Out of South Africa: ANC surprised when an old foe turns out to be a friend

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GARANKUWA - The good guy image is not one usually associated with the South African police, especially among young black militants who generally view the security forces as their sworn enemy. Not so when it comes to Bophuthatswana, one of the phantom states created under South Africa's discarded grand apartheid scheme to separate the various ethnic groups into self-governing territories.

Bophuthatswana, the supposed 'homeland' of the Tswana people who also inhabit the neighbouring country of Botswana, is ruled as a police state by self- styled President Lucas Mangope, who says that no matter what democratic changes are brought to South Africa itself, his 'homeland' will remain independent.

No political activity is permitted, and when African National Congress (ANC) activists try to hold marches, the Bophuthatswana police threaten to shoot on sight. That attitude was much in evidence at a recent rally the ANC attempted to hold in Garankuwa.

The rally was small by South African standards. About 300 ANC militants were planning to march across the border - it is not marked and no one can pinpoint it - to present a petition at a police station inside Bophuthatswana. But as soon as the demonstrators crossed that invisible line they came face-to-face with 40 Bophuthatswana police armed with tear-gas launchers and M-16 assault rifles. In Bophuthatswana, it seems, a piece of paper can bring a death sentence.

The protesters waited impatiently as an ANC delegation was allowed to enter the town to negotiate safe passage with the police chief. With tempers rising after the delegation failed to return after an hour, Braam Viljoen, the head of the Northern Transvaal Peace Committee, an independent monitoring group, went to see if he could negotiate a compromise.

The police chief apparently was in no mood for concessions. Mr Viljoen and the ANC delegation returned with the same message: if the marchers attempted to move ahead, the police would shoot them.

To the rescue came Tokyo Sexwale, a senior ANC official from Johannesburg - recently voted South Africa's sexiest man in an informal poll conducted by the Johannesburg Radio 702 station - and a senior South African police officer, Brigadier Ockert Vermeulen, a massive bulk of a man.

After much toing and froing, Brigadier Vermeulen went to persuade his Bophuthatswana counterpart to allow the demonstration to enter 200 yards (200m) into the 'homeland', present the petition, and then disperse. The South African police, who before President F W de Klerk's political reforms in 1990 would have gladly bashed the heads of ANC demonstrators, had become peace-makers. The only people who seemed more confused than the South African police were the homeland police - ordered to stand 50 years away - and, of course, the demonstrators themselves, who on the day found a friend in an enemy.

In a brief speech to his followers - including young women who shouted 'Tokyo, Tokyo' as if he were a rock star - Mr Sexwale said: 'Today Mangope has drawn that line, but tomorrow we will push that line backwards. Bit by bit we will push that line until there is no more line.' Then he led Joe Makhusha, local head of the ANC Youth League, to a meeting in the middle of the road with the police captain and a sinister-looking Bophuthatswana security chief in a black leather jacket.

Presenting his petition calling on the Bophuthatswana authorities to allow free political activity and to reopen schools, Mr Makhusha said the marchers had come as friends but then politely told the captain that he was serving a repressive regime. Mr Sexwale, ever the diplomat, added quickly that 'soon we will come to you and report crimes. We welcome you, police and soldiers, into the new South Africa.'

Returning to an ecstatic crowd, who had long forgotten they had not realised their original goal of marching to the police station, Mr Sexwale led the marchers in tumultuous chants of 'Viva ANC' and 'Viva the South African Communist Party'.

Then he dropped the bombshell, suddenly telling the demonstrators: 'Now I want us to congratulate Brigadier Vermeulen for the good job he has done today.' The response was a roar of approval and clapping. The Brigadier smiled sheepishly and shook his head, his round face bright red with embarrassment.