South African Election Guide: Commentary - Civil war that never was leaves media speechless

'WHY CAN'T our newspapers tell the truth, like the London Sunday Times?' bemoaned a former National Front member called Brendan Willmer at a right-wing rally in Durban last week.

Certain newspapers in Britain have been licking their lips in recent months at the prospect of a bloodbath in South Africa.

First they advertised the civil war the white right was going to mount and, when that failed, they took comfort in the notion that the Zulu impis would perform a suicidally heroic rerun of their 19th-century exploits against the British.

It all looks rather silly now, but it sells newspapers doesn't it? Enviable, to those of us in the newspaper business, but also rather alarming.

'Quality' newspapers purchased by the British public are putting across views on South Africa way to the right of those held by the vast majority of white South Africans.

The 5 per cent or so of bitter-enders in the white community, those who remain convinced that a Mandela government spells Stalinist tyranny, have enjoyed reading playbacks of British newspaper stories in the local press, however.

What the Willmers of this world share with some British newspapers is not only a fixation with the idea that Mr Mandela is a frail old fool about to be devoured by the Reds in the African National Congress camp, they are excited by infantile images of noble Zulu warriors.

The problem is, what to write about now? Recognise that Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi quailed when confronted by the thought that, if he did not take part in the elections, he might have to evoke the spirits of his ancestors, take to the hills and expose himself to the suffering to which he has quite cheerfully condemned his people in recent years? Admit that he hoisted the flag of surrender in exchange for a few baubles for his nephew, the Zulu king?

No. That would not do at all. Maybe a report that Winnie Mandela is hatching a plot to kill her husband?

Maybe a sighting of Elvis Presley in KwaZulu? More likely they will settle for one of those 'we have excusively learnt' stories about a secret ANC plan to drive the white population into the sea.

So what is the story in South Africa now that peace has dawned? It is a question serious journalists are asking. Two thousand, they say, have descended on South Africa to cover the elections. You meet them in restaurants, at press conferences, on the quiet streets of Thokoza township, forlornly waiting for something to happen. They ask you: what are we going to write about? What are we going to broadcast?

Some of the American television networks are particularly concerned. They've invested spectacular amounts of money in their South African election coverage. And, in a favourite phrase, they're not getting their bang for their buck.

Well, what about fireworks instead of bullets? What about a little celebration for a change?

The whole world has been waiting a long time, after all, for apartheid to end. If you'd told the crowd gathered at Wembley Stadium for Mr Mandela's 70th birthday party in 1988 that the ANC martyr would be president of South Africa within six years few people would have believed it.

What's happening in South Africa next week is one of the great historical events of the 20th century and one of the few happy ones. There is no need to get overly sentimental about it. It is not as if the world will suddenly be put to rights because black and white South Africans will be queuing up to vote together. Problems lie ahead. The government of national unity will not solve the problem of poverty overnight. Perhaps they never will. Power might go to the heads of the ANC apparatchiks. Maybe they will be as corrupt as their National Party predecessors. Maybe they will not.

Time will tell. But this is the week for good news from South Africa and it would be nice to think that there are newspaper-readers, television-watchers and radio-listeners out there who might find that interesting, satisfying and enjoyable.