Inside File: Observers hop on board SA bandwagon

JOHANNESBURG - Federalists apply here. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's call for international mediation has opened the prospect for yet another category of international worthies to board the bandwagon called the New South Africa.

In addition to the 2,500-odd international observers expected to arrive before the election in April, the Chief has suggested bringing in conflict-resolution experts to resolve the impasse over Natal, which has led him to threaten a boycott of the poll.

Remember the F-word? Many, including Chief Buthelezi, think that federalism is the answer for South Africa. By that they mean, of course, devolution of power from the centre to the regions - the very opposite of what British MPs were fretting about pre-Maastricht three years ago.

US diplomats - who ought to know a thing or three about federalism - have said the constitution drawn up by the African National Congress and the Pretoria government is federalist enough. But the Chief thinks otherwise, and is hoping that an international outfit specialising in such questions will back up his claims to win more autonomy for his region.

So the Chief has suggested a few names. One idea is turning for help to another world expert in federalism - Switzerland. He has indicated that a suitable mediator might be the Swiss 'Institute for Federalism'.

Another possible body, mentioned twice by the Chief, is something he calls 'the Council of Venice'. While the group in Switzerland - home of all those largely autonomous cantons - sounds fairly self-explanatory, nobody had ever heard of this one; ANC officials, not sold on the idea of international mediation in the first place, are scratching their heads.

It is likely the Chief was referring to the Venice Commission or, under its full name, the European Commission for Democracy Through Law. The Commission is not known for any significant diplomatic breakthrough; it is composed of lawyers, academics and former ministers. Among its achievements it lists a draft convention on the protection of minorities, and assistance in drafting the electoral laws of Albania and Lithuania. Under 'future activities', it includes as its top priority - no prizes for guessing - 'the federal and regional state'.

The Commission was set up by the Council of Europe - the stepping-stone for Europe's fledgeling democracies. Its performance is not viewed as wholly glorious either, since it has recently admitted states with remarkably dubious credentials, such as Romania and Slovakia. At any rate, one sceptical Western diplomat pointed out: 'I wouldn't have thought there is any lack of constitutional expertise within South Africa itself.'

As for the election observers, it is common crime they have experienced so far, rather than the political incidents they are here to monitor. Even though only a fraction of the 2,500 observers from the UN, EU, Commonwealth and other bodies have arrived, more than 20 of them have already been mugged. The Commonwealth observer mission has issued a startling document on safety to its team.

'If you leave your hotel at night other than by car you will be attacked,' the confidential document warns. 'If the attackers try to steal,' the document says, 'let them have it. Muggers are often armed and very willing to kill. The gun you see will be real and loaded. Your life has no value to the attacker.'

It is clear some of the observers are under-employed. One - a policeman from somewhere in Scandinavia - complained recently that his posting in the Eastern Cape had been closed down due to a lack of incidents. This had forced him to move to greater Johannesburg, where 'the weather is not as nice, and people in the townships turn up late for meetings, and the whole day gets wasted'. He had decided, he said, to take a week off to go to the Kruger game reserve.