White MPs cross floor to new order: Guessing who will be next to switch parties is the latest parliamentary game, as John Carlin found in Cape Town

A proposal has been made for traffic lights to be installed inside Cape Town's parliamentary chamber, the logic being that so many MPs are crossing the floor that measures will soon be needed to control the traffic.

Jan van Eck, one of the five African National Congress (ANC) members of parliament, said this had become a favourite parliamentary quip after the defections in the last 10 days of two white MPs to that bastion of Zulu conservatism, the Inkatha Freedom Party.

This follows the decisions last year of six MPs of the Conservative Party (CP) to move leftwards and Mr van Eck and four of his colleagues from the liberal Democratic Party (DP) to join the ANC. As the old order breaks down, bets are being placed in the parliamentary corridors as to who will move next and where.

The 'ANC Five' move has been the most dramatic. Whites, by and large, feel reasonably comfortable with Inkatha but are alienated by the ANC, which has been successfully portrayed by government propaganda down the years as a Communist terrorist group. Viewed from an ANC perspective, there was an uncomfortable irony in liberation movement members taking up posts in a body long identified as the symbol of apartheid oppression. In deference to these sensibilities the five called themselves 'independents'.

But before they jumped, in May last year, they met Nelson Mandela and obtained his blessing. Mr van Eck, an MP in Cape Town who was arrested by the police three years ago for political activities in the black townships, explained that Mr Mandela saw the presence of high-profile whites in the ANC as fundamental, because they highlighted the organisation's commitment to non-racialism.

'The one thing that separates South Africa from the rest of Africa is this commitment on the part of the leading liberation party to non-racialism, which is what makes the chances of a political solution here so much better than elsewhere.'

Worthy as these thoughts might be, they did not find approval at first among those who voted for the defecting MPs. Mr van Eck held a constituency meeting shortly after announcing his move to the ANC. 'For half an hour they hurled vitriol at me. Called me deceitful, treacherous, everything. One lady stood up and shouted, 'You're not our MP now, you represent the blacks.' I said, 'No, I'm still your MP. I'll still look after your interests.' And the hall broke out in loud applause. Simple as that.'

Pierre Cronje, an MP from Pietermaritzburg, said most of his constituency executive committee moved from the DP to the ANC before he did. 'But I did receive a flood of letters of complaint.'

Mr Cronje, who has long toiled for peace in the thick of Natal's Inkatha- ANC war, said he had had no qualms about leaving the DP. 'Politics is changing. The system is falling apart. The old rules aren't valid any more. I don't want to waste my political energy persuading people who don't understand what you're talking about.'

Mr van Eck, who noted that the ANC would win at most 4 per cent of the white vote in an election, offered a similar rationale. 'I engaged for many years in a thankless task: trying to teach white people about the real South Africa. Now I'm in the real South Africa. When people ask me what it's like being in the ANC I tell them, 'It's not like joining a party. It's like joining a country'.'

Relations with the other MPs, most of whom are still struggling to escape the white mind-set, are cordial. 'All parliaments are the same. Inside, personal animosities fall apart. And in our case, the National Party, the CP, all sides want to talk to us to see what's cooking in the ANC. They see us as a resource.'

The government and Inkatha agreed yesterday to a three-day meeting next week to hammer out details of a conference on the resumption of all-party talks on democracy, Reuter reports.

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