South Africa: Historic bargain for 'stalemate': New constitution ratified, but whites seek assurances that privileges will remain

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER else changes under the new constitution, there are already early indications that the power of South Africa's press will be substantially enhanced. An article in the latest issue of the Johannesburg Sunday Times sent the cabinet into such a spin that a meeting scheduled with the African National Congress to hammer out some of the final points in the new constitution had to be delayed for 14 hours.

It is quite likely that, had the article not appeared, negotiators at the multi-party talks would not have had to continue working yesterday till 3.30am, ironing out the final wording of the constitution in time for the leaders' summit in the afternoon.

The article said that the government of F W de Klerk had caved in to the ANC, that the role of government negotiators had been 'to sell off the family silver gracefully'. With national support for the long-ruling National Party, apartheid's inventors, having dropped from 24 to 13 per cent in the last year, according to the opinion polls, the last thing President de Klerk wanted was an article on the front page of the country's biggest-selling newspaper reinforcing popular perceptions that he had sold out his white constituency.

The great question when the country's first democratic elections are held on 27 April will not be whether Nelson Mandela emerges as South Africa's first black president - barring assassination or ill-health he will - but whether Mr de Klerk manages to scrape in as vice-president. According to the new constitutional rules any party that wins more than 20 per cent of the vote is entitled to appoint a vice-president in the coalition government of national unity that will rule until 1999.

The great question today, now that two years of constitutional talks have formally come to an end, is who won and who lost. Who succeeded best in imposing its will on the new political system, the ANC or the government?

The answer provided by the Johannesburg Sunday Times is convincing within the narrow parameters of the chess game that the 21 parties at the windowless World Trade Centre building have been engaged in since 20 December 1991. The government, the newspaper said, 'has capitulated to the ANC on key checks and balances in the constitution'.

This is true in the sense that, diluting somewhat the constitution's federalist pretensions, central government has the power to override decisions taken by provincial governments; President Mandela will be able theoretically to impose his will on Vice-President (or cabinet minister) de Klerk; President Mandela will appoint most of the judges in the new constitutional court, which is democracy's final arbiter.

However, upon emerging from the rarified atmosphere of the talks one discovers that, whatever might be written down on paper, an ANC-led government will be severely limited in its practical capacity to set about the sort of revolutionary social changes the 'comrades' might have dreamt of.

Right-wing fears, for example, that the Communist element in the ANC alliance will install another Cuba are greatly exaggerated.

The ANC flag will not become the national flag - intense and, as yet, unresolved debate on what the new flag will look like has served as a metaphor for the relentless search for compromise which has marked the negotiations from the start. The new anthem will not be the liberation anthem. No suggestion has been made that Pretoria will change its name, much less that South Africa will.

More substantially, white civil servants will not lose their jobs and their pensions will be honoured. White farmers, as Mr Mandela reiterated in a speech on Monday, will not lose their land; blacks forcibly dispossessed under the apartheid system will be entitled to state-owned land. The economic system, as again Mr Mandela has insisted, will continue to function on free-market lines - if anything, new incentives will be provided to foreign capital to invest. All in all, for the foreseeable future whites will continue to be a privileged minority in a sea of black poverty. If improvements are seen in the standard of livings of blacks they will be gradual, with perhaps the educated black elite benefiting most visibly in the short term. What is more, there will be no Nurembergs.

These guarantees are ultimately contained not in the constitution, in the formal checks and balances, but in the security forces - the pillar of state power in South Africa since the first European settlers arrived in 1652.

The ANC has already agreed that the most senior commander of the South African Defence Force, General Georg Meiring, will keep his job after the elections. The army, navy and air force will not be taken over by black officers from the ANC's notoriously ineffectual armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). Some black faces will appear in the high command, but for the most part the current personnel will remain in place. Those who leave will, again, have their pensions guaranteed.

In a speech on Monday General Meiring made it plain that the SADF would stand by the new democratic order, to the extent even of adopting what he called a new socio-economic role building houses and assisting in job training schemes for unemployed blacks. But the quid pro quo, in a message conveyed by the general and his officers in numerous (remarkably cordial) meetings with ANC officials, has been that the SADF will not tolerate Communism or any attempt to undermine the quality of life of the white population.

So long as everything changes but much remains the same, the SADF may be relied upon to come to the assistance of the new government in the manner of the Russian army in Boris Yeltsin's hour of need.

In the end, the great unstated truth of the South African negotiations has been that the new deal has emerged from a historic bargain between those who have the numbers and those who have the guns. The result is what a politics professor at the University of Cape Town has called 'a stalemate'. War in South Africa has been conducted successfully by other means.

Leading article, page 19

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