Red and black signal danger of civil war in South Africa

WHAT will come first in South Africa, elections in April next year - as advertised by the government and the African National Congress - or a civil war? Or will war come after the elections, like in Angola?

From the government down, these are the questions everybody in South Africa is asking. The cabinet met secretly last week for a brainstorming session on how to avoid Armageddon. 'Things are terribly fragile,' said a government official who has the ear of President F W de Klerk. 'We could easily have a war.'

On the streets of Johannesburg, where the black population comes to shop, ordinary people chatter about the wisdom of following their hearts and voting ANC. Wouldn't this invite endless conflict? In the affluent suburbs to the north, the crime rate has ceased to be the favourite subject of conversation. Well-off whites, many of whom had reconciled themselves to a Mandela presidency, talk again about leaving the country, about fleeing the inevitable catastrophe.

Why all the panic now? Because the political crunch, the crisis between those who favour and those who fear democracy, cannot be deferred much longer. An election date, 27 April 1994, has been agreed by political parties representing probably 90 per cent of the population. Those representing the remaining 10 per cent, the black and white right wing, have rejected that date.

They will not accept any date until they have cast-iron assurances that, irrespective of the election result, they will preserve their powers and privileges. Democracy is far from their thoughts. They have the guns. And they are united.

Who are the right wing? In the black camp, the Inkatha Freedom Party, which exercises one-party control over the 'self-governing' KwaZulu homeland; and the nominally independent homeland governments of Bophuthatswana and Ciskei. The Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi incessantly warns these days of civil war.

In the white camp the Conservative Party, Eugene Terreblanche's Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), and a myriad of other extremist groups peopled by farmers, miners and members of the security forces.

The dominant figure in the white right is General Costand Viljoen, chief of the South African Defence Force in the mid- Eighties. At a rally on Tuesday General Viljoen warned his followers to polish their weapons and prepare for war. He declared there would be a 'bloodbath' if demands for an independent, apartheid Afrikaner state were not met and they were forced to live under 'a black communist government'.

The consequences would be no less ominous, he added, if Inkatha demands were rejected for a separate Zulu power base - a particularly problematic proposal, since all polls indicate most Zulus do not support Inkatha.

How feasible is the right-wing military option? A senior policeman in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the Zulu-dominated Natal province, set out a possible scenario. 'First, highly trained special forces soldiers, serving or retired, would mount a co-ordinated sabotage campaign nationwide. Then the big battalions would come into play. Inkatha has the KwaZulu police, 8,000-strong; assorted hit squads, some of them army-trained; and a secretive Zulu reservist 'regiment' for which they've been recruiting in the last year. There is the 'Bop' and Ciskei police and armies, small but not to be ignored. There's the AWB and the other right-wing extremists, all of whom have plenty of firepower and military experience as past conscripts in the SADF.

'And then there's the generals, who have close links to their old comrades-in-arms. Potentially they have access to 32 Battalion soldiers, a mercenary Angolan unit which developed a fearsome reputation during South Africa's war in Angola.'

A curious incident two weeks ago, in a township south of Johannesburg, where the so-called 'black-on-black' violence has raged most fiercely in the past three years, revealed just how closely interwoven all the right- wing strands are. A man called Koos Vermeulen, of the extremist World Apartheid Movement, and a certain Chris Theunissen travelled to a morgue to inspect the remains of Victor Kheswa, an Inkatha member notorious for his involvement in scores of murders.

Kheswa was killed, it is believed, to cover up security force complicity in the township violence. Mr Vermeulen has had close links with SADF intelligence personnel. Inkatha has had links with SADF intelligence since the mid-Eighties, when General Viljoen was in charge. The difference today is that the alliance between the general and Chief Buthelezi is out in the open.

The guns, then, are in place. What can be done to stop a war? Logic, maybe. For it is clear the country would collapse economically and, however ineffectual the ANC's armed wing, the majority of the population would resume the ancient struggle, a conflict where there would be no winners. The problem here is that the fanaticism, despair, fear, ignorance and prejudice uniting the right wing adds up to a state of mind not at all susceptible to logic.

The antidote to civil war is a simple one. It lies in the security forces. If the generals, colonels and brigadiers can be persuaded to back democracy, unequivocally to support the government of the day, then the right wing threat can easily be snuffed. All it would take would be the arrest and detention of no more than 100 identified right-wing provocateurs.

But will they do it? The central question in South African politics remains whether the police and army, over whom President de Klerk exercises minimal control, have adjusted to the times or remain fixated by those old dragons which, for decades, provided them with a common purpose and identity - what in Afrikaans they call swartgevaar and rooigevaar, the black danger, the red danger.

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