As Freedom Nears, Whites Mythicize Mandela's Role

Charlene Smith is a South African journalist based in Johannesburg.

President F.W. de Klerk's announcement Friday that the African National Congress will be legalized after three decades of guerrilla war against white rule, and that imprisoned activist Nelson Mandela will soon be freed, has been greeted with jubilation by activists and silence from the president's right-wing opposition.

As the moment nears for Mandela's release, South African whites are trapping themselves in a web of their own fears and hopes regarding the African National Congress leader's future role.

Paying little attention to Mandela's known political positions, they have been framing a confused picture of one of the world's most famous political prisoners and his expected pivotal role in their future. Many see him as the man to save them from the tyranny of the masses. He has developed an image of great fairness and, remarkably, the whites who jailed him for 27 years trust he will intervene to protect white power bases. They base their hopes on the fact that the 73-year-old prisoner has facilitated extensive pre-negotiations between the ANC and the government.

In attributing quotes to Mandela, the press often ignores the fact that these are second- and third-hand impressions of a prisoner who has no direct access to the media.

David Owen, co-leader of Britain's Social Democratic Party who recently met with both Mandela and De Klerk, fueled a flurry of conjecture with an article in a conservative London paper, when he suggested there would be a 10-year transitional government with Mandela as a figurehead president, De Klerk as prime minister (the real governor) and a Parliament including blacks.

Richard Maponya, a conservative black businessman who visited Mandela some weeks back, was given front-page coverage here when he claimed Mandela had distanced himself from the ANC aim of nationalizing banks and mines, and was in favor of free enterprise.

They were wrong on all counts.

To Africa-watchers, the desire to spread myth is depressingly symptomatic of white preoccupation with fantasy as a liberation struggle enters a crucial phase on the final road to black majority rule.

The words of soothsayers have more currency than those of seasoned political observers, or indeed the key players. If anything, the moderate stance of the ANC in exile and that of the recently released compatriots of Mandela--Walter Sisulu, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Wilton Mkwayi, and Raymond Mhlaba--should have encouraged South African whites.

But the real point is whites have not reconciled themselves to surrendering power, they and the administration of De Klerk still believe they can work out a system of power-sharing.

However, the ANC is firm that in the new South Africa, group rights will not be protected--the foundation of apartheid. Here, as in the United States, individual rights will be paramount. Into the morass of speculation has come a deliberately leaked proposal Mandela sent to the ANC in Lusaka, before its special national executive meeting, Jan. 19-21.

In his paper, Mandela reiterated his commitment to the ANC and to its longtime ally, the South African Communist Party. Mandela is not a communist and never has been, nor is the ANC committed to socialism, but the group has pointed out that in the 78 years of the ANC's struggle, it was the Communists who gave them moral and financial support. Mandela refers to government calls for the ANC to dissociate itself from the Communist Party as a "smoke screen to retain the monopoly of political power." He attacked the government for claiming the ANC is dominated by the small, white-led Communist Party.

"This attitude is not only the result of government propaganda, it is a logical consequence of white supremacy. After more than 300 years of racial indoctrination, the country's whites have developed such deep-seated contempt for blacks as to believe that we cannot think for ourselves," Mandela wrote.

In the proposal--sent also to De Klerk--Mandela said the government desires a "weak and servile (ANC) playing a supportive role to white minority rule, not a nonaligned ANC, but one which is a satellite of the West and ready to serve the interests of capitalism." Mandela made clear he has not shifted from the ANC's aim of a mixed economy.

So much for Owen's theory and Maponya's report. Mandela says the key to the future is a negotiated settlement and two issues are critical to this:

"Firstly, the demand for majority rule in a unitary state; secondly, the concern of white South Africa over this demand, as well as the insistence of whites on structural guarantees that majority rule will not mean domination of the white minority by blacks. The most crucial task which will face the government and the ANC will be to reconcile these two positions."

Both the government and the ANC have issued steps toward negotiation. The ANC document sketching the negotiations process, the Harare Declaration, has been endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly, the Organization for African Unity and the Johannesburg-based Conference for a Democratic Future, which brought together 4,500 internal anti-apartheid organizations last December.

The government has, among other things, called for a commitment to peace from organizations concerned and envisions elections within existing apartheid structures, but including blacks. The government-appointed leaders of Bantustans and the extreme-white right wing would take part.

The Harare Declaration lists five preconditions to negotiations. These include the unconditional release of all political prisoners and detainees, the removal of all bans on organizations and individuals, the removal of troops from townships, an end to the state of emergency and repeal of legislation such as the Internal Security Act, designed to circumscribe political activity. It also calls for an end to political trials and executions.

The ANC has pointed out, however, that lifting these will mean an easing, but not an end, to repressive legislation only. They will not be indicators of fundamental change. This is crucial to understanding the current process.

Thereafter the ANC foresees discussions commencing about a new constitution. Now that the ANC has been legalized, and previously illegal organizations are allowed to establish constituencies, then elections of a constituent assembly are possible--similar to the recent independence process in Nambia.

In the end, the type of government South Africa ends up with is, ideally, not the decision of the ANC or the Nationalist Party, but a democratic decision by the South African people.

In addition to legalizing the ANC, De Klerk seems to be meeting other provisions of the Harare Declaration. There are nine State of Emergency detainees today--in 1986 there were 30,000. De Klerk announced on Friday that restrictions on 374 activists were to be lifted.

Although the state of emergency is in force, it is increasingly ignored. On Friday, De Klerk said state-of-emergency detentions would be limited to a six-month maximum. Seven years ago, a man was jailed for six years for inscribing "Viva ANC and Mandela" on his coffee mug; he was released last year after the full six years.

De Klerk also said that the government was suspending all executions and considering proposals to reserve capital punishment for "extreme cases."

Even before the Friday announcement, the De Klerk government was moving steadily toward fulfilling ANC negotiation requirements. The ANC had adopted a softer line as well. While not committing itself to laying down arms until a mutually recognized cease-fire is agreed on, it has decided to pigeonhole the armed struggle as long as negotiations appears viable.

With the legalization of the ANC and the other actions taken Friday, South Africans can no longer assume that their country is doomed to an inevitable blood bath. Negotiations seem not only possible but probable.

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