Toytown image hid apartheid tyranny: As white right-wingers die at the hands of Bophuthatswana forces, Richard Dowden examines the racial purpose of the 'homeland'

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The Independent Online
ITS ludicrous-looking name sealed the toytown image of Bophuthatswana. In South Africa it is always known as 'Bop'. On the map it looked as if someone had spilt blotches of ink on Northern Transvaal.

Bop became famous for Sun City, the huge theme park and Las Vegas-style playground set up just over the South African border. In the days of apartheid it was known as Sin City and allowed white South Africans to indulge in gambling and other pleasures banned under the anti-miscegenation laws. Bop was one of 10 Bantustans set up under Grand Apartheid with the idea of each South African 'tribe' having its own homeland. The seven pieces of Bop were given 'independence' amidst flag-waving and pomp in 1977. In exchange for 'President' Lucas Mangope and his family, an airport and some neo- brutalist buildings to house a rubber-stamp parliament in a small town called Mmabatho, South Africa shuffled off responsibility for more than 2 million of its citizens.

The four ''independent' black states of South Africa recognised each other and went to the expense of setting up 'embassies' in each other's capitals. For a while they even set up border posts on some roads in and out of their territory and stamped passports of travellers. In 1982 Pretoria brought them together in an economic union and complained that no one recognised them 'despite the fact that in both economic and democratic performance they outrank many Third World states with a seat at the UN'.

Although they declared that apartheid did not exist in their territories, any centre such as a radio station which tried to broadcast an anti-apartheid message was quickly suppressed.

Having tourism and a platinum mine Bop came closest to viability since it only relied for 75 per cent of its income on grants from South Africa. The other 'independent states', Ciskei, Transkei and Venda, received nearly 100 per cent of their income from Pretoria's central treasury. But their origins as a dumping-ground for blacks without the right stamps in their 'pass books' ensured they would never be accepted by the African National Congress or the rest of the world.

In his attempts to persuade the world that Bop was real, Mr Mangope set up 'embassies' in Western Europe and spent thousands of pounds giving freebies to MPs and other influential figures to visit his country. There was even a tourist office. The London 'embassy' in Holland Park, which mostly employed former Rhodesians, lured some 34 Conservative MPs to Bop with free plane tickets to see this model black state which promoted free enterprise. Most of them used it as an acceptable way of visiting South Africa (a free ticket from the South African embassy might have been embarrassing) and the Bop representatives frequently complained that the MPs would leave after one night in Sun City and take off to the coast for a holiday with their families.

Mr Mangope made Bop a typical African tyranny, run for the benefit of his family and using repressive legislation to suppress dissent. Allegations of corruption are rife and the Mangope family members have been known to treat the foreign 'embassies' as their private hotels during shopping expeditions.

Demonstrations celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela were put down with gunfire and hundreds were arrested. According to Amnesty International at least 860 people were detained without trial in 1990 and 1991. Most were ANC supporters who were calling for Bop's reintegration into South Africa.

Mr Mangope joined the Freedom Alliance in the hope that it would prevail over a centralised government dominated by the ANC. He banned electioneering, declaring that the 26 April election was for South Africa - not Bop. But if he was ever in any doubt about the status of his country he should have cast his mind back to 1988 when South African troops saved him from a coup attempt by his own soldiers. The South Africans locked up his rebellious troops in the 'Independence Stadium' and restored order. President P W Botha flew to Mmabatho and proclaimed: 'You can sleep soundly now, Mr President. We are back in control.' He paused then corrected himself: 'That is, the government of Bophuthatswana is back in control.'