Volume 3 Number 5
What Black and White South Africans Desire
01 May 1990

At the moment a delicate balance of power prevails. The de Klerk government wields institutional power backed by the defence force and police; the ANC has demonstrated the weight of popular power and forced the government to come to terms with it.

I write from South Africa in the aftermath of two events which have altered the face of our country - President de Klerk's speech of 2nd February unbanning the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, followed, nine days later, by the release of Nelson Mandela.

Change in South Africa must now mean more than just shifting frameworks to become more acceptable to the oppressed or to the critical eye of the outside world. It must entail the debunking of basic concepts which have underpinned our outlook on life.

Talk of promoting co-operation and peace can be easy. Apartheid itself was originally marketed with these objectives. It was contended that ethnic differences could only be brought into harmony by rigid separation. This theory enabled racial domination and exploitative capitalism to live in some sort of peace with professed Christian values such as love for one's neighbour. This gave credibility to the Marxist criticism that racial separation was essentially economically based. The Government, in turn, accused genuine critics of the system of being not merely against apartheid but of promoting communism. Ironically it exploited the religious sentiments of South Africans to denigrate Marxism, when Christianity itself demands a complete reanalysis of the economic and racial system.

On President de Klerk's shoulders has fallen the responsibility to undo injustice and to provide space for processes long denied.

I am not yet sure that he accepts the need for a full redefinition of the foundations of our society so that treating people as individuals rather than groups is regarded not as Marxist thinking but as the instruction of Jesus Christ.

Climate of negotiation
People must be entitled to form communities and political organizations on the basis of shared beliefs, values and interests, competing fairly on an open market. There must be no claim to protection save that afforded by democratic principles and procedures which must themselves be defended at all costs. People, like water, must find their own course. Anyone who artificially attempts to control is attempting the impossible.

We are living in an age where nation after nation has come to realize that democracy, however deficient, is the only mechanism whereby people can protect themselves and on which co-operation can be built. Tamper with that and you tamper with the very defences people require.

De Klerk has largely acceded to the demands of the ANC for a climate of negotiation. He also went further by declaring a vision of `a democratic constitution; universal franchise; no domination; equality before an independent judiciary; the protection of minorities as well as individual rights; freedom of religion...' Important as is the dismantling of oppressive measures, this vision of a new South Africa is of much more significance. Of course there are concerns about his old jargon -`no domination' and `protection of minorities' - but at least `group determination' did not feature.

For his part Nelson Mandela emerged from imprisonment with a profile larger than life, propounding the same thoughts and vision which caused his incarceration nearly 30 years ago. On his release his historic address ended with the words he had spoken from the dock in July 1964: `I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and see realized but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'

He has grown older yet remains much the same. Events have changed and become conducive to his vision. Like de Klerk's speech, Mandela's lays the groundwork for hope, narrowing the schism between black and white.

At the moment a delicate balance of power prevails. The de Klerk government wields institutional power backed by the defence force and police; the ANC has demonstrated the weight of popular power and forced the government to come to terms with it. The scale is finely balanced with each side recognizing both outside support and the pressure from left and right each has to endure.

In these circumstances the stature of Mr Mandela is fundamental. The immense respect he enjoys in the wider world as well as internally, including increasing interest among reactionary whites, puts him in a strong position to grab the initiative.

We must all grasp this opportunity. For once, there seems to be a degree of similarity between what black and white South Africans desire. Common ground is being created. We must deal with this new reality with the utmost wisdom, care and honesty. White fears must be addressed. Fear leads to intransigence and violence. Whites must be encouraged to believe that trust creates hope and justice security.

Blacks must accept that whites can change and that recrimination and revenge produce conflict not progress. While being uncompromising in our detestation of apartheid we can join hands with whites in the thrust towards a larger goal.

We will continue to probe and prod in our search for a new society. We must understand and listen. Above all we must state our vision.

Franklin Sonn is President of the Union of Teachers Associations of South Africa. He was one of those who received a personal letter of endorsement from Nelson Mandela before his release from prison in recognition of Sonn's leadership role.

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