Here for the crunch

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

‘The good news’, said the man from the US Embassy, ‘is that there’s lots of money for voter education. The bad news is that we hear Richard Gere and Kim Basinger are coming out to spend it.’ ‘It’s getting like the late Sixties in Vietnam,’ said his colleague. ‘Last time I saw so many people working such frantic hours on politics. Didn’t make a damn bit of difference there in the end. Probably won’t do here, either. We had Bob Hope there, of course. We were lucky, we didn’t have Jesse Jackson like we’re gonna have here.’ I asked how the funding worked. ‘Well, Washington has this idea that democracy is something you can sorta buy. They say: will it be free and fair? If we say no, not really, they say: well how much more do we have to allocate to get it free and fair?’ I was called to the phone. It was my friend, Jim, who’s been election-watching down on the Natal south coast. He’d just come back from seeing the bodies of a family of nine killed at Folweni. ‘They were butchered, I mean almost literally,’ he said. ‘Of course, neither the local Inkatha guys nor the ANC will say who did it but they obviously know. You can be sure the revenge mission has already begun. It’s getting kind of heavy. Come on down for the weekend. I’ll introduce you to the local killers and we can do some surfing and have a barbecue.’ In Lesotho last year, I talked to an American who’d been an election-observer in Kenya, Namibia, Zambia, Angola and Pakistan. What preparations, I asked, was he making to monitor the South African election? ‘Oh boy,’ he groaned, ‘that one. That’s the eight-hundred-pound gorilla.’

At times it seems as if the election is like a vast, and violent, three-ringed circus, like one of those Rollerball-type movies in which part of the entertainment is that people get spectacularly killed. The country is awash with celebrities: film-stars like Danny Glover, come to do ‘voter education’ and pretending to a momentary neutrality prior to their photo-opportunity with Mandela. There are politicians whose ability to be neutral is even more suspect – Neil Kinnock heads a Labour Party team, for example; rock stars come to clean up on the South African circuit so long off-limits to them; endless self-appointed ‘monitoring’ teams from black American universities; old South African exiles like the actor Anthony Sher, the ex-clergyman Cosmas Desmond – now the only white man on the PAC list – and Ronald Segal, once editor of the Penguin Africa Library, now bitterly inveighing against the Coloureds for their refusal to vote for the ANC.

Such people – I’m one myself – feel they want to be here for the crunch. We all know that this showdown has been coming all our lives, that it gives meaning to much of our past to be here now. We’re all too wrought up, of course, as is the whole country as it moves self-consciously towards its own apotheosis. Sometimes the serious and the circus aspects collide. When we had ANC mass action in Durban, the whole city shut down – rolls of barbed wire blocking off the shopping malls, people stocking up on tinned goods as a tidal wave of ANC demonstrators poured through the city – and you then turn on the TV at home to watch the Australia v. South Africa Test Match going on just a mile away from all the mayhem and hear Allan Border, the Australian skipper, sadly reflecting that the low gate that day ‘may have been caused by events elsewhere in the city’.

Meanwhile, people – everywhere but especially in Natal – have been getting killed by the hundred. I’m involved in commissioning opinion surveys and find myself having to worry about our interviewers getting killed. Just to go into the East Rand townships and ask people about politics is a very risky business. Four of our vehicles have been burnt out and eight of our interviewers have ended up in intensive care units as a result of stonings and stabbings. Meanwhile the country lives through strikes, mini-revolutions in the homelands, demonstrations, and deliberately taunting speeches as politicians draw lines in the sand and dare other groups or parties to cross them.

The worst single event has been the shooting dead of Zulu royalists in the streets of Johannesburg which, together with the accompanying strife in the townships, cost 56 dead in a single day, with several hundred more wounded. It seems clear that ANC security guards and activists did much of the shooting. At any rate, Shell House, the ANC headquarters, has now admitted that its men shot into the demonstrating crowd at two separate points. Mystery still surrounds the identity of sharpshooters who shot at the marchers from other buildings, but there is a widespread suspicion that they, too, were ANC activists taking a potshot at the hated Inkatha masses come, Inkatha said, to demonstrate in favour of their king; in order to attack Shell House, say the ANC. What no one disputes is that the marchers had applied for and obtained police permission for the march; that they carried spears and sticks but few guns; that they did not fire first; and that their assailants, firing from protected positions inside buildings, suffered no casualties. Mandela has intervened to prevent the police from searching Shell House for weapons or apprehending those who used them – he already has the power to do this sort of thing, a fact with ominous implications for the future rule of law. Meanwhile, Chief Buthelezi has compared the event, inevitably, with the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when demonstrators were shot down in a hail of police fire.

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