Leading Article: A lesson for the new bitter-enders

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The Independent Online
ALMOST 100 years after the British garrison in Mafeking was relieved in the Boer War, the South African town was back in the news yesterday. Descendants of the Boers who besieged it from 12 October 1899 to 17 May 1900 were back in Mafikeng, as it now is, second town of the 'homeland' of Bophuthatswana. With the mini-republic's capital, Mmabatho, it suffered a brief invasion of members of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) - seemingly against the wishes of Bophuthatswana's leader, Lucas Mangope.

Ever since the release of Nelson Mandela four years ago, there have been fears of a 'last stand' by those on the far right of white South African politics. In the Boer War it was the 'bitter-enders' among the Afrikaners who failed to recognise that they had been defeated. Their prolonged guerrilla warfare greatly increased the human toll and left a legacy of anti-British sentiment. At one stage yesterday, it seemed that the descendants of those bitter-enders might be about to stage their own last stand. In the event, when three AWB members were shot dead by 'Bop' paratroopers, the rest withdrew.

It was a symbolic moment. After half a century of imposing their will through the infamous laws of apartheid, the majority of Afrikaners have recognised, however reluctantly, that the days of white rule are over. They do not identify their own interests with those bearded AWB extremists with their swastika-like insignia; and they will be taking part in next month's democratic elections. Only a small minority of those on the far right, grouped within the so-called Freedom Alliance that includes the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, continues to resist the tide of history.

Among the alliance's members, until yesterday at least, was President Mangope. The South African government, which granted the statelet its so- called independence in 1977, has decreed that all four nominally independent 'homelands' should be reintegrated into the new, democratic South Africa once the elections are over. Naturally that prospect did not appeal to Mr Mangope, despite the possibility of a senior post in the new regional structure. But the dramatic events of the past few days appear to have brought about a change of heart.

Having seen the writing on the wall, he issued a statement yesterday recommending Bophuthatswana's participation in next month's elections: an implicit acceptance of its re-incorporation, and a considerable defeat for the forces of the far right.

For the moment, yesterday's events seem likely to be positive rather than negative in their impact on South Africa's progress towards democracy. There remains, however, a grim possibility: that the alliance between Inkatha and right- wing extremists will not merely boycott the elections, but also seek to subvert them by intimidation or a campaign of outright murder. This could bring about a supreme test of whether white officers are prepared to give orders to shoot white extremists engaged in criminal acts.

At one stage it looked as if the struggle in Bophuthatswana might provide a foretaste of how that challenge would be met. Fortunately, the AWB remained true to its reputation of being stronger on bluster than on living up to it. Inkatha poses the greater immediate danger. Its war in Natal with the ANC has been by far the greatest threat to the evolution of a new South Africa.

Yesterday Inkatha and other Freedom Alliance members again pulled out of talks intended to persuade them to take part in the electoral process. Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, evidently fears public exposure of just how relatively few followers he has. He would do well to study this week's events in 'Bop'. The Tswanas may be a far less significant factor than the Zulus. But even their autocratic leader has at last seen where the future lies: in a black majority government, with strong guarantees for all minorities. Its inauguration can only be bloodily postponed, not prevented.