Doing battle with the dull 'New Zealand factor': It's one long happy ending as normality breaks out in South Africa

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The Independent Online
AN AFRICAN National Congress backbencher in South Africa's new parliament confessed last week to an identity crisis. He was confused, he said, and a little forlorn. Having dedicated his life to the struggle against apartheid, his dreams had all come true and, like Alexander the Great, he had no worlds left to conquer.

'Sure,' he said, 'there's the economy. There's a lot of work to be done there. But . . .' But that - perhaps he meant to say - will be the job of the cabinet, the civil servants and the private sector. He, like most of the other 252 ANC MPs, will do their little bit, identifying areas where new water taps are most needed and suchlike. However - after years of militancy in the face of fierce state repression, the risk of assassination, torture and imprisonment - life is not quite the same.

Overnight, South Africa has ceased to be the stage for a universal human drama. The suspense now lies in whether the country's economy will creep up towards the level of the First World or slip down towards that of the Third.

Otherwise, since the election results were announced a month ago, it's been one long happy ending. One morning last week, six well-armed white policemen were standing on a vacant lot on the edge of Crossroads, a squatter camp outside Cape Town that has seen constant conflict in recent years: shoot-outs, arson and running battles between black youths and police in armoured vehicles. The policemen were not expecting to shoot anybody that day. Facial muscles relaxed, body posture lazy, they too had been liberated.

'It's unbelievable,' the sergeant said. 'Since the elections everything has changed totally. We drive around the townships and instead of throwing stones, people wave at us, bring us cups of tea. They feel now that we're their police, that we belong to them. The only problem we have now is the right wing.'

Up north in Sharpeville, where police shot dead 67 unarmed demonstrators in 1960, the local police colonel, Piet van Deventer, was getting together with black community leaders to organise a 'clean-up day'. The police provided vehicles, brushes, plastic bins and a hot lunch and everyone joined in to pick up township rubbish.

Talking of the environment, which ANC officials do relentlessly these days, some readers of this newspaper may not be familiar with South Africa's position on the whaling question. It turns out to be a most enlightened one.

At a conference of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, 10 days ago, South Africa was one of 23 countries to vote in favour (six abstained and one, Japan, voted against) of the Southern Ocean becoming a whale sanctuary for the next 10 years.

The South African representative, Dr Louis Botha, received a standing ovation - simply for being South African - and was then elected vice- chair of the IWC. Just doing the ordinary, decent thing, as South African delegations to other international forums have found in recent weeks, unfailingly provokes an acclamation.

Which is not to say that everything is sweetness and light back home. The ANC might be in government but some of its members are still keeping the flame of protest alive.

Ronnie Kasrils MP, a communist once known to white South Africans as the Red Pimpernel, took one look at the residential complex provided for parliamentarians in Cape Town and promptly told reporters that he found the house he had been allotted far too cramped, smelly and dingy for his and his wife's tastes. 'It's like a concentration camp,' he railed, forgetting that the privileged elite who had belonged to the apartheid parliament had been inhabiting these quarters for years without complaint.

Other controversies are beginning to emerge too. There is the abortion question, the drug problem, the high rate of road accidents, smoking in public places. Brian Currin, chairman of Lawyers for Human Rights, has built a reputation for moral courage with his unflinching condemnation of police torture, the death penalty, conditions in jails, the Third Force, repression in Bophuthatswana and other abuses.

Last week he was on the radio discussing the arguments of the pro- and anti-smoking lobbies. 'There is passive smoking,' Mr Currin explained, 'and then I believe there

is what they now call active passive smoking . . .'

Where does this outbreak of normality leave the news business in South Africa? One of the editors of the Johannesburg Star observed last week that his newspaper, in common with all the others, was suddenly giving far more attention to foreign news.

As for political cartoonists, the edge has gone. Harry Dugmore, South Africa's Doonesbury, complained yesterday that he was battling with 'the New Zealand factor'. The what? 'Haven't you heard? That's what people are saying about South Africa. It's more boring than New Zealand.'

(Photograph omitted)