When the social engineers of apartheid schemed to permanently separate blacks from whites, perhaps their strangest creation was a make-believe country called the Republic of Bophuthatswana, complete with a puppet government in this toy-town capital 150 miles west of Pretoria.
While most of the 2.5 million residents stayed in squalid tin-roofed huts, white officials from Pretoria spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create a facade of nationhood for a so-called independent black homeland that is recognized by no other nation.
They built a plush marble Parliament for the one-party legislature, and a sophisticated broadcast facility, with two TV and three radio stations, to cover their comings and goings. They erected a giant 70,000-seat stadium that is never filled--and then another stadium even bigger.
They constructed a glittering convention center that hosts no conventions, a power plant that produces no electricity and an international airport that has no international flights. Last year, they even added a $19-million, state-of-the-art recording studio for famous artists who don't come.
But in a new twist on The Mouse That Roared, the autocratic president, Lucas Mangope, stood Saturday in the near-empty Odi Stadium to vow defiance to those who would end his odd regime--and backed it with a show of force from his 5,000-strong army and tiny air force.
Mangope is in the Freedom Alliance, a collection of right-wing white and conservative black leaders who boycotted South Africa's recent constitutional talks in hopes of winning self-rule. But under the new constitution, South Africa will reincorporate Bop, as the area is known, as well as three other black homelands and six territories, after democratic elections next April.
But not if Mangope can stop it. Flanked by the two white South Africans who run his armed forces, and sporadically cheered by several hundred spectators who dotted the stadium's vast stands, he watched three trainer planes buzz overhead, reviewed 450 black troops from the back of a pickup truck, heard two howitzers roar a salute and saw six paratroopers drop from the sky.
In his speech, the 69-year-old president repeatedly denounced Nobel Peace laureate Nelson Mandela's "communist African National Congress" and warned that it "has only proven itself capable of death and destruction."
"Too many of us simply do not want to see history repeated by having one-party rule from a faraway capital by a government whose skin color may have changed, but whose penchant for oppression and the abuse of power is already an established fact," Mangope said, his voice echoing across the stadium. "We want to be left to our own devices."
Those devices, Mangope's critics say, include repression and intimidation of political opponents, widespread corruption and a general air of unreality that has pervaded the land of Bop since its inception in 1972.
Take geography. Bophuthatswana is broken into strangely shaped, scattered sections inside South Africa, but the borders seem to mutate with each map. And since no immigration posts or even signs mark most borders, visitors never know if they are entering or leaving. Even government officials seem confused.
"How many parts?" mused Alwyn Viljoen, a media liaison officer, studying a map in his office in Mmabatho. "Let's count them. . . . Six. That's what I get. I get six."
Mangope's opponents describe him more as a petty despot than a vicious one. Former passport clerk Susan Tlhagaswane, 37, for example, said the president had her picked up and brought to his office on Aug. 9 to personally berate and fire her for joining the illegal African National Congress.
"He was annoyed," she said with a laugh. "He didn't know what to do with me."
The ANC is banned here, ostensibly because it has refused to register as a political party. ANC leaders say that's because they don't recognize Bophuthatswana as anything but a crude creation of apartheid. Members say they are arrested, harassed and prevented from meeting.
"We have had cases of people being badly beaten just for handing out literature," local ANC official Ephraim Motoko, 23, said during what he cheerfully called an "illegal meeting" with foreign journalists.
The only legal opposition, the National Unity Party, hasn't held a seat in Parliament since 1987. Since Mangope controls the media, the printing presses, the security forces and public transport, party Chairman Victor Sifora decided not even to run candidates in the last election in 1992.
"Free political activity is completely foreign in Bophuthatswana," said Sifora, who has been arrested six times. He added, "It's true there were many elections. But those elections were never free. Never."
Justice Minister Godfrey Mothibe disagrees. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no repression," he said. And he argues that Mandela and other South African political leaders had no authority to abolish Bophuthatswana in the constitution.
"How would you feel if Zimbabwe votes to dissolve the government of Washington, D.C.?" he asked. "It's exactly the same situation."
Not exactly. For one thing, ANC officials are becoming impatient with Bop's intransigence. "If the only option left is to roll in the tanks, then that's what we'll do," Mathew Phosa, the ANC chief legal adviser, warned at a recent news conference in Johannesburg.
Rowan Cronje, Bophuthatswana's defense minister and chief negotiator for the Freedom Alliance, says he hopes ongoing talks between the group, the ANC and the government of Frederik W. de Klerk will yet defuse the crisis and avoid a confrontation.
"If the new South Africa is going to start on the basis of the gunboat diplomacy of Queen Victoria, then hello freedom and democracy," he said with sarcasm.
A more modern form of brinkmanship appears under way. South African army chiefs canceled weekend leave for some units after leaders from several parties exchanged threats of civil war. Real war seems unlikely, but the election process remains fragile. More than 3,000 people already have died this year in separate acts of political violence.
Afrikaner leader Eugene Terre'Blanche, for example, a neo-Nazi member of the Freedom Alliance, urged his supporters Thursday to prepare for war. "Arm your women," he said. "Steal guns if you must."
In a separate ANC rally, Mandela warned that the right wing is "stocking arms to carry on the carnage in the country." If whites begin war, he added in response to a question, "thousands of whites could die."
Mandela's chief black rival, Freedom Alliance member Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu chief who heads the Inkatha Freedom Party, also weighed in on war Saturday, warning that "there will be no peace in South Africa" if his party doesn't win self-rule in the constitution.
War probably isn't necessary to close down Bophuthatswana. South Africa can simply shut the financial spigots. Bop does reap revenues from platinum and chromium mines, and the Las Vegas-style gambling mecca, Sun City. Still, last year, Pretoria provided 22% of its budget in direct aid, and a further 30% or so in indirect payments from taxes, customs and other revenues.
Cronje, a former minister in Ian Smith's white-ruled Rhodesia, argues that the apartheid-based policy of separate development for blacks has worked in Bophuthatswana. Its economy has boomed, its schools are stable, and there is a growing black middle class, even if most work for the government.
More important, he added, "We've got kids who are 16 years old who never knew apartheid. It has restored the self-dignity of blacks here."
But many clearly don't agree. Out on the dusty, desert-like plains where most blacks live, 76-year-old Petrus Tshukudu says his village, Braklaagte, never wanted to be included in Bophuthatswana. He's been arrested four times.
"Bop is no good for us," he said. ". . . We want our land back to South Africa."