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The Opening Volley in a Difficult Negotiation : De Klerk’s proposal won’t fly but could help talks take off

Not unlike a labor leader at the bargaining table initially demanding much more than he can ever hope to get, South African President Frederik W. De Klerk has unveiled a draft of a proposed constitution that would guarantee blacks the right to vote--but would include extraordinary protections for white privilege. The final document, at minimum, must guarantee a one-person, one-vote system of government that provides equal voting rights for all South Africans.

The National Party’s complex outline is a good place to begin the constitutional negotiations. But it is only a starting point in the debate necessary to forge a post-apartheid and non-racial constitution. Like the proposal put forward by the African National Congress, De Klerk’s plan promises universal suffrage. The two competing proposals also have common ground in their embrace of basic principles such as a three-tier government with federal, regional and local government authorities, two chambers of Parliament, an independent judiciary, a bill of rights and limited protections for minority parties. It is important that neither plan specifically mentions race.

PROTECTION: Although De Klerk’s plan would not govern on the basis of race, it would embed in the constitution a smaller second chamber of Parliament. It alone could amend the constitution or address matters involving minorities. Seats would be allocated equally to any political party that won a minimum number of votes. That system could give veto power to the white minority over the black majority as long as political parties remain primarily racially based, as they are now.

Say the ANC polled 70% of the vote in a regional election in the Johannesburg area, the National Party tallied 20% and the Conservative Party received 10%. Each party would receive 3 1/3 seats. Awarding an equal share of power to minor and major political parties would dilute the voting strength of the black majority.

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The ANC, the dominant anti-apartheid party, strongly objects. The undemocratic proposal is equally unacceptable to the ANC’s chief black nemesis (and De Klerk’s conservative black ally), Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, whose smaller and regionally based Inkatha Freedom Party would also stand to lose.

The new presidency and Cabinet would be shared by the three political parties that tallied the greatest number of votes. That proposal would allow a predominantly white party to tally less than 20% of the vote yet maintain influence equal to a predominantly black party that polled 70% of the vote. Decisions would be made by a consensus that would be hard to reach. A single leader could cause legislative gridlock.

DECENTRALIZATION: De Klerk’s plan, in general, would reduce the power of the central government in favor of stronger regional and local governments easily dominated by the white minority. One proposal would only allow property owners, renters and taxpayers to vote for half of the members on city councils. That restriction would disenfranchise millions of black squatters, farm workers and live-in domestic workers.

A good democracy must respect the rights of the minority. The National Party’s constitutional plan does that --but to excess. It tries to prevent any measure of majority rule in a nation populated by 30 million blacks and mixed-raced people and 4.5 million whites. That small minority has used apartheid, a system of harsh racial restrictions, to rule and impoverish the huge majority for decades.

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Like a skillful union negotiator, President De Klerk has promised that his National Party won’t give easily in the upcoming debate. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for compromise on both sides. The negotiations should finally get under way, and close the gap between the two South Africas.


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