Leading Article: De Klerk's belated purge

Click to follow
IT IS hard not to agree with the reaction of an ANC representative to the news that President F W de Klerk of South Africa had, at last, decided to purge the country's security forces by suspending or sacking 23 officers, including six generals. 'It is a pity,' she said, 'that so many people should have had to die before any action was taken.'

The damage went much wider than the killings, which the security forces were widely believed, and increasingly frequently shown, to have aided and abetted. Mr de Klerk's assertions that the security forces were under control, save perhaps for the odd bad apple, drastically eroded his own credibility. Just as intended, the township violence intensified mutual suspicions and hatred between South Africa's various racial, tribal and political groups, but especially between ANC followers and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. It shattered the confidence of potential investors. Ultimately, it threatened anarchy and civil war.

There seem to be three possible explanations for Mr de Klerk's inordinate delay. First, he genuinely believed that the security forces were not seriously implicated in the violence. Second, he suspected they might be, but needed time to secure incontrovertible evidence. Third, he knew they were in it up to their necks, but feared a cabinet coup in favour of the military if he took action to purge those guilty.

None of these explanations is, by itself, convincing. Given the complexity of South Africa's problems and the strength of the forces arrayed against him, Mr de Klerk may well have believed all three at much the same time. A fourth possibility, that he actively condoned the crimes of the security forces while negotiating with the ANC, can almost certainly be dismissed.

In the bright sunshine of his early days as the reformer who released Nelson Mandela from jail, did he realise the tentacular nature of the country's security establishment that his predecessor, President P W Botha, had done so much to create? The damage to the blacks from four decades of apartheid was obvious enough, that to the whites less so. For more than 10 years the military had created their own rules. Hot pursuit of their enemies across the borders of neighbouring states was normal, as was the fomenting of civil wars in those countries. What more natural than to switch those tactics to the domestic scene when relations with the 'front-line states' were normalised?

The military and the police still have their allies in Mr de Klerk's cabinet. The President has no doubt calculated that he can prevail against them: a safeish bet ever since the March referendum in which the white population voted in favour of constitutional reform. His belated coup was carried out with a degree of surprise that the affected officers, mainly from military intelligence, must admire. Most were on holiday, and thus unable to destroy evidence that might be used to prosecute them.

One effect of Mr de Klerk's move will be to drive his National Party and the ANC closer together, since a white conservative backlash would be even more disastrous for the black majority than for reformist whites. Just how well pragmatists from both camps understand each other was shown in a secret three- day meeting in a bush resort earlier this month. From it emerged a possible timetable which sees multi-party constitutional negotiations being resumed in February or early March, and black leaders sharing in decision- making through a transitional governing council by early summer. Democratic elections for a constituent assembly could be held late next year or in early 1994. Yet such calculations leave out the destructive capacity of those who feel marginalised or threatened - notably Inkatha and the very forces against which Mr de Klerk has at last taken action.