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Myths Die in Afrikaner-ANC Talks : Guerrillas Speak of Multiracial Nation, Not Destruction

<i> Alex Boraine is a co-founder of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa. </i>

Despite the immense difficulties involved in organizing last week’s meeting between a group of 61 white Afrikaners and 16 representatives of the black African National Congress here, the proceedings were successful. They have served to destroy the myth nurtured by the South African government that the international community, and in particular black Africa, seeks the downfall and the destruction of white South Africans, and that the ANC is made up of a small band of terrorists who refuse to negotiate.

The meeting demonstrated that if white South Africans are prepared to abandon apartheid and start the search for a democratic, non-racial alternative, the ANC is prepared to participate in face-to-face discussions. The gathering captured the imagination and attention of a wide spectrum of European and African nations, and we received numerous expressions of support and offers from diplomats to help further the process of negotiations.

The seeds of the meeting were sown more than a year ago when Frederik van zyl Slabbert and I, after 12 years in the South African Parliament, abandoned our seats in protest following the implementation of the 1984 constitution that gave the president wide dictatorial powers and brought about the realization of our worst fears. More and more, Parliament was being bypassed and had become a showpiece with no real power. The nation was being run by a cabal consisting in the main of the state president, Pieter W. Botha, together with the military and the police. The major opposition forces were ranged not within Parliament but in township streets and on factory floors.

We believed that if the concept of parliamentary democracy were not to be destroyed, we needed to demonstrate that the current system is undemocratic and racist. It was particularly important, we thought, for white leaders to make the move in order to establish a bridge on which white democratic South Africans and blacks could stand together.

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In order to implement our beliefs, Slabbert and I founded the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa, and began a series of meetings and workshops with black leaders inside South Africa. But we also realized that there were many black South Africans who were living in exile, and that it was essential to involve them in the discussions, as well as the African National Congress, which is waging a guerrilla war against the government of South Africa.

While still in Parliament, we had assisted in the release of a talented white South African author, artist and poet, Breyten Breytenbach, who had spent seven years in prison. Through Breytenbach, who had moved to Paris, we established contact with Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the president of France. And through her good offices, President Abdou Diouf of Senegal offered to host the conference.

At the beginning of this year we were set to go. The ANC felt that the emphasis should be on bridging the misconceptions between blacks and Afrikaners--descendants of the early settlers who began arriving in Southern Africa 300 years ago--who have been the architects of apartheid. So it was to Afrikaners--academicians, businessmen, student leaders, scientists, churchmen and writers--that we began discreetly issuing invitations without using a telephone or writing a letter because of the security situation inside the country.

Despite our caution, it was inevitable that South African intelligence agencies should become aware of our plans to some extent. I can only speculate why the government permitted us to proceed. Perhaps it is that the government did not expect any real progress to be made, or that a meeting so far from the scene of conflict or of world power would not draw great notice. Yet it is barely possible--and I hope that this may be the case--that the government could see some benefit to itself in allowing us to be the vanguard of contact with the ANC, even while attacking us most strongly for our action.

The talks have been difficult--we expected nothing else--but substantial progress has been made. Because of the tremendous imbalance between white economic and political power on the one hand and black numbers on the other, we are confronted not merely with questions of social and political equality but with an immense host of matters affecting future South African society. We have had long talks on what form negotiations should take. We have talked about governmental structure: Should there be a one-party or a multiparty state? We have agreed on the necessity for a liberated economy in which blacks could participate equally with whites. Some people feel that we should have a free-enterprise system, others that there should be some form of socialism, or a mix of economic systems. All these discussions have gone very well indeed.

The most pressing questions, nevertheless, are those of the South African government’s political repression and the guerrilla campaign conducted by the ANC. Although there is tremendous sympathy and understanding among the South African delegation for the ANC’s history and role, many members emphasized that it is extremely hard to persuade whites that they should abandon apartheid, recognize the ANC and seek a negotiated settlement when bombs are going off and people are being killed. There is concern that the ANC’s unwavering commitment to continuous armed struggle may be counterproductive. There is, however, no difference between us and the ANC that one of the preconditions for negotiation must be the release by the South African government of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and the establishment of political freedom for organizations of diverse philosophies.

We found as many shades and variations of opinion among the ANC as among our own delegates, befitting a multiracial, multiethnic society like South Africa’s. The rights of all to social equality, economic well-being, spiritual freedom and cultural tradition must be preserved within the framework of a majority government, just as they should have been granted by the minority governments of the past. And for that purpose we have agreed that the drafting of a bill of rights has a priority position on the agenda.

One of the greatest disservices of apartheid is the isolation in which we have found ourselves. The government’s control of the media and the distortions that result have left a lot of enlightened and committed South Africans with very limited understanding of their fellow South Africans in exile. Our meeting has served to dispel many misconceptions. Our ability to agree on a joint communique, rather than separate statements, is indicative of the progress that we have made. Whether we came from inside South Africa or from exile, we established that our differences did not divide us, but that we all have a single goal --a commitment to the future of a non-racial, democratic nation. Although the conference has ended, informal talks are continuing this week as members of both delegations visit Burkina Faso (previously known as Upper Volta).

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In South Africa, families of some of the members of the delegation have received threats from the neo-fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, and the state-operated radio is accusing us of treason. I am certainly not without apprehension. The government has taken such a tough line on the ANC that it may want to make an example of Slabbert and me in order to discourage anyone else from following in our steps. I think that it may well take action against our institute, and even ban it entirely. Nor do I rule out action against us individually. But I am quite sure in my own mind that the risk has been worth it, and I only hope that the government may see the value that could accrue to it from our meeting.

History has shown time and again that conflicts like ours must in the end be resolved through negotiations and compromise. The real question, therefore, is not whether , but when. The real betrayal would be to permit blood to continue to be shed on both sides, and attitudes and enmities to harden further, until we are forced to the negotiating table through desperation and exhaustion.

If President Botha could bring himself to change course and begin leading the nation out of the morass of apartheid, he would exhibit courage and statesmanship that would earn him the approbation of the entire nation and the world, not just the applause of a constituency of white Afrikaners who make up only a small minority of the people in a beloved and burdened land.


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