Steadfastly towards the abyss: The Ciskei killings were foreseeable, but neither government nor ANC chose to avoid them, says Richard Dowden

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The Independent Online
The oft-repeated proposition that there is no alternative to negotiations between all parties in South Africa begs a fundamental question about human nature. Of course there is an alternative to talking and negotiating. It is called war - a common enough human choice, and the one that South Africa seems to have taken this week. Just as the negotiations appeared ready to start again and the pieces were falling into place, the most important piece - trust - has been destroyed.

It is difficult to resist striking a line through South Africa - another country, like Liberia, Somalia or Yugoslavia, which has crossed itself off the list of the planet's nation states. The only hope is the hope born of despair - the tiny possibility that the government and the African National Congress, teetering on the precipice, will peer into the abyss and see in this massacre the fate that awaits the whole country. The miracle would be that in seeing this, they pulled back and agreed to talk again.

But even if the leaders now put together a deal, there are two deeper, longer-term questions over its success. The first is whether can they sell it to their fragmented and angry constituents. The very act of reconciliation at a time of rage and grief may erode their support and cost them their leaderships. The signs are that South African society, black and white, is one of the most violent and neurotic in the world, and there are many who are spoiling for a fight.

The second question is whether any society can democratise itself when it is getting poorer and when there is no prospect of the newly-enfranchised improving their living standards in the short term. Logic suggests that if black people do not see that the new dispensation takes them out of poverty, they will have no interest in it.

In the short term the likely outcome of the Ciskei killings is that the fury among ANC supporters will prevent Nelson Mandela from sitting down to talk with President F W de Klerk for weeks if

not months. In that time there will be more killings, more mistrust and more intransigence.

The idea that centuries of oppression and 40 years of formal apartheid could be ended round a negotiating table in a few months always seemed impossible. But 19 months ago the smiling face of Mr Mandela, released from prison without a scar of bitterness, told us that President de Klerk was a man of integrity with whom he could negotiate a future for South Africa. The two men held out hope of a peaceful settlement that had seemed unimaginable a few months before. The first few meetings between the ANC and the government were marked by an extraordinary bonhomie, as if apartheid had all been a terrible misunderstanding.

Inside the conference room, progress was remarkably swift. The ANC and the government agreed on a wide range of ingredients for the new South Africa, including a Bill of Rights, an independent judiciary and proportional represention in a two-tier legislature. The government agreed in principle to the reincorporation of the homelands. Plans were being laid for a transitional government and elections to a constitutional assembly.

Even after the breakdown of the formal negotiations in May, private talks went ahead, and last week there was said to be progress on the problem of the required majority in the assembly - the issue on which the talks had foundered. There also seemed to be a trade-off over the release of political prisoners and an amnesty for human rights violators.

But outside the meeting rooms the ominous sounds of gunfire could be heard. At first the killings in the townships seemed an irrelevant - if unpleasant - sideshow. Gradually, however, they grew in number and a pattern emerged which suggested that they were orchestrated by the security forces. While ANC supporters were clearly implicated in some killings, the vast majority were perpetrated on ANC sympathisers by members of the Inkatha movement, or by unknown random killers. Time and again ANC areas in the townships were left unprotected by the police, witnesses were ignored and the killers never found. Credible defectors from the security forces spoke of secret units set up to disrupt the ANC.

The suspicion that elements of the police were involved in the killings were confirmed by the massacre at Boipatong in June, when 41 people were shot and hacked to death by outsiders who rampaged through the camp unhindered by the police. According to several witnesses, the killers had been bussed in by the police. When Mr Justice Richard Goldstone, heading the inquiry into the massacre, asked to hear the 13 hours of police tapes recording their radio traffic before and after the massacre, he was told that the tapes had been erased. A junior police sergeant told the inquiry that although she had worked with the tape machines for three months, she had only just discovered that she was erasing the tapes, not recording on them. At the end of the hearing she was seen being hugged and congratulated by her superior officers. In most countries the contemptuous manner of the police and their mockery of such an investigation would force the resignation of the government. In South Africa they just shuffled the police chiefs.

The killings, and the widespread banditry often accompanied by random violence in all areas of South Africa, have engendered a mood of deep despair. Everyone has a tale of murder or mayhem, which is no longer confined to black areas. Whites now live in heavily armed fortresses surrounded by fences of razor wire and guarded by savage dogs and private security forces. The hope that existed a year ago has evaporated. The exodus of skilled people is accelerating.

It is not as if what happened in Ciskei was an unexpected eruption of sudden violence. It was clearly foreseeable, but neither the government nor the ANC chose to avoid it. Although the government - which set up, trained and armed Ciskei's military leader, Brigadier Oupo Gqozo, and his murderous policemen - must bear the main reponsibility for the massacre, it can be argued that these killings are not on the same scale as Boipatong. The South African government does not have direct control over the Ciskei police and therefore cannot be directly blamed for their actions. It is also arguable that while the ANC has a right to demonstrate, its leaders must have known the risk of marching directly at the Ciskei police. More than three weeks ago the ANC targeted Brigadier Gqozo's tinpot tyranny. During the early rounds of the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), Ciskei was among the government allies. If the deeply unpopular Brigadier Gqozo could be removed by popular uprising, President de Klerk could be further isolated.

There has also been much talk recently among the South African Communist Party and the militants within the ANC about the 'Leipzig option' - the belief that, as happened in East Germany, it is possible to bring down a state by mobilising mass demonstrations aimed at the state's weakest points. If Brigadier Gqozo is now removed, this element will see the confrontation as a victory - perhaps to be repeated in Bophuthatswana, risking another massacre.

President de Klerk's policy over the past few months seems to have been to let the ANC hang about while its supporters become more frustrated and disillusioned. The organs of the South African state are used to undermine the movement. At every opportunity South African diplomats and civil servants, clearly under orders, put the knife into the ANC or plant smear stories. When Mr Mandela was released the message was that he was the only man who could save President de Klerk, and his image was talked up by civil servants. Now the tactic seems to be to destroy him. But this may undermine the longer-term strategy of securing a deal. If President de Klerk still wants to achieve this he will have to move quickly to restore trust. He must demonstrate that he is in control of his security forces, and the officers responsible for dirty tricks must be sacked. The hostels from which so much violence has emanated must be closed, killers caught and tried, potential killers disarmed.

These moves might go some way towards persuading South Africa and the rest of the world that President de Klerk wants a deal and not a trial of strength. But time is running out. Perhaps the only way in which the president can now save his country is by moving rapidly to a transitional government, bringing the ANC and other parties into his cabinet, and sharing power.

(Photograph omitted)