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  • South Africa Report


    Mandela Bridging White-Black Divide

    By Lynne Duke
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, July 21, 1995; Page A23

    JOHANNESBURG -- To hear Tom deBeer tell it, one would think all is well in the land of Nelson Mandela -- at least among those whites of Afrikaner stock who once hated him but, being practical, now have learned to love him.

    "As the man who has to shape the reconciliation base, Mandela is succeeding remarkably well," said deBeer, chairman of the Afrikanerbond, long a secretive bastion of Afrikanerdom from which sprang, earlier this century, the apartheid policy of racial separation. Afrikaners are descendants of South Africa's earliest European settlers.

    "I would not be surprised if more than half the whites support him," deBeer said.

    But such talk from whites irritates some blacks, including Johannesburg Star columnist Jon Qwelane, who are tired of seeing Mandela woo the white minority while the black majority awaits the promises of last year's election.

    "President Mandela is bending way over backwards, at the expense of the black masses, to appease whites," wrote Qwelane, describing whites as "the same people who once labeled Mandela a terrorist and communist until they realized he had no intention to change their traditional South African way of life.' "

    As Mandela was feted across the land earlier this week for his 77th birthday, these two schools of thought were at opposite ends of a range of views on South Africa's much vaunted leader, who walks a tightrope between the legitimate demands of blacks who expect democracy to deliver what was refused them under apartheid, and the fears of whites who do not want their still privileged way of life to be turned upside down.

    Because whites still control the economy here -- as Qwelane put it, the black majority is in government but not necessarily in power -- those fears have been taken seriously by Mandela, for they parallel the anxieties of international investors that Mandela and his African National Congress-led coalition government are seeking to attract.

    Whites and blacks still occupy two different worlds here, but loyalty to Mandela and the powerful symbolism of new nationhood he represents have become their common ground.

    While some blacks may harbor quiet resentment at Mandela's overtures to whites, there is little evidence to suggest an erosion in Mandela's tremendous popularity among blacks, to whom he is affectionately known as Madiba, or Great One. A recent survey of 2,000 blacks showed that 81 percent think he is leading the country very well or fairly well.

    Blacks are "still responding to the symbolism of the ANC as the party of liberation," said Khehla Shubane, an analyst at the Center for Policy Studies.

    In time, however, that support may change if dissatisfaction grows with the slow pace of the Mandela government's delivery on campaign promises it made for housing and jobs.

    Tired of waiting for the Reconstruction and Development Program to get underway, the South African National Civic Organization this month proposed that the program be dramatically overhauled to reduce the bureaucracy. But that action, said the organization's general secretary, Ndawoyakhe Penrose Ntomti, is not an indictment of Mandela, only of the bureaucrats in his government.

    "I think Mandela is doing a good job," said Ntomti. "He is bringing reconciliation into this country because there are people who have been fearing an ANC government."

    The people he is referring to are whites, who also are not too pleased with the way the government is operating, according to a recent survey. But in contrast to the fears of racial doom that many whites felt before last year's elections, a recent survey of 940 whites showed that 62 percent think Mandela is leading the country very well or fairly well.

    In a population group where the spirit of racial reconciliation long had been lacking, Mandela's attempts to foster it appear to be hitting their mark.

    The majority of whites voted for the National Party of former president Frederik W. de Klerk last year. But the next time out, if the current trend continues, the ANC "is going to get a lot of white support," said Tom Lodge, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand.

    The adulation surrounding Mandela was much in evidence during his birthday week. A necktie went on the market bearing his face and the symbol of a civic-spirit campaign started by his government, and hosts of citizens and government leaders sent the president birthday wishes.

    Mandela hosted a party for 2,000 disadvantaged children of all races who were bused and flown in to a gold-mine theme park south of here. They followed Mandela's caravan -- first a horse-drawn buggy, then a golf cart -- through the amusement park, singing for him, dancing for him, signing a giant birthday card for him. And white corporate donors made their presence known to the tune of about $300,000 donated to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, to which the president contributes a third of his annual salary.

    Mandela again pressed the reconciliation theme as he told a news conference after the birthday celebration that the purpose of the day's events was to show children that "in this country, from black and white, from all sectors of the country, there are people who care."

    But not even the president is spared the raging crime that has both black and white residents, as well as international investors, constantly on edge. Last month Mandela told a group of businessmen in Japan that the high crime rate in South Africa -- Johannesburg, for example, is the most murderous city on the globe, according to the World Health Organization -- is a holdover from the socioeconomic disparities created under apartheid and would soon dissipate.

    Even as he projected such optimism, however, police officials in Johannesburg were reporting a huge surge in cocaine trafficking.

    But for all these troubles on his plate, Mandela scored a profound victory in his reconciliation crusade last month when he successfully turned the Rugby World Cup -- a sport that heretofore represented rock-ribbed Afrikaner culture -- into a cross-racial love fest.

    Thousands of fans -- virtually all of them white -- cried "Nelson! Nelson!" as Mandela, wearing a team jersey, strode onto the field at Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium to wish South Africa's Springboks luck. Though the team was virtually all white and so were the fans, Mandela managed to maneuver the fans to stand not only behind their team, but also behind their new black president.

    He also has neutralized the extremist white right, which has submitted a proposal for a white homeland where their Afrikaner sensibilities could flourish amid cultural homogeneity. Mandela appeared to confuse some white journalists here recently when he seemed to embrace a proposal for a white homeland, only to explain that he was accepting the submission of the report, not its substance.

    He was merely following through on a promise to allow such a report to be submitted, which was a condition of some key white rightists' participation last year in negotiations to end preelection violence.

    Shortly after the proposal was floated, it disappeared -- with its proponents bickering among themselves on whether such a homeland was viable, and even how much Afrikaner support it would have.

    Few here believe that Mandela has any intention of allowing a homeland to be established, as it would fly in the face of the nation's new nonracial constitution. But Mandela scored major points among right-wing whites by giving them more of a hearing on the issue than the ruling National Party had during the apartheid era.

    © Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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