HAD YOU told any self-respecting black activist two years ago that there would come a time when he would view the soldiers of the South African Defence Force (SADF) as liberators and heroes he would have looked at you very strangely indeed. Not any more.
At noon on Monday, amid the mayhem of an Inkatha protest that left more than 30 people dead, 300 young black 'comrades' gathered outside the Johannesburg headquarters of the African National Congress. The building had already come under attack and, the word was, another sortie by the Inkatha Zulus was imminent. The ANC comrades were angry, spoiling for a fight. In the absence of any Inkatha warriors on the street, they shouted abuse at the police. They performed war dances, fired mock rifles.
Suddenly an army armoured car appeared. The comrades politely made way, waving at the soldiers in welcome. They smiled, made 'V' for victory signs and started a new chant: 'Peace] Peace] Peace]'
Two years back a favourite ANC slogan was, 'SADF out of the townships]' Today the cry from every activist is 'Bring them in'.
Take the East Rand townships, Katlehong and Tokoza. Long after the political violence died down in Soweto early last year the killing continued there unabated. Between May 1993 and January this year 1,800 people were killed in clashes ostensibly between ANC and Inkatha supporters. For months East Rand residents clamoured for the police to be pulled out and the army to deploy in their place. Finally, last month, it happened. Since then the violence has all but come to an end. People stroll the streets at night. No-go zones are virtually a thing of the past. The ANC has organised rallies officially welcoming the SADF, whose soldiers may be seen any day of the week in Katlehong playing soccer matches against local youth teams.
After the East Rand fires had been put out there came the crises in Bophuthatswana and Ciskei, each of which was resolved to the satisfaction of the vast majority of the black inhabitants after the SADF armoured cars rolled in.
What has been shown is that the army is both politically more neutral and professionally far more efficient than the police. What is happening now is that as democratic elections draw near and tension mounts as to whether the transition to black rule will be effected peacefully, the great truth at the heart of South African politics since the arrival of the white man in 1652 is being laid bare: that the army is the most critical institution of state.
The success or failure of the transition depends ultimately on the loyalty of the army. That, defence sources say, has been secured.
After more than a year of talks with the ANC, the SADF high command was persuaded that under a Mandela government, Communism, contrary to the old fears, would not be on the agenda; that the defence budget would not be slashed; that officers' jobs would be secure. General Georg Meiring, overall chief of the SADF (army, navy and air force), will probably keep his job for another two or three years.
The SADF, accordingly, is with the democratic reforms. ANC leaders confidently say so and so do members of the defence establishment. General Meiring himself has said that the SADF will be 'the anchor' of the new constitution, the servant of the new order.
That message, according to government officials, has been forcefully communicated to the retired generals who until recently headed the right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront. Which is in large measure why General Constand Viljoen, who held General Meiring's position in the mid-Eighties, announced two weeks ago that he would break away from Volksfront hardliners, take part in the elections and, in the process, dramatically reduce the risk of civil war.
The word also is that if the order comes from the government to go and do in KwaZulu, the fiefdom of Inkatha chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, what the army did in 'Bop' and Ciskei, it shall be done.
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