One of the great lessons of the Nineties is that democracy can be a doomsday machine: some states – Yugoslavia, East Germany, the Soviet Union – are unable to survive its coming. This may be the year in which we see whether South Africa is one of those that can. With the launching of Codesa – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, whose first plenary session was held on 20-21 December – the march towards a democratic, non-racial South Africa has entered its climactic phase. Nineteen of the country’s political groups attended, but ominously, the absentees included the extreme Africanist Left – the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) and AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation) – and, perhaps more significantly, Treurnicht’s Conservative Party and such far-right groups as Terreblanche’s AWB. ‘More significantly’, because the white Right may now command 40 or 50 per cent of the white electorate and because these whites are often armed to the teeth. Currently, at least, the PAC and AZAPO lack that sort of political and military firepower. On the other hand, some of those who did attend, such as the generally unelected Bantustan oligarchs and the various Asian groups, represent comparatively little. Nonetheless, the summoning of Codesa – its working parties are in session now and will report to another plenary meeting in March – represented a great day in South African history. The road ahead is studded, no doubt, with symbolic walkouts, furious ultimata and all the other necessary histrionics of a meeting, called after centuries of oppression and exclusion, to re-found a great and divided country. But no one, after all, is going to die of histrionics: the real dangers lie elsewhere.

Codesa stumbled briefly over the delicate matter of Inkatha representation. The problem here is that the ANC has in effect four delegations – the ANC, SACP, the Indian Congress and the Transkei – plus several other near-clients. Faced with this, Chief Buthelezi demanded three delegations (party, homeland government and ‘the Zulu nation’) so as to make it clear that he was one of the ‘big three’, not to be numbered among the homeland minnows with their single delegation each. In this, predictably, he failed: but the ferocity of Inkatha-ANC violence has shown that it is folly to imagine that the problem posed by Buthelezi and Inkatha can be ignored. Moreover, if (as seems likely) the signs of a two-party deal between the Government and the ANC increase, trouble can be expected from several of the political minorities. The danger is that each in turn will peel away to join the other actors sulking in the wings, leaving Codesa less representative and more exposed.

A greater problem, however, is the setting-up of an interim government. De Klerk has in effect conceded this longstanding ANC demand, but the truth is that the ANC lacks the administrative and managerial talent to make a reality of it. At the ANC Congress last July the outgoing Secretary-General, Alfred Nzo, had to admit that the movement’s organisation and finances were in a shambles. There was, accordingly, a great sigh of relief when the far more able team of Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma were elected to restore a semblance of order. But now Ramaphosa and Zuma have been seconded to Codesa as leading negotiators – and if an interim government is set up doubtless their names will be touted as possible ministers. The same small cadre of able men is pushed forward over and over again, and there is no depth of talent behind them. To take an obvious example, the ANC’s chief economics spokesman, Trevor Manuel – who demands a ‘people’s economy’ with ‘the maximum possible popular participation in the economy’ – is admitted even by his advisers to be less than fully profficient in economics. It is hard to imagine him playing a constructive role in government; and such examples are easily multiplied.

This dearth of talent is hardly the fault of the ANC: decades of apartheid education are to blame. But whatever the reason, the result is the same: the movement cannot call on sufficient reserves of skilled manpower to be able simultaneously to organise a mass movement, conduct international diplomacy, negotiate a constitution and help govern a modern, sophisticated country. If the ANC can only provide a few figurehead ministers, the reality of power will elude it. What it needs to be able to supply is a full complement of junior ministers, civil servants, personnel who can be seconded to the Reserve Bank, the Development Bank, the parastatals, and so on. As things stand, there is no prospect of this. One can leave aside the white fears born of racism or of the simple desire to maintain existing inequalities, but worry over the competence of any future government has to be expected. South Africa is not Dahomey or Chad: it is a country of six-lane highways, computers, jet planes and fax machines – and its economy is in a fragile condition. The sudden promotion to power of a governing élite desperately short of management skills, education and experience would present a major crisis-point whether race was a factor or not.

There is another side to this problem. In exile, the ANC depended heavily on a (largely white and Asian) network of South African Communist Party cadres who provided such intellectual and administrative expertise as the movement had. This SACP network, which still accounts for a majority of both the ANC’s national executive and its shadow cabinet, operates as a closed, masonic circle, blocking the access of non-Communist intellectuals to leading positions in the movement. The institution of an interim government will pose a delicate problem for the ANC-SACP alliance: it will accentuate the ANC’s need to go well beyond the ranks of the SACP to acquire the back-up skills and expertise it lacks, and at the same time it will create a division between the SACP and ANC over the issue of participation in government. For the government, reinforced by business, is bound to resist any idea of SACP participation – and will be strongly supported in this by the whole international community. Already the new SACP leader, Chris Hani, has made it clear he does not expect a role in government and, indeed, argues that there is no sense in the ANC accepting responsibility for ‘unpopular’ areas like agriculture and education. But the fear that the SACP may become marginalised just as the ANC emerges as a potential successor regime has led to a crucial haemorrhage of cadres from the SACP, with many of its top militants now announcing that they wish to ‘devote themselves to their ANC work’, and some implausibly trying to pretend that they were never Communists in the first place.

The most likely solution to all these problems is that Codesa itself will function as a loose form of interim government, taking decisions in principle which are then ratified by the existing Parliament, but without the staffing of ministries being more than symbolically changed. Ironically, such an arrangement would suit all sides: the ANC would not have to provide ministerial talent; the SACP, as part of Codesa, would have a share in power; and the Government would not only keep day-to-day control of the executive but might hope to legitimate this rather one-sided form of power-sharing for the longer-term future.

For power-sharing rather than straight-forward winner-takes-all majority rule is the Government’s objective in the constitutional talks. No doubt de Klerk, backed by Inkatha and probably by majorities of the Indian and Coloured communities, will fight for federalism and for the protection of minority and civil rights, but South African history itself provides examples of how a majority in parliament can overturn even the most entrenched constitutional clauses; in the end, the only protection for minority rights is some degree of real power.

The ANC naturally talks in terms of majority rule but in the end it could well accede to some form of power-sharing. Mandela has already conceded that he would want a broad coalition government, at least for an interim period, even if he won an election – though this is still a far cry from de Klerk’s objective of a power-sharing deal to last for ten or more years. On the other hand, the ANC’s own interests might be best served by such a deal, not only because it lacks the expertise and personnel to govern unaided but because a deal which does not hold out some reassurance for the minority parties and communities is likely to lead to violence. And if, at the end of the day, the solution found is unacceptable to most whites then many will emigrate – producing the sort of economic collapse seen in neighbouring Mozambique. The combination of a stagnant economy and explosive demographic growth means that per capita incomes are more or less certain to fall over the next five to ten years. Anything which aggravates that situation can only undermine the ANC as the probable successor government.

Whatever the exact nature of the constitutional deal, not far down the line there will be a moment of truth, maybe when an interim government is formed, more likely when the details of the new constitution are announced. At that point the Far Right may make a last-ditch stand for white supremacy, perhaps by armed revolt, perhaps by the attempted secession of a white ‘homeland’. If Inkatha fails to get a federal constitution, Buthelezi may try something similar (as might the leaders of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana).

If the fears of the white, Zulu, Asian and other minorities are allayed, then the explosion will come from the radical Left. It already seems certain that any sort of agreed deal will be denounced as an ANC sell-out by AZAPO and the PAC, but the toughest questions would have to be faced by the SACP and the charismatic Chris Hani, the long-time head of the ANC’s guerrilla wing.

The radical young militants in the town-ships look to Hani as their natural leader and will expect him to put himself at the head of the opposition to any deal which offers less than an immediate and total handover of power: indeed, they will expect him to use the threat or reality of armed insurrection to secure just such an outcome. Unfortunately, such heady scenarios have long been the currency of township orators – Hani and his frequent companion, Winnie Mandela, chief among them – and those who have raised expectations to such unreasonable levels will face an awkward choice. If Hani, Winnie and other SACP and ANC radicals decide to stay loyal to the ANC they will have to preach acceptance of a deal, even though such a deal will probably exclude the SACP from power, and at the risk of losing their political following to the PAC and AZAPO. Alternatively, if they decide to protect their political base from competition on the left, they will have to break the ANC-SACP alliance which has been the entire basis of the SACP’s existence for forty years. In practice, a great deal will depend on the line taken by the ANC Youth League, for in terms of organised support from township youth the ANCYL is easily the largest organisation in the country and probably accounts for a majority of all ANC membership as well.

None of these choices will be easy – and the country is fortunate that in de Klerk and Mandela it has two exceptionally able leaders both committed to finding a peaceful outcome in a spirit of constructive compromise. But this alone will not be enough. At some point Mandela will have to confront and defeat the ultras in his own camp and de Klerk will have to do the same within the white community. De Klerk’s is by far the harder task. Mandela is at least offering his supporters increased power and patronage while de Klerk, whose opposition is far stronger, has to get his supporters to accept less of everything: 1992 will probably show how far both men can get on political skill alone. South Africa watches their tightrope act with bated breath – a country waiting to know its future.

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