South Africa's delicate progress

Second hand reports on the current situation in South Africa are no substitute for being back there in person. The gap between my visits was only four years but so great was the difference in atmosphere that it seemed like decades. The transition to democracy has been accomplished with remarkable smoothness; after only four months in office, many of the ANC ministers give an impression of being in government all their lives!

The Government of National Unity (GNU) functions after a fashion. ANC leaders insist that it is not a coalition, though the deeper subtleties of the distinction are rather lost on me. Certainly the parties maintain their separate caucuses and argue fiercely among themselves on policy. It is privately accepted by many ANC leaders that their party needs to develop a more philosophical base if the political momentum is to be maintained. The temptation is to be taken in by initial electoral success and by the tremendous atmosphere of change and enthusiasm, but it needs to be realised that nowhere in the world has a liberation movement won two elections in a row.

The ANC is certainly popular, though its dependence on the phenomenal national respect for President Mandela to resolve intractable problems does not inspire confidence in the future - particularly when it is accepted that he will not seek a second term of office.

More to the immediate point is that the ANC is very much a coalition. It certainly maintains considerable unity - helped by an party list electoral system which gives great power to central organisation - but its component parts enjoy teasing each other. Those who were in exile often have a different perception of the task than those who struggled to survive inside South Africa, usually in the UDF. Similarly the SACP and those formerly in the armed branch, MK, also have their own camaraderie.

The ANC's "pragmatic progressivism" will no doubt survive in the immediate future but, in due course, as policy is implemented and if the country remains relatively peaceful, ANC members may have the luxury of evolving from these groups into the nuclei of two or three parties based on philosophy.

The National Party is also struggling to transform itself. I suggested to one elected member that the days before the De Klerk speech in February 1990 must now seem light years away. He thought for a moment then replied "half our members are still in that era and the other half have forgotten it completely." Rather like the Ulster Unionists, the NP is based on an attitude rather than an ideology and will have great difficulty in remaining monolithic once the reason for that exclusive attitude has disappeared. Clearly the experience of those who are working well with the ANC in "GNU" will be significant if and when the evolution into new parties takes place.

The change in the security situation since the election is encouraging. South Africa has been a very violent society. In 1993 there were 20,000 murders in the country -166 of them in the tiny area of Johannesburg which is the equivalent of London's Soho. Indications are that the 1994 figures will show a significant drop.

I found myself next to a black National Party MP from Soweto, a member of the provincial legislature, and I asked him whether or not he had been under pressure locally, given his political affiliation. He told me that before the election his house had been burned down and his car burned out but that since 27th April he had had no problems at all.

The Democratic Party, in membership with Liberal International, is tiny but effective. It plays a role in the legislatures out of proportion to its vote and is the most ideological of all the parties. It is going through internal debates similar to those in the Alliance here in the 1980s. It has, however, taken a rather different line, having come to the conclusion that its future lies in being more Liberal and less Social Democratic!

Inkhata is in disarray and will have to sort out its leadership and its role in Kwazulu Natal Province before it can play a confident role nationally. By contrast the far right is increasingly being subverted by contact with its opponents in the legislatures and largely playing a constructive role. Recently there was the strange spectacle of a leading ANC MP proposing a Freedom Front MP as Chair of the Defence Select Committee! The Conservative Party, which boycotted the elections, privately acknowledges that this was an error and that it has been marginalised nationally. It still has some local strength, however, and intends to contest future elections at all levels.

However optimistic individual politicians and officials are, they all recognise that social and political stability depends on delivering enough economic success to black South Africans for them to feel that democracy is worth continuing with. There is a real concern that expectations are too high and that an economy which was certainly vibrant enough to deliver a high standard of living to the one fifth of its population which happened to be white will not stretch sufficiently to the other four fifths and may not grow fast enough to placate the majority.

Certainly there is a great deal being done to promote black run businesses, and there are encouraging signs of the initial success of many of such enterprises, but it will be touch and go whether growth can be sufficient and fast enough to meet expectations. Certainly there is an underlying feeling of concern re the future but there is a real sense of excitement in South Africa today and a determination to make it work.

October 1994