general acceptance); that the ANC should indicate its support for a general amnesty for the armed forces, i.e. no 'Nuremberg trials'; finally, it should declare its intention to honour existing contracts of employment within the South African Defence Force (SADF), the South African Police (SAP) and the civil service or, alternatively, provide adequate retirement compensation. In return, the government would accept that 'power-sharing' was a short-term device and that an elected body would have ultimate authority in the drafting of a new constitution.

For Slovo, the attraction of these proposals was threefold: first, they sought to address white fears and insecurities by demonstrating the ANC's interest in a reasonable compromise and would, therefore, hopefully lay to rest white suspicions that the movement was only interested in a seizure of power. Second, they would reduce, although not altogether remove, the likelihood of elements of the existing power elite being recruited for the purpose of anti-government destabilisation. Third, while the immediate outcome for the ANC would be less than perfect, compromise would 'bring about a radically transformed political framework ... which will result in the liberation movement occupying significantly more favourable heights from which to advance'. The road to 'democracy in its full connotation' would thus remain open whereas the regime's initial proposals would have permanently closed it off. Naturally, this has sparked off a heated debate within ANC ranks with accusations of defeatism, appeasement and collaborationism being routinely bandied about. Nonetheless, Slovo's proposals have secured general acceptance, if not overwhelming acclaim, within the ANC and, with minor modifications, were adopted as official policy at a November 1992 meeting of the NEC in Durban. The formal deal with the government was then ratified by the ANC National Executive on February 18, 1993.

The government perspective -- de Klerk changes course

Government thinking since the reforms of February 1990 has been dominated by one issue: how best to handle the legalised ANC and reduce the influence it would exert in any post-apartheid government. Different approaches to that problem have been developed over the ensuing three-year period. Between February and July 1990, the attempt was made to draw the ANC into a partnership with the, always rather optimistic, aim of by-passing an orthodox majoritarian outcome. That was jettisoned in August 1990 when it became apparent that the ANC was not prepared to do business on that basis. This ushered in a more aggressive phase in which the destabilisation of the ANC was actively pursued in an attempt to weaken the movement, undermine its morale and shatter its unity. The hope was that this would deliver a more accommodating movement to the negotiating table and that the spectacle of a confused, debilitated movement would drain away ANC support ahead of elections. This was the period in which government hopes were raised that it might be possible to construct an anti-ANC 'Christian Democratic Alliance' -- embracing the NP, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and a cluster of homeland parties -- which could actually triumph at the polls.

This approach continued into 1992 although it was punctuated by a series of public relations disasters ranging from the defection of members of the security forces, and their subsequent disclosures of state involvement in violence, to revelations of covert government support for Inkatha. By late 1992 the wisdom of this strategy was being increasingly questioned in the higher echelons of the government, particularly by a group of NP 'Young Turks' such as the government's chief negotiator, Roelf Meyer, the Minister of Public Enterprises, Dawie de Villiers, and the Minister of Manpower, Leon Wessels. They argued, first, that while destabilisation had clearly hurt the ANC, particularly in its membership drive, it had not eroded its mass support, a fact borne out by the success of the mass action campaign in August 1992 and by surveys of black opinion placing ANC support at between 60 and 70 per cent with the IFP in single figures. In view of this, reliance upon an electoral victory over the ANC became rather a high-risk strategy.

Second, it was argued that destabilisation was proving to be a double-edged sword. Whilst there was a political need to weaken the ANC, the turmoil which that entailed was the ultimate deterrent for foreign investors and the return of international business confidence was a central plank of the de Klerk platform. It is this inability to synchronise political and economic objectives which has been such a fatal flaw of government in the de Klerk era.

Finally, this pragmatic faction argued that while every effort should be made to maximise the NP vote in elections, a largely ANC government was an outcome which could be satisfactorily managed given the NP's ability to extract constitutional concessions from the ANC and its access to more indirect levers of control such as the largely Afrikaner civil service and the armed forces. When the continuing white dominance of large-scale economic activity is also considered, it is clear that the ANC's room for manoeuvre in government might well be severely restricted.

The State President appeared to become increasingly receptive to these arguments in the closing months of 1992 and opening months of 1993. Hitherto, de Klerk had attempted to straddle the various factions within his Cabinet which only resulted in him sending confused, and often contradictory, signals to the NP grassroots, the ANC and the international community. Three events since late September 1992 have demonstrated that de Klerk now appears to view destabilisation as a tactic which has achieved as much as can be expected and has now outlived its usefulness. First, he was prepared to accede to ANC demands that Inkatha should no longer be permitted to bear lethal weaponry during political rallies and that Inkatha hostels, notorious launching pads for aggression in the Transvaal, should be sealed off and effectively policed. Following this, in December, de Klerk purged the senior ranks of the SADF dismissing or suspending 23 officers, including six generals. The purge was concentrated upon Military Intelligence which has emerged as the 'nerve-centre' of anti-ANC operations since 1990 -- with Inkatha as its cutting edge -- and the chief obstacle to a government-ANC deal. Finally, in February 1993, a Cabinet reshuffle witnessed the eclipse of the hardliners with the retirement of former Defence Minister, and P. W. Botha strongman, General Magnus Malan as well as Gene Louw, the serving Defence Minister. As these developments dovetailed neatly with similar trends in the ANC, all of the ingredients now seemed to be in place for a compromise deal even if the expectations which each side had of that deal differed greatly.

Conclusion: the hazards ahead for national unity

Before a date can be set for an election, and a government of national unity finally formed, there are still a host of transitional problems to be resolved. These range from the precise role of the interim Executive Councils, overseeing the work of government ahead of elections, to the creation of a climate of tolerance conducive to the holding of such elections. These remain highly problematic issues. Assuming they can be resolved, and the national unity option takes shape, the road ahead still looks certain to be a bumpy one. There are no shortage of critics -- on the right and left -- waiting to deride the experiment should it hit difficulties, as seems likely. On the right, there is the so-called Concerned South Africans Group (Cosag), an umbrella body covering Inkatha, a number of old homeland parties and the white supremacist Conservative Party. These are all politically weak groupings who feel marginalised by negotiations which they are unable to control. The credibility of their frequent threats of civil war will ultimately depend, however, upon attitudes within the security forces and, more specifically, how far the military has been defanged by de Klerk's December purge. For the present, that remains unclear but it is certainly true that the ability of Cosag to recreate Yugoslavian-style conditions in South Africa remains crucially dependent upon the sponsorship of the SADF hierarchy.

Within the ANC there is a body of opinion which regards the national unity option as a betrayal of long-standing principles. Winnie Mandela has only been the most vocal of these critics with her accusation that 'the NP elite is getting into bed with the ANC in order to preserve its silken sheets and the leadership in the ANC is getting into bed with the NP to enjoy this new-found luxury'. The dissenters also include Pallo Jordan, the Information Secretary, Harry Gwala, the ANC leader in the Natal Midlands, Tony Yengeni, a Western Cape leader, and the bulk of the ANC Youth League. These will doubtless seek to act as the conscience of the movement seizing upon every compromise as a vindication of their position. There is also a question mark over the health of Nelson Mandela and the widespread fear that if he departs the political scene then the ANC's commitment to national unity may well falter.

What these critics seem entirely incapable of offering, however, is an alternative to power-sharing which does not send South Africa hurtling towards the 'devastating war' which de Klerk has warned of. Neither pseudo-revolutionary calls for the ANC to seek total victory nor demands for a return to apartheid, in either its classical or reform mode, are even remotely credible options for South Africa in 1993. The obvious political emptiness which lies at the heart of the various critiques of national unity has left the way clear for the implementation of that option almost by default. That, of course, does not guarantee success. The internal politics of a national unity government may well be highly complex with the two main players frequently pulling in different directions as they seek to satisfy different constituencies. Nor is the southern African experience of such 'grand coalitions' between old adversaries a particularly happy one. A similar experiment in Angola has now degenerated into violent conflict on two separate occasions -- in 1975 and 1992. While it is to be hoped that South Africa can avoid such an apocalypse -- and that is clearly the wish of the two main players -- there are forces at work for whom the Angolan and Yugoslavian experiences are an inspiration rather than a warning. The Concerned South Africans Group (Cosag) comes immediately to mind. Should they continue refusing to work within the structures currently being devised, they may have to be faced down or else the 'new South Africa' will be strangled at birth.

|James Hamill is a lecturer in the Politics Department, Leicester University. He researched and wrote this article before the outbreak of violence which followed the murder of Chris Hani, the Communist Party leader.~

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by the Nuffield Foundation which made possible a research trip to South Africa in August and September 1992.
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Author:Hamill, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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