After the talk of war, death among strangers

THE BELLS rang out all over the British Empire at the news that Colonel Robert Baden- Powell and his soldiers had victoriously survived the Boer siege of Mafeking. The date was 17 May 1900, seven months and three days after the siege had begun.

Thomas Pakenham, in his magisterial work The Boer War, records how in Britain 'Mafeking meant, in every sense, relief: hysterical, euphoric relief, relief from that 'nightmare' of national humiliation'. It was also the turning point of the war. The British army proceeded to inflict defeat after defeat on the Boer commandos, eventually forcing them to surrender on 31 May 1902.

Mafeking, today spelt Mafikeng, is the name of the township where most of Mmabatho's population live and the scene of much of the anarchy in the last week, including the execution of three latter-day commandos of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB).

Here, early on Friday South Africa saw, within the artificial boundaries of Bophuthatswana, the biggest mobilisation of irregular Afrikaner troops since the Boer War.

But this time, having been herded out of town by black troops, it was they who came under siege after retreating to the local air force base, a siege that was to last not seven months but seven hours. Never in the worst moments of the Boer War did the great-grandfathers of the latter-day Afrikaner Volksfront, trapped in the memories of a heroic past, endure a more abject humiliation.

Homeland troops initiated the rout before the South African Defence Force (SADF) - modern Afrikaners reconciled to the inevitability of democratic change - confronted them outside the airforce base with an offer they lacked the spirit to refuse: we will fight you if you don't let us escort you safely back to your farms.

Twenty-four hours earlier, on Thursday night, General Constand Viljoen, the leader of the Volksfront, had issued a statement describing the upheaval in Mmabatho and Mafikeng as ANC-communist terrorism and destabilisation. He had decided, he said, to 'stop forthwith . . . all negotiations, mediations, submissions of election candidate lists' and to send in his commandos.

But by Friday afternoon he had realised, as President F W de Klerk put it, the folly of his ways. With painful abruptness he had learnt lessons he had failed all his life to see: the homelands are not politically harmonious places where the black tribes, in this case the Tswana, live in faithful obeisance to their Tswana chief; the Boer army, for all its bluster, was not the force it once was; the SADF high command, over which he once presided, would not sit back and smile approval as their fellow Afrikaners went on the rampage against the new South African order.

He negotiated with Mr de Klerk, ordered the withdrawal of his forces from Mmabatho and, by midnight, formally registered a list of candidates under the banner of his new Freedom Front to participate in South Africa's first democratic, all-race elections since the arrival of Dutch settlers in 1652.

A long, dense, stunning day in South African politics had ended, a new era had begun.

The great fear of recent months, that the elections would drown in bloody civil war, has abated. Two critical questions have been - to a large degree - answered.

First, the right wing threat is not so fearsome. Andries Beyers, a former MP of the far- right Conservative Party, when asked three months ago if his former comrades would really be prepared to fight, said: 'They talk a lot about war. Their idea of war is they get up in the morning, drink a cup of coffee and tell the wife, 'Dear, I'm off to the war. I'll be back at five this afternoon'.'

Second, and more important, when it came to the crunch the SADF did not side with the diehards. The ANC, recognising as in Russia that it is the army that holds the key to the destiny of a nation in transition, has spent the last year wooing the generals - almost all Afrikaners - in secret talks.

They persuaded them that they would not lose their pensions, salaries or jobs; that the professionalism of the SADF would be preserved under an ANC government; that a few black faces would emerge in the upper ranks but more as a political gesture than anything else; that their fears of a communist take-over were unfounded. The sharpness with which the SADF responded to Mr de Klerk's order, endorsed by Mr Mandela on Friday morning, to bring stability to Bophuthatswana demonstrated that the ANC message had got through.

The remaining fear is that those members of the far right who continue to resist the elections, sobered by the experience of Friday and angered by the execution of their comrades, will turn from 'war' to terrorism. But their numbers have been depleted, their morale sapped and, as South Africa's best political analyst, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert has long believed, they may throw stones at the democracy train, but they won't derail it.