Mandela in March 1990

Freed Nelson Mandela

by Gwydion M. Williams

South Africa has been deliberately destabilised by its government. The release of Nelson Mandela means either serious negotiations in which Mandela and the ANC play a major role, or else a drift to civil war.

South Africa is not Eastern Europe. The government has the support of the majority of the white population, plus an unknown portion of the non-white population. The number of non-whites with guns, working as part of the police or army, shows that it is not a simple matter of racial polarisation. Nor is the black African population homogeneous. There are bitter rivalries between nations with very different languages, customs and traditions.

This means – what? Definitely not a continuation of apartheid. Almost certainly, no solution that has not been endorsed by Mandela and the ANC. No one can be quite sure how strong or weak the ANC’s popular support is, but if a free election among blacks seemed likely to discredit them, the South African government would surely have contrived to hold one long ago. So whatever is patched up will have to be acceptable to the ANC. But it will probably not involve any immediate move to simple majority rule. The white population is not ready to accept it. They have both the will and the means – presumably including nuclear weapons – to prevent it happening.

Mandela seems well aware of the problem. Most of the rest of the world seems ready to write off the Afrikaners as a bunch of “laager louts”. Mandela and the ANC have (apparently) accepted the responsibility of trying to negotiate with them and take account of their fears, justified or not

Can some compromise be found? Quite possibly. Zimbabwe found a compromise, in which the black majority got political power and the white minority kept most of its wealth. What; emerges in South Africa is more likely to be something quite different. Assuming, that is, that some compromise can be found. Both sides are looking for one – but is there in fact any overlap between the worst that each side is ready to settle for? Time will tell.

[Compromise is of course what happened.  But most Western sources were expecting race war and might be seen as hoping for it.  There was an effort to set Zulu against Xhosa: Mandela being an Xhosa.  But under Mandela and his heirs, the ANC has so far managed to keep unity despite having a multi-party electoral system.  The Inkatha Freedom Party promoted Zulu sectarianism, but ANC Zulus have proved more popular.]

This was an item in Notes on the News for March 1990.  It appeared in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.